Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

29 October 2014

National parliaments with a regionally elected federal parliament: a new constitutional model for the UK

The following is the outline for a new federal UK: a modest contribution to the ongoing debate about options for the governance of England and the UK as a whole. I offer this despite thinking that the ‘federal moment’ has perhaps already passed, primarily because Scotland has embarked on its own journey of reinvigorated democracy, and is growing into an independent-minded polity, even though the cause of full independence has been lost, for the time being at least.

For this reason, any new federal model for the UK constitution would need to offer a considerable measure of autonomy to Scotland – and, similarly, to all of the UK’s nations, as all must be treated equally – in order to satisfy the powerful aspirations towards real self-government to the north of the border with England and, indeed, to its south.

My model can be stated succinctly: four national parliaments (preferably elected using the AMS proportional system presently used in Scotland and Wales) to deal with devolved matters, and a UK-wide, federal parliament, elected on a ‘regional’ basis, to deal with reserved matters. As observed above, the policy areas devolved to each national parliament would be substantial and could include – in addition to the types of matter that are already devolved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – the majority of income tax, corporation tax and some other taxes; most of welfare and social security; all of transport policy; national infrastructure and major planning projects; energy; considerable primary-legislative powers; and all of justice and policing. Some of these powers are already enjoyed by Scotland (e.g. a separate justice system and major planning projects), so these responsibilities should be devolved consistently to all four nations.

Accordingly, the reserved policy areas would be narrowed down to: macro-economics (i.e. overall fiscal policy co-ordination and monetary policy); residual taxation and welfare responsibilities (e.g. a UK-wide state retirement pension); defence and security; immigration and citizenship; foreign policy; and possibly, science, research and development.

I imagine the regionally based federal parliament (which would also replace the House of Lords as a revising chamber for legislation passed by the national parliaments) as being elected via a similar PR system to the present European Parliament elections, with each ‘region’ forming an electoral college. However, the UK federal parliament would not necessarily adopt the Euro regions, many of which have no basis in English history or local identity. Instead, my concept is one of ‘elective regions’, which could be built up from the bottom upwards from counties, cities and unitary authorities.

In other words, individual counties, cities, etc. could decide to group together to form ‘regions’ based around shared economic, social and environmental challenges. It would be up to the people in each prospective region to approve its formation in a referendum. These regions could straddle national boundaries, e.g. there could be a ‘Borders’ region to the north and south of the Anglo-Scottish border, or a ‘South Wales and Avon’ region encompassing, say, the area including Cardiff, Newport and Bristol (just for argument’s sake). In reality, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be more likely to constitute ‘regions’ in their own right for the purposes of the new federal parliament – although something like a Highlands, Islands and Lowlands split in Scotland is easily conceivable, just as is a split between South Wales and Welsh-speaking West and North Wales. Similarly, the formation of a Cornwall region would be highly likely.

This is not devolution to the regions. Indeed, any intra-national devolution down to ‘regional’ or local level would be a devolved responsibility of each of the national parliaments, in keeping with subsidiarity principles. In fact, my proposal is partly intended as a means to channel and fend off the potentially centrifugal and divisive drive towards regional devolution in England in the form of Euro regions or new ‘city regions’, as typically supported by Liberal Democrat federalists and Labourites respectively.

The new regions would have a powerful voice in the federal parliament, and would be able to forge alliances – including across borders – to help co-ordinate the economic-development plans produced by the national parliaments and, if necessary, to block legislation they felt was contrary to their interests or to those of the UK as a whole. And electing the federal parliament on a regional, rather than national, basis provides a counterbalance to the individual nations and a means to prevent England in particular from assuming a dominant position across the new federal polity – a fear which is routinely adduced to counter demands for an English parliament, i.e. that it would be too big and powerful, and would destabilise any UK federation.

The new regions could also push for more devolved powers – but as stated above, decisions about whether to grant them should be the responsibility of the national parliaments, combined with referendums in the regions concerned.

So this is my draft blueprint. I think this could be an effective way to satisfy aspirations for national self-government, and decentralisation to regions and local authorities, while preserving a strong UK-wide government. But as I say, it may already be too late, as the Scottish genie is already out of the bottle – and England, too, increasingly demands a say on its own government.

24 October 2014

EVoEL made simple: two simple solutions to the West Lothian Question

By now, anyone with even a remote interest in British politics will know what the West Lothian Question is, and will be aware that one of the answers proposed to it is ‘English votes for English Laws’ (EVoEL).

Should anybody need a quick reminder, however, the West Lothian Question relates to the fact that, following devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it is possible, on occasions, for MPs elected from those countries to have a decisive say on legislation pertaining to England only, whereas English MPs have no such say on bills on similar matters affecting Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, because those matters are devolved to the parliament and assemblies of those countries respectively.

EVoEL is one remedy proposed to this imbalance and – in the view of many – injustice. EVoEL says that, on occasions such as those described above, only English MPs should be allowed to exercise the decisive vote (or, by extension, only English MPs should have any say and / or participate in debates) on such bills, including in all or just some of the stages of such bills’ passage through the Commons.

In practice, it is highly complicated to implement EVoEL, for a number of reasons that have been well documented and argued about elsewhere, two of the main ones being that:

1) On the basis of current bill-drafting practices, there are in fact very few England-only bills, either in whole or in part, so that even if a bill ‘primarily’ relates to England, it may not be justifiable to exclude non-English MPs from voting on it given the direct or indirect effects it may have on their constituents

2) One of those indirect consequences is the financial impact via the infamous Barnett Formula, whereby funding for the devolved nations is linked to the English budget allocation in such a way as to effectively guarantee a higher level of spending per head of population in those countries than in England. The fact that many England-only or England-mainly bills involve decisions about spending in England has therefore been used as justification for non-English MPs to continue voting on them. Even the SNP, which generally exercises a so-called ‘self-denying ordinance’ (i.e. doesn’t vote) on non-Scottish matters, does vote on mainly or exclusively English bills that affect Scotland in this indirect way.

I want here to suggest two non-mutually exclusive, ‘simple’ ways to implement EVoEL, or rather to solve the problem EVoEL is intended to solve without in fact preventing non-English-elected MPs from voting on ‘English’ laws. Of course, the most clear-cut solution is a separate English parliament, which comprehensively redresses the asymmetry of New Labour’s devolution settlement in that, by definition, only English-elected representatives would vote on England-only bills, in an England-only parliament.

But assuming that the present UK parliament is retained, for a time at least, as the legislative body for England, my simple solutions to the West Lothian Question would run as follows:

1) Introduce proportional representation (PR) for UK general elections. This would effectively eliminate the political dimension to the West Lothian problem, if not the national and constitutional aspects to it. The political dimension derives from the differential parliamentary representation of Labour and the Conservatives across the UK’s nations: Labour generally – but for how much longer? – winning most of the seats in Scotland and Wales (and therefore, when in government, being keen for its MPs from those countries to vote on its ‘English’ bills), and the Conservatives being more likely to win parliamentary majorities in England that are insufficient to form UK-wide majorities, owing to the party’s lack of seats in Scotland and Wales (and therefore making it necessary to form coalitions with parties whose numbers are in part made up by non-English MPs, who also vote on English bills – something which the Conservatives have been perfectly willing to go along with as part of the present coalition with the Liberal Democrats).

With PR, there would be very little difference between the state of the parties UK-wide and England-only, owing to the sheer demographic dominance of England, which has around 85% of the UK population. Accordingly, in 2010, the Conservatives won 40% of the popular vote in England only and 36% UK-wide. Similarly, Labour won 28% in England and 29% UK-wide, and the Lib Dems won 24% and 23% respectively. If these vote shares had been translated into shares of seats, the coalition between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems would have had 63% of English seats and 59% of the seats UK-wide. In general, it would be unlikely that any UK-wide coalition necessitated by PR would not also command a majority of English seats, and it would certainly be politically unwise to put together a UK majority that failed to deliver an English majority.

By introducing PR, then, you could avoid having to ban non-English-elected MPs from voting on ‘English’ matters: you would not need to make any changes to existing parliamentary procedure, in fact, as the ruling coalition would depend on the loyal support of its English MPs to pass any of its bills, England-only or England +.

It would still be theoretically possible, though arithmetically unlikely, for ‘English’ bills to fail to obtain the support of most English MPs but still be passed owing to the support of Scottish and Welsh MPs. However, a fairly substantial rebellion by the coalition parties’ English MPs would be required, and this would present a bigger political problem to a coalition government than it did for the New Labour government that introduced foundation hospitals and university tuition fees in England despite a majority of English MPs rejecting the measures. This is because the English MPs voting against the government would be likely to be from only one of the coalition parties, rather than both (or all), meaning that any such rebellion would represent a direct challenge to the coalition’s very survival. Accordingly, rebellions on this scale would be more likely to be nipped in the bud.

2) All bills to require a majority of both England-only and UK-wide MPs. The two main parties are unlikely to embrace PR as an answer to the WLQ, despite the simplicity and elegance of the solution, as this would involve relinquishing their ambitions to win outright parliamentary majorities, pretty much for good. This fact reveals just how much the obfuscations and disingenuousness around the WLQ and EVoEL are bound up with narrow party self-interest: Labour’s ambition to govern being tied up with continuing to allow its Scottish and Welsh MPs to vote on English matters, and the Conservatives lust for power being bound up with denying the selfsame right to Scottish and Welsh members.

So an alternative ‘solution’ to this conundrum (although it could also be introduced in tandem with PR) would be to introduce a simple rule that all bills and clauses should require the support of a majority of both English MPs and all UK MPs to be passed. This again requires no modification to any parliamentary procedure – no ‘two classes of MPs’, and no endless disquisitions as to the geographical extent of bills or clauses – and simply ensures that no bill can be passed without procuring the support of a majority of England’s representatives.

The justification for this approach is based on a view about the relationship of Parliament to England, which is as stated in a previous blog about the televised leaders’ debates: that it is not so much that only some laws are English-only (and hence, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs should putatively be excluded from debating and voting on them) while some are UK-wide; but that in reality, all laws are English, while some also extend to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (or to one or two of the above).

I can’t think of any legislation in recent years, other than the actual devolution legislation, that has not applied to England. The UK parliament is therefore the de facto English parliament: the English legislature. So if EVoEL is ostensibly a means to give England a voice, and to create something of a distinct English parliament within the UK parliament (as opposed to a separate body), then it seems fair that legislation should always be required to command a majority of English MPs.

I can hear the howls of indignation in certain quarters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: that this ‘discriminates’ against their MPs. But it does no such thing, really, because any legislation – even fully England-only bills – would still be required to obtain the support of a majority of MPs from across the UK under this rule. I.e. if a bill is supported by most English MPs but not by a majority of all UK MPs, then it is not passed – just as would be the case today.

There would, of course, be implications for the forming of governments, i.e. the need to ensure – where possible – that any incoming government enjoyed both a UK-wide and England-only majority. However, here again, not much would need to be changed. The process, as now (assuming PR had not been implemented), would be that any party winning an outright UK majority would normally form the government on their own, unless they failed to win a majority in England. In that case, they might wish to enter a coalition with another party with sufficient English MPs to make up an English majority – or alternatively, they could just work with other parties to secure English majorities for their bills on a case-by-case basis.

If no party won an outright majority, the process, as now, would be to find the single party or coalition that commanded the largest number of seats UK-wide: preferably, but not necessarily, a majority; and preferably, but not necessarily, the largest number / a majority of English seats. In the absence of a UK-majority (and English-majority) government, the same rule about getting English bills passed would apply: the government would just have to collaborate with other parties, which is probably a good thing for England’s governance, in any case.

In reality, it would be extremely unlikely for a party or coalition with a UK-wide majority to fail to secure an English majority. This has not happened in the post-war era: contrary to popular misconception, every single Labour majority government since 1945 has also succeeded in winning a majority of English MPs. The only two post-war Labour governments that have failed to win an English majority also failed to win a UK one: those elected in 1964 and February 1974.

If this dual-majority rule for votes in Parliament were introduced together with PR – which it could be – then the chance of a UK majority failing to deliver an English majority, or vice-versa, would be witheringly small.

The two answers to the West Lothian Question outlined here do not provide an answer to the ‘English Question’, which is: who governs England, and in whose name? If one or both of my proposals were implemented, the answer to that question would still be: the UK parliament and executive govern England, in the name of the UK. There would still be no properly English parliament: no English voice or recognition as a sovereign nation, with a right to determine the government of its own choosing.

But what would be achieved, if my proposals were adopted, would be a parliament more fitting to serve, even if only provisionally, as England’s legislature: properly accountable to the people of England; more accurately reflecting the priorities of English voters; and leading to the formation of governments that could not use their support from other parts of the UK to override the views of England’s elected representatives.

14 October 2014

TV leaders’ debates: English debates for British votes on English laws

The proposed format for the leaders’ debates on TV ahead of next May’s general election, announced yesterday, reveals the fundamental character of Parliament and UK government as a reimagining-as-British of an essentially English polity. Three debates are mooted: one involving only the two ‘prime ministers in waiting’ (David Cameron and Ed Miliband – so much for the voters being in charge!); one including Nick Clegg in addition the two above ‘presidential’ candidates (ostensibly, to allow the Lib Dem leader to defend his party’s record in government); and one adding UKIP’s Nigel Farage to the mix, because UKIP is putting up a candidate in every constituency in England, Scotland and Wales (and because, let’s face it, its poll ratings and electoral performance can no longer be ignored).

It is staggering how easily and casually the SNP in particular, and also Plaid Cymru, have been excluded from the debates, even though the SNP is now the UK’s third-largest party in terms of members and is likely to be the largest party in Scotland after the 2015 election, as current polling stands. This means that the SNP could well hold the balance of power in a hung parliament and be invited into a UK coalition. Despite this, and despite the fact that the SNP already has six MPs, David Cameron indicated he thought the Green Party should also be included in at least one of the debates, on the basis that it currently has a single MP. If the Greens, why not the SNP, or Plaid, or indeed the Northern Irish parties?

The answer, clearly, is that only parties with MPs elected in England are thought to matter. This is ultimately because the UK polity itself is effectively at core an English polity (though never openly avowed as such). This means that parties’ electoral ‘pitch’ is mainly to English voters on English laws and policies.

The practical reality of Westminster politics is actually the opposite of the way it’s normally construed: it’s not so much that only some laws are English-only (and hence, the argument goes, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs should be excluded from debating and voting on them) while some are UK-wide; but in reality, all policies are English, and only some also extend to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In this context, the real function of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs, particularly in the post-devolution era, is merely to add their numbers to the parliamentary arithmetic that determines the composition of UK governments and the passing of English laws. It is assumed, therefore, that the leaders of the SNP and Plaid Cymru needn’t be invited to participate in any of the TV debates because they will not be determining the content of UK (i.e. English) laws after the election – even though the votes of their MPs may be essential in passing those laws, and the participation of their MPs in government may be required as part of a ruling coalition.

But if SNP and, potentially, Plaid and some Northern Irish MPs are needed to form a coalition, don’t English voters have the right to hear what their leaders have to say about the policy concessions they would demand on entering a coalition, and what stance they would take on voting on such a coalition’s England-only or England-mainly laws?

But the ‘English’ parties don’t want English voters to realise that they are dependent on non-English-elected MPs and, by extension, non-English voters for the passing of essentially English laws – by which I mean not only laws whose extent is in fact strictly limited to England (which are in reality very few in number), but all UK laws and government policies: on the basis of my contention above that all UK laws are fundamentally and primarily English laws in the first instance.

On this basis, the moniker of ‘English votes for English laws’, used to justify the potential exclusion of non-English-elected MPs from debates and votes on England-only legislation, is a convenient fiction to cover up the fact that all laws are England-mainly: designed for England by English parties (but which style themselves as ‘British’) and only as it were incidentally extending to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (or one or two of those additional parts of the UK, depending on the geographical extent of any actual bill).

So the UK-wide (i.e. ‘English’) parties don’t want the Scotland- and Wales-only party leaders to participate in the ostensibly UK-wide (i.e. English) TV debates because they don’t want English voters to realise that those Scottish and Welsh parties, as well as Scottish- and Welsh-elected MPs in ‘UK’ (i.e. English) parties, may ultimately call the shots in terms of both ‘UK-wide’ (i.e. England-mainly) and England-only laws.

But the English parties nonetheless want the votes of those parties in Parliament and, potentially, the participation of those parties’ MPs in coalition government. Hence, they need the votes of the Scottish and Welsh electorate, including on genuinely England-only matters: all three ‘UK’ debates will air in Scotland and Wales, even though all laws in devolved policy areas will not affect Scottish and Welsh voters. If those Scottish and Welsh votes can be channelled into ‘UK’ (i.e. English) parties, all the better. Hence, the exclusion of the leaders of the SNP and Plaid fulfils a convenient double purpose: optimise the non-nationalist vote in Scotland and Wales (i.e. the vote for ‘English’ parties in those countries), while preventing English voters from being aware that Scottish and Welsh MPs will play a decisive role in shaping their next government and their laws.

So we’re left in a ludicrous situation of England-only parties in the debates canvassing the votes of all British voters for the passing of English laws in the UK parliament! If the SNP and Plaid are sidelined out of the equation, then you don’t have to consider the awkward potential situation whereby either a Conservative- or Labour-led coalition might actually require the votes of Scottish- or Welsh-nationalist politicians to pass English (i.e. all) their laws.

In which case, we might find that calls for English votes on English laws are quietly dropped. But in the meantime, we mustn’t have the inner workings of a parliamentary system exposed to the view of English and non-English voters alike in which the votes of non-English MPs – and ultimately, of non-English voters – are reduced to the role of providing parliamentary voting fodder in support of fundamentally ‘English’ policy agendas.

But the essentially English status of those policies and of Parliament itself must never be openly acknowledged. If it was, then there would be no alternative other than to move to a more honest separation of English and UK-wide policies and politics: a genuinely English parliament to debate English laws, and a genuine UK parliament to reflect different views and priorities from across the UK, and not just a ‘Britain’ that is fundamentally England re-imagined and re-named.

6 August 2014

‘Devo more’ would be the worst of both worlds for Scotland

In last night’s TV debate with Alex Salmond, Alistair Darling – the leader of the campaign against Scottish independence – argued that staying in the Union would represent the “best of both worlds” for Scotland: a strong devolved parliament, with increased powers, along with the economic and security advantages of remaining part of a much larger economy and state.

By contrast, I contend that the so-called ‘devo more’ option, or options, promised by all three unionist parties in the event of a No vote would constitute the worst of both worlds for Scotland: insufficient powers for Scotland truly to shape its own economic, social and security policies, along with increased anger towards Scotland from English and, to a lesser extent, Welsh and Northern Irish people who already perceive the existing union settlement as discriminating against them in favour of Scotland.

What powers would or could Scotland gain if there were further devolution in the wake of a No vote? Probably, this would involve more power over taxation and control over revenue, along with increased powers in the areas of social security and welfare. But it wouldn’t involve any additional powers in the areas of macro-economics, monetary policy, security or international affairs.

So Scotland would be tied to the UK’s austerity policies, with no additional leverage on interest rates, borrowing or even capital investment. It would be in the pound but with no ability to influence the Bank of England or shape the monetary policies of the UK government, with its over-reliance on the City and on sucking investment into London and the South-East of England, attracted by the high value of the pound propped up by North Sea Oil. And if you have so little control over macro-economics, monetary policy and interest rates, it is impossible to be fully in charge of economic development and to direct investment to where it is most needed.

In addition, Scotland would be unable to rid its soil of the Trident nuclear weapons system or avoid committing its precious resources to Trident’s £100 billion upgrade. Alistair Darling and the No campaign claim that being part of the UK allows Scotland to benefit from the security provided by Trident, and by the UK’s strong armed forces and powerful position in world affairs. But is it a rational or effective defence policy to commit such astronomical sums of money to replacing a WMD that could never be used while making cuts in ‘conventional’ defence? But whatever the whys and wherefores, Scotland would be lumbered with Trident and with the UK’s questionable security and foreign policies if it votes No.

So despite gaining more powers through devolution, in the event of a No vote, these would not be sufficient for Scotland to shape its economic, social and security policies in accordance with its priorities. That’s if ‘devo more’ were delivered, of course, as there’s no guarantee that it would be or that it would fulfil even the modest expectations the Scottish people have from it. Indeed, which of the three unionist parties’ devo more proposals were eventually implemented – if they were at all – would not directly depend on the Scottish people but would be decided in the UK general election of 2015. This means that it is effectively the English electorate that would decide which party’s devo more proposals were adopted, and it is quite likely to be the Conservatives: the least popular party in Scotland.

This brings us to the second part of why devo more would be the worst of both worlds for Scotland: along with insufficient extra powers at home, devo more would involve less influence for Scotland at Westminster. This is not just because Scotland would continue to be stuck with UK governments it had not voted for, including potentially a Conservative government’s devo more solution.

In addition, devo more, even in the limited form described above, would generate irresistible pressure for MPs elected in Scotland to be excluded from voting on England- or England and Wales-only legislation. English people would not tolerate Scottish MPs having a potentially decisive say over legislation affecting things like the NHS, education and community services in England – and voting for further cuts in these – while at the same time Scotland was perceived (wrongly or rightly) as being guaranteed an unfair share of UK tax revenue for services of these sorts (via the continuing Barnett Formula) whilst also gaining additional powers to pursue tax and welfare policies that shield Scottish people even more from the harmful effects of austerity.

Devo more would, therefore, generate resentment among many English and Welsh people, and would result in the marginalisation of Scottish Westminster MPs, reduced to being mere lobby fodder endorsing the UK government’s laws and policies (often unpopular in Scotland) in a depleted range of reserved matters. Not only this, but it would be widely resented if Scottish MPs were awarded ministerial portfolios even in reserved matters, let along prime ministerships, as people would object to Scots exercising any form of decisive government influence in decisions affecting mainly or exclusively English and Welsh citizens.

In other words, what Alistair Darling presents as ‘the best of both worlds’ would be perceived south of the border as wanting to have your cake and eat it – and this would not be tolerated. Net result: Scots would be resented and squeezed out of positions of influence in Westminster and Whitehall, while the Scottish government would still not have the reigns of power needed to direct Scottish affairs in keeping with the people of Scotland’s priorities.

This would indeed be the worst of both worlds for Scotland.

22 May 2014

Why I’m voting UKIP

I’ll be voting UKIP in the European-Parliament elections later today. This is despite the fact that I don’t like the party all that much. To me, UKIP seems to represent much that is least generous and large-minded in the English spirit: suspicion toward foreigners; a narrow-minded pragmatism and individualism, as opposed to idealistic engagement toward the European continent and the broader international community; neo-liberal economics; British nationalism; a failure to articulate a discrete English identity and politics; and a social conservatism that is inadequate in responding to the complexity and diversity of modern English society.

So why vote for them? Mainly because they are the only party with a chance of winning any seats that is opposed to the UK’s EU membership and can be trusted to deliver a straightforward in / out referendum.

Why do I support the UK’s withdrawal from the EU? Wouldn’t that precisely be an example of the sort of narrow-minded Englishness I have just decried? My answer would be that, while I oppose the EU, I am still very much in favour of an England that engages positively and constructively with the European continent of which it is a part. I just don’t believe the EU provides the means and the forum for achieving that. The EU is undemocratic, non-transparent, bureaucratic and corrupt; it is the vehicle for a political project for the creation of a federal European super-state; and – most critically for me – the EU does not recognise England as a nation and would absorb it into a set of anonymous British ‘regions’.

What about the argument that only the Conservatives can deliver an in / out referendum, if they’re elected in the general election in one year’s time? Well, that’s a potential reason for voting Conservative at the general election, not at the European election. For now, it seems to me more important to send a message to the establishment parties that their policies and behaviour in relation to the EU have been unacceptable, and that the only way forward is to let us have our referendum. In any case, it’s quite conceivable that there could be a Conservative / UKIP coalition after the general election. If that happened, the Conservatives couldn’t wriggle out of their commitment to hold a referendum, as they did previously after the Lisbon Treaty was signed.

Another important reason for voting UKIP is to send a message to the Westminster parties that they have failed England on the immigration issue. The level of net migration and overall population growth in England in recent years (in the order of several millions) is unsustainable, and this has had a massive, and I would say largely negative, impact on working-class English people’s prospects for employment and pay, on communities, and on housing, public services and schools. Withdrawal from the EU would enable the UK to control the flow of immigration from EU states; and we should also greatly reduce the numbers coming in from the rest of the world.

Of course, we must continue to be generous and open to those who seek refuge in England and the UK as a whole from political or religious persecution in other parts of the world; and we should welcome those who can make a significant contribution to areas such as scientific research, technology and advanced manufacturing. But ultimately, I believe the role of governments is to look to the needs of their own people first. If we can stem the flow of immigrants, we can concentrate on creating jobs, training, education, improved health and decent life prospects for the millions of underemployed, inadequately educated, poor and disadvantaged English people that have been let down and left behind by the UK’s laissez-faire neo-liberalism and reliance on cheap foreign labour.

For the avoidance of doubt, this is not a ‘racial’ or racist stance: by ‘English people’, I am not referring to the so-called ‘white-English’ but to all who live in England and genuinely consider themselves to be English – at least in part – of whatever ethnic background. I do not accept the view that opposition to unfettered immigration in itself makes one a racist, because it’s immigration from all countries and parts of the world that I would like to restrict. Nor do I accept that seeking to defend and celebrate one’s own national identity, culture and traditions – in my case, English – is racist in itself. Of course, racism is often associated with such concerns if, for instance, a person has a narrowly ethnic concept of their nation or believes that their culture is superior to others. Conversely, celebrating ‘Britain’’s ethnic diversity and the cultures of all who have come to live here, while denigrating Englishness and castigating English patriotism as racist, is itself a form of (inverted) racism.

So, whereas there are undoubtedly some racists in UKIP, the Anglo-British patriotism the party espouses and its opposition to uncontrolled immigration are by no means intrinsically racist. UKIP’s inflammatory rhetoric on immigration is one of the things I precisely don’t like about the party, and this does undoubtedly play on people’s more irrational fears toward the foreigner and the ‘other’, which are a basic characteristic of racism. But focusing on this or that debatably ‘racist’ utterance by UKIP spokespersons is a smokescreen by which the other parties have tried to avoid engaging with the immigration question. And this does need to be tackled.

So it’s UKIP for me on 22 May 2014: to demand an in / out referendum on the UK’s EU membership; to send out a strong message on immigration; and to back a party that’s not ashamed of England and Englishness, even if it largely fails to differentiate these from Britain and the UK.

There are two other elections today where I live: district and parish councils. Just to demonstrate that I am an issues-based voter rather than a party loyalist, I intend to vote for the Liberal Democrat candidate for the district council. That’s because the Liberal Democrats are the strongest voice against a massive New Town that is proposed to be built right on the doorstep of the village where I live, and which is supported by the Conservative-controlled council. The Lib Dem has a realistic chance of defeating the Conservative candidate, as the Tories are divided: one of the previous Conservative incumbents is now standing as an independent, so the Tory vote will be split, and the Lib Dems finished a close second last time.

The parish council has seen intrigue, cliques and scandal worthy of Midsomer Murders – although we haven’t had our first murder yet (thank goodness). I’ll be voting for all of the candidates opposed to the current ruling Clique. This could be the most intriguing and unpredictable contest of the lot!

28 November 2013

Launch of the Blueprint for ‘Scotland’s Future’: A Red-Letter Day for England?

Cross-posted with thanks from English Commonwealth.

Yesterday saw the launch of ‘Scotland’s Future’: the Scottish Government’s white paper on Scottish independence, billed as the blueprint for the country’s future. English Commonwealth looks forward to the publication of the UK government’s blueprint for the future of the United Kingdom, and particularly England’s place within it.

We could be waiting for a very long time. The sad truth is that the British government appears to have no coherent long-term vision for the Union, for the relations between its constituent countries and for its systems of government – let alone any vision for England.

In the specific context of the Scottish-independence referendum, this presents the No campaign – Better Together – with something of a quandary: they have no positive vision for the future of the Union, and of Scotland within it, to set against the blueprint for an independent Scotland set out in the white paper. There simply is no such positive plan for the Union. Any alternative ideas they might come up with would be pure ‘fiction’, as the Better Together leader Alastair Darling described ‘Scotland’s Future’ yesterday.

Better Together can’t even outline a detailed set of proposals about how devolution might be extended in Scotland in the event of a No vote, for instance by giving the Scottish government control over most of the taxes raised in Scotland. They can’t do this because no commitment to ‘devo more’ or ‘devo max’ exists on the part of the Westminster government, let alone any overall policy framework setting out the maximum degree to which devolution could be rolled out to all of the constituent nations of the UK – including England – and the constitutional ramifications of so doing.

Better Together can’t even speak with any authority about what the stance of the UK government would be on a whole range of issues were it to find itself in the position of negotiating an independence settlement with Scotland following a Yes vote in the referendum. These issues include things like the currency; Scotland’s EU and NATO membership; the UK’s nuclear deterrent, currently based in the Scottish port of Faslane; and other security issues such as naval shipbuilding, dividing up the armed forces and border controls.

On the face of it, there appears to be no contingency planning for this eventuality on the part of the UK government, which is perhaps over-confident that the No’s will win. If there is any contingency planning, then it certainly hasn’t been revealed to the pro-Union campaigners, because free and fair election rules preclude the government from disclosing valuable inside information to only one side in the referendum, and because this information would in any case no doubt be classified as a state secret.

But over and above contingency planning, there appears to be no plan at all for what the constitutional and governance framework of the ‘rest of the UK’ (rUK) would look like if Scotland departs from or breaks up the Union. So Better Together simply cannot predict anything sensible or coherent about what the eventual Scottish-independence settlement would look like, because nobody in the UK government has articulated any ideas whatsoever about what rUK would look like: about which elements of the present UK it would insist on retaining and what it would be willing to share with Scotland in a continuing social and economic union. Following a Yes vote, we’d be in a completely different political and constitutional ball game, and no one has yet proposed let alone established what the rules of the game would be.

This leaves England potentially in a massive constitutional limbo. Let’s put it this way: there’s no plan for a continuing Union including Scotland, even less of a plan for rUK, and even less for the status and governance of England within rUK.

Never mind Scotland: England needs a plan B. That’s why, more than ever, we need a Constitutional Convention for England. If the government won’t direct its thoughts to the shape of a continuing UK with or without Scottish independence, and England’s place within it, then the people of England must do so in its place. English Commonwealth urges its readers to support our petition for just such a constitutional convention. So far, as I write, our petition has generated a mere 37 online signatures out of a target of 1 million.

Come on, men and women of England: don’t let England’s future and very existence be decided by default by the people of Scotland and by a UK government that couldn’t care less about our country. Let’s make the day the blueprint for Scotland’s future was published a red-letter day for England!

23 May 2013

Gay marriage: a very English muddle

I’m opposed to the Marriage (Same-Sex) Bill. I have no problems with gay – or, as the PC term is now, LGBT – equality as a general concept, i.e. that LGBT people should be treated equally to any other citizens and should not be discriminated against. However, I do take issue with some of the ways LGBT equality has been implemented in practice, such as the requirement under the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 for adoption agencies to take on gay and lesbian couples on an equal basis to heterosexual couples. That has meant that many Christian adoption agencies – which were generally recognised as providing an excellent service – have had to close, as they took the view that it is in the best interests of the child to be adopted by opposite-sex, preferably married, couples. By holding out for this view and not taking on same-sex couples, they would have run the risk of breaking the law.

Gay, or same-sex, marriage had, and arguably still has, the potential to present similar crises of conscience. If marriage is construed, like adoption, as a service that religious organisations such as churches provide to the public, then once same-sex marriage enters the statute books, those churches could be held to be in breach of the law by not offering marriage to gay couples. Section 2 of the present Bill, which passed its reading at the report stage earlier this week, offers churches and other religions protection against that eventuality by requiring religious organisations to opt in to the right to conduct same-sex marriages. In other words, there is no obligation on such organisations to provide same-sex marriage services if they do not agree with them on grounds of conscience.

So, no problem then? Well, the peculiar problem in England is that the Church of England historically has always had the obligation to marry any persons that requested it to do so, so long as the marriage thus solemnised was legal, e.g. not bigamous or prohibited for some other reason. Hence, introducing gay marriage could have put the Church in the position whereby it uniquely, as the established Church, had to offer gay weddings if gay couples asked it to do so. This is why the Bill has resorted to the drastic measure of actually prohibiting the Church of England (and the Anglican Church in Wales) from celebrating same-sex marriages. If it had not done so, there would have been a serious possibility of a legal challenge from gay couples who had been refused marriage by the Church.

As part of this obligation of the Church to marry those who ask it to do so in good faith (if not always in actual Christian faith), there has hitherto been just a single legal definition of marriage in English Law, i.e. no distinction between civil and religious marriage as exists in many countries in the rest of Europe. The new Bill maintains this tradition of recognising only one form of marriage but extends it to gay couples. Thus a somewhat absurd situation has arisen whereby the Church of England is still obliged to marry opposite-sex couples in church, and a single legal form of marriage (straight and gay) that applies to both religious and civil ceremonies is maintained, but the Church is prohibited from providing that form of marriage to gay couples.

This contradiction is absolutely bound to lead to legal challenges. But the fact that the new law will ban the Church from conducting same-sex weddings is intended to deflect those challenges away from the Church (which will have no option but to refuse gay couples) on to the law itself. Hence, the challenges, when they come, will take the form of judicial reviews or appeals to the European Court of Human Rights.

This is a very English muddle; indeed, one might even characterise it as very Anglican. England’s Church, and indeed English society, is a broad church, tolerating a wide spectrum of faith, ethics and sexuality. In one sense, the big joke in all this is that gay relationships and couples, involving vicars and bishops in many cases, have been quietly tolerated in the Church of England for decades. The real problem, for the Church, is perhaps that the possibilities of being either obliged to celebrate, or prohibited from celebrating, such relationships forces a resolution of the Church’s ambiguities on the morality of homosexuality. It pushes the issue out of the closet and into . . . the church. Will the Church turn down the wish of its gay congregants to marry in their places of worship, or will it utter a collective ‘I do’?

Well, the answer may soon be taken out of its hands, if indeed there are successful legal challenges to the ban on Anglican same-sex marriage. Ironically, the Church of England is perhaps more vulnerable in this area than other churches and faiths, which historically have not had the obligation to offer marriage to allcomers, as has the C of E.

The problem, as I have indicated above, is the single legal definition of marriage in England and Wales, which will now encompass same-sex unions. Over and above the fact that this may ultimately bring about the disestablishment of the Church of England – if it refuses to provide same-sex marriages once the ban on its doing so is overturned by the High Court or the ECtHR – this is the reason why I oppose the Bill.

I wouldn’t have any objection to gay civil marriage if law and practice made a distinction between civil and religious marriage. Indeed, making a split between civil marriage (open to gay and straight couples) and religious marriage (open by default only to straight couples but, at the discretion of each religious organisation, capable of being extended to gay couples) could have been a way to resolve the parallel muddle that has arisen over civil partnerships: the current civil form of recognition of same-sex unions (‘gay marriage’ in all but official documentation), which the Bill in its present form is neither abolishing nor extending to heterosexual couples – hence creating another anomaly and inequality. Indeed, even if a church or other religious organisation did not choose to conduct gay religious marriages, it could be open to them to conduct gay civil marriages within their own premises: equivalent to celebrating civil partnerships now, as civil partnerships would be ‘upgraded’ to ‘civil marriages’, equivalent to straight civil marriages.

But as the law continues to be based on a single definition of marriage – civil and religious, and now gay and straight – this means that what is at issue is not merely LGBT equality in the matter of civil marriage but English society’s collective understanding and formal definition of marriage per se. By legalising gay marriage, the British parliament is declaring that the official meaning and purpose of marriage in England and Wales are no longer as understood by traditional Christianity, which holds that marriage is the life-long union of a man and a woman, and is the foundation of family life and strong communities. (I’ve written about this extensively in my previous post from the point of view of traditional Christian faith, so won’t go back over this ground here.)

This is what is ultimately at stake for England here: our understanding and beliefs about the meaning and value of human sexuality, and the importance of the traditional family based around the rock of an unshakable union between a husband and a wife committed to each other and their children for life.

Let’s not be under any illusions here. The most ardent and determined LGBT-equality campaigners won’t be content with mere equality under the law: they want society not only to hold and propagate the view that gay sex and marriage are equal to their straight counterparts, but that they are equivalent to them, morally, socially and spiritually. They want to marginalise and stigmatise anyone who stands up for the traditional understanding of marriage, and brand them as bigots and homophobes. Indeed, that’s what they’re already doing. You wait for the challenges against churches, and church and other religious schools and their teachers, to come in.

Now that it’s law, it’ll become mandatory PC speak to acknowledge the ‘equal value’ and importance of gay and straight marriages. And what will inevitably be next is demands for ‘reproductive equality': the equal ‘right’ for gay couples, especially if they’re married, to access ‘fertility services’ enabling them to have children (which, after all, is what marriage is supposed to be all about, they might say). So fertility clinics will not be allowed to give preference to straight couples having difficulty becoming joint parents in the natural way over gay or lesbian couples requiring treatments such as artificial insemination or surrogacy enabling one of them to become a parent, even though neither could become a parent under any circumstances if left to nature alone. Equal adoption and marriage rights: equal fertility rights – watch this space.

Would it matter if the traditional family disappears under the impact of an increasingly secularised society’s obsession with enabling every individual – gay or straight – to pursue and fulfil the same goals in the name of equal rights? Well, I think it does matter. Society needs people who are prepared to place their commitments to other people – wives, husbands, children, families, communities – above their dedication to pursuing their personal life goals and sexual, or other, destinies. And, I would say, society needs faith: the belief in, and commitment to, some thing or some being higher than oneself. Is this need met by changing society’s understanding of marriage so that it is merely the affirmation of two people’s love and passion for each other, and of their pursuit of personal fulfilment, divorced from the broader social and familial context?

Well, I guess we’ll muddle through. I hope so anyway. Maybe those who want dogmatically to insist we all acknowledge the equal value of gay sex and unions will not in fact win their ultimate victory, and English society will continue to tolerate diversity, even if hypocritically in some contexts, such as the Church.

The fact that the Marriage (Same-Sex) Bill is such an unholy English muddle gives me a sort of desperate hope.

3 February 2013

Why I’m opposed to the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill

The British government’s bill to legalise same-sex marriage in England and Wales – the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill – received its first reading (a formality) in the House of Commons the week before last and is due to receive its second, more significant, reading this coming Tuesday. The bill is likely to be passed into law during the course of the year, as the great majority of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs are thought to support it, and enough Conservative MPs appear to be in favour. Indeed, one article identified only 118 Tory MPs that were on record as opposing the measure, one of whom has said he will abstain. Nonetheless, this is a sizeable Conservative backbench rebellion and may wipe out any temporary kudos Mr Cameron may have gained from his recent speech promising a referendum on the EU.

I’m opposed to the Bill on two main grounds. Firstly, I believe it’s morally and ontologically wrong: there is, and can never be, any such thing as true same-sex marriage. The basis for this belief in my case is Christian faith, which teaches us that marriage is by definition the lifelong union of a man and a woman, a union which both symbolises and enacts the union between God and humanity in Christ. One of the intrinsic purposes – but not the exclusive purpose – of this union is the raising of children. It’s something both sacred – transcendent – and natural, in the way that Christ himself is both divine and human, and that all humanity is called to share in the divine love in Christ.

Therefore, on this basis, marriage actually is something: it’s a real state or condition, ordained by God, and not a mere socio-cultural convention or legal contract that we are free to modify as society and its mores change. One could as it were no longer have same-sex marriage as two persons of the same sex could naturally procreate.

Well, why not then introduce a form of secular, civic gay marriage that is legally distinct from religious or Christian marriage? That would in theory be a way round the religious objections. But the trouble is that English Law, owing to the establishment of the Church of England, makes no distinction between civic and religious marriage. This is in contrast to other jurisdictions on the Continent, such as France, where the legal form of marriage is civic, and anyone requiring a religious marriage has to have a separate religious ceremony additional to the civic wedding.

The stupid thing is that we could have had effectively a form of civic same-sex marriage simply by making a modest tweak to the law on civil partnerships: by enabling them to be referred to as ‘same-sex marriages’ as an alternative name to ‘civil partnerships’ in official and legal documents and contexts. Indeed, this seems to have been the intention of the Conservative Party in its ‘Contract for Equalities’ published just before the 2010 election as an annex to its manifesto. This stated: “We will also consider the case for changing the law to allow civil partnerships to be called and classified as marriage”.

The government’s somewhat preposterous ‘myth buster’ about same-sex marriage tries to make out that this equates to a ‘mandate’ to introduce same-sex marriage. But there is no such pledge in the Contract for Equalities. On the contrary, that particular document talks about supporting civil partnerships and recognising them in the tax system as the way in which a Conservative government would advance the equality of gay people. The plan was to ensure that civil partners had the same rights as married partners, and that civil partnerships could formally be called ‘marriages’ while remaining legally civil partnerships. By contrast, the present Bill extends the existing institution of heterosexual marriage to same-sex couples while preserving civil partnerships for gay people only. This is not the same as was stated in the Contract for Equalities, nor is it especially egalitarian! And besides, only the manifesto is generally taken as setting out the commitments for which a party considers it has a mandate if elected into power, not a subsidiary annex that receives hardly any publicity during the dying days of an election campaign.

Now, ironically, the government has just announced that it will not give married couples a special tax break during the forthcoming financial year. This was a manifesto pledge, as was the commitment to recognise civil partnerships in the tax system. The obvious inference is that the government is delaying or reneging on this commitment because it knows it will be legally, or at least politically, obliged to extend any married-couples tax allowance to gay married partners as soon as the same-sex marriage passes into law. A pledge that was initially intended as a means to reward married couples and parents who stick together in adversity, and who thereby help reduce the huge social and financial costs of family break-up, would then be diverted into providing what most Tory voters would probably see as a completely unmerited tax break to gay couples, the great majority of whom are without the responsibilities of children.

This gives the lie to claims, including in the afore-mentioned ‘myth-buster’, that “the principles of long-term commitment and responsibility which underpin [marriage,] bind society together and make it stronger” are exactly the same in the case of straight and gay marriage. The life-long commitments to family – to each other’s families and to raising a family of their own – that a husband and wife make as part of traditional marriage are in no way equivalent to the merely long-term mutual commitment of a gay couple to one another, however much in love they may be at the time.

And this brings me to the second main reason why I oppose the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill: it depreciates and further undermines traditional, straight marriage, whether you see this institution as predominantly a religious thing, or as a universal phenomenon of human civilisation and cultures. True marriage – involving a lifelong commitment of a man and a woman to one another – is about so much more than the mutual commitment of two persons of the same gender, however beautiful and loving this can be in its own way. Marriage speaks to the nature of human beings as male and female: the two sexes as complementary to one another, and as having differing as well as mutual responsibilities towards one another. It involves the whole mystery and beauty of procreation and parenthood, and is what encapsulates and channels the primordial reproductive instinct into a cohesive social structure – the family – and gives it meaningful, ritualised and standardised forms of cultural expression: making it and us human in the process. It is about the rich, cultural meanings that have built up around the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’, and ‘father’ and ‘mother’, and which are bound up with what I have just described.

And it is family that marriage is above all about. Marriage is the cornerstone and foundation of family, and not just in the purely causal sense of children deriving from exercising the conjugal rights. Marriage is essentially the glue that seals the family together at each generational link in the chain: it is what turns us into members of a family, and by extension of the human family and of society, as opposed to being mere random assemblages of competing genes. But there is absolutely nothing in the present draft of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill about the family. Indeed, the word occurs only once in the whole document in a legalistic point regarding the parental rights of a married or civil partner over his/her own children or those of his/her partner.

Apart from the fact the complete absence of any discussion of family from a bill that seeks to extend marriage to gay couples completely destroys any confidence that the bill has anything to do with authentic marriage, what message is this sending out to existing or aspiring straight married couples and their families? If the government will not recognise in law the interdependence of marriage and the family – as it has just refused to recognise it in the tax system – how is this going to encourage the sort of responsible, sustainable relationships between mature men and women that are needed to produce cohesive, caring families and communities?

And don’t even get me on to the fact that the bill completely evades any question of what constitutes the consummation of a gay marriage, for the obvious reason that gay unions cannot conform to the traditional definition of consummation as genital-penetrative sexual intercourse open to the possibility of conception. So are we to assume that there is no consummation test for marriage per se now, even for straight couples? I don’t think this is the case, although this is open to interpretation, it seems to me. The reason I don’t think it’s the case is that adultery within a same-sex union is defined by the bill as involving sexual relations only with someone of the opposite sex, not someone of the same sex. In other words, if there is no same-sex adultery because there can be no same-sex consummation in the first place (nothing officially being defined as gay ‘intercourse’ for the purpose of the bill), the fact that there is still heterosexual adultery implies that there is still such a thing as consummation of a straight union.

But not only is this not equal, and not fair in different ways to either gay or straight married couples; but it also gives the lie to the claim that gay marriage can also be equivalent to – the same as – straight marriage, existentially and socio-culturally. Same-sex marriage will not have the same meanings or the same role in society; and it will not have the same forms of expression or the same impact on gay married partners as marriage has traditionally had on straight couples.

The Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill is therefore wrong on a number of levels. Same-sex marriage is a contradiction in terms: inauthentic as well as incoherently and inconsistently defined, if indeed it is at all, in the bill. It also involves an impoverishment of our understanding of the core meaning and importance of marriage, reducing it merely to a mutual, loving commitment by two persons, rather than as the cornerstone of the family and by extension of society as a whole.

And there is one last reason why this Bill, if it becomes law, may need to continue being opposed. This is that it relates to England and Wales only; and yet it is the UK parliament as a whole, including the 77 MPs from Scotland and Northern Ireland, that will be voting on it. The Bill may end up being another instance whereby a law relating only to England, or in this case England and Wales, relies on the votes of MPs representing constituents not affected by the legislation to be passed. This is all the more likely in this instance, in that 52 out of Scotland’s 59 MPs represent either the Labour Party or the Lib Dems. And these MPs will mostly vote in favour of the Bill, despite the fact that it does not relate to Scotland, and that a draft bill to legalise same-sex marriage has separately been presented to the Scottish parliament. Indeed, I’m tempted to think that one of the main reasons this particular shoddy Bill is being rushed through Parliament is that David Cameron wants to ensure that the UK parliament gets gay marriage on the statute book first, ahead of Scotland, in part to demonstrate to the people of Scotland that the Union can embody the so-called progressive values that supporters of Scottish independence feel could best be realised in a stand-alone Scotland.

Whatever the reasons the prime minister does have for cutting off his backbenchers to save his liberal-unionist face, you can rest assured that if this misplaced and ill-devised Bill does become law through the votes of MPs representing countries not addressed by it, this writer will not remain silent.

9 January 2013

Coalition Mid-Term Review: Sidelining England in the British-national interest

The UK coalition government published its mid-term review on Monday of this week. It is not the intention of this article to carry out a detailed analysis: I am interested mainly in the way England is treated, or rather is not, in the document.

At first sight, for a document produced by the UK government, it is remarkable how many times the words ‘England’ and ‘English’ actually appear: 15 and six respectively. However, most of the references to ‘England’ are of two related types: 1) where it is necessary to spell out that certain facts or policy proposals relate to England only in order to avoid misunderstanding, and to prevent people living in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland from thinking they are affected by them; and 2) to make sure that credit can be claimed for England-specific achievements for which the coalition parties hope to be rewarded by English voters at the next election.

Examples of the first type of reference occur on page 26, where the document refers to a number of policy proposals in the area of personal care as being specific to England, such as rules regarding eligibility for care and the introduction of a Deferred Payment Scheme designed to prevent people from having to sell their homes in order to pay for care. Clearly, these are important statutory and financial matters, and it is necessary to make it clear to non-English readers that they affect only people living in England.

Examples of the second type of reference are:

  • “We have provided the resources to help local authorities in England freeze their council tax for three years in a row” (page 14): Tory policy – please vote for us, England. (What are these ‘resources’, though? I thought local-authority funding in England was being cut, and the council-tax freeze was just a statutory, central government-imposed diktat. Do they mean local-authority funding is being cut by less than it would otherwise have been if authorities had been allowed to increase council tax willy nilly?)
  • “We have brought in the Protection of Freedoms Act to limit the retention of DNA samples in England and Wales in line with practice in Scotland” (page 37): Lib Dem policy – look, we actually do care about you, England, at least in the lofty area of British civil liberties if nothing else.

The first type of reference to England described above has the character of a legal declaration of ‘territorial extent’, along the lines of when cereal packets make it clear that a competition is limited to Great Britain and does not include Northern Ireland. And indeed, the whole document is circumscribed by a legal disclaimer of this sort covering territorial extent, which appears right at the end:

“As a result of devolution, many decisions made by UK Ministers or in the Westminster Parliament now apply to England only. The Northern Ireland Executive, the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government make their own policy on these devolved issues. This document therefore sets out the agreed priorities for the Coalition Government in Westminster.”

No clarification as to which policies “now apply to England only”, of course! Is the general public just supposed to know what they are, as the document certainly doesn’t make this clear to the reader as it goes through the different policy areas, apart from the few exceptions I have already mentioned? But throwing in a disclaimer like this means the government can essentially cop out of providing a detailed break-down and say: ‘look, we’ve acknowledged that some policies are England-only, and anyone interested in those particular policies will know whether they’re England-specific or not’.

This is simply not good enough, although it is par for the course. We’ve come to expect from Westminster politicians and the UK government that they will avoid referring explicitly to ‘England’ as much as they possibly can, and will do so only when it is necessary to avoid factual misunderstanding and harmful political consequences, in the ways outlined above. But their unwillingness to acknowledge a country called ‘England’ to which so many of their policies relate means that Westminster politicians cannot and do not hold themselves properly accountable to the ‘nation’ and people affected by those policies.

This fact is evident in the evasive manner in which many of the policy ‘achievements’ and remaining objectives of the coalition are described; and in many instances, the evasiveness relates directly to the suppression of references to ‘England’. For example, the document never makes it explicitly clear that when it discusses ‘the NHS’, it means only the NHS in England. This helps it gloss over the fact that the coalition has legislated for a massive reform to the NHS that will alter it – in England only – quite radically from the institution created by the post-war Labour government. And yet, the government still has the gall to refer to it as “one of our great national institutions”, as if the NHS it presides over is still fundamentally the same old British NHS, which it no longer is (at least not in England).

So suppression of the England-specific nature of the NHS reforms goes hand in hand with evasiveness about the scope and nature of those reforms. For example, the document says: “We have improved the NHS by . . . starting to devolve commissioning of most health services to GP-led clinical commissioning groups”. But what it doesn’t say is that these changes are limited to England and that the said commissioning groups are statutorily obliged to consider bids from private health-care providers even if the services they provide are initially more expensive than those of existing, public-sector NHS providers.

A more honest account of the government’s measures would be explicit about both their England-specific character and their ultimate guiding principles, and would be expressed something like this: “We have reformed the NHS in England in such a way as to create a competitive health-care market in which private companies will increasingly take over the provision of publicly funded services”. This is actually intended to be an ideologically neutral statement of what the government has done: it has marketised the health-care sector in England, whether you believe that’s the most effective way to deliver health care or not. So why should a Tory-led government not trumpet that achievement? Well, because it suspects, probably correctly, that if English people knew what had been done to ‘their NHS’ (but not to the NHS’s in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), involving changes that were not set out in any manifesto or in the Coalition Agreement, they’d probably violently object. So instead, the coalition pretends that ‘the NHS’ remains fundamentally the same – a primarily public-sector and ‘British’ institution – neither of which is true any more: in England, that is.

The same analysis could be made of many, many other parts of the document that discuss England-specific policies and legislation while avoiding clarifying either that they relate to England only or that they are driven by an ideological bias in favour of private enterprise and markets at the expense of the public sector and, arguably, the public interest – in England. Another brief example – one among many – is where the document says: “We have introduced a presumption of sustainable development in the National Planning Policy Framework, which includes protection of the Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest”. How disingenuous can they be? What this really means is: “We have prepared legislation to make it easier to obtain planning permission for major developments in England’s countryside, with only Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest retaining the previous level of protection”. So England’s green and pleasant land can be concreted over under the pretext of driving economic growth, in the British national interest, regardless of the very passionate interest the English public has in protecting its countryside and natural heritage.

The identity of the ‘nation’ on which this concept of the ‘national interest’ is predicated is quite nebulous in the Mid-Term Review, as indeed it was in the original Coalition Agreement. This is quite simply because, in so many instances, the nation concerned is in reality England, but the government will not and cannot acknowledge this fact. This is rather damaging, as the very raison d’être of the coalition, then as now, is to govern in the ‘national interest’, as the title of the Mid-Term Review makes clear: “The Coalition: together in the national interest”. But whereas the phrase ‘national interest’ is adduced as justification for the coalition’s existence or for certain key decisions on five occasions in the document, the word ‘nation’ is used only once: “In 2012, the nation came together to celebrate the success of the London Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Diamond Jubilee”.

Three of the references to ‘national interest’ relate to the formation and continuance of the coalition, based on pulling the UK round from a dangerous financial and economic crisis; one to supporting the work of the Airports Commission, which could lead to controversial approval for, say, a new terminal at Heathrow or a new runway at Stansted (i.e. more environmental degradation in England “in the national interest”); and the other reference deals with the decision to opt out of, or in to, various EU police and criminal-justice measures. In other words, ‘national interest’ is very narrowly defined in terms of a small number of strategically important reserved policy areas – the economy, air transport, foreign policy and security – whereas large parts of the document deal with devolved policy areas, i.e. with those affecting England only or mainly.

Are these English measures also being introduced in the ‘national interest’? It’s hard to believe they are given the unwillingness of the government to connect the phrase ‘national interest’ with the specific nation, England, concerned? And if they’re not being carried out in the English-national interest, in whose interest are they being done? The interest of the government’s ideological, commercial and financial bedfellows (its corporate sponsors and partners, and its financial creditors)? The interests of the UK state and establishment, and their preservation from an economic meltdown that could have accelerated the centrifugal, nationalist forces challenging their  continuing existence? Or the interests of the coalition parties themselves, who want to come out of the five-year relationship claiming they have fought their corner and followed through on their manifesto pledges – irrespective of the fact that many of the measures they’ve introduced were never outlined in detail and in some instances were flatly contradicted by their manifestos and by the Coalition Agreement, such as the [English] NHS reforms or the Higher Education policies (especially the massive hike in tuition fees for English students)?

But these questions, as indeed the English Question itself, are completely sidelined by the Mid-Term Review. After all, the Coalition can hardly be expected to hold itself accountable to an entity such as ‘the English people’, can it, if its remit is to govern in the British national interest?

6 January 2013

Inconsistent, dangerous and irrelevant: Proposed changes to the rules of succession

Further to my previous post, on the 2011 Census and gay marriage, it is noteworthy that, during December, another draft bill was published that relates to the issues of marriage equality and of England’s Christian establishment and history. This is the Succession to the Crown Bill 2012.

The Bill, which is expected to be rushed through ahead of the birth of the Duchess of Cambridge’s baby, makes two main provisions:

  1. Abolition of primogeniture: the rule that specifies that it is the first-born male who inherits the crown, even if one or more female children have been born to the existing monarch or their heir before the arrival of a male child. Now it will simply be the first-born child of the monarch or heir who will succeed to the throne, whether that child is male or female
  2. Right for the monarch or heir to marry a Roman Catholic: since the Bill of Rights of 1689, the monarch or heir has been barred from marrying a Roman Catholic, to help ensure the Protestant succession (more on this below).

The rationale that is given for these changes is that they do away with two instances of discrimination – against women and against Roman Catholics – that no longer appear justifiable in these equality-minded times of ours. But the fact that this Bill was published in the same month as the government’s proposals on gay marriage shows how absurdly inconsistent this rationale actually is. For example, if the basis for making the changes is equality, then why not allow the monarch or heir to marry someone of the same gender like the rest of the population? The Bill refers to the abolition of primogeniture as ensuring that “succession to the Crown [is] not to depend on gender”. Well, why not then “remove the disqualification” to the Crown – as the bill might put it – from marrying someone of the same gender?

And if we really want to apply the principle of equality consistently, then why not allow the monarch or heir to actually be a Roman Catholic as well as merely being allowed to marry one? And come to think of it, why should it be automatically the first-born child that inherits the Crown? Isn’t that discrimination against the later children? The first-born might be intellectually challenged or have flaws of character making her or him entirely unsuited to the Crown: a fact that has been sadly illustrated on numerous occasions in the history of England’s kings and queens! And ultimately, the real problem, from the point of view of equality, is the principle of a hereditary monarchy itself: why should anyone inherit the role of UK head of state nowadays? My point is that it’s completely ludicrous to defend these changes as being carried out for the sake of equality, as the whole institution of the monarchy is based on radical inequality!

Returning to my rhetorical question of why a monarch or heir should not be allowed to marry someone of the same gender once gay marriage becomes law: in actual fact, the various parliamentary Acts that deal with the rules of succession, including the present Bill, do not specify gay marriage as a factor barring someone from the throne. However, this is still excluded by virtue of the fact that the present or prospective monarch, as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, has to be married in an Anglican ceremony. And as the Church of England will be prohibited from conducting gay weddings under the gay-marriage legislation, this cannot happen, at least not without further changes to the law.

In an attempt to shore up the exclusion of gay monarchical marriage, the Succession to the Crown Bill 2012 retains the requirement for the six persons next in line to the throne to seek the consent of the current monarch if they wish to get married. If they marry without that consent, then they are barred from the throne. As Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the monarch is hardly likely to consent to their heir marrying someone of the same gender – i.e. in a non-Anglican rite – as this would be a direct challenge to the very established character of the Church of England, which it is the monarch’s role to defend.

In addition to these religio-political considerations, allowing the heir to the throne to marry someone of the same gender also counteracts one of the central purposes of a royal marriage, which is, precisely, to ensure the succession: to produce children who will form the line of succession to the throne – albeit that a first-born female will now automatically be at the head of the queue. In this sense, royal marriage retains one of the primary characteristics of traditional Christian marriage that will be lost from English Law’s definition of marriage once gay marriage comes into effect: that it is intended for the raising of children.

All of this perhaps seems somewhat academic and theoretical. But it is in fact not beyond the bounds of possibility that a future first- to sixth-in-line to the throne might wish to marry someone of the same gender and could find themselves prohibited from doing so by the queen or king. Imagine the uproar that would ensue! It would result in all manner of legal challenges, which would be added to the list of challenges that would already have been brought against the prohibition of gay marriage in the Anglican churches of England and Wales. And before we knew it, the monarch or heir could be free to marry whoever (s)he liked in whatever sort of ceremony, and freed of her / his obligation to head up the Church of England, which itself would be ‘free’ to conduct gay weddings, or not, by virtue of no longer being the established Church.

So the Succession to the Crown Bill 2012 in general is grossly inconsistent in its application of equality principles, and it is also dangerous, in that it chips away at the foundation stones of a hereditary Protestant-Christian monarchy it ostensibly sets out merely to reform. The specific provision allowing the monarch or heir to marry a Roman Catholic (but not one of the same gender or to be one) is similarly inconsistent and dangerous, although perhaps also irrelevant. For a start, the fact that the present or future monarch is allowed to marry an RC doesn’t make it likely they would do. As the law presently stands, the monarch is allowed in theory to be married to a Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or member of any non-Anglican-Christian religion or of no religion. But it hasn’t happened. The reason for this is that the consort effectively needs to be Anglican even if they do not have to be, for the reasons given above: the royal marriage marks a necessary formal step towards ensuring the Anglican succession via the procreation and raising of an heir who will eventually be Supreme Governor of the Church. It was for this reason that the Duke of Edinburgh converted from Greek Orthodoxy to Anglicanism prior to marrying our present queen.

Any prospective Roman Catholic consort would most likely be prevailed upon to similarly convert to Anglicanism before marrying the monarch or heir. If, however, their devotion to the Catholic Church was so great that it overrode any sense that supporting their prospective spouse in her or his role as Defender of the Faith could also be considered a sacred, Christian calling of equivalent merit to their Catholic faith, then the marriage would almost certainly be called off. This would be a) because the unwillingness of the future prince or queen consort to switch denominations would be a cause of relationship break-down, or b) because this refusal would trigger a denial of consent for the couple to marry on the part of the reigning monarch, on similar grounds that consent would be denied if the heir wished to marry someone of the same gender: that it was an unsuitable match for a would-be British monarch and Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and guarantor of the Protestant succession.

If, however, the couple still wished to get married, and had obtained the consent of the queen or king to do so, there is still no guarantee that the marriage could go ahead. This is because, in order for an Anglican wedding where one of the participants is Catholic to be considered valid by the Roman Catholic Church, it needs to be approved by the local Roman Catholic bishop; and the couple needs to give an undertaking to raise their children as Catholics. In other words, the Catholic Church would once again be in a position to approve or deny a wedding involving the British monarch or her / his heir! Isn’t that what all the trouble between Henry VIII and the Holy See was all about in the first place? Of course, it was; and that’s precisely what the prohibition of the monarch from marrying a Roman Catholic is intended to prevent!

Clearly, such a situation would be completely unacceptable to the UK government, the monarchy and most British people. Any monarch insisting on marrying a Roman Catholic (thereby undertaking to raise their children as Catholics) would almost certainly be forced to abdicate, just as Edward VIII was obliged to do when he insisted on marrying a divorcee (i.e. in a non-Anglican ceremony). And any heir demanding to marry a Roman Catholic would almost certainly be denied permission to do so by the reigning monarch, or else be removed from the succession. That’s unless the Church of England were disestablished and the monarch were relieved of her / his role as Supreme Governor – in which case, they could do pretty much whatever they wished.

In other words, the changes to the rules of succession put forward in the Succession to the Crown Bill 2012 are inconsistent, dangerous and irrelevant. They are predicated on principles of equality they cannot consistently fulfil, because to do so would mean the end of the Protestant-Christian succession itself. In addition, it is unlikely that the provision allowing the monarch to be married to a Roman Catholic will ever be acted on by any queen or king, unless disestablishment has taken place. But by applying equality principles to a hereditary monarchy – however inconsistently – the Bill creates grounds for further legal and political challenges to the present establishment.

This is no bad thing, perhaps – other than the fact that a wholesale demolition of the present establishment could result in the abolition of England as a Christian nation and, indeed, as any type of civic nation, as I argued in my previous article. Clearly, England’s demise would be a tragedy under any circumstances. But to happen as a result of the constitutional illiteracy and woolly-minded egalitarianism of the present omnishambles that passes for a British government would be worse than a tragedy: it would be a theatre of the absurd!

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