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.

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What’s missing?

The BBC has published a helpful word cloud for Ed Miliband’s keynote speech as new leader at the Labour Party conference. Here it is:

What word is missing? This passage will give you a clue:

“The old thinking told us that for 300 years, the choice was either the break-up of the United Kingdom or Scotland and Wales run from London. We should be proud that Labour established the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. And we should make sure that after next May’s elections we re-elect Carwyn Jones as the First Minister in Wales and we elect Iain Gray as the new First Minister in Scotland. And I am so so proud that, against all the odds, we helped deliver peace in Northern Ireland”.

I bet you’re asking, “What about . . .?”. Yes, that’s the missing word. Doesn’t appear once in the whole speech.

New Labour may (perhaps) be dead and buried, thank goodness. But the New Labour dictum that the best way to answer the English question is not to ask it is alive and well!

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.

Could a vote for the BNP be a good thing?

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not a BNP supporter. I despise their racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia. However, I agree with some of their key policies: restrictions to immigration, withdrawal of the UK from the EU, withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, and more accountable local and regional democracy. Yes, those last two items are official policies.

For the former reasons, I would not vote BNP. For the latter, I would not be unhappy to see them doing reasonably well at the general election. What would constitute ‘doing reasonably well’, for the BNP? An article on the BNP website discusses the opinion polls conducted since last week’s appearance of BNP leader Nick Griffin on the BBC1 Question Time political discussion show. It cites the YouGov poll in the Daily Telegraph, which “found that 22 percent of voters would ‘seriously consider’ voting for the BNP in a future local, general or European election. This included four percent who said they would ‘definitely’ consider voting for the party, three percent who would ‘probably’ consider it, and 15 percent who said they were ‘possible’ BNP voters”. In reality, if the party managed to convert the equivalent of all of the ‘definites’ and ‘probables’ into actual votes – making 7% of the vote in the UK general election – they would probably regard that as a considerable achievement, given that they obtained ‘only’ 6.2% of the vote at this year’s European Parliament elections, which tend to produce more support for minor parties than general elections. Nonetheless, according to the same BNP article, an ICM poll last weekend indicated that “54 percent of voters say there are too many immigrants” and that “43 percent . . . said that, while they shared some of [the BNP’s] concerns, they had ‘no sympathy for the party itself'” – which goes for me, I guess.

What would be achieved by a 7% BNP vote at the general election? Well, this would scare the liberal establishment so much that the incoming government – probably led by David Cameron – would have to do far more than is presently being done to stem the flow of net immigration (let alone, overall population growth), currently running at around 237,000 per year. Secondly, the new government would be under no illusion that it needed to address people’s concerns about the ceding of UK sovereignty to the EU; and if this is a Tory government, it would be more difficult for them to avoid giving us a referendum of some sort on the Lisbon Treaty, even if it has already been ratified, which will probably be the case.

I say if this is a Tory government, because a 7% vote for the BNP might help to bring about a hung parliament – but only if the BNP derives enough of its support from people who would otherwise have voted Conservative, thereby reducing the Tories’ margin of victory and making it less likely for them to win an outright majority. However, at the moment, the BNP appears to be gaining most of its support from disaffected white working-class Labour voters who, quite understandably, feel the Labour government has failed to look after their interests. If a substantial BNP vote serves to reduce still further Labour’s share of the vote at the election, this could turn the tables in favour of a Tory victory.

Personally, a hung parliament would be my preferred election result; so I’m hoping that increasing support for the BNP will somehow help bring this about. Given the absurdities of our electoral system, anything’s possible. Why do I want a hung parliament? This is because it offers the best prospect for constitutional and parliamentary reform. The mere fact of a hung parliament could create something of a constitutional crisis, as there are no hard and fast constitutional rules for dealing with such a situation in the UK; although the precedent is that the queen should ask the leader of the largest party to form a government. Imagine a situation in which the Tories were the largest party but did not have a majority, and in which Gordon Brown refused to resign (as Edward Heath did in 1974) until he’d attempted to build a coalition government. Given how he’s desperately clung to power for so long, you would almost expect him to behave in this way.

Regardless of whether the end result were a Tory- or Labour-led coalition or minority government, the Liberal Democrats would end up holding the balance of power. And unlike either the Tories or Labour, the Lib Dems are genuinely committed to constitutional reform – if not specific proposals for English self-government – including the idea of holding a constitutional convention to come up with the blueprint for a written constitution. It’s debatable how much of this agenda they’d be able to push through in the circumstances of a hung parliament; but at least, there’d be more possibility of movement than under majority Conservative or Labour governments.

However, even if the election results in a majority Conservative government, a large vote for the BNP would probably advance the constitutional-reform agenda. This is again because it would scare the main parties and would be seen as a reflection of people’s disenchantment with mainstream politics and with Parliament. Ironically, then, a strong showing by the racist BNP could become one of the most powerful voices for democratic reform, and the need to make government more accountable to and representative of the concerns and wishes of the people. This is a huge paradox and is to the great shame of the self-serving political elite.

So I won’t be voting BNP at the general election; but, though I find their racial politics abhorrent, I hope they do quite well. The establishment needs the kind of kick in the teeth that perhaps only the thuggish BNP are in a position to deliver. And if, in the eventual shake-up, we get an English parliament, that will be an outcome that I personally will be delighted by – even if neither the establishment nor the BNP will be.

The Labour Party will never fulfil its calling with Gordon Brown at the helm

This article is cross-posted from Labour Home. Accordingly, it is orientated towards Labour Party members and sympathisers. I am not myself a member of the Labour Party. But I would like to see the Labour Party evolving into a movement focused on the needs of English society and people, which it has clearly failed to be during the New Labour period:

When New Labour came into power in 1997, it had huge ambitions to reform and invest in public services and the social-security system. In the event, much of that investment was indeed put in. Many improvements have been made to public services; the benefits system is now more tailored to the needs of the most disadvantaged sections of British society, while also offering more incentives and assistance for people to get back into employment; and the minimum wage was a long overdue reform that has helped end much of the wage exploitation of the Tory years.

And yet, in the present fin de régime atmosphere, it is hard to escape the feeling that Labour could and should have done much more given the broad centre-left consensus that swept it into power with such huge majorities in 1997 and 2001. Similarly, if Labour were re-elected next year – which hardly anybody in the real world regards as likely – would the Party have the ideas and vision to bring genuine progressive change and renewal to the country? Indeed, the apparent absence of any coherent and credible vision going forward is the main reason why the default option of a Cameron-led Tory government is the one the British (or rather, English) electorate is likely to choose.

One of the main reasons why Labour has failed to deliver an agenda of radical, popular socio-economic reform for Britain as a whole is that it spent half of its first term in office dismantling the governmental apparatus necessary to achieve it. Having, for once, secured a comfortable parliamentary majority across the whole of Great Britain – England as well as Scotland and Wales – Labour set about devolving responsibility in all social-policy areas apart from social security to separate administrations in Scotland and Wales. Doubtless, the Party expected to be able to continue to rule Scotland and Wales as its fiefdoms: exercising control over policy from London and being elected into power in perpetuity, having ‘seen off’ the nationalist threat through devolution. But it has not worked out that way, as we know, making it increasingly problematic to formulate and implement genuinely Britain-wide social policy.

The Labour government did, however, retain responsibility in England for areas such as education, health, local government, justice, transport, housing and planning: all key planks in any potential social-democratic programme of national social and economic development. But Labour has shown itself to be unable and unwilling to transform itself into a progressive movement and government for England. The Party is unionist in its traditions and outlook, and is rooted in ideas of UK-wide, or at least Britain-wide, social solidarity and the exercise of centralised power in pursuit of a common, ‘national-British’ social agenda. But post-devolution – or, at least, after asymmetric devolution as introduced by New Labour – it is no longer possible to deliver a consistent set of social policies for the whole of Britain directed from the Westminster centre. And Labour has failed either to adjust its vision of ‘the country’ for which it is in a position to pursue a progressive agenda, or to adapt its methods to the new realities of life at Westminster, which are that only some of the levers of power are now effective across the UK, while most social policy relates to England only.

So if the Labour government has not succeeded in carrying through a joined-up programme of progressive social reform for the country, this is because the ‘country’, in the social-policy area, has changed from Great Britain to England; and because Labour did not want to be a government for England only. The Labour-led coalitions in Scotland and Wales (up to 2007) were able to pursue traditional social-democratic agendas not only because they had a genuine electoral mandate to do so, but because the very rationale of the Scottish Executive and Welsh Assembly Government is to develop and execute social policy for those countries (and also, it has to be said, because they enjoyed very generous funding arrangements, arguably at England’s expense). By contrast, the Labour UK government and the Whitehall establishment have held on to the view that it is their job to be a government for ‘Britain’, and not to develop and implement a distinct social agenda for England, for which they do not in any case have any electoral mandate. Consequently, Labour’s agenda has been driven by the areas of government for which its responsibilities have remained genuinely Britain-wide: the economy; benefits and social security; defence; and foreign affairs.

In particular, under New Labour, social policy (in England, that is) has been subordinate to economics; or, put another way, in the Whitehall corridors of power, departments whose responsibilities are now limited largely or exclusively to social-policy areas relating to England only have been subordinate to the big, cross-UK-power-wielding departments such as the Treasury, the DTI (and subsequently, BERR) and the DWP. In part a consequence, and in part a cause, of this governmental prioritising of (UK) economics over (English) social policy, New Labour’s very ideology, as expressed in its management of the economy and its direction of social policy in England, was based on an economic model of society itself, rather than a model of society of which the world of economics and work is seen as an expression and support. In essence, New Labour viewed a progressive society in terms of an efficient market economy: the more efficient and productive the economy, the more integrated and wealthy is society as a whole, as people are enabled to participate to an ever greater extent in society-as-a-market. This means that, in theory, people can fulfil their aspirations to self-improvement and social mobility at the same time as working to improve the efficiency and productivity of the economy – with the circle squared through the idea that a true market should naturally develop products and services that a society needs; so that economic growth, and ever greater social inclusion, opportunity and wealth creation / distribution are co-terminous.

It is this ideology that has underpinned New Labour’s reforms of education and the NHS in England. In essence, these have involved introducing ever more market mechanisms, not only through direct investment by business into the public education and health systems in England (e.g. in the form of academy schools or PPPs to construct and run new hospitals), but also through the setting up of internal education and health-care markets. These have involved individual schools, universities and hospital trusts competing for public and private funding, and for the best staff; and the use of centrally imposed targets to replace the profit motive in driving efficiency savings (often involving privatisation, contracting out or even total elimination of ancillary services) and performance improvements. But performance has tended to be measured largely in quantitative terms, e.g. based on exam results in the educational context, rather than how the schools contribute to building up and maintaining cohesive communities, and developing happy, rounded individuals equipped to go out and help make a better country: a better England, that is.

Indeed, Labour has lost sight of the country for which it is equipped, in government, to shape a better future. This is not Britain any more, but England; although, of course, in the present lop-sided condition of the UK’s constitution, any would-be government for England would also be the UK government and would have to operate within a dual- or even triple-focused framework: developing a socio-economic vision for England while looking towards the strategic and economic interests of the UK as a whole, and also trying to co-ordinate economic policy for the UK with the varying social policies of the devolved administrations. It is arguable whether such a system could ever work, either in the sense of delivering social policy that really addresses the needs of the English people, or in terms of its asymmetry and democratic discrimination towards England: refusing to allow the English people the same democratic input to social and economic policy for their country as is afforded to the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish.

But one thing that is clear is that Labour will not reverse the steady erosion of its support from both the middle class and its core working-class constituency in England unless it can transform itself into a progressive party for England. That means facing up to the fact that the old unitary Britain for which Labour used to be able to implement holistic, nationwide social policies no longer exists – by Labour’s own actions. But there is a whole country out there – England – that is crying out for better education, health care, social care, and more cohesive and less crime-ridden communities, and which needs a strong Labour Party to speak out for it, and offer a more hopeful and egalitarian vision of society than the discredited market-centric ideology of Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron.

But this is never going to happen with Gordon Brown as Labour’s leader. Irrespective of whether the Party has now come round to the view that there’s no alternative to Brown as leader until the general election, he has to go if Labour is to assume its moral responsibility as the socially progressive party for England. This is not purely because Brown is Scottish and represents a Scottish constituency, with the consequent problem for democracy that many of the policies implemented by the government he leads do not affect his constituents but do affect people who can’t vote him out. The real problem is that Brown quintessentially represents the denial of the post-devolution truth that most social policy for which UK governments are responsible relate to England only, not Britain. Brown takes flight from this reality into an economics- and world affairs-centric ‘Britain’. Everything is only ‘Britain’ for Brown, even what is in reality England only. Just listen to his keynote speech at the Party conference this afternoon. I guarantee that it will be a litany of ‘Britain, Britain, Britain’, even though over half of it will effectively relate to England alone, including the reported emphasis it will place on anti-social behaviour and crime (well, that relates to Wales as well as England, but not ‘Britain’).

All this talk of ‘Britain, Britain, Britain’ increasingly rings hollow and no longer chimes with voters in England. And that’s because it actually isn’t real: social policies as carried out by UK governments are not British but English. And if they’re not real, how can they also be realistic and joined up: not just isolated reforms introducing even more market-orientated mechanisms into English social services, but part of an integrated vision for England’s future offered honestly and openly as such to the English people, and enlisting their ideas, participation and support? A true popular, progressive movement, in short.

Indeed, ultimately, all this incessant intoning of ‘Britain’ is an insult to the people of England: insulting their intelligence (because increasing numbers of English people realise that the present Labour government can’t and won’t deliver an integrated socio-economic plan for England), and insulting their national pride – shoving ‘Britain’ down their throats in a denial of England’s very nationhood. And this is because Brown’s British obsession expresses more than merely a denial of the contemporary national-political realities, but an actual pathological aversion towards the very idea of ‘England’. The man can hardly bring himself to utter the ‘E’ word, even though he’s effectively the English First Minister. But the English people are not going to vote for an England-hating Scot for PM at the next election. Sorry, but that’s the painful truth.

But over and above the issue of personalities, the Labour Party cannot hope to be, indeed does not deserve to be, a popular, mass-movement, progressive party for England until it is reconciled to England: reconciled to the fact that ‘national’ social policy now means English social policy. And reconciled to the English people as the people it is its duty to love and to serve.

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.

The governance of England must not be left out of the process of constitutional reform

Over the past week or so, I’ve been attempting to write a rather long post on the implications of the ongoing MPs’ expenses scandal. I started to write it last week, when I was concerned that the initial reaction was tending to ignore the fact that public outrage about MPs’ behaviour was symptomatic of a much deeper disaffection with the whole UK political system. However, over the course of the following week, more and more of the themes I felt needed to be aired did start to be debated in the media: the need for fundamental reform of parliament, the voting system and, indeed, the whole UK constitution. So the piece I was intending to write has now been superseded by events and will probably not see the light of day.

However, the one major constitutional issue that has not been widely discussed is that of the relationship of the different nations of the UK to any redesigned UK parliament. Indeed, there is a real danger that the English Question could be completely sidelined as the political and media establishments click into gear and debate how the UK Parliament should be reformed and what form a new UK constitution should take, without any challenge to the implicit assumption that the UK Parliament and government would continue to run England in every respect.

All the discussion so far has been focused on Westminster, and the advocates of change are not factoring in that their proposals would leave in place an intolerable democratic deficit and asymmetry of governance for England: laws and policies that apply to England (or England and Wales) only formulated and decided upon by the MPs for the whole of the UK, whilst the corresponding laws and policies for the other UK nations are made by separate, properly representative, devolved bodies.

It is possible that unionist defenders of the imbalanced status quo may attempt to use the introduction of proportional representation as a means to circumvent the problem of the English democratic deficit. For example, the party-political composition of an English Parliament elected under a perfectly proportional electoral system, based on the 2005 general election results, would not have been very much different from that of a UK parliament: 36% of voters chose Labour in the UK as a whole, versus 35% in England; 32% voted Tory, compared with 35.5% in England; etc. In either case, there would have been a need to form a coalition or minority government, which would probably have been of the same political hue in the UK or in England alone. Therefore, it could be argued that – owing to the fact that the overwhelming majority of the UK population live in England – a coalition UK government elected under PR will almost always reflect the voting preferences of the majority of the English people. As a consequence, the West Lothian Question loses its relevance, as the composition of parliament will be a much more accurate reflection of the will of the English electorate.

But this of course misses the whole point: such a parliament, however much it represents an improvement on the present travesty of democratic fairness, would still not be an English parliament elected by the people of England to look after their needs and interests, and to speak and act on their behalf. England would continue to be governed as the UK by the UK parliament for the (debatable) benefit of the whole of the UK, rather than for that of its own people – in contrast to every other nation of the UK (with the possible additional exception of Cornwall) that would presumably continue to benefit from devolved government under any new UK constitution.

Changes in the relationship between Parliament and the people, and between Parliament and the Executive, are indeed desperately needed, and PR is a vital component in bringing about the greater accountability of Parliament and government. But what must not be omitted from the process is changes in the relationship of the UK nations to Westminster and to each other. Unless and until this nettle is grasped, any constitutional reform will be flawed and will not address the problem of Parliament’s democratic illegitimacy that is the underlying reason why the expenses scandal has caused so much outrage.

Another siren call that must be resisted is the demand that a general election be held right away. David Cameron upped the ante on this issue on Monday of this week, at the launch of the Tories’ European Election campaign, by initiating a petition for an election to be called in June. Clearly, it would be in the Conservatives’ interests to hold an election sooner rather than later given the fact that they would be likely to win an outright majority, as they are the only viable alternative to a government that people were already desperate to get rid of even before the expenses scandal. The fact that the Lib Dems have joined in with these calls is clearly also self-serving: the Lib Dems are hoping to capitalise on Labour’s unpopularity and the fact that they’ve come off relatively lightly in the expenses scandal to assert themselves as the centre-left alternative to Labour.

But this is party politicking of the kind we need to do away with: parties putting their own interests and opportunism ahead of the UK’s and England’s needs. A new Tory government would lack legitimacy for the same reason as the present government: it would be elected under a monumentally flawed and distorting electoral system. In addition, if an election were held now, it’s likely that there would be an even higher rate of abstentions than in the 2005 general election: around 39%. A lot of people, such as the former Conservative minister Norman Tebbit last week, have already been calling for voters to abstain in the forthcoming European Parliament elections as a protest against the parties’ failure to put their Westminster House in order. As a result of the low turn-out in the 2005 UK general election, the present Labour government was elected by only 22% of eligible voters. With a high rate of abstentions in 2009, a new Tory regime might well command the support of an even smaller – or at least, not significantly larger – share of the population. Hardly a recipe for re-engaging the people in politics and for driving fundamental reform!

And Prime Minister Cameron would be highly unlikely to do anything significant to address the English Question. In all probability, the Tories will continue to govern England as if it is the UK and will have no qualms about enlisting the votes of the precious few MPs the Tories have in Scotland and Wales, along with those of his allies the UUP in Northern Ireland, to push through legislation that affects England only – especially if the Tories’ overall parliamentary majority is slim. Having said that, the Campaign for an English Parliament has today issued an open letter to David Cameron calling on him to work towards the establishment of what would be a de facto federal system of government in the UK: parliaments for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with a much smaller UK parliament dealing only with reserved matters such as taxation, defence, overseas aid, immigration and macro-economic policy. It remains to be seen how, or indeed whether, David Cameron will respond to the CEP’s challenge. If he does recognise that we are facing a ‘constitutional moment’ – indeed, an Oliver Cromwell moment – then he will really be showing true leadership and vision. He would be a worthy Prime Minister for a re-shaped UK, who could be accepted by the people of England – as opposed to a Prime Minister for the UK who does not want to be a Prime Minister for England, even though that would be what he effectively was under the present system.

We have to find ways to make sure that the English Question – the issue of how England should be governed – comes and remains to the forefront of the discussions about parliamentary and constitutional reform. How do we do this? Well, at a basic level, we keep on doing what we have been doing: bringing up the topics of asymmetric devolution and the need for an English parliament in conversations with friends, workmates, down the pub, etc. Now that people generally are talking more about the need to change parliament, this is the best chance we’ve ever had to push the case for an English parliament. Then there’s all the blogging and campaigning of one sort or another we’ve been doing to inform people about the unfairness of the present system to England and the British government’s suppression of English-national identity and political rights. So it’s keep up the good work, and more so.

But is this enough? One of the ideas I was going to float in my aborted long post (yes, even longer than this one) was that we could form a new political party to stand at the next general election solely on a platform of wholesale constitutional reform at the three levels I referred to above: the relationship between Parliament and the Executive; between Parliament / the Executive and the people; and between the UK and its nations. If the mainstream parties are not going to answer the constitutional challenge on all of these levels – and the Tories’ and Lib Dems’ eagerness to have an election under the present defective system, without a clear programme of constitutional reform, appears to suggest that they may not do so – then it is up to us, the people, to assert our just demands. In fact, it is the people that is the lynchpin and raison d’être of this whole process: government should be for and of the people in both our distinct national communities, and as a united federation of nations across the British Isles.

I’m still interested in canvassing people’s views about this, although the situation is changing so fast, I wonder whether my ‘Change Party’ idea will soon also be superseded by events, as was my previous draft post: maybe Cameron will surprise us and accept the need to factor the English Question into a constitutional reform process; maybe the Lib Dems, too, will start to acknowledge the English dimension of constitutional reform, rather than referring to ‘Britain’ and ‘the country’ in every second sentence and avoiding the ‘E’ word almost as pathologically as New Labour. Maybe even the ‘national’ (i.e. English) media may also belatedly realise that you cannot – simply cannot – now talk about meaningful reform of ‘Parliament’ without recognising that something has to be done about those Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs that have so little to do – other than meddle in English affairs that do not concern them – that it’s no wonder they just see Westminster as a gravy train and an English golden goose to be exploited for their constituents’ and their own maximum benefit.

To design a new UK constitution setting out shiny new responsibilities, powers and duties for MPs, and a brand-spanking new proportional voting system, without remedying asymmetric devolution, and without allowing only the English people – let alone English MPs – to vote on English matters, would be such a gross absurdity and injustice that it would be bound to fail and lead to many more years of disaffection with politics and parliament on the part of the English people.

Surely our political representatives must see that. And if they don’t, they deserve to be voted out. And that’s our final sanction: if any of the established parties do not include the need to re-examine how England is governed as part of their manifestoes for the next general election, whenever it comes, they do not deserve our support.