What is the ‘item’ in question? Nick Clegg’s speech yesterday to the Lib Dem conference, as a footnote describes it on the Lib Dem website. I thought I’d just do a ‘Brit’ check and an ‘Engl’ check on the old word counter to see if, by any chance, the grandson of a Russian émigrée has any concept of England. I wasn’t – or rather was – disappointed: 39 instances of ‘Britain’ or ‘British’, and none of England (no, not a dicky bird); and also none of Scotland / Scottish, Wales / Welsh, or Northern Ireland / Irish, by the way. (Actually, there is a reference to Cornwall; but only to a single mum whose personal situation is meant to be illustrative of the difficulties faced by the people of ‘Britain’ as a whole.) Well, if they can refer to England in a footnote, such as the one in the title to this post, only as a ‘section of the UK’, I suppose this absence of mentions throughout the speech was only to be expected.
But there was I, going through all the references to ‘Britain’ and ‘British’, and noting all the places where these terms are used to refer to areas of policy that relate to England only as far as Westminster government is concerned. I.e. education: “We can have a better education system, and through it a better Britain”. Or health: “The NHS is a great national institution” (no: it’s four great national institutions). Or even the environment: “Education, health and crime. The top three concerns of the British people. They have been for decades. But I want us to get the environment up there too”.
I was thinking great: here’s a nice little opportunity for another critique of the way the main parties brush the democratic deficit and public-spending inequalities towards England resulting from devolution under the carpet by pretending that everything Westminster politicians do relates to the whole of the UK. And that is indeed a valid critique of Nick Clegg’s speech. As I’ve noted before in this blog, the Lib Dem leader appears to have no concept of England as an entity distinct from Britain, as his whole focus is on Britain and Britain-wide governance even when – as we have seen – those policies would in practice be implemented in England only. He even, like Gordon Brown, appears to view Britain as a / the only real ‘nation’ in these isles: “they found a home in Britain because ours is a nation of tolerance, of freedom, and of compassion”.
This ‘britification’ of England – so typical of the main parties – is in itself enough to make an English patriot’s blood boil. But then the footnote. I really couldn’t believe it at first. Not only the speech without a single passing reference to the largest actual nation of these isles. Not only the false impression it creates that, if in government, the Lib Dems would be making laws for the whole of the UK and not in fact for England only in most cases. And not only the complete failure to acknowledge the existence of England and her people as any kind of meaningful entity or constituency that the Lib Dems need to address. But then, to top it all, this insulting footnote: as if this easy-to-miss disclaimer were enough to counteract the deliberate Britain-only focus of the whole speech.
This is as bad as the disclaimers you get at the bottom of some ministerial press releases, where they say: “This notice relates only to ‘England'” (with ‘England’ indeed in apostrophes, revealing that it’s only a convenient name for a territorial jurisdiction not, in the government’s view, a nation). In fact, it’s worse; because even in the footnote, England is not mentioned but is referred to in the catch-all phrase “section of the UK”. I’m surprised and appalled the Lib Dems could replicate such an offensive practice. Perhaps I shouldn’t be.
Admittedly, in the speech, Nick Clegg calls for a comprehensive constitutional convention that could lead to “a new constitutional settlement”. But then, can one have any confidence that this convention would truly re-examine the devolution settlement as it affects England, and come up with proposals for a new settlement that is equitable to all the nations of the UK? Indeed, can one be confident that such a convention would actually be a UK-wide convention at all, despite the fact that the speech dresses it up as such, and not just a means to perpetuate and even deepen the suppression of England’s identity and distinctness as a national political entity? The reason I say this is that the only reference the speech makes to devolution – apart from the derisive footnote – is as follows: “We need to . . . . devolve control to councils, communities, families, parents, patients and pupils”. This is local devolution: the devolving of democratic decision making to every area of civic society where decisions are best taken at that level. But local government, communities and education are devolved parts of national government. In other words, if a Lib Dem government were to pursue such a process of local devolution, it would apply to England only. In addition, previously, the Lib Dem leader has gone on record to advocate devolution to the ‘regional’ as well as ‘local’ level – again, of course, only in England, though presented as if the policy would or could be applied across the whole of the UK. So one is left with the impression that the Lib Dem’s ‘British’ constitutional convention – like so many of their other ‘British’ policies – would in fact be an England-only constitutional convention. One through which the Lib Dems would be hoping to drive a regionalisation and localisation of governance in England only; and with not the slightest hint of ‘national’ devolution for England, as if that whole concept were a non-sequitur.
Naturally, one would expect any Lib Dem programme of constitutional reform to involve PR. But this is not in fact mentioned in the speech. And without addressing the unfairness of the asymmetric devolution settlement, even PR would not be sufficient to rectify the English democratic deficit. This is because Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people would be able to elect representatives to govern them in devolved matters; but English people would still be governed in these areas by the UK parliament, including by MPs and ministers not accountable to any English voter. But I suppose making up-front noises about a constitutional convention is a convenient means not to have to go into these matters before an election and to pretend they will all be dealt with in a fair and non-partisan way once a Lib Dem government is in place.
But that doesn’t prevent Clegg from perpetuating the illusion that such a government’s remit would be UK-wide in a unitary way, which it wouldn’t be. But at least he’s being honest in another way: that, in fact, England is just a ‘section of the UK’ as far as government is concerned. We have no distinct constitutional, political or legal status as a nation. And Britology Clegg, it seems, wants to keep it that way.