Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

15 April 2010

Lib Dem manifesto: England included, but only as a footnote

I haven’t had the time, I’m afraid, to do a big long hatchet job from an English perspective on the Lib Dem manifesto as I have done on the Labour and Tory documents. However I will say this: congratulations to the Lib Dems for being the only one of the big three parties to a) address the English Question in any shape or form, and b) propose scrapping the unjust Barnett Formula.

On the English Question, they say they would: “address the status of England within a federal Britain, through the Constitutional Convention set up to draft a written constitution for the UK as a whole”. This has been pretty much their established position for a while now; and at least they’re proposing to resolve England’s anomalous constitutional position with some degree of democratic fairness.

On the Barnett Formula, they say they would “Replace the current Barnett formula for allocating funding to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments with a new needs-based formula, to be agreed by a Finance Commission of the Nations”. Not sure I like the implication of the ‘Nations’ concept here (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland being treated as nations while England is not), nor does this mention any sort of needs-based system for distributing funding throughout England – but it’s a start.

The Lib Dems don’t, however, discuss the West Lothian Question, which might seem a lesser issue than the more fundamental English Question. But the fact they omit this aspect of the English democratic deficit leads one to question the Lib Dems’ full commitment to making the Westminster parliament truly accountable to voters, while at the same time it raises doubts as to how they view the status of England as such within any putative federal Britain.

For a start, in a hung parliament, which is the only circumstance in which the Lib Dems have any realistic hope of being able to implement any of their manifesto proposals, one strongly suspects that they would be prepared to use the bargaining and voting powers of their Scottish and Welsh MPs as part of their support to a minority Labour or Tory government, including in passing England-only bills. If they don’t say explicitly that they wouldn’t do this, one can only suppose that realpolitik would kick in if they found themselves in a position of influence at Westminster, and they would practice non-English votes on English laws.

Secondly, and more fundamentally, they don’t seem to believe in any sort of clear distinction not only between English and non-English policies – the blurring of that distinction being the means by which Labour and the Conservatives attempt to justify using their non-English MPs to vote through English laws – but also between England and Britain per se: the actual identities of England and Britain as nations.

Like those of Labour and the Tories, the Lib Dem manifesto talks overwhelmingly of ‘Britain’ even though vast portions of it deal with England-only matters like schools and the NHS. When discussing these things in particular, the document stops short of explicitly referring to them as ‘British’ (talking of ‘our schools’ or ‘the NHS’, for instance) but nonetheless omits any reference at all to ‘England’ or ‘English’ in these contexts, even though it is England only for which these policies are intended. In the area of culture and sport, this is even worse, and everything is discussed as ‘British’ including a potential World Cup tournament in England in 2018 – even Labour refers to bringing the World Cup to England.

Now, in the spirit of ‘fairness’ that the manifesto claims as its own (carrying the tag line ‘Building a fairer Britain’), the Lib Dems do actually acknowledge that their policies in these areas relate to England only. But they do this in their customary manner: essentially, in a footnote, which even then admits to the fact only in a rather grudging, indirect way. In the last-but-one page, literally in the manner of a legal disclaimer, or advisory note to investors and analysts in a corporate annual report, they make the following admission:

“Liberal Democrats have championed the devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales, and many decisions made in Westminster now apply to England only. That means that policies in those nations are increasingly different from those in England – reflecting different choices, priorities and circumstances. Our Scottish and Welsh Parties make their own policy on those issues. This document sets out our priorities for a Liberal Democrat Government in Westminster.”

Note that they refer to their “priorities for a Liberal Democrat Government in Westminster”, not their priorities or policies for England, even though they admit that “many decisions made in Westminster now apply to England only”. It’s just not good enough to devote over a hundred pages to detailing your policies for an entity referred to as ‘Britain’ and then, in an obscure footnote, to half-heartedly admit that many of them are relevant to England only. The Lib Dems, like the other big parties, are clearly hanging on to the idea of forming a British government for England – with non-English MPs at Westminster continuing to form policies and pass laws for England – rather than allowing a government for the English people elected only by English people to come into being.

Not setting out their English policies as English policies, and canvassing the support of non-English voters on those policies under the pretence that they are ‘British’, means that the Lib Dems, too, are conning English people out of an honest and accountable election on openly English matters, and are perpetrating the ‘West Lothian Election’ just as much as Labour.

So, full marks to the Lib Dems for addressing the English Question. But, based on this manifesto, can we be really sure that they want England to be anything more than a footnote in their new written constitution: just a UK territory over which Westminster’s writ continues to hold sway?



  1. Libdems being their usual devious selves.

    Having said that, from the tone and wording of this document it does appear they recognise,perhaps more than they want to,that there is a serious problem with the governance of England within their British state ie we are effectively occuipied and supressed by it. They probably know in their hearts the British constitution is even more unjust to England than they want to admit publicly. I suppose we must be minimally grateful for small mercies ie they are aknowledging the problem even by trying mostly to ignore it.
    At least they have openly recognised the unsustainability of the Barnet rules ; thats a first!

    The Libdem’s problem is that they have been corrupted by Britishness as much as the Tories and Labour. They are still in the trying-to hang-on-to-the- British-state-and-not-rock-the-boat-too-much-suggesting-that-England-be-treated-the-same-the-“Nations” mode.

    Of all the parties the Libdems would probably do very well out of an EP(which would be based on PR I am presuming) but it is a measure of the obtuse inertia of the British political class that they cannot make the obvious leap to champion it.

    Comment by John — 15 April 2010 @ 5.16 pm | Reply

  2. On the English Question, they say they would: “address the status of England within a federal Britain, through the Constitutional Convention set up to draft a written constitution for the UK as a whole”.

    The Lib-Dems have never come out for an English Parliament so I wouldn’t hold my breath about them coming out for it now.

    It’s actually interesting to look at the structure of the party itself which isn’t federal. It mirrors the devolved structure of the Parliaments in the UK. There is a British Lib-Dem party which incorporates England with subsidiary Scottish and Welsh parties. No NI party of course. When the internal structure of the Lib-Dem party is devolutionary not federal it makes all their claims to be federal rather suspect.

    For those Lib-Dems who trumpet about the federal nature of the party the best question is to ask who the English Lib-Dem leader is and where the English Lib-Dem website is.

    Comment by DougtheDug — 15 April 2010 @ 6.47 pm | Reply

  3. Yes Doug,absolutely. Your points re their organisation are highly relevant. I am not sure whether this is deliberately a reflection of the ill thought out devolutionary British state(I doubt it) or simply an unthinking holdover from the pre 1998 attitudes. Probably, a reflection of confused thinking although their use of the word “federal” does imply an acceptance of an entirely new British constitutional arrangement.
    I don’t kid myself they are particularly well disposed to England. They probably typically and deviously mean by federal a break-up of England. Nevertheless, they might be moving in spite of themselves.

    Comment by John — 16 April 2010 @ 9.55 am | Reply

  4. […] any case, voting Lib Dem is entirely consistent with both objectives, as they at least say in their manifesto that the English Question needs to be dealt with as part of an overall British constitutional […]

    Pingback by Vote for England and St. George? « A National Conversation For England — 23 April 2010 @ 11.07 am | Reply

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