Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

22 April 2008

Regional governance and the English parliament

It is often assumed by opponents of an English parliament that such a body would merely replicate the centralist pattern of governance that is characteristic of the present UK regime. One of the reasons for this is a simple equation that is made between the concept of ‘nationalism’ and support for a strong, unitary and by extension centrally organised nation state.

But there are many different possible blueprints for an English parliament and self-rule; and these involve a variety of relationships between all the different layers of government, ranging from the ‘local’ to the European and international. My personal preference hitherto has been a federal UK: a UK initially of four or five (including Cornwall) ‘nations’, with parliaments that have the same level of governmental responsibility in each of their respective territories. This would eliminate the imbalance of the present devolution settlement, whereby the people of Scotland and Wales are entitled to elect parliamentary bodies to deal with areas such as education, health and planning for their own countries exclusively, while policy and laws for England in these matters are made by the UK parliament elected by all the people of the UK.

I put the word ‘nation’ into inverted commas above because the parts of a federal UK as thus described are presently not formally defined as nations; nor would it be necessary for devolved federal parliaments to be limited to nations as such. Technically, as I say, none of the UK territories that we like to know as nations are nations in law: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are officially referred to as ‘constituent parts’ or ‘constituent countries’ of the UK. So ‘national’ devolution for each of these territories need not actually be described as such, but could be referred to as a form of regional devolution – with England obviously being a significantly larger ‘UK region’ than all the others.

Clearly, however, this sort of nomenclature would not be acceptable to the majority of the people in any of the UK’s ‘constituent countries’ (nor is this something I would subscribe to), as citizens are profoundly attached to their countries and are proud to call them ‘nations’ – as unofficially as you like! I do, however, think that a variation (and rather a significant variation) of the model I’ve just described is how GB [Gordon Brown] would like to see devolution eventually pan out. I think he sees Scotland, Wales and (to an indeterminate degree) Northern Ireland both as nations – in the informal, emotional sense – and as British regions. This dual identity is in some respects no different from the double status these countries have always had as distinct ‘nations’ within a unitary British state. The only difference – in theory – about devolved governance is that certain powers were delegated to the Scots and the Welsh themselves. A transfer of power does not in itself equate to a shift in national identity.

In other words, Brown’s original concept for devolution was probably that the Scots and Welsh would be content simply to have more of a say over devolved matters while still seeing themselves as primarily British, and viewing their devolved institutions effectively as just a layer of regional governance in all but name. In the event, of course, devolution has set in train a momentum whereby many people in Scotland and Wales increasingly see their devolved bodies as national institutions, and would like to see them take more nation-type powers away from Westminster; with the endgame for many obviously being full independence.

GB’s ideal template, then, is regional devolution. I think maybe that when New Labour was planning to introduce democratically elected devolved regional government throughout England, and when GB mooted that now (in)famous concept that Britain ‘as it should be’ was a “Britain of nations and regions”, they genuinely didn’t fully realise that this would be perceived as expressing an intention to dismember England into a set of regions of equivalent size, and with equivalent political powers, to Scotland: effectively abolishing England as an entity with any constitutional or legal status as a nation within the UK. I think Brown at least just had his own blueprint in mind for what I’ve called elsewhere a unitary ‘state-nation of Britain’, with certain areas of government devolved effectively to the regions, three of which coincided with the smaller ‘nations’ of the UK, and the remaining nine of which were English regions.

I’m being generous here; but I do genuinely think Brown still thinks of ‘England’ as a nation, in the same way that he thinks of Scotland as a nation: as a cultural, emotional, personal thing for which one can have a profound affection; but which is secondary, in political terms, to the state-as-nation – England coexisting with / subsumed under Britain in the same way that Scotland exists as a nation within a nation, or a country within a country. It’s just that he neglected to explicitly associate England as such with his regional model of devolution (by, for instance, referring to the ‘regions’ as the ‘regions of England’) or even to refer to England at all as a nation – avoiding the ‘E’ word as much as he possibly can, so as not to evoke the spectre of English devolution that threatens to break up his British Banquo’s feast. (A metaphor that makes Brown a Macbeth figure – something that is perhaps both over-flattering and unjustly condemnatory; but is pleasing all the same!)

I would not have said that Brown still thinks of England as a nation had I not stumbled across the following statement from the great man following FIFA’s decision last October to drop its continental rotation policy for the Football World Cup, enabling England to bid to hold the tournament in 2018: “I am delighted that FIFA have opened the door for the World Cup to come back to England. By 2018, it will be 52 years since England hosted the World Cup. The nation which gave football to the world deserves to have the greatest tournament back on these shores”. Yes, you’re not delusional: he said England twice in three sentences and explicitly called her a ‘nation’. You could call this just consummate politics: GB playing to the English patriotic audience, whose sentiments are always to the fore when it’s a question of the ‘national game’ and the national team. But I don’t think GB would have risked making such a statement – quite the most explicit statement that England is a nation I have ever come across from him – if he didn’t at one level hold it to be true. And that’s the point: for GB, ‘England’ signifies a nation in a cultural and emotional sense only; in the same way (but without the emotion) as Scotland does. And this is a sense that is closely connected with, and evoked by, national sports events and teams. 

By the way, I don’t have empirical evidence for my assertion that this is how GB experiences his Scottish national identity: he and his minions declined to answer the question in my email to Downing Street, “Does the PM consider himself to be Scottish or British in the first instance, and why?” I sent this question (with ‘England’ replacing ‘Scotland’ where appropriate) to a number of top politicians. Interestingly, the only answer I got back was from David Cameron’s office: “David was born in England so, if you are asking whether he is Scottish, English or Welsh – he is English. However, he likes to think of himself as British”. Well, there you have it: a consummate ambiguous, non-committal politician’s answer! But actually, for me, that vindicates what I’ve always asserted about David Cameron: that he’s English in the way that really matters, which is emotional and personal identification with a place, people and culture that have moulded you; whereas ‘British’ is merely his formal, public, passport national identity – the one that emotionally-anally retentive Brown thinks should be uppermost.

But I digress. What I wanted to say is that Brown’s regional model for devolution needn’t be construed as implying a malevolent will to abolish England as such. What it would achieve, if implemented, would be to deny the possibility of an English parliament, and English national political and civic institutions in general. And that’s the nub of the problem: Brown might wish the devolved Scottish and Welsh institutions to be merely a regional layer of governance; but they’re perceived by the Scottish, Welsh and English alike as national bodies. Therefore, the mooted regionalisation of England denies England the national representation and status that appears to have been accorded to Scotland and Wales, which Brown would have wished was merely regional – and may still wish to recast as such.

This state of affairs can perhaps be illuminated by looking at what aspects of governmental ‘competence’ (areas of responsibility) could be most typically classified as national or regional (or, indeed, international and local); how these competences have been distributed under New Labour between the various layers of governance; and different models for how they could be redistributed in the context of an English parliament. This categorisation would doubtless be disputed by many; however, it’s not meant to be absolute but merely to illustrate how Scotland and Wales have been accorded ‘national’ powers that have been denied to England; and how things could be very different.

Competences typically associated with different tiers of governance

  • International (EU): co-ordination of matters affecting peaceful relations between nations / states, and where multi-lateral action is more effective than unilateral; e.g. trade, human rights, employment regulations, international environmental policy and action against climate change, product and safety standards, defence in its international dimension, market liberalisation, etc.
  • National: areas of policy and legislation primarily affecting the social and economic development and well-being of the whole nation or state; e.g. economic and fiscal policy, defence and security, justice and policing, social security and benefits system; national aspects of environmental regulation; strategic aspects of education, health, transport and planning; the ‘culture’ industries, etc.
  • Regional: co-ordination of national social, economic and environmental policies at a sub-national level, including region-specific variations in non-strategic aspects of education, health and culture (for instance, where a specific ‘regional’ language or other cultural traditions need to be taken into consideration); and also, formulation and execution of regional development plans for things such as infrastructure, housing, business and transport
  • Local: administration and delivery of the major public services as they impinge on individuals and communities, including education, health, public transport, waste collection and recycling, small-scale planning decisions, etc.

Bearing the above categories in mind, the table below illustrates the current distribution of these competences across the various tiers of UK government in the wake of the EU constitutional treaty, and devolution for Scotland and Wales; along with a series of possible re-configurations of these layers of governance in the context of a federal UK or of complete independence for each of its current constituent countries. Crosses signify the actual or potential existence of a competence in the respective area

No.

Governmental Body

International competences

National competences

Regional competences

Local competences

1

EU post-Lisbon Treaty

X

X

2

UK post-Lisbon Treaty

X

Both UK-wide and England-only

England only

3

England post-devolution

4

Scotland and Wales post-devolution

X

X

5

English regional government as rejected in North-East referendum

X

6

Unelected English regional assemblies and quangos

X

X

7

English local authorities

X

 

 

 

 

 

 

8

Federal UK parliament and government inside the EU

Optional

UK-wide only

9

National parliaments and governments within a federal UK inside the EU

X

X

10

Elected English regional assemblies and administrations within a federal UK

X

X

11

Regionally extended English local government within a federal UK

X

X

12

English county and district authorities within a federal UK

X

X

13

Independent England, Scotland, Wales, N. Ireland (and Cornwall)

Optional

X

X

14

English regions within an independent England

 

X

X

Rows 1 and 2 in the above table illustrate how some national competences as I have defined them have been transferred to the EU under the Lisbon Treaty; while the UK – in part through the government’s ‘red lines’ – has, for the time being, retained certain powers that you could view as more properly international within the context of an integrated economic market, e.g. human rights and employment regulation.

Rows 2 to 4 illustrate how the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly have acquired some but not all of the powers that I would categorise as ‘national’ (e.g. justice (in the case of Scotland), strategic aspects of education and planning, culture, etc.), as well as others that are ‘regional’. Meanwhile, those same areas of governance for England are handled by the UK parliament and government, and there is absolutely no layer of exclusive England-wide governance.

Lines 6 and 7 show how the unelected regional bodies that have been introduced without a democratic mandate have also encroached on the powers of elected local authorities in England.

Lines 8 to 14 are intended to show a wide range of possibilities for international, national, regional and local governance that could all be accommodated with the existence of national parliaments and governments for each of the countries of the UK. For example, a federal UK government could decide to transfer its powers in ‘international’ matters to the EU, or not – depending on the will of the people as expressed in a referendum. Similarly, the balance of powers between the remaining UK-wide government and the governments of each of the UK nations would need to be determined. My own preference would be for quite a minimal layer of UK-wide governance limited, say, to areas where close UK-wide co-ordination would make the most sense, such as: defence and security; border and immigration control; fiscal and monetary policy (restricted to the minimum necessary required by the fact that each country would continue to use the pound as its currency); the environment; and ‘cross-border’ transport and infrastructure planning.

In reality, the level of co-operation that would be required in these areas between England, Scotland and Wales if they became fully independent nations would be virtually the same as that between the same nations within a federal UK. The principal difference would be that a federal UK / British government would maintain a distinct legal personality and provide a single voice (and therefore might be more effective) in international affairs – acting on behalf of the nations of the UK within international bodies and strategic relationships such as the EU, the UN, NATO, and bilateral dealings with major international partners. But there would have to be a new humility on the part of this federal UK, as it would not be acting at its own behest and playing the old power games inherited from our imperial and militarily triumphant past. On the contrary, it would essentially be delegated by the separate nations of these islands to defend our interests as nations in our own right; and if Mr UK failed to act in this spirit, then his legitimacy would be seriously in question.

Similarly, there is no reason why various new forms of regional and local governance should not spring up and prosper alongside an English parliament and government, whether federal or independent. The problem that English nationalists currently have with proposals for regional governance in England isn’t necessarily based on a centralist rejection of regional government per se, but is mainly a disagreement with the model as proposed by New Labour, which completely bypasses any England-wide layer of governance. But if English regions (however defined) genuinely want to take on more areas of governmental competence – including some of those I’ve categorised as ‘national’ – then a new English government should not in theory feel undermined by that because it would not be perceived as a threat to the identity, indeed the existence, of England as a nation, or to its territorial integrity.

It could be the case that such an increasingly powerful English region might eventually wish to become a UK-federal or independent nation. However, in the foreseeable future, this seems rather unlikely, unless you count Cornwall as an ‘English region’. But Cornwall is a completely unique case, and ‘regional government’ for Cornwall within England would already be perceived by many in Cornwall as effectively national devolution – generating the same sort of momentum for ultimate separation as we currently witness in Scotland and Wales vis-a-vis the UK. In any case, perhaps as part of the establishment of a federal UK, Cornwall could acquire equal status as a UK nation to the other four countries right from the start.

English ‘regions’ could also emerge and develop organically out of existing English counties, which – unlike the regions proposed by New Labour at the start of the present decade – comprise traditional territories that people relate to and identify with. So, for instance, new regions could be formed from a number of contiguous counties joining together if they felt that this was in the best interests of the people they represent (and subject to referendum): row 11 in the above table. In this case, the new regions would acquire additional regional competences alongside their existing local ones. Eventually, when they had really established themselves as sustainable, cohesive entities, such regions could also take on some ‘national’ competences (e.g. by developing completely separate education and health systems) – but you’re looking a long way down the road to the future at that point.

In a similar way, existing counties might take on regional responsibilities (row 12 above) or (which is another way of expressing the same thing) take on additional responsibilities for formulating and delivering policy in areas such as education, healthcare and planning – something that might make sense if those counties had a large population, a distinct cultural identity and also county-specific environmental, planning or infrastructure challenges. Examples could be Cornwall again (only disputably an English ‘county’); Yorkshire (traditionally a single county, though currently split up into four, including Humberside); or Essex (with a distinct culture and infrastructure demands in the vicinity of London).

There is therefore absolutely no intrinsic reason why an English parliament should adopt the same sort of centralising mentality and control freakery as the present-day Westminster government. If anything, it would create a natural momentum towards the break up of power at the centre; and it would be rather hypocritical and hard to justify for an English parliament to block the democratic will of English people if they did want increasing powers for regional and local government.

The respective international, national, regional and local tiers of government should ideally rest naturally on the shoulders of the people thus governed: the institutions exercising the responsibilities of national governance, as I have defined them, should really also symbolise and defend the common identity and culture of the people as a nation. In this respect, the present British state has failed in its proper mission, as it can perpetuate itself only by denying the English people any such official identity and voice as a nation. Whether a federal UK government could resist the temptation to try to claw back the powers it would have ceded to the respective national UK parliaments is a matter for mere speculation. I personally increasingly feel that nothing short of virtual or actual independence for England would guarantee that it could be sufficiently free from central UK control.

As I argued above, there would be very little practical difference between a federal UK with only a thin layer of strategic UK-wide governance, and a number of separate, independent British nation states co-operating closely on matters of mutual interest for these small islands that we inhabit. In any case, England may gain such an independent status more quickly than it realises if Scotland opts to go down that route in a few years time.

Those who cherish the United Kingdom and wish to see it continuing in the long term had better soon start rolling out genuine federal-style devolution to the nations and regions of Britain, including the English nation and regions. Otherwise, Scotland’s independence will be greeted by English people as our deliverance as much as Scotland’s.

Advertisements

10 December 2007

Flying the Flag: Union or Nation?

Is it my imagination or are more national flags being flown on public buildings and at private homes across the four countries of the United Kingdom? I was struck by this, again, when I went down to London a couple of times last week. There were certainly more flags – mostly Union Jacks – than I’d noticed before atop flagpoles next to large hotels, or billowing out above shop entrances in the place where you’d expect to see the shop sign. I can’t speak for government buildings, as I didn’t pass any.

But the appearance of Union Jacks in commercial settings was perhaps of even greater symbolic significance. It was as if they were proclaiming, “This is London you’re in now – the capital of a great, vibrant, commercial nation: the United Kingdom”. For all the controversy that now surrounds it, the Union Jack can still carry the weight of such national pride. It’s a great symbol, really: a global icon that ranks in ‘brand recognition’ right alongside the Stars and Stripes or the Communist Red Flag. No wonder that our London-centric, power-obsessed politicians are so loathe to give it up!

Nor should they, or we, really. There is no reason why the Union Jack should not continue to serve as the visual symbol for the United Kingdom in whatever form in which that state survives. This is despite the recent suggestion of Welsh Labour MP Ian Lucas that the Red Dragon from the Welsh national flag should be incorporated in the Union Flag’s design. For non-initiates, the reasoning behind this is that the three-cross design of the flag makes reference only to England (upright red Cross of St. George on white background), Scotland (diagonal white Cross of St. Andrew on dark blue background) and Ireland (diagonal red Cross of St. Patrick on white background) – but not to Wales. If I had to choose between the two options, rather than messing up the neatness and cleverness of the Union Jack’s design by sticking a red dragon on it, I’d try to incorporate into it the Cross of St. David, Wales’s patron saint, which would be consistent with the conception behind the existing flag. This is a yellow cross on a black background. One rendition of how this might look is pictured below:

New_Union_Flag_proposal_by_Liam_Roberts

For all its politically correct and historically sensitive efforts to be inclusive, however, this ‘Inclusion Jack’ is a bit of a dog’s dinner visually, and it does rather ruin a powerful national and international emblem. I am in fact quite sympathetic to the objective of adding some explicit Welsh element to the Union Flag. As the son of a Welsh mother and English father growing up in England, I myself went through a phase of feeling indignant that the Union Jack made no overt reference to Wales. That said, the need to be inclusive in this way should be less acutely felt nowadays than then. As Wales has now acquired a substantial measure of self-government and official recognition as a distinct nation, the Red Dragon can be hoisted above official buildings across that land; whereas before, if any flag had been used, it would usually have been the Union Jack. And indeed, when I travelled to rural West Wales for the funeral of a family friend a couple of months ago, I did notice that the Welsh flag was being displayed more proudly and prominently than I’m sure was the case before.

I haven’t been to Scotland for many years, but I’m certain that in these days of devolved government, the Cross of St. Andrew must also be cropping up in all sorts of places where hitherto either the Union Flag or none would have been preferred. In England, too, as is well known, the Cross of St. George has largely superseded the Union Jack in popular affection and usage. I say that, but when I spent a couple of weeks in rural Lancashire towards the start of this year, it was the Union Flag that swung from poles in pubs or country gardens, not the Cross of St. George. Whether there’s some particularly strong unionist connection in that county, or whether this preference for the Union Jack is linked to local support for the BNP (related to ethnic tensions in Lancastrian cities such as Blackburn or Burnley), I don’t know. But generally, it is the red cross on a white background that is now viewed and used as the national flag by most English people.

By the people, that is, not the state. The irony of Ian Lucas’s intervention is that he should be pushing for more inclusion of the Welsh flag within that of the Union at the very time when the official use of the Union Flag in England is perceived by many as excluding, or precluding, the use of the Cross of St. George and, with it, the affirmation of English national identity. From this perspective, it is as if calls to add the Red Dragon on to the Union Jack – however fair in one respect – are adding insult to injury: not only can English people not expect to see ‘their’ national flag flying from public buildings, but also the Red Dragon is stuck onto the British flag as a permanent reminder of a historical injustice perpetrated by the English towards the Welsh: denial of recognition as a distinct nation, rather than as just a principality subsumed into England.

For, in fact, this historical situation is now reversed: it is England that is denied any official, constitutional status as a distinct nation within the UK; while the other three countries of the Union do now enjoy semi-separate nation status. And flying the Union Jack rather than the Cross of St. George on English public and government buildings is increasingly becoming a symbol of the denial of nationhood to the English.

How can these two not unreasonable but conflicting demands be reconciled: the Welsh wish to add some overt symbol of their country to the Union Flag; and the English desire to fly the Cross of St. George rather than the Union Flag? There is a simple solution that would obviate the need to ruin the design principles or ‘brand impact’ of the Union Jack. Separate versions of the Union Flag could be authorised for each nation in the UK that would incorporate their own national flags in miniature into the top-left corner of the flag in a similar way that the Australian and New Zealand flags or the Royal Navy Ensign insert the Union Flag. Specifically, each national flag could fill the quarter of the Union Jack demarcated by the lateral left-hand and vertical top bars of the red cross, i.e. they would go over the white surround to the red cross on that part of the flag. (This is simply because it would make the English and Northern Irish flags appear neater when inserted in this way, rather than having extra bits of white around their border deriving from the Union Flag.)

This solution would mean that the Welsh could have their Union Jack plus Red Dragon. It could be made explicit in the legislation or regulations establishing these flags that each country-specific version of the Union Flag was not exclusively for use in that country alone: that each version was a fully authorised variation on the Union Jack that could be flown in any part of the Union whenever and wherever it was felt appropriate. For example, the Welsh version could be flown by Welsh Guards regiments, even those based in England, or on ceremonies or visits involving the Prince of Wales – or wherever, really.

Similarly, the English version of the Union Jack – same flag as now but with the Cross of St. George flag inserted into the top-left corner – would enable national- and local-government and other public-sector organisations to fly both the Union Flag and the English flag at the same time. Some purists and English nationalists (among whom I count myself, by the way) might object to this compromise solution, feeling that only the Cross of St. George will do. But at least my suggestion would enable both sides of the argument to be assuaged to a limited extent: the new English version of the Union Flag would be both a fully authorised UK flag, of equivalent status to the unadulterated Union Jack, and it would prominently display the English national symbol. Better to have some recognition of England’s existence as a nation within the UK – which such a country-specific version of the Union Flag neatly symbolises – than none. If nothing else, this enables cost-conscious local authorities or hospitals, for instance, to be able to display both the UK and the English flag, if they were minded to, without having to invest in a second flag pole and incurring the extra costs of maintaining two sets of flags!

I’m assuming that the Northern Irish version of the flag would use the red upright cross, red hand and crown of the Ulster flag, rather than the Cross of St. Patrick. But that could well be somewhat controversial, to say the least, and the politicians there might have to compromise on the Flag of St. Patrick, which after all is used in the Union Jack now. I could see the thing getting rather party-political in Scotland, too, with SNP-led authorities tending to prefer to fly the Scottish flag alone, while unionist party-controlled authorities might choose the Scotland-specific version of the Union Flag.

However, that would be their affair, just as it should really be England’s choice whether to fly the Union Flag or the Cross of St. George on government buildings. But until we’re free to make that choice, having a version of the Union Jack that also includes the red cross of England seems like a satisfying and, dare I say it, sensible English compromise.

4 July 2007

The West Lothian Question Is Not the Only One Needing Answers

A cautious welcome to GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] proposals for constitutional reform yesterday. We’ll have to see how things turn out in terms of the consultation and legislative process. Personally not happy that Jack Straw is the man charged with co-ordinating the thing – he of the opportunistic Islamophobia at the back end of last year and one of the prime Britologists.

Of course, GB flatly refused to deal with the ‘West Lothian question’: why Scottish and Welsh MPs should continue to be allowed to vote on matters relating only to England, while English MPs can’t vote on exclusively Scottish and Welsh issues of the same kind, as these are now handled by the devolved institutions of those countries. Any new constitutional settlement that does not seek to resolve this anomaly will not last long without modifications.

The Tory solution would simply be to limit the right to vote on English matters to MPs from English constituencies. Both the Tories and Labour are worried that going any further – creating an English parliament with similar powers to the parliament and assembly of Scotland and Wales respectively – could imperil the survival of the Union. In previous blog entries, I’ve suggested that these concerns are connected with – but not necessarily exclusively determined by – two factors, which may or not be combined in any particular instance: 1) a peculiarly Scottish vicarious relationship with England via British identity and institutions, whereby Scottish politicians (including, arguably, the leaders of all three major UK parties) wish to maintain a disproportionate influence and power over English affairs, which a discontinuation of the prevailing UK-wide structures would disable; 2) a back-door republican agenda: wishing to create a British Republic, united around things like a Bill of Rights and a written constitution, which would effectively sever the age-old ties between the state, and the English monarch and church.

The jury’s out on the second of these concerns, although the proposal to remove from the PM the right to appoint Church of England bishops could be interpreted as potentially the thin end of the wedge towards disestablishment, even though it makes sense from an ecclesiastical point of view. Equally, a Bill of Rights and written constitution are very much on the agenda: for those who care about such things, time to ensure that any written constitution that does emerge preserves the monarchy and explicitly emphasises the historical and continuing importance of Christianity as the primary religious belief system of Britain – while obviously protecting the right of everyone to practice any law-abiding religion they like, or none.

On the first of the above two concerns about the Union – the Scottish wish for disproportionate influence over English affairs – GB’s resistance to even addressing the West Lothian question would appear to confirm the syndrome. In the case of the Labour Party, and indeed the Tories, this is linked to another form of disproportionality: the fact that the current constitutional arrangements, together with the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system, enable them to exercise majority rule over the whole of the UK on a minority of the popular vote. An English parliament elected using FPTP – based on votes cast at the last general election – would have been Conservative, as the Tories basically won the election in England. But on the basis of any reasonably proportionate voting system, no party would have held an absolute majority, either in England only or across the UK.

Hence, Labour’s UK-wide power is propped up by both the West Lothian anomaly (Scottish and Welsh MPs giving them their majority) and the current voting system; while any hopes the Tories have of regaining the government of the UK are also dependent on FPTP. Now, any English parliament would have to use PR, both for fairness and consistency with the arrangements in Scotland and Wales, and because this would be the only means to prevent the kind of disproportionate governments we’ve had in the UK for at least 30 years or more. As Labour would stand to be the losers from FPTP in England-only elections, I’m sure they’d find their way to accepting PR if an English parliament did come about! So when Labour and the Tories talk about an English parliament endangering the Union, one of the things that is implicit in that is their concern never again to be the single party of government over the whole Union. May that day indeed come soon!

Needless to say, the issue of proportionate representation was not tackled by GB, although he has apparently said that a paper on the voting system will be published at a later stage. But we’ve heard that one before, haven’t we? When will this paper appear? Shouldn’t the voting system be factored into the general conversation GB says politicians should be having with the public about the constitution? The currently grossly disproportionate system is surely the single largest factor behind people’s disaffection from politics, as the majority feel their vote won’t make a difference; something which is confirmed by the attitude of the parties, which think it’s only really worthwhile targeting the swing seats. Giving the vote to 16-year-olds won’t change that.

But there are some more profound questions that this whole business of reappraising the relationship of England with the rest of the UK as part of a new constitutional settlement raises, which I’ll just list for now:

  1. Just as supporters of a British republic attach their cause to the coat tails of a written constitution, is it not also the case that support for an English parliament can, but does not always, serve as the vehicle for those who genuinely want a fully independent English state? It’s time for everyone both to be explicit about what their ultimate aspirations are from constitutional reform – and they’ll have to be so in order to press for what they want – and to be on the alert towards the way hidden agendas could be advanced by the decisions that are made. OK, putting my cards on the table: I’m in favour of an English parliament with at least comparable powers to those of Scotland and Wales. In addition, my heart would like to see a separate English state; but my head tells me that might not be either practical or in the best interests of England at the present time.
  2. Would the creation of an English parliament not inevitably accelerate the momentum towards independence for both Scotland and England? This is not just because English people might be so delighted with their newfound freedom and proportional system of government that they might want to go the whole hog. But also, self-rule for England could break the vicarious relationship that many Scots feel towards England, which I referred to above. This relationship, while being about exercising political influence over a historically more powerful neighbour, also does involve a genuine sense of shared identity and – dare I say it? – affection. If England decides to define its identity and destiny on its own, effectively divorcing itself from the union with Scotland, could this not be the final factor that tips the majority in Scotland into supporting independence?
  3. Are there not long-term, global factors that suggest that independence for the constituent countries of the UK is almost inevitable? You could argue that the growing trend for people in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to wish to govern themselves and define their national identities in separation from British institutions and identity are influenced by global factors. As business and the economy become ever more globalised, it becomes less and less important for countries to group together into larger states in order to create the scale of economic activity and political influence needed to prosper. In Europe, of course, the EU has also brought about economic and institutional change that makes it much more possible for smaller countries to not only be viable but also perform very strongly in economic terms – cf. Ireland. (One concern about a break up of the UK would clearly be that it might expose England to greater control by and dependency towards the EU; which is something that supporters for full English independence need to think carefully about.) There are many examples of larger European states that have broken up into their constituent nations and are now doing very nicely, thank you very much: the USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia. Can we in Britain resist these macro-economic trends, especially if they speak to the growing aspirations of the different nations of Britain for more independence? And should we resist them, if our prospects are potentially improved by the ability to pursue our own priorities that independence could bring?
  4. Wales might choose to remain united with England if Scotland went its own way. One observation that’s not often made is that even if the Scots did opt for independence, the Welsh might not. Support for Welsh independence is limited largely to majority Welsh-speaking areas, and it’s unlikely to grow much stronger in the short-to-medium term. As discussions understandably centre on the future of the union between England and Scotland, we shouldn’t ignore the much older union with Wales, which arguably goes back much further than its historical start date of 1536: the now England and Wales were united in the Roman province of Britannia, while Scotland (‘Caledonia’) was separate. It might seem fanciful to go back that far in tracing the roots of national identity and institutions. But many of the nations of Europe can similarly trace the roots of their identities, languages and territorial borders to Roman and even pre-Roman times. Indeed, the terrible conflict in the former Yugoslavia, which goes back centuries, was in part because the nations there lie on the former fault lines between the Western and Eastern Roman Empire, and between European Christendom and (Ottoman) Islam. While the languages and even ethnic composition of European countries have often changed beyond recognition over the centuries, something of a continuing sense of national identity persists. Perhaps the English and Welsh will define their future together, thereby recapturing something of the ancient traditions that bind them.

Blog at WordPress.com.