For my sins, I’ve been looking over the campaign manifestos of the Liberal Democratic Party leadership candidates, Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne. I should perhaps have expected it but I was highly disappointed that neither candidate mentions the English Question even in passing, let alone related issues such as the West Lothian Question, constitutional reform (other than just PR and local devolution), the EU constitution, and the option of a referendum on the latter.
I did my customary count of references to ‘England’ or ‘English’. I found one reference in Nick Clegg’s statement: “Half of all school children in England are failing to get five GCSEs”. On the face of it, Chris Huhne performs better, with two mentions (!). However, only one of these was of England proper, while the other was a reference to the ‘English-speaking Commonwealth’ in the context of a passage on international affairs. The actual allusion to ‘England’ went as follows:
“First past the post elections entrench a confrontational style of politics in which the Labour and Conservative parties compete for the votes of 800,000 swing voters in marginal constituencies dominated by the concerns of Middle England. Those of us who vote in safe seats – Tonbridge or Torfaen, Reigate or the Rhondda – are effectively ignored by the parties.”
I see what he’s driving at, but the effect of what he’s saying is rather perverse. Basically, he’s implying that a few voters in Middle England unfairly determine the outcome of general elections and by extension the composition of the House of Commons. But are the concerns of those Middle-English voters truly reflected in the UK House of Commons? Isn’t it, rather, the case that the combination of the first-past-the-post (FTTP) system plus the West Lothian anomaly (for instance, as exemplified by such safe Welsh Labour seats as Torfaen and the Rhondda) deliver Labour a disproportionate parliamentary majority that overrides the more politically conservative priorities not just of Middle England but of England as a whole? If Chris Huhne means what he says about correcting the injustice of FTTP, then this should surely mean that (Middle) England should also be given a proper voice in running its own affairs – rather than, as now, those matters being dictated by a UK parliament in which Labour’s majority is swollen not just by FTTP but by Welsh and Scottish voters not elected in England. But the West Lothian dimension of the unrepresentative UK parliament is completely ignored by Huhne. Yes, I counted: not a single reference to ‘West Lothian’ in Huhne’s manifesto (nor in Clegg’s, for that matter).
All of this doesn’t inspire confidence that a stronger Lib Dem representation in the UK Parliament, elected either under FTTP or PR, would push for a resolution of the West Lothian Question. They seem to think that introducing PR would be sufficient: if the UK parliament much more accurately reflected political preferences across the UK as a whole – so the argument appears to go – then there would be no need for an English parliament, as the concerns of (Middle) England would also be adequately, proportionately, reflected in the make up of the House of Commons. If this is the thinking, it both illustrates much of the main political parties’ blindness towards the basic injustice towards England of the current constitutional settlement; and it is a politically self-serving position: the Lib Dems’ self-styled ‘radical’, left-of-centre agenda – as with the Labour Party’s policies now – would stand more of a chance of being furthered under a UK parliament elected by PR than under an English parliament, also elected by PR.
This brings me to the candidates’ policy statements. These basically promote an agenda for Britain / the UK as a whole, even in areas where there can be no such thing as a UK-wide set of policies, or institutions responsible for them: on the matters that have been devolved to the parliaments and assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but have been retained by the UK parliament for England only. This contradiction and imbalance in the perception of the very nation for which your policies are intended leads to more examples (like those we’re familiar with from Labour politicians) of the linguistic contortions that are required to give the impression you are talking about Britain; whereas, in reality, you are talking about England (but won’t the mention the fact because you want to keep up the pretence).
Let’s take as an example from Nick Clegg’s statement on the NHS: “When in government in Wales and Scotland, the Liberal Democrats showed what could be done – I want all parts of the UK to benefit from Liberal Democrat leadership”. Err, do you mean you want England also to benefit from Lib Dem leadership, Mr Clegg? If so, why don’t you say it? The only kind of Lib Dem leadership in the NHS you’d be able directly to provide as a UK PM or government minister would be for England.
And again, on education. As indicated above, here at least, Clegg uses the ‘E’ word – if only to damn the country for its educational failings. But, I ask you, what on earth does this sentence mean: “Working with our Members of the Scottish Parliament and Assembly Members in Wales, the Liberal Democrats will strive ceaselessly for a more mobile and classless society by making education a central theme for our party”? Do you mean, Mr Clegg, that Liberal Democrat MPs in the UK parliament representing constituencies in England will work in partnership with their peers in the corresponding devolved bodies in Scotland and Wales to pursue a common vision and agenda for education across the whole of the UK? Yes, I think that’s what you do mean; but then why don’t you utter the word ‘England’ alongside ‘Wales’ and ‘Scotland’? Because that would involve acknowledging the fact that there is no single parliamentary forum for the UK as a whole through which this agenda can be pursued. And it would involve making explicit the fact that what you’re trying to present as a unified approach for the UK as a whole really involves a disparity of treatment: Scottish and Welsh parliamentary / assembly representatives running their own affairs; the UK parliament running England’s.
What about Huhne’s treatment of the same policy areas? Huhne talks of these things in more general terms in the context of a setting out of his liberal vision: devolution of decision making and administration in health and education to locally elected bodies more adequately representing the needs of local people and users of the services; general vision of a more equal, just society preserving a strong role for a more accountable public sector in levelling inequalities. All well and good. But this is just another way of glossing over the fact that, in practice, Huhne could push through these innovative policy ideas only in England. OK, he would like them to be adopted across the UK. But his manner of presenting the ideas fails to acknowledge that there is no UK-wide political system for implementing the policies that might result from them.
Do either of the candidates’ manifestos address these constitutional issues in any form? As stated above, they talk mainly of political reform (PR and more powers for local government) rather than constitutional reform as such. Huhne does state that “constitutional change is a necessary pre-condition of partnership politics”, by which he is referring to PR enabling collaborative / coalition government. He also alludes in passing to the need for a “Freedom bill” to protect our fundamental liberties (why doesn’t he call this a Bill of Rights?). But neither of them deal head on with any of the big constitutional issues: national or regional devolution for England; independence for Scotland and the possibility of a federal UK; reform of the House of Lords; the option of a written constitution and Bill of Rights; or the EU Reform Treaty / constitution. This is surprising in that it’s Lib Dem policy that there should be a UK constitutional convention in which these issues can be debated, resulting in proposals that can be put to the people in a referendum.
And while we’re on the subject of referendums, neither candidate touches on the question of whether we need a referendum on the EU Reform Treaty, or even discusses the Reform Treaty at all. Instead, both talk in rather general terms of reform of EU institutions, meaning greater scrutiny, openness and accountability, and decentralisation of EU powers. Again, this is fine in principle; but shouldn’t the candidates express an opinion about how the EU Reform Treaty fits in with these objectives? On the face of it, the treaty appears to move more powers to the ‘centre’ (European institutions), even though it’s claimed that it creates more safeguards and a more influential role for the EU Parliament. The trouble here, it seems to me, is that the Lib Dems’ official policy is support for the EU Reform Treaty; but the candidates know that this is unpopular with the electorate and maybe even with quite a lot of Lib Dem party members. Are the Lib Dems’ tactics to just sit back and let Labour and the Tories slug it out between them while biding their time as to how they vote on the treaty (whether they abstain or support the government) depending on how large is the Labour rebellion and how the debate is shaping up? If so, this is dishonest and evasive. On an issue with such huge implications for the governance of the UK and of its four nations, the candidates really should come clean about their views and the basis for them.
All of this non-engagement with such crucial constitutional issues smacks of orchestrated avoidance. It’s as if the two candidates have knocked their heads together and agreed that neither of them will stake out a position on any of these questions that might actually be binding on them to pursue if they were elected. On the one hand, this reflects the Lib Dems’ ethos and organisational structure: policies are determined through a process of consultation and ratified by the party conference, not made up and aggressively pushed through by the leadership. Therefore, neither candidate appears willing to depart from safe, established positions that resonate with the maximum number of members. But this makes the candidates’ manifestos woefully inadequate as programmes for dealing with the major constitutional issues for the UK as a whole and England in particular. And the concern is that this evasiveness is symptomatic of more than internal party politics alone but reveals an unwillingness to engage with the English Question and, in general, the question of what forms of governance are best suited for the individual nations of the UK – or even a failure to perceive that these issues are fundamental and put into question the whole political process that the Lib Dems are engaged in. Instead, both candidates’ statements, for all their espousal of local and proportional democracy, are wedded to the traditional framework of UK-wide governance and the nation-as-Britain. And it appears that they are prepared to muddle along with all of the contradictions that the asymmetrical devolution settlement has introduced into the governance of the UK.
Time will tell whether, between the selection of a new leader and the next general election (whenever GB [Gordon Brown] finally plucks up the courage to call it), the Lib Dems can get to grips with these questions and call them by their name: ‘England’ and the future, or not, of the UK. But if they can’t develop a language in which they can refer to English matters as English matters, do they deserve the votes of a ‘Middle England’ they appear to despise?