I was struck by the following phrase in the BBC’s account of Ed Miliband’s speech in Gateshead yesterday on the so-called ‘Promise of Britain’: “He argued that policies such as nearly trebling the cap on student tuition fees in England and scrapping the educational maintenance allowance would ‘take away the ladders’ for young people and have a profound impact on the country’s future.”
Could it really be, I wondered, that English Ed had actually referred to an England-only government policy as taking effect “in England”? I felt I had to check against delivery, as they say, so I had a look at the transcript of Ed’s speech on the Labour Party website. Sadly, I couldn’t find a single use of the word ‘England’, but I did see the following phrase: “they are cutting away the ladders, destroying the chances of children and young people, and undermine [sic] Britain’s future in a profound way”.
Oh well, I suppose in a speech on the Promise of Britain – distinct echoes of last year’s commemorations of the Battle of Britain with Miliband’s reminiscences on his parents’ flight from war-torn Belgium – it would be too much to expect England to get a mention. Instead, ‘Britain’ featured 18 times, and ‘this country’ or ‘our country’ appeared nine times.
Except, of course, that most of the coalition government’s measures that are supposedly cutting away the ladders of opportunity for young British people actually affect only young people living in England: the hike in tuition fees (originally introduced for England only by New Labour, of course); the Education Maintenance Allowance (being scrapped in England only but retained in Scotland and Wales); Sure Start; the alleged scrapping of a guaranteed apprenticeship place for 17- and 18-year-olds in the current Education Bill (not 100% sure that doesn’t also apply to Wales, but it definitely doesn’t apply in Scotland); etc.
Does it actually matter, on one level, if the Labour leader doesn’t make clear that the UK-government measures he’s criticising affect only one part of Britain – England – not the whole of it? Possibly not, in the sense that the cuts will affect English youngsters in the same way whether you call them English or British cuts. Plus Miliband is making a broader point about declining economic and educational opportunity for all young people in Britain as it is affected by factors common to all the UK’s nations, such as reduced social mobility, growing income inequality, increasingly stretched family budgets, lack of job opportunities and impossibly high house prices.
But it does matter that Ed does not refer to England if English young people are being sold a ‘Promise of Britain’ that New Labour itself broke: the promise of equal and fair support from the state and public services to all British youngsters as they start out in life. The Labour Party broke this promise in its devolution settlement coupled with an unfair funding mechanism that ensures that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish young people obtain more state support and subsidies than their English counterparts.
It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that Ed Miliband and / or his speech writers perpetuated the taboo on pronouncing the ‘E’ word in this speech, especially given the recent attempts by some in his party to develop a distinct message and policy agenda for England. Is Miliband’s speech a sign that Labour is in fact going to carry on down the Brownite path of eulogising ‘Britain’ and deceitfully framing all its policies as applying uniformly to Britain, even when they relate to England alone?
How can anyone believe in Miliband’s ‘Promise of Britain’ when it was not only New Labour that broke it in the first place, but when this promise is dishonest in its very concept: the idea of a ‘Britain Fair For All’ (as Labour’s 2010 election manifesto, written by Ed Miliband put it) that Labour has had neither the will nor the means to actually bring about?
Labour should stop going on about a ‘Promise of Britain’ it cannot keep, and should start making realistic and honest commitments to the next generation in England. At least, if Labour returned to government, it would actually have the power to keep those promises. But would it have the will?