Who will speak for a democratic England in the break-up of Britain?
Sunday National, February 14th 2021
The UK is in major flux. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are increasingly in a different political space and marching to their own beats. Westminster day by day underlines its incompetence and unfitness, which leaves us with the huge topic of England – and its place and role in the future.
As UK politics increasingly come to resemble ‘four nation politics’ the question of how England is governed, thinks of itself and collectively sees its future, has become one of the major issues facing politics across these isles. How it evolves will be up to the people and citizens of England, but without a doubt, the outcome of this debate will have repercussions for all of us across these isles – including Scotland.
The current Tory Government is using the cover of Brexit and COVID-19 to embark on a dramatic reconfiguration and centralisation of powers in Westminster and England in particular. This can be seen in the UK Internal Market Act with huge consequences for Scotland and Wales, which the Institute for Government said “could place tighter constraints on devolved policy making”. There is the potential scaling back of the remit of the Supreme Court to aid unchallenged Westminster ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ with all that entails. And the unravelling of the disastrous Health and Social Care Act 2012 for England – the Lansley reforms – which produced the fragmented, disjointed NHS England which has been so slow to adapt to the pandemic. Its replacement would be a positive but will see power re-concentrated in Whitehall.
There is now an awareness across thoughtful voices across the political spectrum that something has gone awry in the state of the UK. Tory MSP Adam Tomkins, who is retiring at the forthcoming election, is forthright when he states that: “The UK is now more about the four nations than it has been before. For Scots under 40, the British state seems practically irrelevant. They don’t know what the added value of the Union is.”
Examples of this are everywhere, as are how pro-unionists talk about the UK, the union and independence. A case study of which was given this week by the BBC’s Question Time which came from Scotland, with Scottish Labour MP Ian Murray and former Scottish Secretary of State Michael Forsyth on the panel. Murray’s argument for the union was nearly entirely defensive, based on the issue of the currency and finances of an independent Scotland.
Forsyth was even more revealing, last voted in by Scottish voters in 1992, but currently a member of the House of Lords. He revelled in the rhetoric of the UK as “the fifth richest country in the world” and challenged the SNP as to “where they would find the money?” for COVID support. He concluded by observing: “Something has gone very, very wrong with the government of Scotland”, oblivious to the contradictions in that statement – from Westminster’s continued role to his own as a legislator in the Lords.
Some still cling to the wreckage such as John Spellar, former Labour MP, writing this week on Labour List, when he argued that Labour thinking on constitutional reform and democracy was a bad idea and would amount to the party “giving power away” – the same sort of argument we used to hear from Scottish and Welsh Labour MPs about devolution pre-1999.
England after the delusions of grandeur have gone
Pivotal to these debates is England. The historian David Edgerton put it in the New York Times: “Freed from the grip of the decaying British nation and British state, England could finally be done with its delusions of grandeur. Fanciful beliefs about British importance in the world would crumble. England would become the eight largest economy in the world.”
Former BBC broadcaster Gavin Esler has just written a book on this subject – How Britain Ends: English Nationalism and the Rebirth of Four Nations – which puts the issue of England centrestage; alongside an informed take on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and how the four might evolve in the future.
I spoke to Esler this week about his book and thoughts, and he observed: “There is so much complacency and self-satisfaction in Westminster including going on about the great glories of the unwritten constitution. The cultural and political run together in this complacency. The argument that we have just muddled through the past 1,000 years and can continue to do so – when the UK has not lasted 1,000 years and it has not been about muddling through but conscious decisions at key times.”
Esler reflected upon how many in England feel about the independence debate and how it then impacts on their feelings about England: “Many English people feel very sad about Scottish independence but feel they have no political vehicle for them to express an English voice – to say this is not what England needs to look like.”
“England will have to confront big issues if there is Scottish independence, such as what do we do about the nuclear weapons that were in Faslane? What do we do about an England that might not have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council?” he comments, adding the observation: “Would it not be wise to start these conversations now? What would we do about an England out of the EU, if Scotland were to join the EU.” Esler makes the point in his book that this is the position Switzerland has – surrounded by the EU, defined by numerous agreements with the bloc, while governing itself as a confederation.
All this talk of change is unsettling for some across these isles. One interesting contribution this week came from the centre-left New Statesman in an editorial which declared: “We have an open mind on the Scottish question.” This was too much for Kenny Farquharson of The Times who replied: “That Britain’s leading socialist magazine has “an open mind on the Scottish national question” is quite remarkable. Have they really thought through the consequences for progressive politics in England of losing every Scottish MP?”
Yet there are a growing number of English centre-left voices who recognise the unsustainable nature of the union as it currently is, and the growing democratic argument for Scottish independence. “Nothing makes the case for Scottish independence as effectively as unbroken Tory monopoly at Westminster” wrote The Guardian’s Rafael Behr. In a similar spirit, the New Statesman’s Political Editor Stephen Bush put it pithily: “Voting for Scottish independence is an easier route away from a Conservative Government, which the average Scottish voter neither likes nor respects, than the distant prospect of Conservative defeat in England.”
It is worth pointing out that since 1979 in the past 42 years Scotland has had the experience of Tory (and Tory-led) governments for 29 years: 69% of the time. That is seven UK Governments which have governed Scotland without having a popular mandate in the country.
There is the prospect that this may not end anytime soon, with the challenge for Labour to even deprive the Tories of an overall majority (let alone win one themselves) a steep ask and challenge at the next UK election. Labour has to poll well and win in England to govern in the UK, and the last time Labour won the popular vote in England was exactly twenty years ago: 2001. Germane to all this is the party’s track record of winning in England in votes which it has only done six times in its entire history.
A democratic future for England?
This brings us to the question of the future of England, and what kind of country, politics and democratic arrangements the people of that country want. That is obviously for the citizens of England, but it is a debate desperately needed not just for England, but because it has implications for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – irrespective of the constitutional arrangements – including in the event of Scottish independence and Irish reunification.
Elser’s book is a genuinely open-minded exploration of England and the relationships it develops with the other nations. He explores the need to find a language and politics which aids all of us emerging from the wreckage and carnage of Westminster misgovernance, and does not find solace in a politics of absolutes; whether it is talking about independence as ‘separatism’ and ‘divorce’, or the fetishising of sovereignty in Brexit.
Esler puts democratic, governance and citizenship questions foremost, and understands that culture and identities inform a large part of the political. “There is nothing wrong with a strong attachment to England. It has an incredible culture, dynamism and diversity” he says, acknowledging the dominant Tory reactionary notion of England is increasingly in the ascendant and unrepentant in its dogma and intolerance. “If you change culture you change politics” he observes: “One of the things I find striking is the lack of cultural and historical bandwidth in politics. The fact that Priti Patel could use the example of food to talk of punishing Ireland – recalling memories of the famine.”
Part of this is about history, remembering and understanding complex pasts and using that to understand the future. Esler states that: “The cultural realm is not about throwing statues into the river or canals. It is not about denying history. It is about having more history and more historical understanding.” One interpretation of England is about a celebration of the past uncritically and reducing it to kings and queens, the ruling elites and numerous military conquests.
“There are many Englands” insists Elser and he remains hopeful that the people of that nation will not be content to be ruled directly by an incompetent Westminster, while peddled myths that Brexit is the change that they needed. This debate matters to all of us in these isles because without England becoming a modern democratic forward-looking country it has a detrimental effect on the rest of us no matter what our constitutional status is.