The Long Silence and Slow Emergence of England
The Scotsman, April 26th 2010
England has always been a sensitive subject at the heart of the United Kingdom.
Most Scots bristle when ‘England’ is used when Britain’ is meant; others find it horrifying that at times ‘Britain’ is used when clearly ‘England’ is the intention.
Once upon a time British politics used to throw around these terms with a sense of élan and confidence. Baldwin and Churchill often used to talk of ‘England’ and know that they meant ‘Britain’.
Churchill, who seems even more to be the defining figure of British history the further removed we become from his age, was always one for referring to ‘England’ in numerous speeches, talks and books. ‘England’ was an idea, a civilising mission, at the heart of not just the union, but the Empire and world.
After Empire, in the age of the Commonwealth, multi-culturalism and devolution, Britain has changed in numerous ways. It is no longer deemed permissible to talk about ‘England’ when you mean ‘Britain’ except at the level of sports commentators and others who forget the character of the UK.
Whereas once ‘England’ was ubiquitous, it now seems in places invisible. The three main UK party manifestos recently launched all claimed to be ‘British’ and covering all the corners of these isles, but due to devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, were in most respects, embryonic ‘English’ documents in all but name.
‘England’ is ill-served by these arrangements, as is ‘Britain’. Ultimately, democratic politics and voters are the losers. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all now have democratic institutions and a voice. Each has voted twice on their constitutional status. The Scots and Welsh may in the near-future have further votes. The English have never had one opportunity to have a vote.
The fulcrum of English political power is still the British political system, and the English Parliament is in all but name the imperial British Parliament. This leaves England in a situation where many now think there is a similarity between the experience of the Scots and Welsh pre-devolution and England today: namely one of a democratic deficit.
The confusion over the Prime Ministerial debates reveals much about the nature of the UK. These are a major moment in the democratic politics of the UK, and yet the role of the SNP and Plaid, and the relevance of these debates in Scotland and Wales, was problematic. The events were both ‘British’ and at the same time ‘English’, and no one – whether it be the UK parties, nationalist parties or broadcasters – seemed to be able to find a language or form to join it all together and satisfy everyone.
The prospect of an English Parliament does not seem to be one that is widely popular, salient or on the cards. It may eventually come about, but such an eventuality would have huge consequences for the union. England would represent 85% of the UK population and every union or federation in history which has been so unbalanced has broken up: Pakistan pre-1971, the first Nigerian Federation and the West Indies Federation.
That of course isn’t an argument against an English Parliament if people want it. What has to happen before this is that English people need to reinvent, imagine and create a sense of their nation and nationhood. We can see some of the first stirrings and shapes of this: the more frequent celebrations of St. George’s Day and the flying of the English flag.
Much of this is about culture and identity, but some of it is about politics and institution building, which are critical to any sense of a nation. One of the pitfalls which needs to be avoided is ‘English votes for English laws’, which would effectively bar Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs from a host of issues, create a two tier system of MPs, and the unsustainable position of one Parliament, two Governments (one UK, one English).
The Tories have long played with various versions of this post-1997, but what is surprising is Gordon Brown once emphatically supported it. Thirty years ago in a book with Henry Drucker, he agreed that creating ‘a semi-permanent Tory majority’ in Parliament via ‘English votes for English laws’ was worth doing for the prize of what was then called a ‘Scottish Assembly’.
People can change their minds over time, and politicians shouldn’t necessarily be criticised for doing so, but for as consistently a cautious politician as Brown, such views are a little embarrassing, and have never yet come back to haunt him.
More important than grandiose schemes of an English Parliament, people, politicians and decision makers need to start naming and giving shape to England. In short, they need to begin the process of creating an English polity and politics. There needs to be rather soon explicitly English Labour and Tory manifestos, and from this will eventually come English parties, leaders and TV debates.
We already have some English specific institutions such as the Arts Council of England, but this has to happen across the public landscape. There is a British Council Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but no equivalent for England. This makes England the only part of the world which does not have a specific British Council: a set of arrangements which replicates the imperial Parliament and state.
In all this we should ask who gains and benefits from the existing set of arrangements and power structures? The present arrangements of the British political system, distorted Westminster system, and denial of England as a political space, work for one specific group, and that is the British political class from politicians, civil servants to media and policy community, who all gain from the sense of ‘Great British Powerism’ which emanates from the heart of the system.
It is no accident that the twilight years of the British political system, and legacies of Thatcherism and New Labour have produced one of the most profoundly distorted countries in the world: the fourth most unequal society in the developed world, and London as a report showed this week, the most unequal city anywhere in the West.
None of this would have been possible without the misuse and atrophying of the time honoured British constitution which used to be exported and the envy of the world. The story of Scotland’s Parliament is part an attempt to find a way out of this debacle, as will be the slow emergence of England. Who knows what kind of country may emerge, but the ‘old Britain’ with its constant references to the past, is slowly fading.