Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

22 April 2008

Regional governance and the English parliament

It is often assumed by opponents of an English parliament that such a body would merely replicate the centralist pattern of governance that is characteristic of the present UK regime. One of the reasons for this is a simple equation that is made between the concept of ‘nationalism’ and support for a strong, unitary and by extension centrally organised nation state.

But there are many different possible blueprints for an English parliament and self-rule; and these involve a variety of relationships between all the different layers of government, ranging from the ‘local’ to the European and international. My personal preference hitherto has been a federal UK: a UK initially of four or five (including Cornwall) ‘nations’, with parliaments that have the same level of governmental responsibility in each of their respective territories. This would eliminate the imbalance of the present devolution settlement, whereby the people of Scotland and Wales are entitled to elect parliamentary bodies to deal with areas such as education, health and planning for their own countries exclusively, while policy and laws for England in these matters are made by the UK parliament elected by all the people of the UK.

I put the word ‘nation’ into inverted commas above because the parts of a federal UK as thus described are presently not formally defined as nations; nor would it be necessary for devolved federal parliaments to be limited to nations as such. Technically, as I say, none of the UK territories that we like to know as nations are nations in law: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are officially referred to as ‘constituent parts’ or ‘constituent countries’ of the UK. So ‘national’ devolution for each of these territories need not actually be described as such, but could be referred to as a form of regional devolution – with England obviously being a significantly larger ‘UK region’ than all the others.

Clearly, however, this sort of nomenclature would not be acceptable to the majority of the people in any of the UK’s ‘constituent countries’ (nor is this something I would subscribe to), as citizens are profoundly attached to their countries and are proud to call them ‘nations’ – as unofficially as you like! I do, however, think that a variation (and rather a significant variation) of the model I’ve just described is how GB [Gordon Brown] would like to see devolution eventually pan out. I think he sees Scotland, Wales and (to an indeterminate degree) Northern Ireland both as nations – in the informal, emotional sense – and as British regions. This dual identity is in some respects no different from the double status these countries have always had as distinct ‘nations’ within a unitary British state. The only difference – in theory – about devolved governance is that certain powers were delegated to the Scots and the Welsh themselves. A transfer of power does not in itself equate to a shift in national identity.

In other words, Brown’s original concept for devolution was probably that the Scots and Welsh would be content simply to have more of a say over devolved matters while still seeing themselves as primarily British, and viewing their devolved institutions effectively as just a layer of regional governance in all but name. In the event, of course, devolution has set in train a momentum whereby many people in Scotland and Wales increasingly see their devolved bodies as national institutions, and would like to see them take more nation-type powers away from Westminster; with the endgame for many obviously being full independence.

GB’s ideal template, then, is regional devolution. I think maybe that when New Labour was planning to introduce democratically elected devolved regional government throughout England, and when GB mooted that now (in)famous concept that Britain ‘as it should be’ was a “Britain of nations and regions”, they genuinely didn’t fully realise that this would be perceived as expressing an intention to dismember England into a set of regions of equivalent size, and with equivalent political powers, to Scotland: effectively abolishing England as an entity with any constitutional or legal status as a nation within the UK. I think Brown at least just had his own blueprint in mind for what I’ve called elsewhere a unitary ‘state-nation of Britain’, with certain areas of government devolved effectively to the regions, three of which coincided with the smaller ‘nations’ of the UK, and the remaining nine of which were English regions.

I’m being generous here; but I do genuinely think Brown still thinks of ‘England’ as a nation, in the same way that he thinks of Scotland as a nation: as a cultural, emotional, personal thing for which one can have a profound affection; but which is secondary, in political terms, to the state-as-nation – England coexisting with / subsumed under Britain in the same way that Scotland exists as a nation within a nation, or a country within a country. It’s just that he neglected to explicitly associate England as such with his regional model of devolution (by, for instance, referring to the ‘regions’ as the ‘regions of England’) or even to refer to England at all as a nation – avoiding the ‘E’ word as much as he possibly can, so as not to evoke the spectre of English devolution that threatens to break up his British Banquo’s feast. (A metaphor that makes Brown a Macbeth figure – something that is perhaps both over-flattering and unjustly condemnatory; but is pleasing all the same!)

I would not have said that Brown still thinks of England as a nation had I not stumbled across the following statement from the great man following FIFA’s decision last October to drop its continental rotation policy for the Football World Cup, enabling England to bid to hold the tournament in 2018: “I am delighted that FIFA have opened the door for the World Cup to come back to England. By 2018, it will be 52 years since England hosted the World Cup. The nation which gave football to the world deserves to have the greatest tournament back on these shores”. Yes, you’re not delusional: he said England twice in three sentences and explicitly called her a ‘nation’. You could call this just consummate politics: GB playing to the English patriotic audience, whose sentiments are always to the fore when it’s a question of the ‘national game’ and the national team. But I don’t think GB would have risked making such a statement – quite the most explicit statement that England is a nation I have ever come across from him – if he didn’t at one level hold it to be true. And that’s the point: for GB, ‘England’ signifies a nation in a cultural and emotional sense only; in the same way (but without the emotion) as Scotland does. And this is a sense that is closely connected with, and evoked by, national sports events and teams. 

By the way, I don’t have empirical evidence for my assertion that this is how GB experiences his Scottish national identity: he and his minions declined to answer the question in my email to Downing Street, “Does the PM consider himself to be Scottish or British in the first instance, and why?” I sent this question (with ‘England’ replacing ‘Scotland’ where appropriate) to a number of top politicians. Interestingly, the only answer I got back was from David Cameron’s office: “David was born in England so, if you are asking whether he is Scottish, English or Welsh – he is English. However, he likes to think of himself as British”. Well, there you have it: a consummate ambiguous, non-committal politician’s answer! But actually, for me, that vindicates what I’ve always asserted about David Cameron: that he’s English in the way that really matters, which is emotional and personal identification with a place, people and culture that have moulded you; whereas ‘British’ is merely his formal, public, passport national identity – the one that emotionally-anally retentive Brown thinks should be uppermost.

But I digress. What I wanted to say is that Brown’s regional model for devolution needn’t be construed as implying a malevolent will to abolish England as such. What it would achieve, if implemented, would be to deny the possibility of an English parliament, and English national political and civic institutions in general. And that’s the nub of the problem: Brown might wish the devolved Scottish and Welsh institutions to be merely a regional layer of governance; but they’re perceived by the Scottish, Welsh and English alike as national bodies. Therefore, the mooted regionalisation of England denies England the national representation and status that appears to have been accorded to Scotland and Wales, which Brown would have wished was merely regional – and may still wish to recast as such.

This state of affairs can perhaps be illuminated by looking at what aspects of governmental ‘competence’ (areas of responsibility) could be most typically classified as national or regional (or, indeed, international and local); how these competences have been distributed under New Labour between the various layers of governance; and different models for how they could be redistributed in the context of an English parliament. This categorisation would doubtless be disputed by many; however, it’s not meant to be absolute but merely to illustrate how Scotland and Wales have been accorded ‘national’ powers that have been denied to England; and how things could be very different.

Competences typically associated with different tiers of governance

  • International (EU): co-ordination of matters affecting peaceful relations between nations / states, and where multi-lateral action is more effective than unilateral; e.g. trade, human rights, employment regulations, international environmental policy and action against climate change, product and safety standards, defence in its international dimension, market liberalisation, etc.
  • National: areas of policy and legislation primarily affecting the social and economic development and well-being of the whole nation or state; e.g. economic and fiscal policy, defence and security, justice and policing, social security and benefits system; national aspects of environmental regulation; strategic aspects of education, health, transport and planning; the ‘culture’ industries, etc.
  • Regional: co-ordination of national social, economic and environmental policies at a sub-national level, including region-specific variations in non-strategic aspects of education, health and culture (for instance, where a specific ‘regional’ language or other cultural traditions need to be taken into consideration); and also, formulation and execution of regional development plans for things such as infrastructure, housing, business and transport
  • Local: administration and delivery of the major public services as they impinge on individuals and communities, including education, health, public transport, waste collection and recycling, small-scale planning decisions, etc.

Bearing the above categories in mind, the table below illustrates the current distribution of these competences across the various tiers of UK government in the wake of the EU constitutional treaty, and devolution for Scotland and Wales; along with a series of possible re-configurations of these layers of governance in the context of a federal UK or of complete independence for each of its current constituent countries. Crosses signify the actual or potential existence of a competence in the respective area

No.

Governmental Body

International competences

National competences

Regional competences

Local competences

1

EU post-Lisbon Treaty

X

X

2

UK post-Lisbon Treaty

X

Both UK-wide and England-only

England only

3

England post-devolution

4

Scotland and Wales post-devolution

X

X

5

English regional government as rejected in North-East referendum

X

6

Unelected English regional assemblies and quangos

X

X

7

English local authorities

X

 

 

 

 

 

 

8

Federal UK parliament and government inside the EU

Optional

UK-wide only

9

National parliaments and governments within a federal UK inside the EU

X

X

10

Elected English regional assemblies and administrations within a federal UK

X

X

11

Regionally extended English local government within a federal UK

X

X

12

English county and district authorities within a federal UK

X

X

13

Independent England, Scotland, Wales, N. Ireland (and Cornwall)

Optional

X

X

14

English regions within an independent England

 

X

X

Rows 1 and 2 in the above table illustrate how some national competences as I have defined them have been transferred to the EU under the Lisbon Treaty; while the UK – in part through the government’s ‘red lines’ – has, for the time being, retained certain powers that you could view as more properly international within the context of an integrated economic market, e.g. human rights and employment regulation.

Rows 2 to 4 illustrate how the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly have acquired some but not all of the powers that I would categorise as ‘national’ (e.g. justice (in the case of Scotland), strategic aspects of education and planning, culture, etc.), as well as others that are ‘regional’. Meanwhile, those same areas of governance for England are handled by the UK parliament and government, and there is absolutely no layer of exclusive England-wide governance.

Lines 6 and 7 show how the unelected regional bodies that have been introduced without a democratic mandate have also encroached on the powers of elected local authorities in England.

Lines 8 to 14 are intended to show a wide range of possibilities for international, national, regional and local governance that could all be accommodated with the existence of national parliaments and governments for each of the countries of the UK. For example, a federal UK government could decide to transfer its powers in ‘international’ matters to the EU, or not – depending on the will of the people as expressed in a referendum. Similarly, the balance of powers between the remaining UK-wide government and the governments of each of the UK nations would need to be determined. My own preference would be for quite a minimal layer of UK-wide governance limited, say, to areas where close UK-wide co-ordination would make the most sense, such as: defence and security; border and immigration control; fiscal and monetary policy (restricted to the minimum necessary required by the fact that each country would continue to use the pound as its currency); the environment; and ‘cross-border’ transport and infrastructure planning.

In reality, the level of co-operation that would be required in these areas between England, Scotland and Wales if they became fully independent nations would be virtually the same as that between the same nations within a federal UK. The principal difference would be that a federal UK / British government would maintain a distinct legal personality and provide a single voice (and therefore might be more effective) in international affairs – acting on behalf of the nations of the UK within international bodies and strategic relationships such as the EU, the UN, NATO, and bilateral dealings with major international partners. But there would have to be a new humility on the part of this federal UK, as it would not be acting at its own behest and playing the old power games inherited from our imperial and militarily triumphant past. On the contrary, it would essentially be delegated by the separate nations of these islands to defend our interests as nations in our own right; and if Mr UK failed to act in this spirit, then his legitimacy would be seriously in question.

Similarly, there is no reason why various new forms of regional and local governance should not spring up and prosper alongside an English parliament and government, whether federal or independent. The problem that English nationalists currently have with proposals for regional governance in England isn’t necessarily based on a centralist rejection of regional government per se, but is mainly a disagreement with the model as proposed by New Labour, which completely bypasses any England-wide layer of governance. But if English regions (however defined) genuinely want to take on more areas of governmental competence – including some of those I’ve categorised as ‘national’ – then a new English government should not in theory feel undermined by that because it would not be perceived as a threat to the identity, indeed the existence, of England as a nation, or to its territorial integrity.

It could be the case that such an increasingly powerful English region might eventually wish to become a UK-federal or independent nation. However, in the foreseeable future, this seems rather unlikely, unless you count Cornwall as an ‘English region’. But Cornwall is a completely unique case, and ‘regional government’ for Cornwall within England would already be perceived by many in Cornwall as effectively national devolution – generating the same sort of momentum for ultimate separation as we currently witness in Scotland and Wales vis-a-vis the UK. In any case, perhaps as part of the establishment of a federal UK, Cornwall could acquire equal status as a UK nation to the other four countries right from the start.

English ‘regions’ could also emerge and develop organically out of existing English counties, which – unlike the regions proposed by New Labour at the start of the present decade – comprise traditional territories that people relate to and identify with. So, for instance, new regions could be formed from a number of contiguous counties joining together if they felt that this was in the best interests of the people they represent (and subject to referendum): row 11 in the above table. In this case, the new regions would acquire additional regional competences alongside their existing local ones. Eventually, when they had really established themselves as sustainable, cohesive entities, such regions could also take on some ‘national’ competences (e.g. by developing completely separate education and health systems) – but you’re looking a long way down the road to the future at that point.

In a similar way, existing counties might take on regional responsibilities (row 12 above) or (which is another way of expressing the same thing) take on additional responsibilities for formulating and delivering policy in areas such as education, healthcare and planning – something that might make sense if those counties had a large population, a distinct cultural identity and also county-specific environmental, planning or infrastructure challenges. Examples could be Cornwall again (only disputably an English ‘county’); Yorkshire (traditionally a single county, though currently split up into four, including Humberside); or Essex (with a distinct culture and infrastructure demands in the vicinity of London).

There is therefore absolutely no intrinsic reason why an English parliament should adopt the same sort of centralising mentality and control freakery as the present-day Westminster government. If anything, it would create a natural momentum towards the break up of power at the centre; and it would be rather hypocritical and hard to justify for an English parliament to block the democratic will of English people if they did want increasing powers for regional and local government.

The respective international, national, regional and local tiers of government should ideally rest naturally on the shoulders of the people thus governed: the institutions exercising the responsibilities of national governance, as I have defined them, should really also symbolise and defend the common identity and culture of the people as a nation. In this respect, the present British state has failed in its proper mission, as it can perpetuate itself only by denying the English people any such official identity and voice as a nation. Whether a federal UK government could resist the temptation to try to claw back the powers it would have ceded to the respective national UK parliaments is a matter for mere speculation. I personally increasingly feel that nothing short of virtual or actual independence for England would guarantee that it could be sufficiently free from central UK control.

As I argued above, there would be very little practical difference between a federal UK with only a thin layer of strategic UK-wide governance, and a number of separate, independent British nation states co-operating closely on matters of mutual interest for these small islands that we inhabit. In any case, England may gain such an independent status more quickly than it realises if Scotland opts to go down that route in a few years time.

Those who cherish the United Kingdom and wish to see it continuing in the long term had better soon start rolling out genuine federal-style devolution to the nations and regions of Britain, including the English nation and regions. Otherwise, Scotland’s independence will be greeted by English people as our deliverance as much as Scotland’s.

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2 Comments »

  1. “I think maybe that when New Labour was planning to introduce democratically elected devolved regional government throughout England, and when GB mooted that now (in)famous concept that Britain ‘as it should be’ was a “Britain of nations and regions”, they genuinely didn’t fully realise that this would be perceived as expressing an intention to dismember England into a set of regions of equivalent size, and with equivalent political powers, to Scotland ”

    You ARE being far too generous. Brown’s phrase “nations and regions” is truly sinister. Of course Brown realised what he was proposing. It involved the abolition of England just as Hitler tried to abolish Poland. Hitler’s aproach to the situation was a lot more vicious but did involve regionalising the territory of Poland out of existence. Perhaps Hitler was simply being more pragmatic in that he also caused the forced movement and termination of vast numbers of Poles. After all, if you try to eradicate a large increasingly self aware country simply by fiat ie regionalise it but leaving the population intact, you are likely to meet with opposition.

    Thank you for tabling the possibilities so well though I don’t agree with all of the detail . The end result is that England must resume national control of her own destiny be that within or without a federal United Kingdom. One angle you do not cover is the difference in relationships between England and the other “home” countries . ie England and Wales have quite a different relationship than England and Scotland. Ditto England and Northern Ireland . A further possibility not covered is that an independent England could be leagued with Wales and Northern Ireland not in federation but in alliance, confederal I suppose. This is likely to be more stable than anything with Scotland in it since it would be shorn of much of the ongoing aggravation that distinguishes the present day United Kingdom .

    Comment by Alex — 22 April 2008 @ 7.05 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks, Alex. Yes, I agree with you about the possibilities of continuing union between England, Wales and Northern Ireland if Scotland opted for independence. And I have in the past adopted a more gloomy point of view about Brown’s and New Labour’s intentions with respect to England’s survival as a distinct nation. See for instance my earlier post, https://britologywatch.wordpress.com/2007/10/30/why-cant-gordon-brown-say-england/. I think you just have to try to get to the bottom of what is actually motivating New Labour’s / GB’s constitutional innovations. I don’t think it’s a malevolent or genocidal wish to destroy England as such; but it is a wish to relegate what I, and doubtless you, consider to be the nation of England to sub-national status in political terms; i.e. a ‘(multi-)regional’ entity, and merely a cultural / historical nationality, while ‘Britain’ / Britishness is elevated into the primary nationality of the UK.

    Comment by David — 22 April 2008 @ 11.54 pm | Reply


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