Different and better, or same old New Labour

The Labour List blog is currently running a series of articles, produced by party worthies, on the ‘One Nation Labour’ theme recently introduced by Ed Miliband. I submitted a comment on one of the articles yesterday, but it was not published, probably because it rubbished the whole One Nation concept, albeit in – for me – relatively moderate terms, I thought.

The article, by Labour ideologue Lord Glasman, was entitled, ‘Different and Better: How One Nation can work for Labour‘. I reproduce it in full below for convenience, along with my moderate and moderated-out comment:

In order to generate energy and to succeed in opposition it is necessary to have a narrative, a strategy and an organising concept that can give plausibility and coherence to the swelter of initiatives, policies and programmes that swirl around the Westminster Village.

The narrative must tell a story of how we, as a nation got into this mess and how we as a party are an important part of how we will get out of it.

The strategy, both electoral and governmental, concerns the coalition of interests that can champion the change that is required and generate value, the people and the things that will make things different and better.  A plan of action that can grow in time to deliver electoral success and a compelling programme of government.

The organising concept is the idea that selects and shapes the policy and turns it into politics.  An idea that applies to all areas of policy and defines the identity of the party and of the offer they make to the electorate.  This is what Ed Miliband achieved at the last Party Conference with One Nation Labour.

In comparison, the idea of productive and predatory capital is an excellent and a true analytical distinction but it could not organise policy across the range, it gave no guidance concerning welfare reform, or education, constitutional reform or defence policy.  There was a real danger that we would get trapped in the dominant framework inherited from New Labour and intensified by the Coalition Government and engage in an endless and antagonistic exchange concerning faster or slower, higher or lower, more or less, without disputing the direction of travel.

With the emergence of One Nation however, the organising concept has been established.  It commits Labour to a politics of the Common Good.  In all areas of policy, estranged and divided part of our Nation: capital and labour, north and south, immigrants and locals, men and women, secular and religious need to be brought together in order to generate greater value.  It is different from what went before because no one interest dominates civic, political or economic life but all of these require people to come together and make things better.

Labour was founded in order to demand recognition by those who worked, as part of one nation.  There was no wish to dominate but to remind the rich and the powerful that workers were part of the nation, that they had interests and considered themselves a necessary part of the common good.  That argument needs to be made again for one of the things that is different about the One Nation position is its recognition of labour as a source of value, the Labour theory of value.  Innovation is generated by people with experience and expertise who understand the new technology and can work within it.

This in itself is a radical breakthrough because now we need to have a real conversation with the Unions not about what the Party can do for them, or even what they can do for the party, but what they can do to make things better.  How are Unions to be partners in generating value, honouring good work, defending labour as a necessary partner to capital and technology in the production process?  Do they champion changes in corporate governance so that the workforce is represented on boards?  That should be an important part of One Nation agenda, and one that Disraeli and Burke could not ever accept.  Anyone and anything other than Labour constituted the diverse ecology of the Nation.  We are here to correct that mistake and One Nation Labour does that.

But it is not limited to corporate governance reform on the private sector.  The same applies to the public sector.  How is the workforce, along with funders and users going to make the way we care and look after each other better.  It suggests a move from the contractual to the Covenantal.  We trust each other with the care of our children and our parents and we need to honour those who do that well, but we also need a way of dealing with those that don’t.  One Nation is a demanding category.  Vocational renewal is a double edged sword, it requires quality and equality and we need to be resolute in the pursuit of both.

It goes into making capital available to regions and to break the grip on internal investment by the same failed banking institutions.  Regional banks which serve local markets and businesses draw attention to our reliance on the financial sector and the need for an economy that works on dry land.  The lack of private sector growth in the regional economies outside finance and property is a great concern and One Nation makes the people of those regions part of the nation once more.

It enables us to talk about Land Reform and Community Land Trusts as a way of including people in the property owning democracy by transferring the freehold asset to communities.  In housing that means that the price is halved and there can be a genuine and affordable house building programme.  It is also applicable to Dover Port for example and offers an alternative to privatisation and nationalisation that works in the interests of all the people of Dover and brings capital, labour and the town together in a common concern for its flourishing.

One Nation is both a radical and a conservative idea and that is why it works.  It retrieves a tradition from within our nation history and through it generate greater solidarity and inclusion. Labour, in recent years, has shown a tremendous respect for diversity and pluralism.  This is greatly to our benefit and it was right to do so.  What was missing was a balance, an account of how that diversity can generate better forms of the common life, of how it could nourish and sustain the common good.  One Nation Labour corrects that imbalance.

Ed Miliband has retrieved, from what his Dad might have called the ‘dustbin of history’ a great gift to his party.  In order to live and grow it must be supported and cared for by many hands.  It offers the possibility of great years ahead.

And my comment:

‘One Nation’ will be an incoherent and useless slogan for Labour so long as the party fails to develop a narrative of that nation’s identity. Britain is increasingly not one nation, but three nations (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) plus another nation (England) that the party and the political establishment in general refuse to acknowledge: England.

‘One Nation’ Labour, and indeed Britain, will be deliverable and feasible only if Labour does articulate a narrative for the whole of the UK: what is the relationship between the devolved nations and England; what can Labour do for and in each; what is the relationship between reserved and devolved – and hence English – policy areas? Can Labour bring itself to articulate a vision for England? If not, what will reform of health, education, housing and social-care policy actually mean, as a Labour UK government’s powers in these areas will in fact be restricted to England, even if Labour refuses to acknowledge and articulate that fact.

One Nation is meaningless so long as the one nation to which it applies in full – England – is the one nation Labour cannot bring itself to value and envision. Simply balkanising England into a series of economic-development regions, as Lord Glasman is proposing here, will not do it.

Fair comment, I thought. The One Nation concept is completely bonkers as applied to the UK as a whole, because no UK government of any hue can any longer develop a fully joined-up agenda for the whole UK that unites social and economic policy, as social policy has been devolved whereas economic and fiscal policy, in the main, remains reserved. In fact, the only nation for which Labour or any party could develop an all-embracing policy vision is England, because it’s only for England that the UK government has maintained control over all of the policy levers.

In essence, the One Nation concept involves an outmoded idea of Britain as a unified nation and polity that Labour itself gave away via the Scottish and Welsh devolution settlements in 1998. But Labour won’t acknowledge that reality, and they steadfastly refuse to acknowledge England as the only nation they could now fully mould in Labour’s image if they were minded to do so. There are many reasons for this, such as political expediency and left-wing anglophobia. But the consequence of this wilful blindness on Labour’s part is that their concept of One Nation is ultimately a sheer fantasy Britain that has absolutely no credibility whatsoever as a vision for the ‘nation’ because it doesn’t even correctly articulate and take account of the actual identity of the nation – England – for which it could be implemented.

Ultimately, One Nation Labour, just like New Labour before it, washes its hands of the social realities of the only nation, England, to which the One Nation vision could ever apply. It’s a mere blueprint for a more economically vibrant and prosperous ‘Britain’, which involves balkanising England into unwanted British economic-development regions, and refuses to articulate any coherent, comprehensive model for a new English civic society: for the way in which we in England can best organise ourselves to deliver the best education, health care, public services and environment for our country that we can. Labour can’t answer those questions, because it’s not even asking them in realistic terms that can be engaged with. In the end, One Nation Britain is meaningless as a vision for England because nothing valuable can ever be done for England by a party that doesn’t love England, and doesn’t value her and her people in themselves. The one nation that has no place in One Nation Labour Britain is England.

The nightmare scenario: United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland

In answer to the speculation in my last post about what the new United Kingdom, following Scottish independence, would be called, maybe we’d be looking at the nightmare scenario of a ‘United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland’, instead of a possible ‘United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’.

The Union establishment will do anything in its power – and anything, in fact, exceeding its rightful powers, as I suggested in the previous post – to maintain its pretension to be the heir and continuation of imperial Britain, with all its supposed international prestige and ability to ‘punch above our weight’. As I argued, the new UK could no longer call itself the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’, as Great Britain would be dissolved by Scottish independence. However, there’s no theoretical reason why ‘Great Britain’ couldn’t be replaced by ‘Britain’ in the official name of the state. After all, Roman ‘Britannia’ comprised basically England and Wales, and referring to all the territories that in fact form part of the pre-Union Kingdom of England as ‘Britain’ at least gets over the clumsiness of an alternative comprehensive designation of the state as ‘the United Kingdom of England, Wales, [Cornwall], Northern Ireland and the Crown Dependencies’. The possibility of that latter title, of course, would result from the awkward question of Cornwall’s status being raised, which can be glossed over if all the British parts of the new state are simply and indiscriminately dubbed ‘Britain’. Plus it would allow ‘Britain’ to continue to exist as a more historically and politically resonant synonym for the state’s legal personality and brand in international affairs and commerce than ‘the UK’.

All the more reason, then, why the English people should demand a say in the new constitutional settlement resulting from Scottish independence. We must be offered the choice as to whether we consent to England continuing to be subsumed within a would-be British nation, and whether we are content for the name of ‘England’ to still be excluded from the name of the state of which we are citizens.

English parliament

England won’t win till its players know the meaning of ‘playing for your country’

On Saturday, I fantasised about the idea that Divine Providence might somehow have decreed that it would be England’s turn to lift the cup at South Africa 2010! So much for all that, then.

What sort of providential reading can I make of England’s 4-1 drubbing (correction, 4-2 drubbing) at the hands, or rather feet, of our greatest adversary? Well, I guess it wasn’t meant to be, as they say. But if you believe in Providence – the idea that everything that happens in our lives is the manifestation of a divine ordinance that ultimately works to the benefit of all – then another way of saying the same thing is that it was meant to be: it was our turn to lose, again, and the Germans’ turn to win.

The Germans have been gracious in victory – rather more than the English popular press has been magnanimous in defeat. And perhaps their ability to accept victory modestly, and the unwillingness of many in the public eye in England to accept defeat without blaming others, provide the moral justification for the Germans to have won the tie at all, even if the match did turn on a moment of injustice.

What sort of just God, one might ask, would allow the travesty of England’s disallowed second goal, when the ball was a foot or more over the goal line as everyone watching around the world could plainly see? Well, not everything that appears unjust to us is God’s fault, nor does it appear unjust to everyone. God allows ‘human error’, and that was evident in spades yesterday; and, after all, it’s FIFA president Sepp Blatter who’s put up a one-man defence against introducing goal-line technology, not God. Perhaps God, who was also watching the match, was sending us and Sepp Blatter a little message about the absurdity of not using the technology and common sense at our disposal.

And the Germans certainly seem to be viewing the disallowed goal as ‘justice’, albeit of the poetic, providential kind: as pay-back for Geoff Hurst’s second goal in the 1966 World Cup final that did not cross the line, according to them, but was allowed all the same, and which provided a crucial turning point in the match, which we went on to win. A 4-1 win for Germany (actually, 4-2, as we all saw) in apparently unjust circumstances to reverse that previous 4-2 win for England that equally appeared to turn – depending on your point of view – on an injustice.

It would be almost impossible not to see the ‘hand of God’ in such an ironic twist of fate, or Providence. Yes, the hand of God can reveal itself through a refereeing error and the act of cheating of a football genius, especially if the right and best team still wins at the end of the day, as Germany did yesterday.

Will two wrongs now make a right? Have old scores finally been settled, and are we now even – level on aggregate, so to speak? Can we get over 44 years of hurt alongside the wounds of the present?

These are the questions yesterday’s game is asking of us at a moral level, or that God is asking us through yesterday’s events. If football, in the words of the legendary Bill Shankley, is more important than life and death, what do we do when we pick up the threads of our collective life as a nation once the football and the shouting are over? What lessons if any can we, the English nation, learn from our failings on the football field?

Well, it seems to me, the two things our players lacked most of all, apart from cohesive team work and a coherent game plan, was passion for the country and the will to win. Passion and determination cover a lot of footballing sins and have often carried the England side through gruelling World Cup duels in the past. They briefly flared up in the ten-minute spell when England scored twice (but only once officially) at the end of the first half, but we did not maintain that spirit in the second half.

The players in our national side often say they feel it is an honour to put on the shirt and wear the Three Lions on their breast. Yes, it is an honour – but it’s an honour that has to be earned by the manner in which the wearer conducts himself on the playing field and is not something to which that footballer is somehow entitled through the mere fact of having been selected to represent the nation.

Our footballers need to learn what it means to play for England. This isn’t just some feather in their collection of international caps: something that merely enhances their CV of footballing accomplishments, and boosts their egos and bank accounts. It’s something that confers duty and a serious responsibility: to play for the country and not just for themselves and their personal roll call of success.

If our players really believed in their hearts that ‘England expects each man to do his duty’, then there’d be no such lily-livered, spineless performances again: every man would genuinely give their utmost, and focus every thought and strain every sinew towards the task of winning for the sake of the devoted England fans in the stadium and all their compatriots back home.

But you can’t blame the players alone. In a way, they merely reflect England’s national malaise. It’s not just our footballers who lack ambition for the country, it’s the country itself that shies away from greatness. We can’t expect our footballing ambassadors to project pride in the English nation and to demonstrate the unwavering will to win if the English at large do not have the will to be a great nation and to win on the world stage.

It’s nobody’s fault – least of all, God’s – that it has come to this for England: ignominy on the greatest stage on earth, and a political and liberal establishment at home that despises the very concept of the English nation, let alone the idea of taking pride in it. But if the England team is going to be restored to the position of pre-eminence that was once rightly its own – dodgy extra-time goal notwithstanding – then this will have to be the consequence of a collective reawakening of English self-belief and a restructuring of the game of football in its home country so that players, fans and lovers of England alike unite around the common task of making the national team a statement of collective pride in England and all it has to offer to the world.

We need now to stop looking back nostalgically to a golden age of the past, which only allows us to wallow complacently in the inadequacies of the present. We need to focus on a planned future of success: not for the FA, not for Wayne Rooney, and not for the hundred and one corporate sponsors – but for the country.

Bill Shankley was right: football could mean life or death for England – the nation that invented it and whose very identity it is so central to. And if football is ever to come home to England, and the Three Lions that never roared are to be shaken from their slumber, then the whole country must back the changes required and make it clear what we expect of those who play in our name.

And if that happens, then yesterday’s disappointment may well have served its purpose.

What does the Cross of St. George say about England?

There has been much ink spilt and HTML spewed about the patriotic displays of the Cross of St. George, which we see fluttering from houses and cars across the land at World Cup time. Most of this has focused on what you could call the sociological significance of the nation’s flag: whether it betokens a new, benign, inclusive nationalism; a harmless, football-focused patriotism; or a disturbing manifestation of xenophobic nationalism owing to the flag’s alleged, but in my view mistaken, association to far-right, racist movements.

I am not going to adopt the sociological approach here but rather carry out a semantic analysis. This asks: what does the Cross of St. George, as a visual symbol and icon for England, make us think, consciously or subconsciously, about England and the English?

First and foremost, it seems to me, the Cross is a reference to England’s Christian legacy: the reason why St. George’s symbol is a cross is that it refers to the Cross of Christ. The Cross of St. George is, therefore, a visual statement of the fact that England is historically a Christian country, rather than a secular state like France or many other European republics that do not include crosses on their national flags. For many, of course, including myself, England remains a Christian country – which doesn’t mean it can’t also tolerate a plurality of other religions and philosophies, including Islam, so long as that religion’s proponents do not seek to impose their views on the rest of society.

The reason why the reference to Islam is so important is that the Cross of St. George is also associated with the medieval Crusades that sought to expel the Muslims from the Holy Land. We in our turn may wish to build our own New Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land – but this must be an enlightened society that turns its back on the religious intolerance and prejudices of our medieval past, while nonetheless remaining proud of all that is good and true in our tradition.

Apart from the association to the Crusades and a battling English past, the fact that the Cross itself is red in colour contributes to the fear it provokes in some. As I have written elsewhere, red is the colour of violence owing to its association with blood; and this tie with blood may also be a reason why British-liberals erroneously think of the Flag as a token of violent English-British ethnic nationalism. But the red cross is also associated with the Blood of the Cross: the blood shed by Christ in order to save humanity.

This link with the idea of saving, safeguarding and defending life is one of the reasons why the Red Cross was adopted as the symbol for the humanitarian organisation of the same name. And while the red cross embodies a specifically Christian association, the link between ‘red’ and ‘saving life’ is also intrinsic to the connection between ‘red’ and ‘blood’: blood is essential for life, so it is ambiguously associated both with violent destruction of life and with preserving life, and all that is most precious and sacred in life – just as the death of Christ (i.e. Life itself), in Christian belief, paradoxically saves all life.

In the specific English context, then, it seems to me that the Cross testifies to the willingness of English people to fight the good fight in order to safeguard and protect the lives of other English people, and to save Christian England itself. And that combativeness implies both a determination to spill the blood of England’s enemies and a willingness to sacrifice one’s own life in defence of the lives of loved-ones, and for the sake of England.

But these associations to violence in the cause of Right and of country are against the background of white, with its associations to peace and non-aggression – so much so that the white flag is of course the sign of surrender. You might say that the superimposition of the red cross on the white flag signifies ‘no surrender’ – but equally, it betokens the fact that, at heart, the English are a placid, peace-loving people: preferring nothing so much as the quiet enjoyment of their homes and gardens, or the more gregarious, social and essentially peaceful past-times of going down to the pub, sport, trade and shopping.

So the blood-red cross on the white background says that the English will fight to the death if necessary to preserve what they have and who they are – but that they’d rather co-exist peacefully and tolerantly with other peoples, and take part in sporting and economic competition with them rather than fight them on the battlefield. And that’s one of the reasons why the Cross of St. George is such a fitting and potent symbol for English sporting teams: it points to the role of sport as channelling nationalist aggression into peaceful competition between nations on an increasingly global scale, which is in fact one of the great legacies that England (the inventor of so many of the world’s great sports) has bequeathed to the world.

Many people would reject this assertion that the English are essentially peace-loving, pointing to our imperial past and violent subjugation of our Celtic island neighbours. While I’m not denying that the English have a violent streak, I would say that they are by no means unique or even the worst in that respect, certainly among the nations of Europe. But that would be missing the point I’m making: the important thing is not whether a country or people is violent (ultimately, all human beings are capable of violence) but what they do with that aggression and what values they promote around it. And I would say that it is the British flag, more than the Cross of St. George, that actually celebrates the aggression that English and British armies and colonialists have wrought upon other nations. It is, after all, the flag of the British Empire and so the symbol of British-imperial domination.

By contrast, the fact that it is the Cross of St. George rather than the Union Flag that English people have now espoused as their national flag symbolises the fact that the English have disengaged their national identity from the British Empire and, in its latter-day incarnation, the British Crown and state. We are content now to be ‘merely’ England and not all-conquering Great Britain – which means we can now celebrate England and Englishness for and in themselves, and not as a glorification of conquest and power. So while the red Cross of St. George proudly proclaims our willingness to fight for our country, this fight is no longer an imperial war of conquest but rather a defence of all that we hold to be precious, indeed sacred, about our land and its people; and of all that we have contributed to the culture and economy of the world at large.

I have a theory, based in a faith in Providence, that the country that wins the World Cup is in some way the most fitting one to do so at that time: that there’s a kind of poetic and divine justice that manifests itself in footballing glory. I think it was symbolically fitting and ‘just’, for instance, that the French won the World Cup in 1998 in their own country, having been arguably robbed of a deserved crown by bruising semi-finals with West Germany in 1982 and 1986. Similarly, it was right that Brazil won in 2002, as they were the only team whose world class was not in doubt, and this was a just recognition of the merit of players such as Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, and the fact that – but for Ronaldo’s nervous crisis on the day of the final – Brazil really deserved to win in 1998, based on footballing merit. Italy’s triumph last time was perhaps providentially decreed to ‘save’ the beautiful game in the country that is one of its leading exponents, engrossed as Italy was at that time in scandals around corruption by leading club officials.

Is 2010 perhaps England’s turn for a providentially fitting triumph: a token of divine blessing for a new peaceful, non-violent and inclusive English nation; and a victory that in itself would help to accelerate the formation of a new England: a country that is proud of all that it has contributed to the world – particularly, the game of football itself – recognised as a stand-alone nation in its own right and no longer symbiotically confused with Britain?

Such is the stuff of dreams – but of that is football made. Maybe that dream will flounder against the rocky realities of iron German determination or fiery, England-hating Argentinian passion. But then there’s always the World Cup in England, in 2018 . . ..

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.

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.