Unionists need to find reasons for England to remain in the Union, as well as Scotland

As it was reported this morning that several leading Scottish-elected Westminster politicians were up in Scotland campaigning in favour of a pro-Union vote in the Scottish referendum on Scottish independence – whenever it happens – the Daily Telegraph reported that a majority of those in England who expressed a preference in a new ICM poll favoured independence for Scotland (43% for, 32% against). By contrast, in Scotland, there was a majority in favour of remaining in the Union; and not only that, the share of those in favour of independence was lower than in England (40% for, 43% against).

While Scottish and English nationalists will doubtless take comfort from these figures – the Scots because the margin between the no’s and the yes’s has narrowed, and the English in particular taking delight at the massive majority in favour of an English parliament (49% for, 16% against) – the fact that support for Scottish independence is greater in England than in Scotland itself should surely make Unionists pause for thought, if not substitute some of their scheduled speaking engagements north of the border with similar events to its south.

Many of the Unionist persuasion may not in fact be terribly surprised at English people’s lack of enthusiasm for the 300-year-old Union. The ICM poll also shows that 61% of people in England think that higher per-capita public spending in Scotland is unjustified, while 53% of Scots believe it is justified. What did Westminster politicians, who’ve continued to justify the Barnett Formula for so long as a bribe to keep the Scots sweet and to provide a spurious justification for MPs elected outside of England to vote on English bills, think that the long-term effect of these injustices would be?

But the bigger point is that it’s the English that most need persuading that the Union is worth preserving. OK, the Scots may vote against independence; although they might just vote for it. But even if they opt to remain in the Union, how sustainable will that Union be if the English no longer believe in it? The English majority can be ignored only for so long.

And that’s the Unionists’ dilemma: they have ignored England for so long that they no longer have a language in which to present a positive case for England to remain in the Union. The phrase ‘for England to remain in the Union’ is itself a revealing paradox. The idea of the Union – any Union – persisting if England decided to leave it is a complete non-sequitur. If such an eventuality arose, all you’d be left with is a set of disparate nations and territories that would have to make their own minds up as to how they wished to govern themselves and relate to one another. However, despite the fact that the Union between Scotland and England is supposed to be a marriage of equals, no one assumes – but perhaps they should – that the consequence of a divorce would be to break the bonds between the UK’s other nations. Using the marriage analogy, if England and Scotland are the parents, why is everyone assuming that, after their divorce, England will automatically gain custody of the kids (Wales and Northern Ireland, and perhaps Cornwall)? Perhaps Scotland should take on some responsibility for them, such as paying them maintenance out of its oil reserves. Or perhaps they’re grown-up enough to take care of themselves.

The absurdity of this analogy shows how invalid the marriage analogy is. The Union is not a marriage, it’s a family of four children, the largest of whom – England – has acted in loco parentis (the parent being called ‘Britain’) for so long that she has invested her emotions and personality wholly into the role, to the extent that she has lost sense of who she is apart from that role. But now her siblings are growing up, they understandably want to manage their own affairs; and England, who has thought of herself as Mother Britannia for so long, has now got to rediscover a new mission in life as a grown-up, independent person – albeit that she might continue to play a key role in the family business going forward.

But this is my point: once England starts to think of herself separately from the Union, then this is as much a consequence of the Union having already begun to break up as it is a precursor and cause of England’s political separation from the Union. The Union is as much in England’s mind as it is a political reality; and for the thought of ‘England remaining in the Union’ to even be possible, that Union must have already have begun to dissolve.

It’s that England that the Unionists must try to convince of the Union’s merits. But the mere fact of that England existing as a distinct entity means the Union as it has existed for 300 years has already begun irrevocably evolving into a different set of relationships between its constituent parts.

English parliament


Comment about John Major’s speech from the IfG blog

Following the censorship of a comment of mine about Englishness on the Labour Hame website, here is another comment that’s been stuck in the limbo of ‘awaiting moderation’ for several days. It refers to an article on the Institute for Government website discussing John Major’s recent contribution to the Scottish devolution max versus independence debate. I expect the comment will be published in due course; but I’ve just got fed up waiting, so I thought I’d put it on the record here.


Major’s proposals on extending devolution to Scotland are unworkable on a number of levels, as I argue elsewhere. From the Scottish perspective, this is mainly because Alex Salmond has a mandate to consult the Scottish people on independence and to choose the options that will be on offer, which will probably include devolution max anyway.

Politically, it would be absolutely bonkers for David Cameron to organise a referendum of the sort Major advocates. If he lost, which would be a distinct possibility, he’d throw the UK establishment into an even greater disarray and crisis of legitimacy than it is already having to contend with in the shape of the Hackgate scandal, following on from the expenses furore. And even if he won, this would be a pyrrhic victory, as Salmond would just go ahead with his own referendum anyway, for which he has a democratic mandate, as I’ve said.

And then Major’s solution does absolutely nothing to address the West Lothian and English Questions. If anything, it only aggravates these issues in that the Scots have the maximum degree of self-government without independence while the English have . . . nothing, and continue to be governed as the UK by a parliament in which Scots (albeit fewer in number under Major’s proposals), Welsh and N. Irish MPs are still allowed to vote on England-only matters even though the Barnett Formula would probably have been abolished.

In reality, the full logic of Major’s position points towards federalism. There’d be no justification whatsoever for non-English MPs voting on English matters, and you might as well just make the Commons an English parliament, and grant equal powers and responsibilities to each of the national parliaments / assemblies. All of which would then nullify Major’s suggestion about non-elected MPs, as the Commons would no longer even be a UK parliament – or, putting it another way, this second suggestion of Major’s is predicated on the Commons remaining a UK parliament and the English Question not being addressed.

Major’s suggestion about non-elected parliamentarians does, however, make sense for the Lords, which in the scenario I’ve just mapped out would naturally evolve into the UK-federal parliament, dealing with those matters that remained the responsibility of the government / parliament for the whole UK. Indeed, it’s far more appropriate for non-elected experts to sit in the Upper House, which fits with its natural role as a revising and deliberative chamber.

And the seats for non-elected members (whether Lords or MPs) should be allocated in proportion to vote share, not seat share. It makes much more sense for these non-elected seats to be distributed in accordance with share of the vote (not seats) even if Major’s proposals were to be adopted for the Commons as presently constituted, as this would help rectify the gross distortions of First Past the Post and make the Commons more not less representative of the electorate.

John Major’s devolution endgame points towards full federalism

Former prime minister Sir John Major has made a suggestion about how to mitigate the risk of Scottish independence. This is basically that Scotland should be granted ‘devolution max’: the maximum degree of devolution that stops short of actual independence. In practice, this would mean devolving responsibility for everything except “foreign policy, defence and management of the economy”. In addition, the Scottish block grant would be abolished and would be replaced by fiscal autonomy: the Scottish government would have to raise in taxes and borrowing everything it required to cover its expenses. And the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster would also be reduced.

The rationale for this suggestion is that the ‘separatist’ case in Scotland “thrives on discontent with the status quo”, and that ‘devo max’ would remove that discontent because it would provide substantially all of the advantages of independence without any of the potential disadvantages, such as “the loss of funding and potential knock-on effect on free prescriptions and university tuition”. There’s a bit of an inconsistency here, surely: if the block grant were withdrawn and Scotland had to fund its generous public spending from its own taxes, as would happen under devo max, there’d be just as much of a risk that free prescriptions and university tuition for all would have to end.

However, ultimately, Major’s position is that if devolution is applied to its full extent, the Scots will finally be satisfied and content to remain in the Union. But we’ve heard that argument before: it was exactly what was said by the proponents of devolution back in 1998, who said that devolution would see off the Scottish-nationalist ‘threat’ once and for all. Even assuming that the Scottish people endorsed devo max in a referendum, what’s to say that independence wouldn’t be back on the table in ten years’ time, and the same arguments in favour of it that are made now would be made then: that devo max had proven a success and given the Scots confidence that they could run their own affairs, and that independence was just the next logical step forward?

In any case, the Scots probably will be offered the choice of devo max as a / the alternative to independence in the referendum that the SNP government plans to hold towards the end of its term in office, probably in 2015. So in a sense, Major’s contribution adds nothing, other than reinforcing the impression that the unionist establishment is in denial about the full extent of the Scottish people’s aspirations towards self-rule and continues to think that so long as they’re offered the carrot of ever greater devolution, they won’t want to take it to its logical conclusion: independence.

Major’s point of view is also blind to English dissatisfaction with the Union and with the present arrangements for England’s governance. For Major, English discontent comes down to exasperation with “Scottish ambition [that] is fraying English tolerance. This is a tie that will snap – unless the issue is resolved”. To be honest, irritation of this sort might be the mood in the English High Tory circles in which Major moves; but as far as a significant and growing minority of English people are concerned (36% according to the BBC poll published last week), they would be all-too happy for Scotland, and indeed England, to be independent of each other.

Major’s devolution endgame might well – temporarily – appease Scottish ambitions for independence, but what about English aspirations towards self-government? What is Major in fact proposing for England? The answer is nothing, at least not directly, and in this he is at least being consistent with devolution as it has been asymmetrically applied to date – but just how this would remedy what Major calls “the present quasi-federalist settlement with Scotland [which] is unsustainable”, I don’t know.

In fact, Major’s proposals are completely untenable with regard to England. What would they involve? Abolition of the Scottish block grant, which would presumably mean replacing the Barnett Formula with a needs-based solution for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. And yet, Scottish MPs (though fewer in number) would still be able to sit in the House of Commons and, presumably, vote on English legislation, as would their Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts. Why? What possible justification could there be for that in the absence of Barnett, which is the only factor that makes those MPs’ present participation in decisions on English matters in any way legitimate, because of the knock-on consequences for expenditure in their own countries?

In reality, once you take away the Barnett Formula, and even more so when you grant fiscal autonomy to Scotland, you might as well just have done with it and make the House of Commons an English parliament, and grant fiscal autonomy to the Welsh and Northern Irish to boot. Otherwise, the participation of non-English MPs in English matters hangs on the slenderest thread of the indirect consequences that English bills might have for the UK’s other countries, and of setting the needs-based funding formula for Wales and Northern Ireland. So slender would that thread be, in fact, that this smacks of desperately coming up with false pretexts for preserving the Commons as the / a UK parliament come what may.

If, on the other hand, you draw the logical conclusion from devo max and extend it all the UK’s nations, then the House of Commons becomes an English parliament without any further ado, thereby alleviating much, if not substantially all, of English people’s dissatisfaction with the present devolution settlement, and making that settlement genuinely sustainable and federalist, rather than quasi-federalist and unsustainable as Major himself calls it.

This is the logical conclusion to be drawn from Sir John’s premises. Asymmetrical, incomplete devolution is not capable of satisfying the aspirations towards self-government of either the Scots or the English. Completing the devolution process for the Scots only would be even less so. But if devo max is extended to the whole UK, making it a genuinely federal state, then this might, just might, save the Union – although, as I argued in my last post, I think we may already have passed the federal moment, and only full independence with or without confederalism will now work.

But will Major and unionist establishmentarians like him perceive the federalist logic of their own position in time for it to be of any practical consequence?


The Liberal-Democrat Accession and the English Parliament

You should always be careful what you wish for and be wary of the law of unintended consequences. Although I will probably be voting Lib Dem this time round – unless my Tory MP astounds me by previously unsuspected support for an English parliament – a Lib-Dem break-through could have far-reaching ramifications for the prospects and nature of any future English parliament.

For a start, as they made clear yesterday, the Lib Dems will make their support for a minority Labour- or Conservative-led government conditional on introducing proportional representation. One imagines this would involve a referendum on changing to the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system for UK-parliamentary elections.

Many supporters of PR see it as a way to mitigate (i.e. ignore) the West Lothian Question. The logic behind this position is simple, though flawed in my view. For example, under STV, if the actual vote on 6 May exactly followed yesterday’s ICM opinion-poll ratings (Con 33%, Lib Dem 30% and Lab 28%), then the Conservatives would be the largest party both in England and the UK as a whole; and in any coalition of the parties to form a government, the UK majority thus constituted would also be consistent with the parties’ shares of seats in England. Therefore, on one level, it would no longer matter if non-English MPs voted on English laws, as the same laws would be passed if only English MPs voted.

On the other hand, the reverse logic could also apply: if the votes of non-English MPs were no longer needed to pass English bills, why let them vote at all? The only real justification for non-English MPs voting on English legislation presently is when there is a link to spending in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland via the Barnett Formula. But presumably, the days of that formula itself might well be numbered under a Con-LibDem coalition, as the Lib Dems favour scrapping it and even the Tories talk in their manifesto of greater fiscal autonomy for Scotland.

Indeed, in a proportionally elected House of Commons, the situation of non-English MPs voting on English laws would come to appear blatantly, if not scandalously, anomalous. Under First Past the Post, by contrast, the fact that Labour’s Scottish MPs have occasionally been required to pass the government’s England-only legislation against the will of a majority of English MPs did not on one level seem that outrageous in that the government majority procured in this way was no more disproportionate than the normal majority of English MPs only it would expect to command, as both majorities were merely the product of the absurd FPTP electoral system rather than of the way English people actually voted at the 2005 general election.

In other words, in a situation in which voting majorities in the Commons bear little relation to the way the public actually voted at the election, the misuse of non-English MPs to inflate those majorities even further does not stand out too obviously. By contrast, in a proportionally elected House where the parties’ shares of the seats are meant to reflect the way people voted, and where MPs are meant to be more accountable to their electorates, distorting those shares by allowing MPs not accountable to the people affected by bills to vote on them would be completely inconsistent and unacceptable.

Accordingly, I tend to think that, rather than mitigating the WLQ, PR would render it inoperable. But then if you do not allow non-English MPs to make England’s laws, what arrangements would be made for that little matter of how to govern England? Do you go down the route of an English Grand Committee: English laws debated and voted on by separate sessions of English MPs only? Do you draw the logical conclusion and say that Parliament needs to evolve into an English parliament to deal with English matters, with a separate set of representatives elected from across the UK to deal with reserved matters? Or do you just try to ignore the problem by pretending that England does not exist and that the West Lothian Question simply does not arise, let alone require a solution – the Labour government’s approach?

In this way, by insisting on introducing PR before dealing with the English Question, the Lib Dems might find that question comes and bites them in the bum: they could create a constitutional mess in which the very legitimacy and function of the parliament for which they had finally secured PR was called into question – a British parliament without a valid democratic role and status in most of what it did, i.e. in English matters.

To be fair to the Lib Dems, their manifesto does state that they want to hold a citizens’ convention to help draw up a written constitution, and the English Question would be dealt with as part of this process. But the Lib Dems are not going to be in a position to carry out this commitment in full as part of a coalition government. All they’ve actually said is that they’d make electoral reform a minimal precondition of any deal to support a minority government, not the whole constitutional-reform programme; and neither Labour nor the Tories have any appetite to address the English Question. But as I say, the English Question may impose itself as unavoidable if the Lib Dems do succeed in introducing STV.

There are two possible scenarios that follow on logically from this. Firstly, if the Lib Dems do secure STV (and if, as I argue, this would lead to an urgent need to address the English Question because of the crisis of governance it would bring about), then any English parliament would also be based on STV. Having gone to the trouble and expense of introducing STV, which would require the re-drawing of constituency boundaries and the amalgamation of constituencies into multi-member seats, there is no way the English parliament could then revert to the pre-STV single member-constituency system. Having finally achieved their goal of a proper proportional system, the Lib Dems would never accept an inferior system for England; nor – I think – would the English people.

However – scenario two – what if the British public did not endorse STV in the initial referendum required to adopt it as the system for UK elections? For instance, Gordon Brown favours the Alternative Vote (AV) single-member system, and if the Lib Dems’ referendum were held under a putative Lab-LibDem coalition, it could be a multi-option referendum with AV as one of the systems on offer. Labour could be expected to argue strongly for AV, which is in reality merely a mitigated form of FPTP and would preserve the unfair advantage the present system gives to the party. Who knows, voters might prefer to retain single-member constituencies and the winner-takes-all aspect of the present system, albeit in a slightly fairer form. Under this second scenario, the West Lothian Question could remain in place for much longer, as AV would perpetuate the disproportionality of the present system from which the very ability of Labour to form any kind of government depends and which also disguises the outrageously unfair extra advantage Labour obtains from the WLQ.

In this context, the Lib Dems could find themselves in the unenviable position of propping up an unfairly elected Labour government that exploits its stronger base of support in Scotland and Wales to secure its power in England. Would it not then be both more effective tactically, and give greater moral credibility to their demands for constitutional reform, if the Lib Dems declared now – ahead of 6 May – that they would not exploit the West Lothian Question in the new parliament, even if to do so were the only way in which a coalition of which they were a part could actually form a working majority?

After all, how can the English people believe in the Lib Dems’ advocacy of greater democratic fairness and proportional representation if they are in theory willing to exploit one of the most egregiously unfair and disproportional aspects of the present system simply to have a share in government? If they want England to back them on 6 May and support STV in a referendum, then surely they should back ‘building a fairer Britain’ in the forthcoming parliament, too – including fairness for England.


English Votes on English Laws is undesirable but possible

I’ve just thought of a way to overcome one of the problems that is often brought forward as a reason why it would be hard or inadvisable to introduce English Votes on English Laws (EVoEL) in the Westminster parliament: the fact that clauses in many bills relate to different combinations of the UK’s constituent countries, e.g. England and Wales; England, Wales and Northern Ireland; or Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales). Therefore, it’s practically difficult to say that a particular bill relates to England only and to limit voting on that bill to MPs from English constituencies.

My solution to this problem with the West Lothian solution is to say that for country-specific clauses such as these, you simply count only the votes of the MPs from the countries affected. So you don’t have to break up the chamber of the House of Commons and form a separate English Grand Committee, or a separate England-only block at the committee stage of a bill (Ken Clarke’s proposal that appears to be the Conservatives’ current policy). Scottish MPs could still be present at and participate in debates on matters not affecting Scotland, to preserve at least the idea that the Westminster parliament is that of the whole UK and to allow Scottish MPs to input into spending decisions that will in fact indirectly affect their constituents via the Barnett Formula. But if any Scottish MP voted on clauses or whole bills not affecting Scotland, those votes would simply be regarded as inadmissible and not counted.

So this is more of a negative version of EVoEL: counting out the votes of MPs representing seats not affected by parliamentary bills, rather than counting in only the votes and participation of English MPs on English bills or clauses. The drafters of bills and the House of Commons business managers know which clauses relate to which countries. So bills can be walked through and voted on clause by clause, just as now; only without counting the votes of MPs representing seats not affected by those bills.

Not great; but do-able.


How should national-UK parties present their English policies?

On the Waking Hereward blog, there’s an interesting reply from Nick Clegg to some questions raised by the author. The first of these was why, in his speech to the Lib Dem conference in September, Nick Clegg never once mentioned the word ‘England’, even though many of the policies he outlined related to England alone. Clegg fails to answer the question, merely describing the difficulty in separating out purely English aspects of parliamentary bills, where some clauses can indeed be exclusive to England but others might apply to England & Wales; England, Wales & Northern Ireland; Great Britain; or the whole of the UK.

But the question wasn’t about the structure and geographical extent of UK legislation: it was why can’t you say ‘England’ when you mean England? And Clegg basically avoided answering that question, even though the whole premise of the Barnett Formula, to which he alluded, involves the separation of spending – and hence policy making – in England from that in the other UK nations: “it’s worth bearing in mind that the level of bloc grant in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is automatically linked to total ‘English’ spending”. Note, however, that Clegg couldn’t resist putting ‘England’ in inverted commas. This is almost a typographical analogue of his failure to refer to England as England in his speeches: as a real nation and not the portion of the territory of the United Kingdom to which all UK-parliamentary legislation applies, and for which ‘England’ is merely a historic name of convenience.

But Clegg’s response does raise some interesting questions in its turn about the nature of policy making by the national-UK parties. The implication of Clegg’s remarks is that the Lib Dems and, by logical extension, the other parties cannot formulate policy for England alone because, in any actual policy as set out in a parliamentary bill, different parts of it relate to different parts of the UK. This was in evidence in the recent Queen’s Speech where the BBC, for once, excelled in picking out the parts of the UK to which the proposed bills applied. E.g. Children, Schools and Families Bill: “Whole bill applies to England. Other parts cover Wales and extends in part to Northern Ireland”. Or the Crime and Security Bill: “Most aspects of the bill apply to England and Wales only”. Etc.

These are all UK bills; it’s just that different bits of them relate to different parts of the UK, though all of them, without exception, apply to England. They relate to different parts of the UK not only because of the different sets of powers that have been devolved to the various UK nations, but also because they cut across government departments, some of which are now England-only, and some of which still have responsibility for some or all of the UK nations. For instance, despite the fact that the competency of the UK-government Department for Children, Schools and Families is limited to England, parts of the bill of the same name – referred to above – relate to crime and policing, where the UK parliament’s responsibilities presently extend to England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

So, technically speaking, it is indeed highly complicated to disentangle the England-only bits from those affecting one, two or three of the other UK jurisdictions as well. But on another level, it’s extremely simple: as all UK legislation relates to England, you could simply make a distinction between English legislation, on the one hand, and UK-wide legislation, on the other. Then, instead of picking out the England-specific bits, it would be a case of saying, where relevant, ‘parts of this bill also relate to Wales and Northern Ireland’ or ‘parts of this bill also apply to Scotland and Wales’, etc.

It comes down to which country the politicians actually think they’re governing. Institutionally and legally, they’re legislating for the UK; therefore, it’s technically correct to set things out as they are done at present: UK bills, parts of which relate to different parts of the UK. But this also entrenches and expresses the establishment mindset, which is that the business of the UK Parliament and of national-UK politicians is to govern a homogeneous ‘nation’ called the UK or Britain – irrespective of the fact that perhaps the majority of what they do relates to only one part of that nation (England), and all of it applies to England alongside one or more of the other UK nations. So in their mind, the politicians think they’re governing Britain; but in reality, they’re governing England

However, the consequence of adjusting their language to more adequately reflect the post-devolution realities of UK governance would be revolutionary and would blow apart the pretence that the UK is a unitary polity. If MPs thought and, more importantly, openly said and acknowledged that the country they are really governing and legislating for, in all genuinely non-UK-wide matters, was England, this would in effect involve describing the UK parliament as a combined English and UK parliament, whose remit in English matters was occasionally extended into the other UK countries. Of course, this would be unsustainable in the long term and would inevitably lead to an increase in calls for a separate English parliament and further devolution for the other countries involving a clear, consistent separation between the powers devolved to each national parliament and purely UK-wide matters.

This is the real reason why Clegg and the other establishment politicians can’t say England. They’re stuck in a British mould many parts of which have now been chipped out leaving just England, but which they continue to think of as Britain. And they’re afraid that if they start calling it England, the whole thing will fall apart. But in reality, this is what’s needed to free them to create a new politics that is genuinely accountable to the nation – England – it actually represents. Only in this way, perhaps, will the Liberal Democrats finally realise their 1980s predecessors’ ambitions to ‘break the mould of British politics’.


English Democrats: Are the BBC taking the monkeys; or do they just not give a monkeys?

Watched the TV interview with the English Democrat chairman Robin Tilbrook on the Daily Politics yesterday. Effectively, he was given about half of the five minutes allotted to the item, with the remaining half being given over to a couple of panellists. I thought he held his own quite well against some fairly tough questioning. He explained the party’s core aims calmly and clearly – an English parliament and greater fairness towards England in the allocation of public expenditure – and was just about allowed enough time to state that the EDP did have policies on ‘non-devolved’ matters before the panellists were brought in. Incidentally, the interviewer Anita Anand displayed her ignorance by referring to ‘crime’ as such a reserved matter. On the contrary, criminal law, justice and policing are devolved matters in Scotland, if not in Wales.

Tilbrook also talked effectively about the EDP mayor in Doncaster, describing the area as “the largest metropolitan borough council in England”, over which the EDP were now “effectively in power”, making the party a credible alternative to Labour at the general election.

By contrast to Tilbrook’s restrained, if somewhat wary and uncomfortable, dignity, one of the panellists (Gaby Hinsmith, I think it was: never seen her before) duly resorted to insinuations and mockery, implicitly comparing the EDP with the BNP (she also referred to it, in a Freudian slip, as the “English National Democrats”) and comparing the EDP mayor in Doncaster with the monkey that was re-elected mayor of Hartlepool, which “didn’t translate to a simian victory worldwide”. (What a p**t!) All of which is ‘taking the monkeys’ out of the people of Doncaster, to say nothing of the people of Hartlepool who, as Robin Tilbrook subsequently pointed out, voted for the man in the monkey suit (a local independent and Hartlepool FC mascot), not ‘the monkey’ as such.

In any case, this had nothing to do with the question of an English parliament; and Gaby was effectively dismissing the EDP as just one among several ‘fringe’ parties that worried the mainstream parties enough for them to occasionally tailor their policies to reflect people’s concerns, citing the example of tough talking on immigration whenever the BNP appears to be doing well. Well, I haven’t heard Labour talking tough on immigration recently, let alone mentioning the English democratic deficit.

The presenter then brought in one of the other panellists, the Scottish editor of The Spectator, Fraser Nelson. He seems to be something of a darling of BBC TV and radio producers these days, having appeared on BBC1’s Question Time only the previous night where he was evidently riled by the failure of his co-panellists to remember his name correctly, calling him ‘Nelson Fraser’! Nelson – surname – recently wrote a somewhat ridiculous article in his own rag claiming that Tory support for the Union is draining, evidently in an attempt to goad David Cameron into making more of a stand in defence of the Union. So I was expecting a dollop of unionist tripe served up with a dash of Nelson’s usual sneering and self-satisfied ridicule. However, he was surprisingly sympathetic, merely referring to the unfair electoral system that makes it impossible for smaller parties to achieve a break-through in general elections.

Then it was quickly back to Tilbrook who, after dealing with the monkey point, claimed that it was a reasonable objective for the English Democrats to win one parliamentary seat at the election, which was where the SNP were at in the mid-1970s; and once they were elected, they became “established”.

All in all, quite a creditable performance against a backdrop of ignorance, sarcasm and thinly veiled contempt on the part of two of the other participants. But absolutely no discussion about the merits of the case for an English parliament. Could it be that, as well as taking the monkeys, the Corporation doesn’t give a monkeys about democratic fairness to the people of England? (Incidentally, I also caught Tilbrook on Radio 4’s six o’clock news, which – to my astonishment – carried a brief article on the EDP conference, indicating that they’d obtained the seventh-largest share of the vote in England at the European elections. Tilbrook was given the opportunity to explain the party’s two different models for an EP: either a separate, devolved parliament à la Holyrood, or a restructuring of the present British parliament, with the House of Commons becoming the English parliament and the House of Lords being transformed into a UK-wide upper house or senate.)

So again, sympathy in unexpected places; this time on the 6.00 o’clock news. Maybe the lunchtime and evening crews at Radio 4 are a bit more professional and conscientious than the lot at the Today programme. It was an email dialogue with a ‘duty editor’ at Today called Dominic Groves that prompted me to make the above statement about the BBC not giving a monkeys about democratic fairness towards England, as well as being downright, wilfully ignorant about devolution.

I say that because, yesterday, I received a reply to an email of complaint I had re-sent the programme back on 6 September, having received an inadequate reply when I first sent it on 4 September:

“Dear Sirs,

Please find below the text of a complaint I sent to the programme on Friday 4 September regarding your programme of the previous morning. I received an automated reply from you. However, given the nature of the complaint, and the fact I previously sent you a complaint on the same subject that was neither acknowledged nor addressed, I feel a more personal response is required. Here is the text of my original complaint:

Dear Sir or Madam,
I am writing to complain about the article on the NHS on yesterday morning’s programme immediately after the 8.00 news.

The entire discussion and interview made absolutely no mention of the fact that the NHS in question was the English one, as it is only the English NHS that Westminster politicians have anything to do with; and it is only the English NHS that will be debated about at the next general election.

To discuss options for reducing expenditure and cutting jobs in the NHS without mentioning that it is only the NHS in England that is being talked about represents a regrettable lack of editorial rigour and journalistic accuracy. Surely the options for the English NHS cannot and should not be discussed in isolation from the various solutions and priorities, and the funding, for the NHS’s in the countries with devolved governments. For example, do we in England actually want more privatisation and market mechanisms in the health service, along the lines already introduced by New Labour, while the NHS’s in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland continue along more traditional public-sector lines, thanks in part to the greater per-capita expenditure their systems enjoy by virtue of the Barnett Formula?

And what will the impact of the proposed real-terms increases in NHS funding in England be for the other UK countries? Could it be that they may result in or require decreases in spending elsewhere? And how will the devolved administrations continue to maintain the generous funding they have received to date? This would be a discussion about the NHS in Britain as a whole. If we’re talking about England, on the other hand, we should say so. Then the English people might realise they have a choice for what they want in England and should not feel beholden to a spurious notion of what the UK as a whole can afford or to a misleading idea that the NHS is a single cross-UK organisation where only one model of health-care delivery can be implemented. Once people in England are adequately informed about the diversity of current approaches to health care, not only between the UK and other comparable countries, but within the UK, they can then begin to make informed decisions about which party’s policies for the English NHS they wish to back.

I recently complained to the Today programme on this same issue but have received no reply or acknowledgement. The substance of this complaint is related to an ‘Open letter to the BBC on reporting policy debates at the next general election’ I have posted on the ‘English Parliament Online’ website, and which I forwarded to the BBC Trust. I also copied the present complaint to the Trust, from whom I subsequently received a response inviting me to re-submit my complaint via the standard online complaint forms, which I have done.

This is an issue that the BBC must address. Its reporting of English political affairs and policy discussions is woefully incomplete and misleading at present. The English people deserve to be better informed on the policy issues that affect them.

Yours faithfully,

David Rickard”

Below is the text of the reply I received yesterday [my comments in square brackets.]:

“Dear Mr Rickard,

Thank you for your email. You raise a number of interesting questions about the relationship between spending in England and those [that] in other devolved administrations [what does ‘other devolved administrations’ mean?]. However I would take issue with your suggestion that our discussion on September 3rd related only to one part of the United Kingdom [he means England]. Devolution has given Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland limited – or no – tax raising powers [nor does England have tax-raising powers; so in fact, the ability of Scotland to vary the income-tax rate by 3p relative to the rest of the UK represents greater tax-raising powers than England]. That means the budget deficits at the heart of the debate over NHS spending will affect those areas as much as they will affect England. It would therefore have been misleading to have suggested that the debate was confined only to England. [See his trick: the debate about health-care funding as such isn’t confined to England; but the policies debated at the general election will be confined to England. All the politicians on the programme were Westminster ones.] That said, I would acknowledge that there are issues over the way central money is distributed (the so called Barnett formula) [so-called Barnett Formula?].We have looked at this subject before and will no doubt return to it in the future.

Yours sincerely

Dominic Groves

Duty Editor”.

Obviously, I wasn’t content to let the matter rest there; so I replied to Mr Groves in the following terms – rather restrained in the manner of Mr Tilbrook, I thought:

“Dear Mr Groves,

Thank you for your reply to my complaint. I appreciate your taking the time and trouble to look into the matter and respond.

I suppose it will not be surprising to you that I disagree with most of what you say, however. My main grievance was that the whole roughly five-minute article made no mention of England, whose NHS is the only one that Westminster politicians can make decisions about. Many listeners, not necessarily all of whom are politically uninformed persons, will have come away from the discussion with the impression that it related to the whole of Britain, which it did not.

I take your point that budget cuts will also affect Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; but they will do so only indirectly: Westminster politicians will not have the power to decide in which areas of public expenditure the cuts will be made in those countries, even if the overall level of expenditure will need to fall. For instance, the Scottish government could decide that it will not cut spending on what they call NHS Scotland. It would be able to do that by making greater cuts or savings elsewhere; or by increasing income tax via the 3p variable rate (or 10p if the Calman Commission recommendations are implemented).

Therefore, at the next election, it will be necessary for the media to make clear that when the parties are debating how they are going to cut costs and reallocate spending on public services, they are not talking about Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Otherwise, people in those countries might get the impression that if the party they vote for wins the general election, then the policies discussed before the election for things such as education, health, local government, etc. will be implemented in their countries, which they won’t. They will therefore be voting on a false prospectus.

It’s as simple as that: some policy proposals relate to England only, and some relate to all or other parts of the UK. The people of the UK deserve to be informed about which is which.

Yours sincerely,

David Rickard”

It seems somewhat ridiculous to have to be having dialogues of this sort with news editors at the BBC, or to watch reputable political shows in which the presenters and contributors display such ignorance and contempt for important issues of fairness and democracy in the UK. Ten years into devolution, they ought to be more aware about which matters are devolved (and hence relate to England only in the context of Westminster politics) and which are genuinely relevant to the whole of the UK.

Apart from the political reasons for this (i.e. defence of the British establishment, of which the BBC is a major part and symbol), this blindness towards English nationhood and England-specific policy areas is another illustration of what I describe in an OurKingdom article as the establishment’s would-be assimilation of England and Englishness to ‘Britain’ and ‘Britishness’ in the wake of devolution. This is done in the attempt to suppress the emergence of a distinct English national identity that would then demand separate political and civic institutions (too late; the cat is already out of the bag). If everything that is really English is called and thought of as ‘British’, then the powers that be can pretend that there is no distinction between English and British matters (which is a total denial of the facts), and hence no need for a separate ‘English’ parliament. But it’s not only the case that the BBC, media commentators and politicians are deliberately deceiving the English people in glossing over the differences between what relates to England and what relates to the UK; but also the politicians and journalists concerned are in part taken in by their own fiction and their own fabrication of a homogeneous, unitary Britain that does not exist in practice. It’s like Orwellian Newspeak (or, as we should perhaps put it, ‘news speak’), as in the novel 1984: if you tell yourself a conscious, deliberate lie often enough – e.g. calling England ‘Britain’ – eventually, you will come to believe it

Hence, in the case of Dominic Groves from the Today programme, I think on one level he genuinely believes that when politicians are talking about painful spending and job cuts in the ‘British’ NHS, they actually mean ‘Britain’; but in reality, ‘Britain’ is Newspeak for England. However, Grove and his like are so taken in that they think ‘Britain’ means ‘the whole of Britain’. Hence, when he says – and I paraphrase – ‘because Britain faces a budget deficit, spending on the British NHS will have to be reduced, and that will affect all parts of Britain’, what he really means is: ‘because the UK faces a budget deficit, spending on the English NHS [England having been re-named ‘Britain’] will have to be reduced; and, concurrently but separately, spending on the NHS’s in the “British nations” will / may also have to be reduced’. In short, ‘Britain’ is being used fallaciously to refer to three quite distinct entities (the British state (the UK), England and the devolved nations) as if they were a single, homogeneous nation to whose governance Westminster politicians and London-based parties somehow have an input in a unitary fashion; and Groves believes his own fiction.

A similar point could be made about Gaby What’s-her-name off the Daily Politics. Her inability to engage with the English Democrats’ actual agenda (English self-government) was connected with an inability to perceive ‘England’ as in any way distinct from ‘Britain’. Hence her mental confusion regarding the distinction between the EDP and the BNP, as if to be an English civic nationalist was not polls apart (pun intended) from – in fact, diametrically opposed to – being an ethnic British nationalist.

So we’ve got quite a mountain to climb to even get people to consider the possibility that English political affairs could be governed separately from UK ones: because even many politicians and media have become blind to the difference between them. But we have to keep pushing them to see that when they say ‘Britain’, that can mean either the UK, England or the devolved nations; and it’s rather crucial to bring out the distinction if we’re going to have any sort of meaningful political conversation.

Otherwise, those three Britains will be like the three wise monkeys: seeing no evil, hearing no evil, doing no evil – or rather, blinding themselves to their woeful governance of England because they’re incapable of seeing England itself and hearing the English demands for fairness and democracy. But if they think they can carry on making monkeys out of us indefinitely, they might find they’re dealing with a species made of sterner stuff.