Firstly, I have to say that the Conservatives’ election manifesto, ‘An Invitation To Join the Government Of Britain’, albeit misnamed, is a much more impressive affair than Labour’s shamefully anglophobic re-hashing of existing policies devoid of vision or principle. If people of a ‘progressive’ disposition were to approach the two policy statements in a spirit of genuine open-mindedness, I think many would conclude that the Tory manifesto is a much more ‘liberal’ document (with a small ‘l’) than Labour’s, with its concern to redress some of the present government’s erosion of our civil liberties and its aspiration to reverse the unaccountable centralisation of government.
That said, the Tories’ manifesto shares much of Labour’s will to suppress any English-national dimension to politics and civic society. On a superficial reading, you’d think the content of the manifesto was as it says on the tin: about revitalising British government and society, and setting them in a new relationship to one another. The document is stuffed full of inspirational references to ‘Britain’ and ‘British’ (140 in total), and to the ‘nation’ – meaning ‘Britain’ or the UK: 83 instances of ‘nation’ or ‘national’. By contrast, there are only 17 references to ‘England’ or ‘English’: admittedly more than Labour’s 11 versus 188 mentions of ‘Scotland’ / ‘Scottish’ in the Scottish version of its manifesto. At least, the Tories aren’t so disingenuous and gerrymandering that they produce a separate set of Scottish policies to persuade voters in that country to elect Scottish Labour MPs to serve as lobby fodder for English bills.
But the Conservatives’ ‘Big Society’ big idea can be realised, if at all, in England alone. The section of the manifesto in which this concept is spelled out in detail – ‘Change society’ – deals almost entirely with devolved policy areas: those in which the British government’s competence is limited to England or, in the case of justice and policing, to England and Wales. So all the proposals to ‘devolve’ power down to communities, individuals, and public-private business partnerships in areas such as local planning, schools and the NHS effectively do not relate to Britain as a whole, but only to England.
The mere fact that the Tories are incapable of honestly acknowledging that their plan to repair ‘broken Britain’ is in fact a blueprint for England should not of itself deter English patriots from voting Conservative if they like the Tories’ ideas, which are indeed much more original and attractive than Labour’s sterile and statist approach in many respects. But if, on the other hand, you do want to see government of England by the English people, you won’t get it from the Conservatives’ programme of ‘people power’.
The Tories’ plan is in effect one of devolution for and within England, rather than devolution to England: devolution of power to English communities, and associations of socially responsible individuals and organisations, rather than devolution of political power to democratic, English-national government and civic institutions. If you’re a localist or libertarian, you may think this is no bad thing. But as well as expressing the Conservative ideological bias in favour of private individuals and associations, as opposed to big government, this is a way of circumventing questions about the governance of England and the legitimacy, or otherwise, of the very ‘Government of Britain’ in which the Tories seek to re-engage the English people above all.
In effect, a British-national-public sector versus local-community-private sector dichotomy replaces the British-national / regional dichotomy in New Labour’s thinking about ‘the country’; but both frameworks leave no room for any sort of English-national tier of government, democracy or identity. This is less sinister than New Labour’s New Britain, in that at least the existence of England is acknowledged even if England is not viewed as distinct from ‘Britain’ in any way. Indeed, the whole manifesto is predicated on a profound but unspoken identification between England and Britain, reflected in the very fact that what is in reality a social programme for England only is expressed as being for Britain.
In this context, it is not surprising that the manifesto fails to propose a satisfactory solution to the West Lothian Question while not even acknowledging the broader English Question: the question of how England should be governed, which is a non-starter for the Tories, because they just unquestioningly assume that England is (governed as) Britain. Nevertheless, at least they do raise the West Lothian Question – which is more than Labour does – because they accept that England exists; even if their answer to the question is no solution:
“Labour have refused to address the so-called ‘West Lothian Question’: the unfair situation of Scottish MPs voting on matters which are devolved. A Conservative government will introduce new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and Wales, cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries.”
This policy does not amount to English Votes on English laws, or to a Grand Committee of English MPs with the exclusive right to debate and vote on England-only legislation. While being extremely vague, this statement appears to confirm expectations that the Tories will adopt ‘English pauses for English clauses’: English MPs only to make revisions to England-only laws at the committee stage of bills, while all UK MPs continue to be allowed to vote on those bills at their second and third reading.
This is a mere procedural tweak that leaves the WLQ in place, if anything in a more pernicious form: it relies on there being the same balance of power among English MPs as in the House as a whole – otherwise, amendments to bills made by English MPs can simply be rejected by the House as a whole, resulting in stalemate. And the measure can be reversed by any incoming Labour government. So apart from being practically ineffective, and liable to contribute to governmental paralysis and constitutional crisis, this measure is a million miles away from the establishment of any sort of English parliamentary forum in which the priorities and needs of the English nation as a whole can be deliberated and decided upon.
Ultimately, then, the Tories’ manifesto might well represent power to the people – but only if they’re content to continue not to be the English people.