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.
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