At the start of his acceptance speech on his election two days ago as the leader of the Liberal Democrats – or, as I like to call them, the English-UK Liberal Democrats (see From a UK Of England and Semi-Autonomous Regions To a UK Of Autonomous Nations) – Nick Clegg stated: “Today is about two things: ambition, and change. . . . Renewed ambition to reach out to the millions of people who share our values, but have not yet voted for us. It’s about renewed ambition for Britain. Because we want to change politics, and change Britain”.
The rest of Mr Clegg’s speech went on to define this agenda of change for Britain (or, as I would put it, England-Britain) based on reaffirming liberalism as the core of those ‘British values’ that have supposedly not been represented by the two other big parties, Labour and the Conservatives. Indeed, to such an extent is liberalism the heart of British values that, in the new leader’s words, “I believe that liberalism is the thread that holds together everything this country stands for. Pull out that thread and the fabric of the nation unravels”.
Needless to say, ‘this country’ and ‘the nation’ are intended to refer to ‘Britain’ (i.e. the UK) even though on many of the policy areas in which Nick Clegg aims to effect his liberal transformation of the country, his direct influence will be limited to England; e.g. in education and health where he seeks a Britain “where parents, pupils and patients are in charge of our schools and hospitals”. (And, by the way, how does this vision for what are effectively England’s schools and NHS differ fundamentally from those recently outlined by GB [Gordon Brown] and David Cameron?)
But most of the speech passes over such England-specific realities. This is the broad vision thing, addressing fundamental values and general policy areas where there is still the scope for a Britain-wide politics; indeed, where politics, and the people and nation of Britain, can be reunited and reconnected: “our politics is broken. Out of step with people. Out of step with the modern world. That is why I have one sole ambition: to change Britain to make it the liberal country the British people want it to be. I want a new politics: a people’s politics. I want to live in a country where rights, freedoms and privacy are not the playthings of politicians, but safeguarded for everyone. Where political life is not a Westminster village freak show, but open, accessible, and helpful in people’s everyday lives”.
So Nick Clegg’s liberal vision is a vision for Britain and of Britain. But it is not a vision for England, nor indeed for Scotland or Wales, let alone for a Northern Ireland that could be regarded as having been left out of the picture amid all the references to ‘Britain’ as ‘the country’: ten references to ‘Britain’ or ‘British’, in fact, and none for any of the four individual nations that make up the UK. Indeed, Nick Clegg’s vision starts to look very similar to that of GB, who can refer to ‘the nation’ and his vision for it only as ‘Britain’; and to that of David Cameron, who thinks the Union’s interests outweigh fairness to the people of England and wants to be a prime minister for the UK not England. Similarly, Nick Clegg’s vision of liberalism as the core set of values that cements and defines the unity and nation of Britain leaves no scope for the divided realities of governance and politics in each of the UK countries.
But what if the way the English people want politics to become ‘in step’ with them, open and accessible is through an English parliament that focuses properly on the England-specific matters currently dealt with by an unrepresentative UK parliament and government headed up by someone not even elected in England?
But no, there is no place in Nick Clegg’s vision of national and political transformation for English devolution and equal governance for the four nations of the UK. Mr Clegg’s vision for representative government within England-Britain involves devolution and accountability at local and regional level only: a politics of Town Halls and regions, not of national parliaments. “That’s why I will hold regular and public Town Hall Meetings. . . . That’s why I will spend at least one day every week listening and campaigning outside Westminster. That’s why I will set up a network of real families, who have nothing to do with party politics, in every region of this country to advise me on what they think should be my priorities”.
What are the ‘regions of this country’, Nick Clegg; indeed, what is ‘this country’ that you claim that only liberalism can truly represent? Is Scotland a region of this country? Is Wales a region of it? Is England just a collection of regions, on a par with Scotland and Wales, but with no distinct status as a nation? Because ‘this country’ is Britain? Or is ‘this country’ in fact England; but you regard it as irrelevant to say so because you believe England should be divided up into regions of similar population size and political status to the nations of Scotland and Wales? Now where have I heard that idea before?
What if the ordinary people in the Town Halls of England and the real families in the regions of England say they want English government on matters that affect English people, and fair treatment for English families and young people in the distribution of public funding for health, social welfare and education between the nations of the UK? What if they say they want an English parliament that is on an equal footing to the parliament and assembly of Scotland and Wales? Will the new Liberal Democrat leader be able to come up with answers to such questions when he’s faced by them?
It’s early days yet; but the prognosis from his Day One inspirational speech is not good. Mr Clegg’s vision of liberalism, politics and the country is one for Britain only and, indeed, for a ‘one-Britain’ that no longer exists on the ground. As the new leader stated at the end of his speech: “we must start where people are, not where we think they should be. In short, I want the Liberal Democrats to be the future of politics. . . . To bring in a new politics. Of politicians who listen to people, not themselves. No more business as usual. No more government-knows-best. I want today to mark the beginning of real change in Britain. The beginning of Britain’s liberal future”.
But if ‘where people are’ is England and what they want is a political future for England, while the politicians and the government are still focused on Britain, is there a Liberal Democrat vision for such a thing?