AV referendum: for the sake of England, don’t vote!

Do you think the First Past the Post voting system used for electing UK MPs should be changed to the Alternative Vote? Do you even care?

Firstly, should anyone who supports the idea of an English parliament give a monkeys about the voting system used to elect the UK parliament? On one level, no: the fact that this AV referendum is being held on the same day as the elections for the Scottish parliament, and Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies, but that the English have never been consulted about a parliament of their own; and the fact that we’re being offered only the disproportional AV system, whereas those very devolved elections use a different, proportional system, is a downright insult. So not only is there no representation for England as a nation on offer, but there is to be no proportional representation for England even within the UK parliament. So I know where I’d tell them to stick their AV.

On the other hand, a ‘better’ electoral system for electing English MPs would surely be a gain for the nation even while we’re being governed by an unrepresentative UK executive and parliament. Does AV constitute such a gain? Well, in my view, AV is marginally – very marginally – better than FPTP. It does ensure that parliamentary candidates have to secure the explicit support of a larger proportion of their local electorate in order to win – though it doesn’t guarantee that MPs must obtain the support of a majority of voters: that depends on how many voters don’t express a preference for either / any of the candidates remaining after the less popular candidates have been eliminated.

However, in reality, this greater share of the vote MPs have to win, which includes the second and subsequent preferences of voters whose first-choice candidates have been unsuccessful, already exists in latent form under the FPTP system. The only difference that AV makes is that it allows voters to explicitly express that support with their preference votes, so that – for example – a winning plurality of, say, 40% is turned into a winning ‘majority’ of 52%. That extra 12% of voters who are broadly content for a candidate to win on 40% of the vote are still there under FPTP; so AV in a sense just legitimises what happens under FPTP: the election to parliament of MPs who fail to be the first choice of a majority of voters.

AV is, therefore, mainly a means to secure buy-in to an unfair system that has ill-served England. That’s what FPTP has been: over the past few decades, it’s given us Tory and Labour governments that have never commanded the support of a majority of English men and women. It gave us the divisive, confrontational and egomaniacal Thatcher regime; and it was responsible for Blair’s New Labour, with its legacy of asymmetric devolution, British-establishment Anglophobia, public-spending discrimination against England, and the overseas follies of Iraq and Afghanistan, with so many brave young English people exploited as cannon fodder in unwinnable, unjustifiable wars.

FPTP has failed England. AV is only a very slightly mitigated version of FPTP. Both will lead to more disproportional, unrepresentative UK parliaments that will continue to ignore not only the just demands for an English parliament but England’s very existence. Under the present UK political settlement, England as such is completely discounted and passed over in silence. The pro-AV campaign says that, under AV, your vote really counts. But England will still count for nothing, whether we have AV or FPTP.

So make your vote really count this Thursday in the AV referendum by greeting it with the silent contempt with which the political establishment treats England. England’s voice is not being consulted; so respond with sullen, stern silence in your turn. Don’t vote for a system – the UK parliament itself – that disenfranchises you. And let the result – whether a win for AV or FPTP – be rendered as meaningless as it really is through a derisory turn-out across England.

England will have its say one day in a meaningful referendum: on an English parliament. And I bet neither AV nor FPTP will be on offer as the voting system for a parliament that truly represents the English people.


A guide to complaining about media coverage of the election

I’m looking forward – not exactly – to an election where the media can be expected, by and large, to fail to correctly report parties’ English policies as being limited to England. How should we complain about this, if at all? I ask because there’ll be so many lapses, you could spend absolutely every spare hour knocking off another fruitless moan to the broadcasters’ respective complaint or feedback departments, which will doubtless be overworked with thousands of complaints of all varieties throughout the election.

I’ve discussed in depth the reasons for politicians’ and media’s omission of the ‘E’ word – ‘England’ – in numerous previous posts, most recently here in connection with the upcoming election. I won’t go over this ground again, other than to say that I think we need to distinguish between two types of omission of references to ‘England’, or of using ‘Britain’ when English matters are being discussed.

On the one hand, we need to acknowledge the fact that not calling an English spade an English spade is just part of the rules of the British political game: standard practice that is rooted in the system’s need to suppress the English-national consciousness in order to perpetuate the status quo and dampen demands for any kind of English dimension to politics, such as an English parliament. Even calling English matters ‘British’ is, on this level, merely a convention and does not, in all instances, equate to serious dishonesty or deceit, for two main reasons: 1) it’s a sort of game, and all those in the know (which, however, excludes the majority of English voters) accept that it’s really England that’s being talked about, it’s just that you can’t say so; and 2) technically, it’s correct to refer to the British government’s policies and laws on education and health, for instance, as ‘British’ because they’re those of the British government, even though they affect England alone. This is more a case of imprecise and misleading language – omitting to add the requisite ‘in England’ tag – rather than a downright lie.

On the other hand, there are instances where referring to English policies as ‘British’ does cross over into the territory of deception and lying. The borderline is quite fluid; but I would say that wherever a politician makes a big point about an England-only policy being ‘British’ or being for the ‘benefit’ of all the British people, that’s when a complaint should be triggered, assuming the interviewer or presenter doesn’t pick them up on it. The same applies to the presentation of news stories that are without a contribution from a party spokesperson where a distinct impression is conveyed that a policy relates to the whole of the UK, or at least Great Britain, but this is contrary to the facts. So this would be when the description of the policy makes more than merely passing reference to, say, ‘the NHS’ (implying the ‘British NHS’) or ‘British schools’ while mainly discussing the policy as being for ‘the country’ or ‘this country’, which is another shorthand employed to avoid being specific as to which country one is talking about.

The kind of situation I’m imagining here is either when the politician or the news item repeatedly and explicitly refers to an English policy as British, or if the context of the discussion is such that all reasonable people who don’t already know better would conclude that this was a policy intended to be implemented across the UK. An example of the latter – thinking of Labour’s five policy pledges being announced today – would be when discussion of the aim of more fairness for communities distinctly implied – through the actual choice of words, whether ‘Britain’ is referenced verbatim or not – that the pledge applies to the whole of Britain, whereas in fact communities are a devolved area and any implementation of the pledge by the British government can be effected only in England.

In situations such as this, I think a charge of failing to meet its statutory duty to ensure accuracy of reporting can be levied at the broadcaster in question, because it’s allowing the politicians to substantively mislead viewers. By substantively, I mean firstly that the politicians could procure a definite electoral advantage from the misunderstanding arising: for instance, fooling Scottish and Welsh viewers into thinking the pledge affects them, when it doesn’t, thereby persuading them to vote for them, effectively on a false prospectus.

And secondly, this sort of thing involves a failure by the media to inform English voters about which policies relate only to England. This prevents the public from being in full possession of the facts prior to voting, which could also materially affect the way they vote. For instance, many English voters might think that the parties’ policies in devolved areas were being proposed for the whole of Great Britain and that, accordingly, they would just have to accept the parties’ expressions of goodwill about imposing cuts even-handedly across the whole of ‘the country’. But if they realised that commitments to preserve or reduce expenditure related only to England, they might also start thinking there could be alternatives to the policies being proposed, such as the different policies being pursued in Scotland and Wales. Knowledge is power, as they say; and without that knowledge, English people are being deprived of a full, free and fair debate about the options available for England, as opposed to the rest of the UK. And that means the status of the election itself as free and fair is also called into question.

On this basis – and I’m offering these arguments as ones that can be borrowed in any complaint emails – I think complaints are warranted and should be directed to three main organisations: 1) Ofcom, the telecoms and media regulator, which has responsibility for ensuring compliance on the part of broadcasters other than the BBC with the ‘Broadcast Code’, which stipulates, among other things, that they should be accurate and impartial in reporting the news; 2) the BBC Trust, which handles similar complaints about inaccuracy and bias in BBC broadcasts; and 3) the Electoral Commission, which administers general elections, as well as local elections in England. As far as I can tell, the Electoral Commission is only really set up to deal with complaints about its own organisation or electoral irregularities (e.g. problems with the electoral roll or postal voting). But I think it would be worth directing to the Commission the more general type of complaint referred to in the previous paragraph: that the free and fair status of the election is compromised by parties’ and media’s failure to explain to English voters which policies exclusively affect them, and which are relevant to the whole of the UK; thereby preventing an open, honest and comprehensive discussion and engagement with English voters about their priorities in devolved policy areas.

What can realistically be achieved by complaints of this sort? Well, there’s an outside chance that if Ofcom or the BBC Trust concluded that broadcasters’ failure to point out that certain policy proposals were only relevant to England did substantively mislead voters, they might be forced to issue a formal apology and to make more of an effort to correctly label the policies in question as English. In any case, even in the absence of a judgement that a serious breach of accuracy had occurred, the broadcasters might acknowledge that the criticism had some validity, and then references to ‘England’ might start creeping in to discussions on key issues such as education and health. This would start to make the election a little fairer, in that English and non-English voters alike could be clearer about the issues that did or did not affect them.

Over and above this benefit, if the media started to feel obliged to be more precise in pointing out which policies are restricted to England and which are not, this means that the parties would also be obliged to acknowledge the fact that large parts of their manifesto were relevant only to England. The long-term goal this would further – beyond the election – would be the reinsertion of ‘England’ into the British political vocabulary, leading to a growing awareness that there is a distinction between British and English matters, and ultimately that Britain and England themselves are distinct entities that deserve separate recognition and representation in political and constitutional terms.

In other words, just as the establishment tries to suppress the emergence of a distinct English-national consciousness and politics by deleting the word ‘England’ from its vocabulary, we can try to leverage complaints about the inaccuracy this involves on the part of the media to reinsert ‘England’ back into that vocabulary, which will then enable the case for the establishment of a separate English polity to deal with English matters to be made more convincingly and effectively.

With respect to the more general complaint to the Electoral Commission, this is even more of a long shot than complaints to Ofcom and the BBC Trust. But I do think the allegation that the lack of an honest discussion about English policies prevents the election from being fair to English voters does have genuine merit. The Electoral Commission is an organisation that carries some clout, and is respected and listened to by the parties and the media. If it found them at serious fault for not setting out the full facts about English policies to English voters – effectively engaging in a conspiracy to mislead them – then this judgement could force them to radically alter their approach in subsequent elections and, indeed, in the way they discuss English matters on an ongoing basis. As I say, it’s a long shot; but if it worked, it would really strike a blow for fairness towards English voters.

If enough supporters of democratic fairness for England send similar complaints to organisations that are in a position to do something about them – e.g. the ones I’m recommending – then this will help force the media to take note. So let’s watch how the parties try to make out that their England-specific policies are relevant to the whole of the UK, and how the media lets them get away with it. And if we think this is substantively misleading, as I’ve defined it, let’s fire off those complaint emails!

My poor old keyboard is going to take a hammering, I can see!

The article ConservativeHome rejected: To be a party of the Union, the Conservatives must also be a party for England

On the day after the Conservatives published a draft manifesto for the English NHS that failed to mention ‘England’ a single time, I thought it would be fitting to publish an article of mine that was originally accepted for inclusion in the ‘Platform’ section of the ConservativeHome blog back in November of last year. However, they subsequently got cold feet and decided not to publish.

The rejection of the article, coupled with the Conservatives’ refusal to accurately present their English-NHS policies as limited to England, doesn’t make me optimistic that the election campaign will be marked by honesty over English matters. Here’s the article:

It has been said by some – and I would tend to agree – that the biggest threat to the continuation of the Union is likely to come from England, not Scotland. There is a groundswell of feeling and opinion throughout England that our present constitutional and political arrangements have left England in both a democratic and financial deficit; and it is arguable that the wave of disaffection with Parliament and our political system that broke in May and June of this year was primarily an expression of English alienation and disenchantment with the status quo. At the very least, the UK-wide eruption of disgust at MPs’ perceived corruption was more acute in England, which does not have a parliament of its own, thereby exacerbating the feeling that the political class has become unaccountable to the public.

There are now many people in England who secretly or not so secretly wish that the Scots will get their independence referendum and will vote to leave the UK. Indeed, if the English were offered a referendum on independence for England, it would not be surprising if the percentage in favour exceeded the 29% of Scots who reportedly back independence for Scotland at present. Arguably, in any case, all UK citizens should be allowed to participate in any definitive independence referendum for Scotland, as opposed to the SNP’s proposed consultative referendum asking for a mandate for the Scottish government to negotiate an independence settlement with the UK government. This is because Scotland cannot technically vote to ‘leave’ the Union. The effect of a vote in favour of Scottish independence would actually be to dissolve the Union: Great Britain would cease to exist, as this entity is the product of a union between two nations (Wales being subsumed within England at the time); and if one of those nations decides to go, that breaks up the union. In other words, Great Britain is the name of a marriage; and when a divorce arises, there is no more Great Britain – just separate entities known as England (and Wales) and Scotland.

So part of any deal for Scottish independence would have to be a new constitutional settlement for the residual nations of the UK to form, for instance, a new ‘United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’. And it would only be right and proper that the prospective citizens of the new state should be asked whether they wanted to be part of it. So perhaps you’d need two referendums, in fact: one for the Scots about their national future; and one for the rest of the UK.

This is, of course, a scenario that traditional unionist Conservatives would like to avoid at all costs. But you can’t deal with English disaffection with asymmetric devolution and with the lack of a representative parliament for England by denying English-national feeling and identity, as the Labour government has tried to do. New Labour has tried to manipulate English people’s traditional patriotic identification of England with Great Britain – the two often being interchangeable in English people’s hearts and minds – to engineer a ‘New Britain’ that denies the existence of a distinct English nation altogether: a Britain / UK that no longer comprises England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but is viewed as Britain + the devolved nations – Gordon Brown’s ‘Britain of nations and regions [formerly known as England]’.

Whilst this new British-nation building has arguably mediated a profound Anglophobia at the heart of the liberal establishment, it has also been a reaction by the Westminster establishment as a whole to the traumatic shock to the 300-year-old Union that was delivered by an ill-thought-through devolution settlement. The fear was that a new English nationalism would build up in parallel to the growing national consciousness and self-confidence of the Scots and the Welsh; and that the English would start to demand their own parliament and national institutions that could rip open the Union from within. But instead of acknowledging that it was an inevitable consequence of devolution that the English would start to become more aware of themselves as a distinct nation, and would consequently start to demand English civic institutions like those of the other British nations, the approach has been virtually to deny that England even exists, which – politically and constitutionally speaking – it in fact doesn’t. In this way, the Union parliament can be presented as a perfectly adequate representative democratic body for England because there is no England, only the UK. As Tony Blair’s first Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine memorably put it, “The way to deal with the West Lothian Question is not to ask it”.

Given the Conservative Party’s profound attachment to the Union, it would be understandable if a Tory government were to continue along this path of denying any distinctly English dimension to national politics and constitutional affairs. Clearly, this is the case not only because of the perceived threat of a growing English nationalism but because the Conservatives are desperate, for electoral purposes, not to be perceived by Scots as an English party – which they mainly in fact are. But to replicate New Labour’s actions and attitudes in relation to England would not only be unjust but would also be alien to Conservative tradition and counter-productive to the aim of preserving the Union. Traditionally, that is, the Conservatives have been adept at balancing the competing English and British identities and patriotisms of the English people: channelling English national pride into a One Nation Britishness that yet did not deny Englishness. If, on the other hand, the response of a forthcoming Conservative government to the contrary challenges of English and Scottish nationalism is, like New Labour, to make it unacceptable to publicly articulate pride in Englishness, then this will in turn be unacceptable to the English public in the long run. The Union cannot be sustainable if its largest constituent part has to deny its own identity and democratic aspirations indefinitely while allowing its other parts to affirm their own – indeed, in order to allow the other nations to affirm their distinct identities, requiring England in a sense to become the Union by itself: the place of Britishness from which only the other nations are allowed to differentiate themselves; whereas if England becomes merely England, not Britain, then there is no more Union, just four distinct nations.

So what are the alternatives? Well, Ken Clarke’s answer to the West Lothian Question, which has been dubbed ‘English pauses for English clauses’, manages to avoid really asking the question, too. While it makes it possible for English MPs to amend England-only clauses of bills at the committee stage, Clarke’s recommendation still leaves the structural West Lothian anomaly in place: bills affecting England only or mainly can still be put forward by an executive comprising MPs from across the UK’s nations, and still need to be passed by a parliamentary majority made up of MPs from all four countries. In any case, such a procedural titivation is hardly likely to stem the growing tide of public dissatisfaction with the workings and representative character of Parliament in general, let alone the aspirations towards English self-government.

It seems to me, then, that if the Conservative Party genuinely seeks to preserve the Union as a true, undivided Union of equal nations, then it will have to seek a way to allow a distinct and healthy English-national politics and civic life to develop and prosper, even if this is within the broad confines of the existing Union structures. This may in fact be a last-ditch chance to save the Union as we know it from the alternatives of a federal UK of four nations or a total break-up of the UK into its component parts. Quite what shape the new English politics would take once the English genius is let out of the asphyxiating British lamp is not something that can easily be foreseen. But it seems to me that the Conservative Party is the natural party to guide and steer this process, precisely because of its deep roots in English society and traditions, and the naturally conservative (small ‘c’) character of the English people.

To begin with, the Party could start honestly referring to its England-specific policies and, in government, laws as English, rather than maintaining the present pretence that its policies in areas such as education, health or policing relate to the whole of the UK. In their manifesto at the general election, the Conservatives should reserve a dedicated section to their policies for England, which in fact will make up the majority of their legislative activity in government, given the very many policy areas in which UK governments now have competency for England only. This would be a hugely refreshing change and would demonstrate to people in England, including those that might otherwise be tempted to vote for more nationalist alternatives, that the Conservative Party is mindful of the specific social and economic concerns and needs of English people alongside its responsibilities to the whole of the UK in areas such as the economy or national security.

Such a degree of honesty about England-specific policies need not provoke a cry of indignation from the nationalists and Labour alike that the Conservatives are putting the needs and priorities of English people above those of Scotland and Wales. On the contrary, many people in those countries would also find it refreshing that national-UK politicians were finally accepting the post-devolution realities and not talking about England-specific matters as if they were relevant to them, too. This sort of honesty would be in stark contrast to the behaviour of Labour, in particular, which is clearly seeking to bolster its traditional support in Scotland and Wales based on an appeal to its traditional policies on the NHS and education for which Westminster governments are no longer responsible in those countries. The Tory response to Labour’s gerrymandering manipulation of the West Lothian Question should not be to deny the validity of the question but to show up Labour’s deceit for what it is. The Conservatives can present themselves as a government for Scotland and Wales; but they can’t do so by denying that, in many ways, Westminster administrations are now governments for England alone. There are English matters and there are UK matters, and the way to restore the trust of the public is to recognise the difference and present strong policies in both departments.

The Union is presently under a greater threat than at any previous time in its history, other than in times of war. But the way to respond to this threat is not to deny the identity and democratic aspirations of the largest nation within the Union. New Labour has tried to craft a soulless Britain without England. The challenge for the incoming Conservative government will be to shape a great Britain that still has England at, and in, its heart.


The national dimension to constitutional reform

I’m a supporter of the Power 2010 initiative that is attempting to keep radical constitutional and parliamentary reform on the political agenda. However, I have serious qualms about the organisation’s ‘British’ dimensions and the way in which it conceives of constitutional reform, ironically, in rather conservative terms: within the framework of the present United Kingdom state. For example, it has grouped the suggestions for reform of Parliament it has received from the public into categories that leave the current status of Parliament as the combined legislative body for reserved UK matters and all English matters fundamentally unchallenged:

  • Fixed-term parliaments
  • Normal holidays and working hours for MPs
  • Elect the second chamber by “sector”
  • Abolish party whips
  • Charitable representatives in the second chamber
  • A second chamber selected by lot
  • Accommodate MPs in the Olympic village
  • Give backbenchers control of parliamentary business
  • Limit government’s use of whips
  • Reform consultations
  • A class of MPs who won’t serve in government
  • Fully elected House of Lords
  • Local councils to nominate MPs
  • Lords to represent organisations
  • Independent Parliament watchdog
  • MPs accountable to their constituency

How about ‘prevent MPs from non-English constituencies from voting on English bills’, or ‘replace Parliament with a new body responsible only for reserved UK matters’? Indeed.

You won’t see ‘Establish an English parliament’ in this list because it appears under the heading of ‘Devolution and local government’ rather than that of ‘Parliament’. In this list, an EP appears third (although I assume these suggestions are listed ‘in no particular order’, as the reality-TV shows say) after ‘A stronger Parliament for Wales’ and ‘More power to regional government’ [in England, you understand]. The way these things are presented creates the impression of a smorgasbord of tasty options that could be mixed and matched according to individual preference, without thinking through their implications and the cross-overs between them. In particular, what would be the implications for England of a Welsh assembly or parliament with powers to enact primary legislation? And what sort of changes to the constitution and structure of the UK – and to the governance of its other nations – would the creation of an English parliament make necessary; in particular, how would the role and responsibilities of the UK parliament need to be modified?

In part, this pick-and-mix character of Power 2010’s options for reform is the product of the way it has been put together: out of a total of around 4,000 random suggestions from the general public, including mine, which was for an English parliament (surprise, surprise). But what is of concern to me is the UK-level process that Power 2010 is proposing in order to whittle the suggestions down to a short list of the five most urgently needed reforms, which prospective parliamentary candidates will be asked to commit to at the election:

“All of the ideas submitted are being looked at as we speak. They will be fed into a representative assembly of 200 citizens from across the nations and regions of the UK – people of all backgrounds and political persuasions.

“The assembly will meet in London in the new year to distil the ideas into a manageable shortlist for the public to vote on, weeding out irrelevant and weakly supported proposals.

“It’s then up to, you, the British public to choose the 5 reforms our democracy most desperately needs in a nationwide vote”.

I have already commented on the Power 2010 website (under my David Rickard pseudonym) about this use of the odious ‘nations and regions’ phrase and all that it implies. My main issue is that a UK-wide ‘representative assembly’, followed by a UK-wide public vote, is not really qualified to come up with constitutional recommendations for England, such as an English parliament. On the other hand, it is not justified in excluding an EP, either. Basically, it can’t make, pass or reject proposals about the governance of England, because only an English citizens’ convention and referendum is qualified to do that. Anything else is just replicating the West Lothian Question, if anything in an aggravated form: Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish representatives laying down England’s constitutional future.

By contrast, I feel sure that Power 2010’s proposed 200-strong citizens’ assembly will not take it upon itself to make recommendations about the ongoing process of transferring ever greater powers and sovereignty to the devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales. Indeed, on Monday (St. Andrew’s Day), to coincide with the SNP’s launch of its ‘Your Scotland, Your Voice’ white paper on the options for the governance of Scotland to be included in a possible referendum, the same Power 2010 website published a contribution from Canon Kenyon Wright – one of the leading architects of the 1989 Scottish Claim of Right – outlining the ongoing work in Scotland to establish a written constitution for Scotland and the UK, and to reform the Scottish parliament. This work is going on entirely independently, as it were, of Power 2010; and there’s no suggestion from the Power 2010 team that it should be integrated with the broader UK-wide movement for constitutional reform that it is trying to steer. Nevertheless, Canon Wright himself is of the opinion that the work of the Constitutional Commission in Scotland, of which he is the honorary chair, can help to inform and drive the process of overhauling the decaying and defunct UK constitution and political system.

My question is this: if the ongoing progress towards full Scottish self-government, founded on the sovereignty of the Scottish people, is truly consistent with the aim of arriving at a “written constitution which creates a truly constitutional monarchy, and sets standards and principles which are above the common law, and redefine the sharing of power [and which] would be the basis for a very different and radically reformed Union” (in Kenyon Wright’s words), then why does the Scottish Constitutional Commission not make common cause with Power 2010 and other movements that are campaigning for radical UK constitutional reform?

The answer, I believe, is that Canon Wright’s movement is not primarily concerned with UK-constitutional reform at all: it is a Scottish-driven, Scotland-centred process focused on the Scottish national interest, which – in addition to the principle of popular sovereignty – was the other key pledge that the signatories of the Scottish Claim of Right committed themselves to: “We, gathered as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, do hereby acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs, and do hereby declare and pledge that in all our actions and deliberations their interests shall be paramount”.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a movement for Scottish self-rule putting the Scottish national interest first: that’s only what you’d expect. However, what I object to is the pretence that this is consistent with a joined-up approach to comprehensive reform of the UK constitution carried out in the interests of all its nations and not just one of them. The Scottish Constitutional Commission is basically out to procure a form of government that is both genuinely autonomous and in the Scottish interest, something which Canon Wright elsewhere terms ‘Secure Autonomy’ – a position similar to the third of four possible options presented in the SNP-government’s white paper: a sort of independence within the Union, with Scotland managing virtually all of its own affairs (including taxation) apart from things like defence and foreign affairs. In other words, this is having the cake of independence and eating the cake of security within the Union. Quite what the impact of these new constitutional arrangements would be on the remainder of the Union – if, indeed, anything remained of the Union at this point – is not spelt out by the Canon:

  • “The powers of the autonomous Scotland would certainly include constitutional matters, and full fiscal autonomy, though much more work needs to be done both on powers and on the implications for the Union.
  • “Links with a reformed Union, probably of a neo-federal nature, would be retained”.

Well, yes, a lot more work does need to be done on the implications for the Union. But that’s not Canon Wright’s concern. Scotland will get it wants, and the rest of the Union will just have to accommodate itself to Scotland’s wishes. As the Canon puts it: “Much can and must be negotiated, but sovereignty is non-negotiable”.

That’s all well and good; but this is not constitutional reform carried out in a way that shows much care either for the complex fabric and history of the UK’s unwritten constitution, nor much concern about the damaging impact on other parts of the Union of piecemeal reform to individual pieces of the jigsaw, motivated by partisan interests, that then loses sight of the bigger picture. This exemplifies the cavalier and short-sighted approach to constitutional reform that has characterised New Labour, and in particular the asymmetric devolution settlement designed to see off the nationalist threat in Labour’s Celtic heartlands without any thought for its impact on England. And I see a danger of more of the same being perpetrated through the Power 2010 initiative: the UK-wide representative assembly and vote will not impinge on the evolving devolution / independence processes in Scotland and Wales; but it will make decisions that affect every aspect of English governance by virtue of the fact that the UK parliament has the ultimate sovereignty over all English affairs. Will UK-parliamentary sovereignty simply be replaced by the sovereignty of the British, not English, people in matters of English governance?

I don’t see anybody in the Power 2010 movement rushing to acknowledge the principle of English popular sovereignty, in parallel to the principle of Scottish popular sovereignty of which Canon Wright is such an eloquent exponent. The reason why they do not embrace such a principle is that it would undermine the Power 2010 movement’s assumption that it can serve as the unified vehicle for a ‘national-British’ popular sovereignty and an integrated reform of the whole UK political system – or, as it puts it, “you, the British public [choosing] the 5 reforms our democracy most desperately needs in a nationwide vote”. So it’s not ‘we the English people’ deciding on the forms of governance best suited to our needs, but ‘we the British public’ once again making decisions on England’s behalf. The choice of the word ‘public’ here makes me think that my earlier comparison of Power 2010’s approach with the process of picking TV talent-show winners through a ‘public vote’ was not altogether misplaced. This is like a talent show of original reform ideas, in which the winners are those that are most ‘popular’ with the British public. But this sort of popularity does not necessarily correspond to a genuine exercise of popular sovereignty by and on behalf of the people (the English) who will be most affected by the decisions; nor does it automatically equate to real merit, as we know only too well from the mediocrity of so many talent-show winners.

So what I fear we will get from Power 2010 is a campaign for UK-wide constitutional reform that is meant to be adequate for England and yet will foster a piecemeal approach that allows Scotland and Wales to continue on their own paths to greater autonomy without considering the coherence of the Union as a whole or the rights of the English people to also exercise their sovereignty. Instead of rushing to come up with five glittering, vote-winning competition ‘finalists’ ahead of the general election, what is needed is a much more joined-up, deliberative approach that genuinely seeks to reconcile the currently opposing national interests and aspirations that otherwise risk breaking the Union apart altogether. If the English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish people that aspire both to greater national autonomy, and to a continuing and revitalised Union inspired by common principles of democracy, solidarity and liberty, are unable to bring together their different national projects and perspectives, then there is no hope for the Union. A sustainable United Kingdom cannot be based on a multi-track, multi-system set-up where the different nations have different degrees of independence from the centre; and where England is governed as the UK, in the interests of the other UK nations, by UK-wide structures that ignore the will of the English people.

For these same reasons, there’s simply no point coming up with a list of the top-five options for constitutional reform if these are not linked in a logical way that sets out a coherent path towards real change. Certain pre-conditions need to be laid out and satisfied in order for the reform process to be genuine and to stand a chance of long-term success. In brief, here is what I would have as such a list of the five most important principles and objectives, without which the whole exercise lacks coherence:

  1. Formal recognition of the fundamental human right of national communities to determine their own form of government (popular sovereignty), and to decide whether they wish to constitute a national community or not
  2. On this basis, a formal process to determine which actually are the national communities of the United Kingdom, including, for instance, a referendum in Cornwall to decide whether Cornwall should be considered as a nation or not; and an even more contentious process for the Northern Irish to decide whether they regard the Province as a nation in its own right. If the people of Ulster chose not to become a nation, the Province could probably be considered as a self-governing British region, which would not be very different in practical terms from being a self-governing British nation
  3. Following this, referendums in each of the UK’s nations about membership of the EU. Based on the possibly divergent results (e.g. England voting ‘no’ and the other nations voting to remain in the EU), recognition that the UK’s nations may need to have separate responsibility for their international relations. The EU question needs to be resolved first, as it sets the parameters for the amount of genuine sovereignty each nation can have over its own affairs
  4. A genuinely multi-nation, cross-UK consultative and deliberative process to establish the core principles of a new written constitution for a new UK state. Creating written constitutions tends to arise when new nations and states are being established; and the process of constitutional reform in the UK should be no different: any written constitution for the UK must set out details regarding the relationships between the UK’s autonomous nations, and between each nation and the UK state
  5. A series of referendums in each of the UK’s nations to decide on the answer to two questions: a) Do you accept the core principles of the proposed new constitution?, and b) Do you wish those principles to apply to a new (con)federal UK or separately to your own nation as an independent state? Such a combination of options allows for a unified constitutional-reform process for all the UK’s nations as well as keeping open the possibility that some or all of them may seek to go their own way, albeit on the basis of common principles worked out in collaboration with their fellow-British nations.

These are the type of fundamental question that any meaningful process of constitutional reform for the UK must deal with if it is to do justice to the divergent and competing interests of the UK’s nations. The alternative is simply to carry on with the same fundamental identity and structure of the British state as it is now, requiring any idea of English popular sovereignty to be suppressed. But this is neither just nor sustainable in the long run, particularly if the other UK nations are allowed to pursue their own destinies and preserve their influence over England via the Union out of increasingly self-interested motives.


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.


Real Change: Britain or England?

Introduction: Deliberations on British-constitutional reform must factor in the national questions

I recently signed up to ‘Real Change‘. This is a grassroots movement that aims to set in motion a nationwide debate, at local level, about fundamental constitutional reform, culminating ultimately in a citizens’ convention to collate and deliberate on all the options, and to come up with proposals for a new written constitution.

This is something that is urgently required in my view, and which I’ve supported in numerous posts on this blog, as the British government and parliament have lost much of their legitimacy as democratic institutions, especially as far as the governance of England is concerned. Real Change also correctly places the emphasis on popular sovereignty, or bottom-up reform: citizens coming together to decide on the ‘form of government best suited to their needs’; as opposed to Parliament-led, top-down reform, in which the Westminster Parliament will inevitably seek to retain its privileges, particularly the notion that it – and only it – is the sovereign authority in the land.

The inevitable question I have about Real Change, though, is whether it is, or should be, predominantly a UK-wide or England-focused movement. At the moment, it is effectively both, in a way that replicates the dual nature of the current Westminster model of governance. Real Change presently articulates its aims in relation to Britain / the UK: the British people forming a nationwide (UK-wide) movement culminating in proposals for a new British constitution, a (British) Bill of Rights and / or a radically re-shaped (British) parliament. But at the same time, unless something is done to rectify the situation, the would-be reformed British political system would also remain the vehicle for the governance of England: the English Question is an integral part of the British-Constitutional Question, whether this is openly acknowledged or not.

My own question about this is in fact twofold: 1) can a unitary, UK-wide process and set of objectives such as Real Change possibly succeed if they do not explicitly, and from their inception, factor in the different debates around and aspirations towards self-government in the various nations of which the UK is composed? 2) are the campaign and movements for reform of the British constitution and parliament not in fact already primarily English movements: made up of English people who think of the present constitution and system of government as essentially theirs and make no fundamental distinction between which bits of the whole edifice are British and which English?

In other words, Real Change is in danger of becoming another Anglo-British movement: believing that it is possible to implement a new unitary-British system of governance that would be the product of ‘British’ popular sovereignty exercised in a consistent and coherent manner across the whole of the UK; and which, indeed, would represent the expression and consolidation of a redefined ‘British nation’. Such concepts are expressions of the traditional English conflation of England and English government with Britain as a whole. It is highly debatable, to say the least, whether a perpetuation of the fuzziness regarding the overlaps between British and English / Scottish / Welsh / Irish [/Cornish] identities (which it has arguably been one of the main purposes of the present constitutional settlement to keep fuzzy) is feasible and acceptable any more, for any of the nations concerned – even for England. Each of the UK’s nations has embarked on an irrevocable process of defining and reaffirming its distinct identity; and this process is inextricably bound up with the search for the appropriate type and degree of national self-rule: the search for the ‘form of government best suited to its needs’.

This search, in England, is still wrapped up for many – including, arguably, for Real Change – in the forms and structures of British government that have evolved out of centuries of English political history, of which they are the continuation today. In other words, the people who conceive of constitutional reform in ‘this country’ in terms of the British constitution and parliament will tend to be English (or at least, Anglo-British) people who have still not dissociated the identities of England and Britain. No such problem for the Scots and Welsh, who view their own conversations regarding the forms of national self-rule they would like to have as quite distinct from – though bound up with – considerations about the British constitution. Surely, at a ‘constitutional moment’ such as this, where we have a unique opportunity to redraw the whole framework defining the relationship between the UK’s nations and its political centre, it is time to separate out those parts of the picture that relate to the government of England from the elements that may still be able to form the basis for a trans-national British system of government of some sort: to set apart the foundations of a new English-national politics and consciousness from those of a completely re-worked ‘United Nations of Britain and Ireland’.

New British Parliament, or separate English and British parliaments?

The pinnacle and centre of the agenda of constitutional and political reform is the demand for fundamental change to the operation, structure and accountability of Parliament. Notice how the word itself, ‘Parliament’, is so often ‘hypostasised’: turned into a sort of Person or legal personality in its own right, rather like the three Persons of the Holy Trinity in Christian doctrine, by means of capitalising the word and treating it grammatically as a personal subject of sentences: ‘Parliament does this’, ‘Parliament intends that’; and, if I’m not mistaken, I’m sure I’ve heard the use of the personal pronoun ‘she’ for Parliament, rather than ‘it’. But the effect of this is also to reinforce the thinking that there is and can be only one Parliament, i.e. the British Parliament which, it is said, is a perfectly adequate vehicle for the government of England, in both senses of the word ‘adequate’: ‘sufficiently good / good enough’ and ‘appropriate / commensurate’ – and this for the fundamental reason that the traditional political identities of Britain and England are merged and are one – like the Holy Trinity, indeed, with ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ being replaced by ‘Britain, England and Parliament’.

Constitutional prescriptions that take the British Parliament as their sole object and prize are therefore bound up in the traditional non-differentiation of Britain and England. But this model and this view of ‘the country’ (a term that is generally deployed to avoid specifying whether one means Britain or England, or to express the ambiguous conflation of the two) have already begun to radically break down, and they cannot be carried forward into a new, remoulded British parliament. Not ‘should not’ be incorporated into a new parliament, but ‘cannot’. It is quite inconceivable, in fact, that a radically new parliament, designed with the express intention of eliminating the democratic deficits and lack of accountability of the present system, should perpetuate the most glaring example of the present system’s injustices: the fact that MPs for non-English constituencies can legislate for England, which they have not been elected to represent; while neither they (nor English MPs) can make legislation or decisions for their own countries in policy areas that have been devolved.

Once a new constitution is written down, it could not possibly embody an asymmetric structure such as this, which is wholly without any justification, either logically or democratically. Indeed, one of the main reasons for not coming up with a written constitution – and some would say one of the benefits of not having one – is that you would have to address anomalies such as this that have arisen as a result of Britain having a constitution that slowly evolves through successive statutes, rather than a single, largely immutable, set of fundamental constitutional principles.

Devolution as introduced by New Labour in 1998 effectively also created a distinct English layer of governance: those areas of responsibility of the UK government that now apply to England only because the devolved administrations deal with the same policy areas for their own countries. A new UK constitution – or, indeed, a constitution for a new kind of UK – would, one would think, have to rationalise and systematise the devolution arrangements: certain areas of government to be carried out by the respective national parliaments and assemblies (including one for England), and the remaining reserved matters to be handled by the new UK parliament. It is unimaginable that a written constitution would seek to set in stone something along the present lines: ‘Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland have their own parliamentary bodies to deal with matters x, y and z; but for England only, the corresponding matters are dealt with in the parliament for the whole of the UK by representatives from Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland alongside English representatives’.

So a new written British constitution and parliamentary framework would have to deal with the English Question and the relationship between the UK’s nations and central government. The most logical and fair solution for England, in this context, would appear to be to create an English parliament to deal with England-only legislation and policy, whatever overall UK framework this was incorporated within: devolution, federation or confederation [and below, I discuss the possibility that a British constitution could devolve power either within or to England but, at the same time, still deny England an identity as a sovereign nation in its own right].

It is still of course possible that the politicians might seek to circumvent the eventuality of an English parliament by promoting a regional model of devolution, as New Labour attempted to do, with regional assemblies in England supposedly serving as an equivalent to the national bodies in the other UK countries: the infamous ‘Britain of nations and regions’ model. But as this very designation implies, this would be just as asymmetric as the present devolution settlement: England only denied nation status and a national representative body. It’s also a highly unpopular idea as the referendum on an assembly for the ‘North East’ region and numerous opinion polls since then have demonstrated beyond all doubt. Therefore, if the constitutional-reform process is genuinely bottom-up and takes account of what English people actually want, the regionalisation of England will be dismissed out of hand.

The kind of radical reform of Parliament that groups like Real Change and others are pressing for cannot therefore avoid thinking about at least the possibility of an English parliament as a means to redress the English democratic deficit; although, given the unionist and Anglo-British habits of thought that still seem to pervade the constitutional-reform movement, attempts will no doubt be made to ‘accommodate’ the England-only tier of governance within a supposedly unitary British parliament; e.g. through some variant of the English Grand Committee model, with English MPs only being permitted to vote on England-only matters. But this is a highly messy compromise solution that certainly would not satisfy very many English voters and would miss the opportunity that a new written constitution presents: that of setting out which parts of government the people of England, Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland [and Cornwall] wish to be handled by separate national parliamentary bodies, and which bits (if any) they wish to pool together in a continuing UK government.

It may not be possible to produce a ‘one size fits all’ solution, with all of the nations having the same degree of autonomy from the centre, and the same set of devolved responsibilities. And the constitutional framework that was devised would need to be flexible enough to accommodate further change, such as popular demand for independence in Scotland or progression towards a united Ireland. Ultimately, in my own mind, I think we are witnessing the slow break-up of the UK into its constituent national parts, one manifestation of which is this very constitutional crisis. But it’s equally possible that this may not be a one-way process that will inevitably destroy any common ‘UK’-wide system of government or pooled sovereignty between the UK’s nations. The most effective way to ensure that this does become a process that shatters the UK beyond repair would be to try to deny it and attempt to perpetuate a unitary framework of government, one of whose pillars then becomes the denial of any distinct English layer of government and even the denial of England’s distinct nationhood. Similarly, and more fundamentally, if constitutional reform is truly to be driven from the grassroots, then the new structure that is put together will need to be the expression of the different nations’ visions for their future and blueprints for their governance. We should not necessarily presuppose that enough common ground can be created to continue with the UK, certainly in its present form. On the other hand, if the ‘nationwide’ process of debating and attempting to reach consensus on constitutional reform in England does not see itself as being part of a process leading to the establishment of a new national-English politics and government, but rather as a ‘British’ process in the old Anglo-British mould, then it will lose the legitimacy it might otherwise have had as an expression of English popular sovereignty.

British sovereignty is parliamentary; English sovereignty is popular

Real Change and the broader movement of which it is a part are bound to consider the English Question not only on the grounds of logic, fairness and democratic accountability, but also out of what might be termed basic structural considerations. By this, I mean, to what notion of sovereignty does the whole constitutional-reform exercise appeal, and on what national foundations is this sovereignty built upon? As I stated at the beginning of this post, the Real Change project appears to presuppose some notion of ‘British popular sovereignty’: the people of the whole of the UK coming together to redefine the terms under which they are governed. But it is far from obvious that the ‘British people’ as such exist as a sovereign nation of this sort. By this, I don’t just mean that British sovereignty has always been defined in terms of the sovereignty of the UK Parliament rather than the sovereignty of the people; but rather that popular sovereignty itself has tended to be conceived of as being the property, if at all, of the various UK nations rather than the British people as some sort of unified collectivity.

This certainly is the case for Scotland, where the principle of popular sovereignty was (in)famously re-stated in the Scottish Constitutional Convention of 1988. This body issued the Scottish Claim of Right, to which I have already alluded in one or two places above, that asserted “the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs”. It is on the basis of this constitutional principle that devolution was enacted, and to which any further extension of devolution or right of Scottish independence effectively appeals.

Insofar as it has historically been constitutionally and politically assimilated to the UK, England has not maintained such a strong tradition of popular sovereignty but has tended to accept the legitimacy of UK-parliamentary sovereignty. But it is nonetheless arguable that the legitimacy of UK-parliamentary sovereignty relies on the more fundamental and historically more enduring principle of English popular sovereignty. Without going into all that history, I would argue that English people – at least, since the English Civil War and the English Bill of Rights – have tended to believe in the proposition that the sovereignty of first the English Parliament and subsequently the British / UK Parliament derived from the democratically expressed sovereign will of the people: the English people, that is. Freedom and democracy, on this view, reside in the free will: that of the people who elect the representatives of their choice; and that of those representatives, the MPs, themselves who, if they are truly to re-present a free nation in parliament (if they are the parliamentary ‘instantiation’ of the people), must also be free to vote as their conscience and free intellects dictate – making them representatives of the people, not mere delegates or party-political pawns. This is the English model of parliamentary democracy that the British Parliament – after the Acts of Union with Scotland in 1707 – took on in its essentials, with the consequence that the English people have always regarded Parliament as still an English parliament in all but name, even though its geographic remit was extended to Scotland and Ireland. That is, UK-parliamentary sovereignty, in the popular imagination of the English, was sovereign by virtue of continuing to express and represent the sovereignty of the free English people.

Devolution introduced a radical break with this, at that time, nearly tercentennial, unwritten set of assumptions; and much of the popular, English sentiment that Parliament has lost its legitimacy and that politicians have lost touch with the people derives, in my view, from this schism whose effects in the national Anglo-British psyche are far-reaching and traumatic, and will ultimately tear apart the unified Anglo-British consciousness itself. Putting this in logical form: if UK-parliamentary sovereignty derived its legitimacy from the popular will, and if the people whose will is in question were the English people, then once Parliament no longer feels it has to reflect the will of the English people, it has lost its legitimacy.

One clear example of this is the West Lothian Question, discussed above: the fact that Parliament believes it can still legislate for England alone despite not being a representative body for England, elected by and accountable to the English people in its decisions on England’s behalf. But in addition to this particularly blatant example of disregard for England as a nation, many of the other examples of Parliament’s assaults on our traditional English liberties can be seen as an expression of the fact that, post-devolution, Parliament has effectively abrogated sovereignty to itself alone, i.e. sovereignty has become divorced from the very wellspring of its legitimacy: the will of the English people. How many of the infringements of our liberty that Parliament has enacted since 1998 would have been accepted by the English people if they had been given the chance to have an informed public debate and vote on them in a referendum: detention without charge; weakening of the principle of innocence until proven guilty; restrictions on jury trials; etc., etc? Probably very few, if any; and the fact that these measures, undermining historic English freedoms, would not have been ratified by the English people is almost the very form and frame through which their illegitimacy is to be viewed and understood.

The point I am making is that the UK parliament has lost its legitimacy because it is no longer a valid English parliament; and the reason why this is so is that parliamentary sovereignty has become divorced from the English popular sovereignty that once informed and supported it. How has this happened, and what is the link with devolution? This is an extremely complex and, as I said, far-reaching and traumatic question. But in essence, what I am saying is that Parliament severed its organic link with popular sovereignty because – as a result or precondition of devolution – it lost its profound identity as the English parliament; and as Parliament ceased to identify with the English nation, so the English nation increasingly no longer sees Parliament as an institution that represents it. Under the unitary system before devolution, Parliament could safely be at once the English parliament and the British parliament: English in its traditions and ground of popular legitimacy; British in its administrative and legislative remit.

After devolution, the ultimate ground of sovereignty throughout the UK could no longer be said or thought to be the will of the English people. Redirecting English popular sovereignty into a separate English parliament similar to the new bodies in Scotland and Wales would have explicitly broken up the long-standing organic identification of the English with Britain and British parliamentary democracy. The fear was that once that Anglo-British national identity had dissolved, so would the Anglo-British parliament and state that depended on it. So, in order to maintain the pretence of a supposedly still unitary British state, run from the Westminster centre, that state had to recast itself as a monolithic Britain / UK whose sovereignty, authority and national identity was conceived as having no fundamental reference to, or dependence on, their traditional foundations: this became British-parliamentary sovereignty as a self-validating thing, not popular English sovereignty as validating Parliament; Britain and Britishness superseding England and Englishness.

More than any other factor, it is this fundamental occulting and suppression of England from the heart of the British state, which the English people previously regarded as their own, that has led to the huge disenchantment with politics felt by the English; whereas polls reveal that Scottish, Welsh and N. Irish people generally feel that devolution has brought more accountable and more effective government to their own nations. This ‘de-anglicisation’ has also been the basis for New Labour’s and Gordon Brown’s efforts to assimilate (English) national identity to (British) citizenship, involving the mobilisation of a huge political and cultural machinery in attempting to reinvent and re-describe everything that has historically been English as ‘British’, and in referring to every governmental and political action that relates to England only as if it affected the whole of the UK – if only by omitting the key fact that it concerns England alone.

Why is English nationality replaced by British citizenship in this way? Because the sovereign will of the English people has been suborned by the British state-in-Parliament, which then becomes the sole founding, sovereign, national entity: the embodiment of the ‘national identity’ of its citizens, indeed. And, as I have just described above, this has manifested itself through a massive project to create a new ‘British Nation’ replacing England. Producing a brand-new written constitution also partakes of this sort of nation building: constitutions make claims concerning the identity and values of the people whose forms of government they are setting out. Constitutions define and create new nations as much as they reflect pre-existing nations. Real Change and its fellows must resist playing into the drive to establish a new, England-denying British Nation – if only because the English people do not want it. But one suspects that many of the advocates of the Real Change movement, initially at least, supported New Labour’s drive to create a New Britain.

New constitution: British or English?

Creating and writing up a constitution involves placing ‘the nation’ on a new foundation, then; if not establishing a new nation altogether. What kind of nation do we want it to be? And, more importantly, do we want the nation to be Britain or England?

This question relates to another fundamental problem that has prevented the UK from formalising its constitution in a single master document: states with written constitutions tend to also consider themselves as nations. The uniqueness of the UK is that it is a state comprising four [or five] national communities: not a nation in its own right but having all the unitary state apparatus and external identity of a nation state. Setting and writing up a ‘British constitution’ potentially establishes the UK as a nation state for the first time. It says: ‘This is what Britain is and who the British are [as a whole]; this is our founding law; this is our system of government; this is what we regard as ‘British rights’ [and responsibilities], etc. In this way, an overarching ‘national-British’ unity would formally and officially subsume the separate national identities, values, legal systems and institutions of the different UK nations, unless the distinct status and sovereignty of those nations were explicitly guaranteed in the constitution. We’d then all be just British. Full stop. Citizenship and nationality united in one kingdom.

No wonder, then, that so many of New Labour’s leading lights and acolytes have supported ideas such as a written constitution and a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. In his recent speech in favour of constitutional reform in the wake of the expenses scandal, Gordon Brown tried to make out that the idea of a BBRR was a response to the ‘public’s’ indignation at what MPs had been getting up to; but it’s been a pet project since the inception of the Brown premiership. Brown even started uttering support for the idea of a written constitution. But you can bet your bottom euro that if such a document ever saw the light of day, this would not so much as include the word ‘England’, other than in the sense of ‘the part of the UK traditionally known as England’ or in the names of ‘British regions’, such as the ‘East of England’ (traditionally, in fact, known as East Anglia – but ‘East England’ confers existence on an entity known as ‘England’, whereas ‘East of England’ is just the easternmost part of a territory commonly referred to as England). Brown’s written constitution would be of the British type I’ve just described: creating a new Nation of Britain on the ruins of ‘England’. And, no doubt, it would all be decided on in a top-down manner by the sovereign British Parliament. Or, if we were offered a referendum, this would doubtless be a choice between the new constitution or the present asymmetric devolution settlement; and the results would not be counted separately in each of the UK nations, in case England voted against but Britain as a whole voted in favour.

But what kind of constitution does Real Change want: British or English? Support for a British constitution – and a preference in general for a de-anglicised ‘Britain’ over either the old anglocentric UK or a new, distinct, self-governing England – is often predicated upon an assumption that ‘British’ identity and values are more progressive, inclusive and universal, whilst ‘English’ identity and values are seen as conservative, ethnically exclusive and insular. The reasons for this cultural trope are many and varied, not the least of them being the general repudiation of the English popular consciousness and identity in the wake of devolution: England being associated as the (formerly) dominant and oppressive national power behind the British Empire and the pre-devolution UK; England, and English popular sovereignty, needing to be denied in order for a new ‘inclusive’ (multi-national, multi-cultural) Britain to emerge.

This sort of dualistic thinking is of course profoundly flawed, stereotypical and insulting (if not on occasions downright (inverted) racist); but it continues to inform much of the thinking about ‘Britain’s’ identity and future not only in government circles but on the part of the ‘chattering classes’: the educated liberal middle class (‘Guardian readers’) and the class from which the ‘political class’ is drawn, who see themselves as the ones best qualified and most entitled to set the direction for the ‘nation’. I have the sense that Real Change is headed up predominantly by people of that sort, although I am conscious that I am stereotyping them in my turn. But what gives me that feeling most of all, apart from personal prejudice, is that Real Change does indeed appear to conceptualise the new constitution towards which it is striving as a British constitution. British constitution; British nationality. Bye bye England.

Am I exaggerating the risk? Possibly, yes. The one guarantee that Real Change will not end up producing proposals for a British constitution that confines the nationhood of England to the dustbin of history is that it is (supposed to be) a genuine process of popular consultation and participation, in which there should in theory be sufficient scope for the merits and demerits of establishing a distinct English-national tier of governance to be properly debated; and, if they are, I can’t see what rational and just alternative could emerge, given that Scottish / Welsh / N. Irish devolution are here to stay and the English are also entitled to a parliament that represents them and speaks on their behalf.

But the stakes are very high because it is not just people’s national identity (and the identity of ‘the nation’) that is at play; but also fundamental philosophical values are typically (and by no means always fairly) aligned with either the British or English side of the equation:

  • Britain: republicanism; secularism; multi-culturalism; liberalism
  • England: monarchy; Christianity; ‘ethnic’-English culture; conservatism.

Of course, this is just another nonsensical example of simplistic oppositional thinking; but the supporters of a republic, of an ‘officially’ non-Christian (disestablished) state, of multi-culturalism and of liberal progressivism do tend in the main to pin their flag to the mast of Britishness rather than Englishness – even though, as a fact, the increasingly secular, anti-monarchical, multi-cultural and liberal society that exemplifies their values is primarily England, rather than, for instance, more socially conservative Wales and less multi-cultural Scotland. Britain is a global consumer brand, and its brand values are ‘secular-liberal-progressive-multicultural’; but the nation that is in danger of being sold out under that brand is England.

Real Change: Time for a new England to come into being

But there doesn’t have to be a stark black-and-white choice between modern, secular Britain and supposedly atavistic, Christian England. However, the choice is between Britain or England. We can debate our values once we know who we are. This is an existential choice as much as it is a constitutional or philosophical choice. Who are we; who and what is our nation; and what do we wish to become?

A choice for Britain is a choice for an Anglo-British past that has gone for ever: the UK is no longer, and can never again become, a unitary state in which British power and institutions rest on the foundation of unerring popular English support. The other nations of the UK have embarked on a journey to discover their own sovereignty and the forms of government best suited to their needs. England alone remains as the rump of the unitary UK, governed not by its own people but by a ‘sovereign’ parliament that no longer needs to command the support of the English people and does not look to it. It is time for England to embark on its own journey, as a sovereign nation, to determine new forms of government for a new era.

Alternatively, another choice for Britain is the choice for a new, homogeneous British nation-state: the stuff of New Labour’s and Gordon Brown’s dreams. This might formalise the present devolution arrangements and institute some form of devolution, regional or local, for ‘England’. But the distinct millennial British nations that so many of us continue to cherish would effectively be a thing of the past: subsumed into a formalised British citizen-nationality. No England, just as in the first type of constitutionalised Britain described in the paragraph above; but also, no Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or Cornwall. Not in the same sense, that is: as sovereign national communities. Sovereignty would reside in the British state and its self-identification with its people.

The real alternative? England. Real Change in England becomes an exercise of English popular sovereignty, in which English people collaborate in working out the forms of government best suited to their needs. This process can then be dovetailed with similar processes and national conversations that are already much further advanced in the UK’s politically more self-aware, because self-governing, nations, as well as with the Real Change and other associated processes as they are rolled out across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. From this process, which is clearly an ongoing, evolutionary one, should emerge distinct views on how each nation wishes to rearrange its constitutional and political affairs. There may just be enough consensus on which aspects of national sovereignty and areas of government to pool together in a new sort of UK; or there may not be. But at least, such a process will be a truly bottom-up one, in which the nations of Britain work out for themselves how they wish to be governed.

Sovereignty belongs to the people and to the nations. We the English people can and should deliberate only on the constitutional arrangements we desire for England. Whether those arrangements also include provisions for joint-British governance, in partnership with our island neighbours, is not ours alone to decide. But we can choose to be a nation in our own right and in our own name: England.

Now that’s what I call Real Change.


Must Our Modern Liberty Be English Liberty?

I’ve been thinking and reading quite a bit recently on the subject of liberty and the national question. This was the topic of a debate at the Convention On Modern Liberty event in London at the weekend. I wasn’t there but I’ve read the interestingly divergent accounts by Gareth Young (who was speaking on behalf of the Campaign For an English Parliament) and Ros Taylor of The Guardian.

The essential question, it seems to me, is as follows: is it necessary for the present-day campaigns in defence of fundamental freedoms in England to define their struggle as a fight for English freedoms? In which case, is the effort to secure ‘modern liberty’ indissociably bound up with the struggle for English self-government?

These questions could seem quite abstract. But it’s important to ask them and seek to answer them if we want to get to the heart of what we’re actually trying to achieve; and who is the ‘we’ that is trying to achieve it. First of all, many of the supporters of the Convention On Modern Liberty would not see themselves as fighting for freedoms in England as such but for British freedoms and their protection from a British state that seems intent on eroding them piece by piece. Whether or not the freedoms in question (things like habeas corpus, trial by jury, innocence till proven guilty, etc. etc.) are seen as English or British (historically, many of them were originally English) is a matter for discussion elsewhere. The Convention is forward-looking (‘modern liberty’) and is engaged in a political struggle in the context of ‘national-UK’ governance in the present. For that reason, it would be tempting to agree that the Convention is a British cause and should not be of particular interest to English nationalists, and should certainly not concern itself with English-national issues.

But such a view presupposes that there is a unified national, political community called Britain, or the UK, whose liberty it is a question of defending; doing so in the name of its people: the British ‘nation’ or ‘people’. While liberty itself is a universal concept, its practical interpretation and implementation take the form of the fundamental laws and constitution of particular nations or states. You could say that the liberty of a free nation is expressed and protected through the particular freedoms and rights that are constitutive of that nation’s state: free nation and state perfectly mirrored in each other; the values and consent of the former articulated in the legal and constitutional principles, and the political institutions, of the latter.

Such a balance between nation and state no longer exists in Britain, if it ever truly did. The asymmetric devolution carried out by New Labour in 1999 introduced, or perhaps rather gave political expression to, a divergence between the nations of Scotland and Wales, on the one hand, and the British state; and between the national identities of Scottish and Welsh people, and their state identity as British citizens. More fundamentally still, it introduced a split at the very heart of the British identity itself between the English nation and the British state: entities which had by and large previously been viewed by most English people as indissolubly fused; the one mirroring the other in the manner of a free nation-state, as described in the previous paragraph.

What this means is that conversations about ‘British liberty’ inevitably become fractured, both as to their object (the way fundamental freedoms are or are not protected by the laws and governance of the British state) and to the ‘subject’ of liberty: the ‘British’ people whose liberty is at stake. Nowadays, when people in England engage in a discussion on liberty in Britain, they’re almost always really referring to the situation in England (or England and Wales), rather than Britain as a whole, in two ways: 1) the legal situation in Scotland is already quite different from that in England and Wales on some issues, such as CCTV surveillance, the keeping of the DNA records of innocent adults and children, and the maintenance of a national database of children, as Gareth Young points out in the article linked to above; 2) more pervasively, when English people (particularly, the liberal middle class) talk about ‘Britain’, they tend to mean ‘England’; but they may continue to say ‘Britain’ rather than ‘England’ even if they’re semi- or fully conscious that the situation and the remedies they’re discussing relate to England only – because ‘Britain’ is the way one refers to England in relation to official matters, the UK state and national governance.

This phenomenon is partly the reflection of the adage that old habits die hard (England may be the nation but Britain is and always has been the state and the ‘country’). But partly, this is also a symptom of the splitting of the old unified English-British identity, one effect of which is that – depending on which side of the debate you align yourself with – either ‘Britain’ or ‘England’ are construed as negative, irrelevant, antiquated and even unreal, while ‘England’ or ‘Britain’ respectively are seen as more positive, inclusive, authentic and modern. Witness Ros Taylor in the Guardian article linked to above attempting to deride appeals to a distinct English identity and tradition as backward-looking, petty (“‘You just have to Google “England” and look at the rubbish out there'”), racist (“Was the presence of another audience member anxious to assert that . . . 100 white women were raped by black men in the United States every day, a clue?”) and irrelevant to a serious, inclusive discussion on modern liberty: “But these [national questions] are a distraction from the convention’s main purpose: to thrash out how much power the state should have over the individual”.

Such views, while being intensely anglophobic and embodying considerable class prejudice, are also predicated on the assumption that discussions centred on the relationship between the [British] state and the [English] individual, by very virtue of their universal and UK-wide purport, do well to bypass the “red herring” of Englishness, as Taylor calls it. But it’s only in England that a debate on national governance and liberty could actually draw a virtual square bracket around the name of the nation whose people is most seriously affected by the encroachments of the state and which is being denied democratic equality with the other nations of the UK. And it’s only in England that one could pretend to have a conversation on civil liberties that could appear to have no ‘national’ character at all, even though – or rather because – it centred on Britain and the British state. The fact that Britain is a state and not really a nation allows the Britologists, as I call them, to have their cake and eat it: to build a new nation of Britain while denying that it really is a nation (because Britain isn’t a nation) but is in fact something ‘above’ mere nationhood: supra-national, multi-cultural, inclusive and universal, like liberty itself.

But this is an illusion and a lie: you can’t have liberty in practice without a political and legal (national-state) context that embodies it in laws, rights and institutions. And that context, for the Britologist (whether campaigner for modern liberty or member of the political establishment), is the UK-Britain. Listen to the way the government describes its own ambitions to conduct a ‘national conversation’ on Britishness, which was its British-sledgehammer-to-crack-an-English-nut response to a petition to set up St. George’s Day as a national holiday in England:

“The ‘Governance of Britain’ Green Paper set out the Government’s commitment to lead an inclusive debate to develop a Statement of Values to help identify what binds us together as a nation.  We will begin an inclusive process of discussion and deliberation across the country, involving roundtable events and online engagement. Central to this will be a Citizens’ Summit – a broadly representative group of around 500 people from across the UK – who will be asked to deliberate and decide the framework for the Statement of Values and make recommendations on its uses” [my emphases].

The government’s approach explicitly links the setting out of a formal and modern statement of British values (including that of liberty, no doubt) with the idea of Britain ‘as a nation’. Now I’m not saying that this approach is in all respects similar to that of the Convention On Modern Liberty, which is setting out a serious critique of the government’s actual performance against those very British values it lays claim to. But these two would-be focuses of a national conversation on civic values do rest on common ground in one very fundamental respect: they centre their objectives around an idea of a ‘modern Britain’, which is somehow more inclusive, more progressive, and a more adequate interpretation of contemporary aspirations to freedom and universal human rights than an approach centred on one particular nation and people: the ‘English’ people. But, of course, the one people whose aspirations to give expression to its own values, identity and commitment to the ideals of liberty that is excluded by all this supra-national inclusiveness is England. And this is carried out in the name of a renewal of fundamental British ideals whose full realisation would effectively involve a re-founding of Britain as a nation. The government’s statement here makes this explicit; but it’s also implicit in the approach of the Britologist campaigners for modern liberty: a new inclusive, liberal Britishness and [virtual] nation-state of Britain is preferred to an antiquated, narrow Englishness. As Ros Taylor writes: “many first- and second-generation immigrants to Britain, like Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, find Britishness a more comfortable concept than Englishness. . . . It is the right to opt out and reject a given identity that many of the campaigners at the convention today prize most. Could English citizenship really bestow that? On current evidence, I doubt it.”

Well, clearly, in Taylor’s view, British citizenship does or should bestow the right and ability to ‘reject a given identity’: rejecting one national identity (Englishness), that is, in favour of another (non-)national identity (Britishness). But the real existential reason why Britishness both is and is not a national identity is precisely that it is the state identity – the citizenship – of English people; a citizenship whose national core (Englishness) has been sucked out of it but which aspires to the cachet and effective status of a nation, even as it despises the idea of nationhood and the very name (England) of that nation itself. You can’t get away from the idea of nationhood and national identity even when – precisely when – discussing universal freedoms and human rights; because those rights are enshrined in national laws and statutes, whether English or British. And it is those national laws and statutes that provide the whole context for the conversation and for the fight for freedom.

Whether those freedoms to which both the liberal intelligentsia and, I would argue, the broader mass of the English population aspire will end up being English or British freedoms (regardless of whether they’re acknowledged as in fact English-only or not) may well be decided by the national conversations on liberty and governance taking place elsewhere in Britain (or, more accurately perhaps, somewhere else than England-Britain): in Scotland and Wales. To return to my theme of a fractured national debate on these matters as they relate to the subject of liberty (the nation or people whose liberty is at issue), there is no reticence or repugnance in Scotland about acknowledging and foregrounding the national dimensions of the tensions between the liberty of the Scottish citizen versus the power of the British state. Look at the programme for the Convention On Modern Liberty event in Glasgow, where all the discussions actually taking place in Glasgow (as opposed to the video feeds from London) were on “aspects of surveillance that are distinctive to Scotland”. Precisely: there are many aspects that are distinctive to Scotland, in contrast to the Britain-centric view from England, which delusionally imagines that everything it describes as British (but is in fact English-only) applies to the whole of Britain. And look at the logo for the Scottish Convention (below), which clearly builds the Saltire into its design – in contrast to the non-nation-specific logo for the English events, with anonymous yellow and purple slashes replacing the Scottish blue shown here:

Of course, the Scottish Convention took / takes place in the context of a more general ‘National Conversation’ on the future of Scotland as a nation: the one organised by the SNP government alongside a broader discussion the people of Scotland themselves are having about their future as a nation, whether inside or outside the Union. In Scotland, it makes absolutely no sense to have a discussion about individual freedom versus state power that leaves out the national dimension. It is, after all, the free, sovereign nation that legitimises the power of the state as the formal expression of the nation’s freedoms (and lawful limits to those freedoms), values and identity. If the British state is perceived as infringing on those freedoms and that national identity – including their expression in the formal institutions of the Scottish government – then this will doubtless increase support in Scotland for a complete break-away from the UK. So these civil-liberties issues are inherently also national questions: the nation – the people – freely confers power to the state, and inherently has the freedom (formalised as a right in foundational statements such as the Scottish Claim of Right) to govern itself as it chooses and not as the state dictates.

And what applies to Scotland – if indeed these principles are to be considered in line with the universal requirements of liberty – must also apply to England. And it does apply to England, as England, in the discussion on these matters that is taking place in England. This is because, as the contrast with the Scotland-centred debate in Scotland demonstrates, the would-be Britain-only debate on liberty that is being carried on in England is one that could happen and is happening only in England. Only in England do we try to obscure and obfuscate the national-English character of the debate about the English individual and nation as (mis)governed by the British state. Only in England do we fail to recognise our future liberty as inherently the liberty of our [English] nation; just as no liberty is possible without a national character.

A failure to acknowledge the necessarily and distinctively English character of our conversation about ‘British’ liberties vitiates the objective of liberty we seek to secure in two fundamental respects: it involves a failure to recognise the inherently national character and expression of any statement on the principles of liberty, equality, justice and democracy that serve as the foundation for a state. And it fails to recognise that in England – a nation that exists and is cherished, still, by the vast majority of its people of all races – that national character of liberty (past, present and future) must be English.

Or else it is nothing. Or else it plays right into the hands of the British government that seeks to control, dictate and impose an ‘official’ state version of our values and national identity (as British), just as it seeks to control and monitor our activities in a host of ways that violate our traditional, English freedoms.

But not just English freedoms, but also universal liberty: because ‘English freedoms’ are the distinctively and, of necessity, national English expression of universal liberty for and in England. If you deny the Englishness of liberty in England, you conspire with the British government’s denial of liberty itself. Along with its denial of England.