In the language of theology, in case you’re not up to speed, the word ‘dispensation’ is used to refer to the ordering of divine grace or revelation, which allows us to know about God and enter into a relationship with him (or her, if you want to be inclusive). The Christian era is said to constitute a new dispensation, in which (hu)mankind enters into a more intimate relationship with God, sharing his (her) life, work and even the exercise of some of his (her) powers through the Holy Spirit.
This New-Testament era is contrasted with that of the Old Testament, in which revelation was very much more taken on trust: handed down by the powers that be through a series of law books and narratives testifying to the workings of an invisible and ultimately unknowable divine being. The New-Testament dispensation was, however, not a complete break from the old: the Almighty is still the Almighty and remains an absolute ruler, even if, in Christ, he has shown himself capable of partaking of our frailties.
The coalition government has something of the character of a ‘new dispensation’; and its ‘programme for government’, published on Thursday of this week, signals an attempt to seal a new covenant with the British public: to ‘seal the deal’ of a new politics and new policy programme that, while they do not quite fulfil the expectations of the old politics and the promises of the manifestoes that only two weeks earlier counted as holy writ, proclaim a new relationship between the politicians, and between politicians and the people.
The concept that occupies the place of God and Christ in this new dispensation is that of ‘the nation’. It is in the name and for the sake of the nation that the new coalition justifies its formation: “there was the option of a coalition in the national interest – and we seized it. When we set off on this journey, we were two parties with some policies in common and a shared desire to work in the national interest”. Rather like God, the nation thus invoked is an absolute quality, connoting a unity that is far above the fractured world of the broken society or party faction. Governing ‘in the national interest’ confers moral authority on our rulers whose absolute power, like that of God, is thus seen as being wielded for the benefit of all, not for the benefit of any one interest group such as a political party.
And like God condescending to humanity in Christ, our new leaders also declare themselves willing to share their power not only amongst themselves but with ‘the nation’ at large: “We have a shared ambition to clean up Westminster and a determination to oversee a radical redistribution of power away from Westminster and Whitehall to councils, communities and homes across the nation”. Verily, the kings shall rule in wisdom and in justice, dispensing power for the nation and to the nation; and the nation shall share in their kingdom.
But it’s when you try to name the nation in whose name our new leaders claim to rule that you land up in trouble. In the above quote, the nation in question can only be England, because the UK government has responsibility for councils and communities in England only. But the name of ‘England’ is hardly ever invoked in the 36-page document. Well, I suppose like the ineffable name of Yahweh (God), some words must never be uttered – we cannot give the impression that ‘the nation’ we govern, and in whose name we govern, is England! Heaven forefend!
However, to be fair, the words ‘England’ or ‘English’ are in fact used eight times in the document, compared with 51 instances of ‘nation(s)’, ‘national’ or ‘nationalised’. Three of the references to ‘England’ are to the Bank of England, but three do actually occur in the context of devolved policy areas:
“We will freeze Council Tax in England for at least one year, and seek to freeze it for a further year, in partnership with local authorities.”
“We will create directly elected mayors in the 12 largest English cities, subject to confirmatory referendums and full scrutiny by elected councillors.”
“We will develop a 24/7 urgent care service in every area of England, including GP out-of-hours services, and ensure every patient can access a local GP.”
One wonders why they felt the need to spell out the fact that these commitments relate only to England, not to ‘the nation’, given that all of the dozens of other England-only policies throughout the statement are covered by the block disclaimer on the very last page, which contains another of the references to England. Perhaps it’s because these are such big and specific promises that to omit ‘England’ could be seriously misleading to non-English readers and politically damaging to the coalition, who would be appearing to promise what it could in no manner deliver.
Or perhaps it’s simply that the document was cobbled together in haste as an assembly of the parties’ respective manifesto pledges that were acceptable to both coalition partners, given that the wording on the elected mayors and 24/7 urgent-care service is lifted straight from the Conservatives’ manifesto. Similarly, the block disclaimer at the end is lifted directly from the Lib Dem manifesto, with only a few essential alterations:
“The Government fully supports the devolution of powers to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. 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 Executive [sic] and the Welsh Assembly Government make their own policy on their devolved issues. This document therefore sets out the agreed priorities for the Coalition Government in Westminster.”
Whereas the similar back-page disclaimer in the Lib Dem manifesto states:
“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.”
So the coalition seems to have opted for the tried and trusted Lib Dem solution to the problem of how to present England-specific policies (cover them en bloc by a note at the end of the document), rather than the Tory approach, which is more to ignore the English Question altogether unless you have to say ‘England’ on trades-description grounds. But if this were the BBC or any other ‘national’ media organisation, they’d be risking severe censure by Ofcom or the BBC Trust for neglecting to spell out, policy area by policy area, which UK nations the coalition’s proposals relate to, and expecting people to go back over the whole document they’ve just read and try to work it out for themselves, even supposing they get as far as the small print about devolution at the end.
But the coalition doesn’t want readers of the statement to question the integrity of the concept of ‘the nation’ on which they build their whole claim to moral and political legitimacy. If people realised that sometimes ‘nation’ or ‘national’ means the UK, sometimes England and Wales, and sometimes just England, they might start to question which nation(s) the government sees itself as called to serve, and which nation(s) it derives its democratic mandate from – if indeed the coalition is truly governing in the interest of any actual nation, and not in the interest of its own parties and ideologies.
Above all, the coalition is keen to avoid creating the impression that it’s an English government deriving its mandate almost entirely from English voters, which is the truth of the matter: the two parties won 63.8% of the votes and 63.9% of seats in England – quite a remarkable degree of proportionality in aggregate, although to be properly proportional, the Lib Dems should have gained more seats and the Tories fewer. This compares with 35.6% of votes and 20.3% of seats in Scotland, and 46.2% of votes and 27.5% of seats in Wales – results which show how the Conservatives’ opposition to PR is based purely on their disproportionate gain of seats in England, whereas they would actually benefit from PR outside of England. This gives the lie to the coalition’s claim to be a government for ‘the nation’ as a whole, i.e. the UK.
So desperate is the coalition to erase the thought that the justifying absolute concept of ‘the nation’ is a fabrication and often means just ‘England’, that the document resorts several times to the rhetorical technique of multiplying references to ‘national’ in contexts where it actually means ‘English’ in order to hypnotically induce people into thinking it is referring to the UK as a whole. For example:
“We will abolish the unelected Infrastructure Planning Commission and replace it with an efficient and democratically accountable system that provides a fast-track process for major infrastructure projects.
“We will publish and present to Parliament a simple and consolidated national planning framework covering all forms of development and setting out national economic, environmental and social priorities.” [The IPC covers England only in most matters, and Wales in some; so the ‘national planning framework’ here relates mainly to England. Economic development and the environment are also devolved areas.]
“We will maintain free entry to national museums and galleries, and give national museums greater freedoms.” [This means national museums and galleries in England, not national-Scottish or national-Welsh ones, as culture is a devolved area.]
- “Liberal Democrats have long opposed any new nuclear construction. Conservatives, by contrast, are committed to allowing the replacement of existing nuclear power stations provided that they are subject to the normal planning process for major projects (under a new National Planning Statement), and also provided that they receive no public subsidy.
“We will implement a process allowing the Liberal Democrats to maintain their opposition to nuclear power while permitting the Government to bring forward the National Planning Statement for ratification by Parliament so that new nuclear construction becomes possible. This process will involve:
- “the Government completing the drafting of a national planning statement and putting it before Parliament;”. [Ditto on planning above – any new nuclear power stations will be built in England and Wales only, not Scotland, which has a separate planning system and whose government opposes new nuclear power stations.]
Of course, there are some policy areas where the coalition statement does use ‘national’ legitimately to refer to reserved, UK-wide matters, such as ‘national security’ (12 instances) and macro-economics. In the latter department, of course, the new dispensation represented by the coalition is more of a ‘dis-spending’. What the Lord giveth, he taketh away, another example of which being:
“We will promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups”
“We will freeze Council Tax in England for at least one year, and seek to freeze it for a further year, in partnership with local authorities”.
Nowhere is this dual character of the new dispensation – government dispensing power to the nation while retaining ultimate power in the name of the nation, including the power to give away and take back power – better revealed than in the coalition’s plans for “political reform”. There are many proposals here that represent a serious attempt to make Parliament more democratically accountable and less corrupt. But this ultimately represents Parliament and the political class attempting to grab back the initiative on reform, to make itself ultimately responsible for reforming itself and ‘British’ politics as a whole, rather than allowing the reform process to be driven by the people and to be open to a wider range of alternatives. Hence, the coalition, and by extension Parliament, decrees that we will be offered only the option of the Alternative Vote system by way of electoral reform; Parliament will decide on the nature of the new mainly or wholly elected House of Lords; and Parliament will decide how it is to reform its own procedures and allowances.
The coalition, and particularly the dominant Conservative part of it, has clearly made a calculation that if Parliament can demonstrate that it has cleaned up its act, and has made limited moves in the direction of really radical reform of its functions and election, then maybe the public will forgive it and allow it to continue exercising its time-honoured sovereign rule. Perhaps the coalition hopes, in short, that the new dispensation it is offering will lead the public in turn to make a dispensation of Parliament and MPs from the ultimate consequences of their sins.
And if there’s one area above all where the new dispensation is uncannily reminiscent of the old, it is, as I observed earlier, its determination to dispense with any recognition of England as a nation in its own right – and with the right to self-determination, as opposed to Westminster rule. No, England must be governed as ‘the nation’, not govern itself as the English nation. Gone is the Lib Dems’ manifesto pledge to: “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.” Gone, in fact, is the whole constitutional convention idea: far too radical, allowing “citizens” and “the people” to have a say in a new written constitution, federal Britain and potentially English government! No, better to let Parliament decide on these things.
What we are left with, in the coalition’s new dispensation, is a ‘new politics’ that has not in fact changed radically from the old. To return to my theological analogy, it remains more Old Testament than New: God is still in his heaven, and Parliament still rules in the name of the nation. But maybe the people have lost faith with the old ways, and are no longer content with the laws and narratives of the Elected of God. Maybe they aspire instead to the freedom and dignity of the children of God, or of freeborn Englishmen and -women.
New wine is for new wineskins, as the biblical saying goes, not for old.