England’s Dreaming or Not: A View from North of the Border
The Guardian Comment, April 23rd 2010
England is the biggest part of the United Kingdom – a nation, and a set of identities and places that provides much of the meaning, power and purpose of the whole UK.
‘England’ is sometimes seen as synonymous with ‘Britain’, much to the chagrin of Scots, Welsh, Northern Irish and pedants everywhere. ‘Britain’ is regularly used as a term when, in reality, people are talking about ‘England’.
It can be argued that England pays a penalty for its place and role in the UK. A democratic penalty. England’s Parliament still remains the imperial British Parliament. England remains the only part of the UK without a democratic Parliament or Assembly. Some see in this the transfer of ‘the democratic deficit’ the Scots and Welsh used to go on about to the English.
Campaigners such as Billy Bragg look at the Scots and perceive a culture, national identity and nationalism that they see as progressive, inclusive and more ‘sorted’ than the English. This seems at root a form of projection which tells more about the vantage point of Bragg and the others of this world.
Before the English think about creating another layer of political institutions, whether it is a Parliament or Assembly (or even a set of regional assemblies), they need to name, create and imagine an English landscape, from institutions to culture and identity, which inform and shape a modern nation.
There are two factors English reformers need to consider about their future. The first is the inviting slogan of ‘English votes for English laws’ which the Tories and others play with. This is the road to constitutional instability and the break-up of the union. A disunited kingdom would be fine for many, but it would be good for it happen for positive reasons, rather than stumbling into it.
Gordon Brown was once in favour of ‘English votes for English laws’, writing thirty years ago that it was worth creating ‘a semi-permanent Tory majority’ for what was then a ‘Scottish Assembly’. People can change their opinions, particularly through the mists of time, but it is surprising he ever considered even for a minute supporting such a position. And it is equally surprising that the once impressive Conservative research machine has never found the remark!
The undercurrent of the Billy Bragg tartan romanticism of the Scots is a widespread anxiety about England and English identity which thinks in their darkest thoughts that the English are naturally Tories, reactionary and xenophobic.
There was only one occasion in all the post-war elections when the Tories won a majority of the popular vote in England; that was in 1955. The same year the Tories won a majority of the Scottish vote as well as the Northern Irish vote; the exception being those troublesome Welsh.
It is the archaic FPTP system and the decaying British political system which aid the Conservatism of England and all the political distortions and inequities in our politics and society which flow from that.
For beyond the fear of progressives about what lies in the English heart, is a sense that the Rupert Murdoch view of England as a free market playground, as an open economy for finance capital, oligarchs and dodgy foreign money who have bought up large parts of London and most of the English football Premiership, holds a vice like grip on the institutions and power of England and the UK. And, that without the Scots and Welsh, this grotesque world would strengthen even further.
This even more than the English question is the missing dimension from our political discussion: how we address the legacy of the country Thatcherism and New Labour has bequeathed to us. And the twilight of the ancient Westminster political system has to be seen as an opportunity and opening for beginning that debate.