The UK coalition government published its mid-term review on Monday of this week. It is not the intention of this article to carry out a detailed analysis: I am interested mainly in the way England is treated, or rather is not, in the document.
At first sight, for a document produced by the UK government, it is remarkable how many times the words ‘England’ and ‘English’ actually appear: 15 and six respectively. However, most of the references to ‘England’ are of two related types: 1) where it is necessary to spell out that certain facts or policy proposals relate to England only in order to avoid misunderstanding, and to prevent people living in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland from thinking they are affected by them; and 2) to make sure that credit can be claimed for England-specific achievements for which the coalition parties hope to be rewarded by English voters at the next election.
Examples of the first type of reference occur on page 26, where the document refers to a number of policy proposals in the area of personal care as being specific to England, such as rules regarding eligibility for care and the introduction of a Deferred Payment Scheme designed to prevent people from having to sell their homes in order to pay for care. Clearly, these are important statutory and financial matters, and it is necessary to make it clear to non-English readers that they affect only people living in England.
Examples of the second type of reference are:
- “We have provided the resources to help local authorities in England freeze their council tax for three years in a row” (page 14): Tory policy – please vote for us, England. (What are these ‘resources’, though? I thought local-authority funding in England was being cut, and the council-tax freeze was just a statutory, central government-imposed diktat. Do they mean local-authority funding is being cut by less than it would otherwise have been if authorities had been allowed to increase council tax willy nilly?)
- “We have brought in the Protection of Freedoms Act to limit the retention of DNA samples in England and Wales in line with practice in Scotland” (page 37): Lib Dem policy – look, we actually do care about you, England, at least in the lofty area of British civil liberties if nothing else.
The first type of reference to England described above has the character of a legal declaration of ‘territorial extent’, along the lines of when cereal packets make it clear that a competition is limited to Great Britain and does not include Northern Ireland. And indeed, the whole document is circumscribed by a legal disclaimer of this sort covering territorial extent, which appears right at the end:
“As a result of devolution, many decisions made by UK Ministers or in the Westminster Parliament now apply to England only. The Northern Ireland Executive, the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government make their own policy on these devolved issues. This document therefore sets out the agreed priorities for the Coalition Government in Westminster.”
No clarification as to which policies “now apply to England only”, of course! Is the general public just supposed to know what they are, as the document certainly doesn’t make this clear to the reader as it goes through the different policy areas, apart from the few exceptions I have already mentioned? But throwing in a disclaimer like this means the government can essentially cop out of providing a detailed break-down and say: ‘look, we’ve acknowledged that some policies are England-only, and anyone interested in those particular policies will know whether they’re England-specific or not’.
This is simply not good enough, although it is par for the course. We’ve come to expect from Westminster politicians and the UK government that they will avoid referring explicitly to ‘England’ as much as they possibly can, and will do so only when it is necessary to avoid factual misunderstanding and harmful political consequences, in the ways outlined above. But their unwillingness to acknowledge a country called ‘England’ to which so many of their policies relate means that Westminster politicians cannot and do not hold themselves properly accountable to the ‘nation’ and people affected by those policies.
This fact is evident in the evasive manner in which many of the policy ‘achievements’ and remaining objectives of the coalition are described; and in many instances, the evasiveness relates directly to the suppression of references to ‘England’. For example, the document never makes it explicitly clear that when it discusses ‘the NHS’, it means only the NHS in England. This helps it gloss over the fact that the coalition has legislated for a massive reform to the NHS that will alter it – in England only – quite radically from the institution created by the post-war Labour government. And yet, the government still has the gall to refer to it as “one of our great national institutions”, as if the NHS it presides over is still fundamentally the same old British NHS, which it no longer is (at least not in England).
So suppression of the England-specific nature of the NHS reforms goes hand in hand with evasiveness about the scope and nature of those reforms. For example, the document says: “We have improved the NHS by . . . starting to devolve commissioning of most health services to GP-led clinical commissioning groups”. But what it doesn’t say is that these changes are limited to England and that the said commissioning groups are statutorily obliged to consider bids from private health-care providers even if the services they provide are initially more expensive than those of existing, public-sector NHS providers.
A more honest account of the government’s measures would be explicit about both their England-specific character and their ultimate guiding principles, and would be expressed something like this: “We have reformed the NHS in England in such a way as to create a competitive health-care market in which private companies will increasingly take over the provision of publicly funded services”. This is actually intended to be an ideologically neutral statement of what the government has done: it has marketised the health-care sector in England, whether you believe that’s the most effective way to deliver health care or not. So why should a Tory-led government not trumpet that achievement? Well, because it suspects, probably correctly, that if English people knew what had been done to ‘their NHS’ (but not to the NHS’s in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), involving changes that were not set out in any manifesto or in the Coalition Agreement, they’d probably violently object. So instead, the coalition pretends that ‘the NHS’ remains fundamentally the same – a primarily public-sector and ‘British’ institution – neither of which is true any more: in England, that is.
The same analysis could be made of many, many other parts of the document that discuss England-specific policies and legislation while avoiding clarifying either that they relate to England only or that they are driven by an ideological bias in favour of private enterprise and markets at the expense of the public sector and, arguably, the public interest – in England. Another brief example – one among many – is where the document says: “We have introduced a presumption of sustainable development in the National Planning Policy Framework, which includes protection of the Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest”. How disingenuous can they be? What this really means is: “We have prepared legislation to make it easier to obtain planning permission for major developments in England’s countryside, with only Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest retaining the previous level of protection”. So England’s green and pleasant land can be concreted over under the pretext of driving economic growth, in the British national interest, regardless of the very passionate interest the English public has in protecting its countryside and natural heritage.
The identity of the ‘nation’ on which this concept of the ‘national interest’ is predicated is quite nebulous in the Mid-Term Review, as indeed it was in the original Coalition Agreement. This is quite simply because, in so many instances, the nation concerned is in reality England, but the government will not and cannot acknowledge this fact. This is rather damaging, as the very raison d’être of the coalition, then as now, is to govern in the ‘national interest’, as the title of the Mid-Term Review makes clear: “The Coalition: together in the national interest”. But whereas the phrase ‘national interest’ is adduced as justification for the coalition’s existence or for certain key decisions on five occasions in the document, the word ‘nation’ is used only once: “In 2012, the nation came together to celebrate the success of the London Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Diamond Jubilee”.
Three of the references to ‘national interest’ relate to the formation and continuance of the coalition, based on pulling the UK round from a dangerous financial and economic crisis; one to supporting the work of the Airports Commission, which could lead to controversial approval for, say, a new terminal at Heathrow or a new runway at Stansted (i.e. more environmental degradation in England “in the national interest”); and the other reference deals with the decision to opt out of, or in to, various EU police and criminal-justice measures. In other words, ‘national interest’ is very narrowly defined in terms of a small number of strategically important reserved policy areas – the economy, air transport, foreign policy and security – whereas large parts of the document deal with devolved policy areas, i.e. with those affecting England only or mainly.
Are these English measures also being introduced in the ‘national interest’? It’s hard to believe they are given the unwillingness of the government to connect the phrase ‘national interest’ with the specific nation, England, concerned? And if they’re not being carried out in the English-national interest, in whose interest are they being done? The interest of the government’s ideological, commercial and financial bedfellows (its corporate sponsors and partners, and its financial creditors)? The interests of the UK state and establishment, and their preservation from an economic meltdown that could have accelerated the centrifugal, nationalist forces challenging their continuing existence? Or the interests of the coalition parties themselves, who want to come out of the five-year relationship claiming they have fought their corner and followed through on their manifesto pledges – irrespective of the fact that many of the measures they’ve introduced were never outlined in detail and in some instances were flatly contradicted by their manifestos and by the Coalition Agreement, such as the [English] NHS reforms or the Higher Education policies (especially the massive hike in tuition fees for English students)?
But these questions, as indeed the English Question itself, are completely sidelined by the Mid-Term Review. After all, the Coalition can hardly be expected to hold itself accountable to an entity such as ‘the English people’, can it, if its remit is to govern in the British national interest?