36% of English people support independence – for England

A ComRes opinion poll commissioned by BBC Radio 4, published yesterday, found that 36% of the English-only people questioned felt that “England should become a fully independent country with its own government, separate from the rest of the United Kingdom”. By any account, this is an extraordinary finding. However, if all you had heard about the poll was what was said about it on last night’s Newsnight programme dedicated to discussing Scottish independence, and its impact on England and Britishness, you wouldn’t know about this particular finding, as it was not referred to.

This appears to be another, all-too typical, instance of the establishment suppressing discussion of the English Question: the question of how England should be governed. For all that the programme represented a refreshing attempt to deal with the impact Scottish independence might have on the rest of the Union, and to consider an emerging sense of Englishness and English nationalism, it glossed over what for me is the most important issue: England’s democratic deficit and how this should be remedied, irrespective of Scotland gaining independence or not. The programme did not dwell on this issue or treat it with any degree of seriousness, nor did it link it to the issue of an emerging English consciousness, to which it is central: one of the main purposes of an English parliament or English independence being that they would give England a national voice and institutions, around which a confident English identity could coalesce.

How significant is the 36% support for English independence, though? Another finding of the ComRes poll that was reported is that 36% of English people favour independence for Scotland (versus 48% who oppose it). This is also, incidentally, a striking finding. The programme did acknowledge that this represented a significant increase on the last time support for Scottish independence in England was canvassed, when it stood at 16%. However, one suspects that there is a close correlation between the 36% of English people who favour English independence and the 36% that support Scottish independence. In other words, people must be assuming that English independence would result from Scottish independence; and in that, I can’t help feeling that they’re sadly mistaken.

This was another thing that the programme didn’t explore (well, I guess you can’t cover every aspect of the question): what sort of residual United Kingdom, if any, would be the by-product of Scottish independence? My own feeling is that if the Scots voted for independence in a referendum, the inhabitants of the rest of the UK would not be given the opportunity to decide in a referendum how they wish to be governed (although 45% said people in the rest of the UK should have a say in whether Scotland became independent, while 47% thought they shouldn’t).

Specifically, I think the English people would not be given the chance to choose whether to have a parliament of their own, still less independence. Instead, the UK Parliament, which is presently sovereign in such matters, would simply decide what sort of state the residual United Kingdom would be. Overriding any consideration of whether the United Kingdom as such should be considered dissolved as a consequence of Scotland separating from the Union (because this breaks up ‘Great Britain’, and hence dissolves the union of Great Britain with Northern Ireland, which is what the UK is), Parliament would simply decree that a new United Kingdom (e.g. a ‘United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’) should inherit the legal personality and constitution of the old UK. And Parliament would then carry on governing England as the UK, as if nothing had changed – except it would be less likely, but still not impossible, for a UK government to be formed based on a majority of UK MPs without enjoying a majority of English MPs.

The programme did not nail down this issue, which is central to the whole debate: would Scottish independence be a separation from a United Kingdom that would carry on pretty much unchanged as a consequence (in which case, it could be considered to be a purely Scottish matter, although the Welsh and Northern Irish might wish to dissent from that view if it meant they were dragged into what they perceived as an even more England-dominated UK); or would it involve breaking up the UK altogether by virtue of dissolving the Union of 1707 – in which case the other party to that Union (England) should have a say in its own constitutional and political future.

These are two quite distinct questions, and the ambiguity in the Newsnight discussions in part resulted from a failure to make a distinction between them. And that further reflects the establishment’s reluctance to explore any avenue that might lead to something such as a distinct English nation deciding how it wishes to govern itself. Because, surely, that’s the logical outcome from the Scots opting for independence: that each of the UK’s remaining nations should then be allowed to choose whether the UK itself remains, or whether they follow Scotland’s example and decide for independence.

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The SNP would break its self-denying ordinance and support a minority Labour government

I’ve just been listening to an interview with SNP leader Alex Salmond on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme. Towards the end of the interview, Eddie Mayer asked Salmond if the SNP would be prepared to break the self-denying ordinance it has hitherto observed in parliamentary votes on what Mayer called ‘devolved’ matters and what Salmond rightly insisted on calling ‘English-only matters’.

The context of the question was the SNP’s election-campaign claims that they would use their influence in a hung parliament to defend Scotland’s interests, in particular to shield Scotland from the severity of the budget cuts that those of us living south of the border are going to have to endure. How could they exercise that influence if they refused to support the party of government in England-only votes?

Salmond stated that he wanted to keep the option of voting on English matters ‘up his sleeve’ as one of the trump cards he might need to play to secure the SNP’s objectives. In other words, the SNP would be prepared to vote on English matters in some circumstances.

Mayer then set the example of a minority Conservative government needing the SNP’s support in a vote on an (English) education bill. Salmond suggested that the example was unrealistic, as the SNP would be more likely to support a more ‘progressive’ policy agenda than one of Tory cuts to public services. This is a round-about way of saying that the SNP would prop up only a Labour minority government or Lab-LibDem coalition, not a Tory government or, one assumes, a possible Con-LibDem partnership.

In other words, if Gordon Brown wants to cling on to power after the election – whether Labour wins the largest or second-largest number of seats – his best bet might be to forge a deal with his SNP compatriots and, of course, Labour’s Plaid Cymru Welsh-Assembly coalition partners.

Come to think of it, it’s rather obvious that Salmond could not get away with suggesting he might do a deal with the Conservatives at Westminster, as the SNP has tried to position the Tories as an anti-progressive force intent on savaging Scottish public services. Salmond is therefore indirectly encouraging Scottish voters to vote Labour in seats where the SNP can’t win in order to ensure a sufficiently large ‘Scottish block’ of ‘progressive’ votes in the new parliament that can override the Tory-LibDem majority in England.

The West Lothian Question could be more alive and embittered than ever in the new parliament – which of course also suits Mr Salmond’s agenda just fine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dear Sirs,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours faithfully,

David Rickard”

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

“Dear Mr Rickard,

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

Yours sincerely

Dominic Groves

Duty Editor”.

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

“Dear Mr Groves,

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

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

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

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

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

Yours sincerely,

David Rickard”

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

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

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

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

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

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