At first sight, David Cameron’s performance in his keynote speech to the Tory conference yesterday was superior to that of either Nick Clegg or Gordon Brown in their own conference speeches. That is, if you take as your criterion my somewhat facetious measure of the number of references to ‘England’ or ‘English’: seven in Cameron’s speech, compared with four in GB’s and none whatsoever in Britology Clegg’s. However, closer analysis reveals that six out of Cameron’s mentions were of the ‘Bank of England’, and only one was of England herself – in the sentence that also contained the only instances of the words ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’ and ‘Northern Ireland’: “I am deeply patriotic about this country and believe we have both a remarkable history and an incredible future. I believe in the Union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and I will never do anything to put it at risk”.
That’s it. That’s all the mention the great nations of ‘this country’ merit. No discussion of devolution; of the Tories’ parlous electoral position in Scotland or Wales; and of the proposed alliance / merger with the UUP in Northern Ireland mooted a couple of months ago. To say nothing – and he did say nothing – about the West Lothian Question or the English Question. And that’s because saying nothing about these things enabled Cameron to pretend that the whole of his speech was about a single, united ‘country’ (25 occurrences) called Britain (15) which a Conservative majority at the next election would give the Tories a mandate to govern – ignoring the fact that they’d have virtually no representation in either Scotland or Wales, and that practically all their MPs would represent English constituencies.
And that’s why Cameron’s speech was in large measure just addressed at an English audience and dealt with England-only policy proposals. But it had to make out that these related to ‘Britain’ in order to gloss over the England-only nature of a Tory government – both with respect to its support and its sphere of action.
Take the much-touted transport policy: new high-speed rail links between English cities instead of a third runway at Heathrow. All in favour of that, except Cameron had to go and spoil it, didn’t he: “So when our economy is overheating in the south east but still needs more investment in the north the right thing to do is not go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow but instead build a new high speed rail network linking Birmingham, Manchester, London, Leeds let’s help rebalance Britain’s economy”. Doh! No, it’s not ‘Britain’, dummy: those are all English cities. A great policy for England, which should help its environment as well as its economy, and you have to go and call it a plan for Britain. No wonder those Scots are complaining that you’re giving preferential treatment to England (are they having a laugh?). Now, if you’d just presented the policy accurately as one for England alone – as your competence in transport affairs will be limited to England – they couldn’t reasonably complain you were discriminating against Scotland by just doing your job as a government for England. Could they?
Maybe Cameron needs to go back to school and re-learn his geography. And he’s got a plan for schools, too – but only in England, you understand. As he said: “there aren’t enough good schools, particularly secondary schools, particularly in some of our bigger towns and cities” – presumably, including some of those same English cities that will be connected with those new high-speed rail links. However, here I would agree with him: state secondary education in England is failing too many kids, especially in poorer inner-city areas; certainly by comparison with the better-funded state systems in Scotland and Wales. Not sure his ‘reform’ (ugly Blairite word) offers all the answers, though: “That’s why Michael Gove has such radical plans to establish 1,000 New Academies, with real freedoms, like grant maintained schools used to have. And that’s why, together, we will break open the state monopoly and allow new schools to be set up”. Sounds a bit like more of the same Blairite marketisation of the system – only in England – which conveniently allows the English education budget to be kept down, as academies are expected to attract much of their funding from alternative sources, such as businesses and commercial sponsorship. Well, perhaps it will generate some improvement. They couldn’t do much worse than New Labour. But don’t let’s be fooled by the ‘together, we will break open the state monopoly’ – this ‘together’ being a leitmotiv throughout the speech that articulates its core idea of unity: as a party, society and country. There’s only one country these measures relate to and that’s England, not Britain.
Ditto the NHS. David Cameron says: “We are the party of the NHS in Britain today and under my leadership that is how it’s going to stay”. Wrong again: all your points about the NHS concern only the NHS in England, not Britain. There’s something in what you say, though: too many targets; too much bureaucracy; too many reforms; not enough control given to the people at the coal face who actually care for patients – the doctors, nurses and cleaning teams. Perhaps if we were honest and just recognised that we’re talking about the English NHS here, then maybe there’d be more emphasis on delivering a service that genuinely reflected English people’s priorities. But then, that might lead to more vociferous calls for spending parity with Scotland and Wales. Cameron’s speech is short on specifics so as to avoid these embarrassing funding issues; and he merely appears to offer more market forces and competition a la Blair: “We’ll give patients an informed choice about where to go for their care so doctors stop answering to Whitehall, and start answering to patients”. To have a choice is fine; but to have a decent standard of care available for all within reasonable distance from their homes is better in these cash-strapped times. I’m not sure that having hospitals and GP surgeries competing with each other to attract more patients and funding is going to deliver that basic level for all – a value which still seems to inform NHS provision in the other countries of the UK.
Does it matter that when Cameron refers to Britain in relation to these things, he’s actually talking only about England? If the Tories deliver policies that are more in tune with what English people want, what does it matter if he dresses them up as British? It does matter, in my view, because he’s making a fool out of the English. The Scots and Welsh aren’t fooled when they listen to such blandishments: they know full well that Cameron’s talking about exclusively English matters. They just switch off till he comes on to genuine UK-wide topics such as the economy or defence. It’s only the English that are tricked into believing the Tories are coming up with remedies to fix “our broken society” in these policy areas. And we’re then prepared to buy in to solutions that appear to answer to our aspirations but which in reality peddle the same old privatisation mantras that we’ve been assailed with since the days of Margaret Thatcher. And privatisation allows public expenditure to be kept down and so help fund the more generously state-funded systems in Scotland and Wales.
But then, a Tory government wouldn’t be responsible for how the Scottish and Welsh governments spent our their money, would it? In fact, it would be responsible for transport, education and health only in England. ‘Responsibility’ is one of Cameron’s new by-words, and there was a whole lyrical passage on it:
“For me, the most important word is responsibility. Personal responsibility. Professional responsibility. Civic responsibility. Corporate responsibility. Our responsibility to our family, to our neighbourhood, our country. . . . That is what this Party is all about. Every big decision; every big judgment I make: I ask myself some simple questions. Does this encourage responsibility and discourage irresponsibility?” Fair enough; but the country for which a Tory government would be responsible – and to which it would be answerable – certainly wouldn’t be England, even though 100% of its laws applied to England and only 30% or so applied to the rest of the UK. Westminster politicians have got used, under New Labour, to not being responsible to the people they’re governing (English – not British – people in the case of English MPs) or alternatively not governing (Scottish people, in the case of Scottish MPs). Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the blight of sleaze, described by Cameron in these terms: “no-one will ever take lectures from politicians about responsibility unless we put our own house in order. That means sorting out our broken politics. People are sick of it. Sick of the sleaze, sick of the cynicism”.
Well, in my book, putting the Westminster House in order, mending our broken politics and dealing with the cynicism born of lack of accountability means fixing the inequitable, asymmetric devolution settlement that truly has broken ‘this country’: creating a Britain in which Scotland and Wales can and do look after their own interests literally on England’s expenses; and where supposedly national ‘UK’ politicians feel they have a mandate to run England when no one in England has been given the opportunity to vote on any policies for England. Maybe the UK state, in the guise of the New Labour and prospective New Conservative governments, can only offer England a reheated diet of Thatcherite privatisation, precisely because the state won’t take responsibility for England. Because the UK state doesn’t want to be what it actually is: a government for England. If they truly wished to live up to their responsibilities to England, then they’d actually try to design education, health and transport systems that genuinely correspond to what English people want and need. And I feel sure this would involve a deep commitment to public funding, albeit with responsibility for management and delivery of services passed down to the local level, and to the actual providers and users of those services.
But instead – with the honourable exception of the fast rail-link policy (and even there, we haven’t seen the details yet) – we appear to be being offered an under-funded education and health system in England dressed up as British parent, pupil, patient and provider power. Because Cameron is ever conscious of his responsibility to Britain: not to ‘Scotland’ or ‘Wales’, you understand; but to keeping the Union together by subsidising those other parts of it at England’s expense.
As he puts it in his finale: “I believe we now have the opportunity, and more than that the responsibility, to bring our country together. Together in the face of this financial crisis. Together in determination that we will come through it. Together in the hope, the belief that better times will lie ahead”.
We may get through these tough times together, Mr Cameron. But until you’re prepared to acknowledge what you are and are not doing for England, you won’t convince me that you’ll act responsibly towards my country.