The English Question
THE ENGLISH QUESTION
Wednesday July 2nd 2008
Southampton Street offices, Covent Garden
Michael Knowles Member of the Campaign for an English Parliament.
I attended this seminar as a member of the CEP, though, as will become clear, this reflection is my own. My interest in the seminar was twofold. First it was the topic. It is the issue that with my colleagues I have campaigned about in all sorts of ways throughout England for the last ten years. Just two examples this year, the weekend of September 6th in the market place Berwick on Tweed, and then the weekend of October 18th the same in Shrewsbury; and that sort of campaigning we have maintained in various way since our foundation June 14th 1998. Secondly, because it was an IPPR seminar. That interested me so much I travelled down from Kendal in Westmorland for it. The IPPR is a very UK Establishment body, so I thought I might get some useful insights into how the Establishment is moving to deal with England now that the English Question created by the 1998 Devolution legislation can no longer be ignored.
The IPPR was founded in 1988 by Lord Hollick, Lord Eatwell and Baroness Blackstone for the purpose of detaching the Party from its working class and socialist origins and principles and providing it instead with policies which would make it acceptable to middle and upper middle class electors, the CBI and suchlike bodies and the City. The unexpected death of John Smith provided the key opportunity for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to implement the changes to Party policy and its principles which groups like the IPPR were proposing, and in the following fifteen years, at least until the last few months of this year, the Party has been successful in establishing confidence among the professional classes and those of business and finance that it will represent their economic interests. Political parties represent economic interests. The manner in which Gordon Brown has recently employed all the resources of the state, not least its ability to borrow, to rescue the City and the banks from the consequences of their own actions, which he himself over eleven years had actively promoted, and with it he hopes his own reputation and electoral prospects, is evidence of this radical change in Labour political philosophy.
Labour’s privatisation policies, which under Brown are being extended into the NHS, its subordination to American interests, its participation in the illegal and indeed murderous invasion of Iraq, its hostility to workers’ rights, its tolerance of the wholesale exploitation of cheap labour from abroad in the interests of capital, its lip service to green concerns while it promotes environmental degradation on virtually every front (footnote 1), its management and active encouragement under Brown of a debt economy on a massive scale and an unregulated financial system, its curtailing of historic civil liberties and its conversion of the UK into a surveillance state, its dependence upon spin at the expense of truthfulness and integrity, and so on –all this has detached the Party from its socialist and working class origins and principles. There is a very deep dishonesty about the present Labour Party. Blair himself had no roots at all in the Labour Movement. He openly despised it. He came from a Tory family. His father was on the verge of being selected for a Tory seat before he was struck down by a very severe stroke from which, almost miraculously, he recovered. Brown’s roots are not in the socialism but in the Calvinism of his parents specifically his clergyman father. He is very definitely a son of the manse. Calvinism sits easily with the control instinct, the distrust of the human spirit, negativity and delight in surveillance.
The IPPR is a very Establishment body. Its leadership and membership cross-fertilise with other Establishment organisations -political, cultural and academic- with an ease a hive of bees in Spring might envy. The CEP is a much simpler organisation. It has no class base and no political party affiliations. It was founded in 1998 to campaign for the application of the principles of the 1998 devolution legislation to England.
The Labour Party is in power and still might be in power after the next general election. It created the English Question with its 1998 devolution legislation. If it retains power after the general election but with a reduced majority and dependent on the votes of Scottish MPs, or it enters into a governing coalition, it will have to confront the English Question far more often and far more head-on than over the past ten years. How it then does that might well be influenced by such organisations as the IPPR.
This seminar however might well be have been an indication that the IPPR is now preparing for that possibility; or indeed with the other possibility that it will be the Tories who will form the next government. After all, whatever the original political loyalties of a very successful think-tank, its members cannot afford to keep all their eggs in just one party’s basket. There are mortgages to pay, families to keep and careers to carry forward. The new IPPR dual leadership of Lisa Harker and Carey Oppenheim have only recently stated (interview with Alex Stevenson. Politics.co.uk, August 29th) that they wish to ‘help all parties’. They are acutely aware that ‘who the players are and where the power lies’ might soon be changing, and the ‘initial raison d’etre of their organisation, namely ‘preparing New Labour for government’ requires ‘a newly independent outlook’ (ibidem). Put more bluntly, Labour may be on its way out but the IPPR won’t be if they can help it. As Aquinas says in the Summa, the first instinct of all living things is self-survival. I was wondering if the seminar might be part of their preparation for whatever changes the coming general election might bring about. There is a buzz about being inside the circles of power, having the ear of the drafters and makers of legislation, of access to the corridors of ministries, of being listened to and consulted. There are few things that arouse the courtier class quite like being attended to by the rich and the powerful.
My own interest in devolution arises from my upbringing. For one thing being from a very ordinary working family being English was simply how we were. It wasn’t anything anyone talked about, it just was. There was nothing to talk about. Nothing to prove, nothing to make a thing about, it just was. No hang-ups, no misgivings, nothing at all. We were English, my Dad took me to see Matthews, Mortensen, Charlton, and Finney against Wales at Maine Rd. where we won 4-1, and everything was just taken for granted. It was only much later when in the London trade union movement I encountered the weird ideological mindset –the angst of the guilt-ridden- that, as I discovered later, George Orwell had written about.
And the second thing was, I was born –almost literally- into the Labour and Trade Union Movement when it still had the principles of its founders. I was born into a living tradition of struggle for justice; and today it is my country, England, that is being treated with gross unfairness and injustice. And that by its own rulers, though that is hardly new. The discrimination the people of England are experiencing because of the 1998 devolution legislation in all sorts of areas is wrong. Very wrong. This government has brought it about; while at the same time our 550 English MPs and a swirling courtier retinue of middle class academics, think-tankers and journalists maintain it by ignoring it. As we will see, the IPPR describes the injustices the people of England are having to put up with as ‘perceived’ which of course implies they aren’t real; and that’s how the Establishment want it. There is no point pulling punches. It is time for blunt speech. If any racial or religious minority in the UK were being denied the benefits the Scots and the Welsh are getting out of devolution, groups like the IPPR and newspapers like the Guardian would be making a roaring trade out of it. But when it comes to the English, there is indifference and silence. That is how it is. All sorts of things matter to these people but not England.
The situation is really incredible. Gordon Brown, the architect and engine of the 1998 devolution, mounts the rostrum at Labour Party conference in Manchester and pledges ‘fairness’ some 40 times in the space of his hour long speech, knowing all too well that barely a single English Labour MP will admit to the utter hypocrisy of that pledge when it comes to the people of England, much less raise their voice and do something about it. Barely a single one. Yet it is university students from their constituencies who are paying tuition fees and ending up with debts up to £15000 or more while Brown’s don’t pay a penny; their constituents who pay prescription charges and hospital parking charges while people in Wales and Scotland don’t.
My family has a long involvement in the Labour and Trade Union Movement in England going back well over a hundred years. The Movement was the backbone, the citadel, the voice of the struggle for justice in this country for the last 200 years until 1997 when it was defenestrated and disembowelled of its principles by New Labour –by the Blairs, the Mandlesons and the Browns, and the rest, both in the PLP and in the swarms of free university grant educated members of pressure groups and think-tanks. Members of my family belonged to the Clarion Club in Lancashire, cycling everywhere with the Clarion message. They were shop stewards in Metro Vicks, Manchester’s huge engineering works, one uncle was its chief shop steward, he was hounded out of his position by the Communist Party but he stood his ground, took his case to the TUC under Vic Feather, and it became the ‘cause celebre’ which put an end once and for all to the CP push to take control of the Trade Union Movement. My family provided Labour councillors in both Salford and Manchester. My grandfather on my father’s side was a friend of Kier Hardie who used to visit him in the house I was born in Pendleton in Salford. My mother used to tell us that, when we moved from Pendleton into Manchester in the slum clearances, by accident she left an ottoman –the word she used- of copies of the Clarion in the cellar. The street is there but the row of terraced houses has been bulldozed. Maybe the ottoman is there still under the concrete -like the vision and the principles of the Movement which I was born into.
I myself have been a Labour parliamentary candidate and local councillor, though my greater involvement has been in the trade union movement, particularly as a trades council secretary in the East End of London. My concern is JUSTICE. And I feel consumed with anger at the way devolution has brought none of the huge benefits to England which it has brought to Scotland and Wales while at the same time England’s taxpayers are paying for it. It is very unjust. I feel intense bitterness that there are 550 MPs representing English constituencies and they do nothing about it. Simply nothing. And, as I have just said, not just MPs.
Because it has influence in the places where Labour government policy is made, I was very curious why only now, as long as ten years after the English Question became a very serious issue, the IPPR was taking what appears to be a serious interest in it. And what line it might take? It supported the 1998 Devolution legislation, possibly unthinkingly. There just is no evidence that in the months when the legislation was passed, the IPPR so much as stopped to think for a single moment that that legislation was quite weird by actually barring not just English, Welsh or Northern Irish MPs but even Scottish MPs from participating in the internal legislation and government of their own Scotland, yet at the same time enabling them -the same Scottish MPs- to participate fully just as before in every aspect –every internal matter in fact- of legislation and government for England (footnote 2). I know the IPPR membership is at a very far remove from the country’s working class population. I know that it has been servicing New Labour since the 1997 elections despite the fact that New Labour has repudiated wholesale the values and principles of the Labour and Trade Union Movement. Nevertheless, the seminar might, I speculated, provide some insight into how Labour is approaching the English Question with a general election on the horizon.
The advertisement the IPPR put out for the seminar was as follows:
‘ENGLISH QUESTIONS: TOWARDS A NEW POLICY AGENDA FOR ENGLAND
The English Question has recently moved from the margins of British political life to centre-stage. Fuelled by concerns about the perceived inequities of devolution and a growing sense that England and the English are losing out in this unbalanced Union, concerns about the future of England are provoking widespread public debate. But to see the English Question in narrow constitutional terms alone is to overlook a range of important political, economic and cultural factors that have pushed this debate up the agenda. In short there is more than one English Question.
In this the first seminar from IPPR’s new programme of work on the English Question we want to explore some of the following key questions:
- Which English Question should we be most concerned with?
-What is driving this renewed interest in England and Englishness?
-What are the key political, constitutional and cultural challenges facing England?
-What do the public think? Which English questions do they care about?
It would have been more accurate if the IPPR had said that, whereas the English Question had been centre stage in British political life since it was created by Labour’s devolution legislation ten years ago, only now it itself was getting round to addressing it with any seriousness. I have just been informed that it produced a statement or a booklet on the EQ round about 1992 but over the last ten years of being involved in pretty every way possible with the matter I have never seen it referred to or quoted, not even at this IPPR seminar. The 1998 legislation will prove to be the main legacy of the Blair government, even though Blair himself had no appreciation at all of its historic importance. As I see it, and from what I know, the IPPR has taken ten years to recognise the historic importance of that legislation. That I consider very remiss.
The legislation has radically revised the 1707 Act of Union which founded the British state. As from the moment of the Act of Union the distraction and irritant of Scotland in England’s drive towards a worldwide commercial empire, which was already into overdrive, terminated. Scotland, small though it was, became instead a helpful associate in the enterprise. The British Empire’s impact upon world history politically, culturally and commercially in the two hundred and fifty years that followed has been immense, not least upon our own lives. By 1997 however, almost 300 years later, the requirement of a totally integrated Union had become politically and commercially unnecessary as far as England was concerned. The 1998 devolution legislation was recognition of that point being reached.
The 300 years of union hadn’t reduced the sense of difference in identity between the three nations. That in effect was the statement that the 1998 devolution legislation was also making, although of course, now that that has been realised and the consequences are becoming plainer by the day, the UK Establishment is trying to retain whatever they can by trying in every way it can to frustrate and hold back any development of national identity in the one nation of the three it denied devolution to. England is what matters. England is where the Establishment struggle to retain the Union in the form they have grown up with is taking place. That the Union can continue in a different form has not yet dawned on them.
It is in its way quite fascinating. The people who run England –political, commercial, academic and media- do not mind if some Scots, Welsh and Irish share in their government. They do not mind either what the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish get up to in their own national territories. That really is of little importance to them so long as it does not impact adversely on their interests. Devolution was given to the non-English because they are of fringe importance. Between them the Scots, Welsh and N. Irish amount to no more than 15% of the UK population and contribute at most 10% of UK wealth. Parliaments exist to protect and promote interests. With the English making up five sixths of the Commons, there was no way English MPs would have allowed Scotland to get the devolution Brown and Dewar were wanting if they had thought for one moment that it threatened English interests. MPs represent constituencies. If there had been any concern at all that devolution for Scotland, Wales and NI would threaten the interests of their electorate in English constituencies, it would not have been passed.
The ordinary Scottish people of 1707 had known that the Act of Union was being supported by the English Establishment because it was in its interests but they couldn’t stop their ruling class tugging on their forelocks to get access to English wealth and power. ‘A parcel of rogues in the nation’ Burns called them. Is it still the case today? The WLQ is a statement that for the English ruling elite the Celtic Fringe does not really matter. Scotland and Wales can do their own thing so long as England keeps its hold on trade, defence, foreign affairs and taxation for the whole island. The English governing elite agreed to the Union in 1707 because they judged it to be in their interests. Precisely as did the Scottish ruling establishment. They considered it to be in their interests and imposed it upon Scotland. It was straightforward ‘real politik’; and Gordon Brown typifies it pretty perfectly (cf. footnote 3). If anyone thinks that the Union represents some great moral ideal, they really are living in a political and economic cloud-cuckoo land.
That was 1707. However, 1997-98 was different. The Westminster ruling elite and their service units like the IPPR took all three countries, England, Scotland and Wales for granted; they thought they were in control. They thought they knew the plebs. How wrong they were. How pathetically badly they read us. First of all, the Scots haven’t taken devolution as piously and gratefully as they were supposed to. Instead their parliament has screwed the Exchequer ever since for every penny available, putting two fingers up to English resentment, goading us almost, over student fees, personal care and central heating installation for the elderly, a council tax freeze and top quality cancer and eye medication. It’s gone its own way over the NHS, alternative energy and nuclear power. And –and this is the unkindest cut of all- they’ve gone and put in a nationalist government for the first time in over 300 years, and that in a parliament which was set up by Westminster as sure defence against any move towards independence. What ironies reality produces! The very party that boycotted the Scottish Constitutional Convention and sneered at the whole devolution process is now using the Convention’s achievement, the Scottish Parliament, as its springboard towards independence. And in Scotland, Labour, the very party which put its heart, soul and mind into the devolution process, might possibly be rubbed out by the way devolution is developing.
England, as I have said, no longer requires Union with Scotland for whatever its future might be. That day is now past. Consequently the Scottish Constitutional Convention was pushing at an open door when it formulated its Claim of Right; and Scotland was itself becoming aware that it had the cultural and economic critical mass to move towards self-rule, indeed independence. Politically and commercially England has no requirement at all for union with Scotland. It will not oppose Scottish independence. Independence is now completely a matter for the Scots alone.
What the 1998 legislation has done is facilitate the beginnings of a most radical change in the Union which economic and political realities are now inviting. How big that change will be remains to be seen. The legislation gave what it explicitly intended, formal political and constitutional recognition to Scotland and Wales as distinct nations, and, unintentionally and by default, recognition to England too, though Establishment forces such as the BBC, the Constitution Unit, powerful elements within the Labour party and the IPPR are intent on preventing any formal recognition of England as a nation by substituting a process of balkanisation in the shape of regionalisation.
The 1998 legislation gravely unbalanced the Union by putting the three nations of this island in different relationships to the Union and to each other. It was in fact an ill-thought out and rushed legislation, drafted almost entirely by the Scots themselves and enacted in the interests primarily of Scotland. Though technically it could be revoked, it will not be. Instead, as an unstoppable outcome, it will move on to bring about one of three possibilities. Either both England and Wales will acquire the status Scotland now has within the Union, which Professor Trench (2005) aptly calls ‘permissive autonomy’; or all three nations will form a federation; or the three will become independent of each other and agree an association with each other as fellow members of the EU. That the IPPR has only now, after ten years of devolution, woken up, at least actively, to the historic constitutional and political situation that devolution has brought about is remarkable. However, that tardiness is typical of the English Establishment which the IPPR typifies. For the English Establishment Scotland and Wales are fringe elements and England is Britain. They were barely aware of what devolution had done to the Union. In matters of government they weren’t aware anything had really changed.
As I have said, it is ten years since the Labour Party’s Devolution Legislation of 1998, the main movers and drivers of which were Gordon Brown and Donald Dewar, created the English Question. That legislation gave self-rule –in varying degrees- to Scotland and Wales while denying it to England. It gave self-rule or home rule to Scotland and Wales in the form of a Parliament and an Assembly with a First Minister and an Executive. By that process Scotland and Wales formally acquired constitutional and political recognition as distinct nations within the Union. That is what Devolution 1998 was about, that is what it did, that is what it brought about. The chicken however was the egg and the egg was the chicken. Constitutional recognition of Scotland and Wales and self-rule go hand in hand. The one is pointless without the other. Self-rule implies constitutional and political recognition. The only issue is how far is self-rule to go or which of the three possibilities I have mentioned will come about.
It was, as the legislation explicitly and repeatedly affirms, as constitutionally recognised nations that Scotland and Wales got self-rule. As I listened to both speakers and attendees of the IPPR seminar, what came across was their failure to grasp that fundamental aspect of the 1998 legislation. There is no possibility whatsoever of the English Question being resolved unless the 1998 legislation which created it is properly understood. The English Question is whether or not the United Kingdom will extend the 1998 legislation to England as it was applied to Scotland. It was fascinating to see how the IPPR leadership of the seminar in the advert it sent out spoke of there being ‘English Questions’ rather than just an English Question. That is deliberately diversionary. It is an attempt to shift the focus created by the legislation away from the issue of devolution for England, above all from the issue of England being devolved on the principles of the legislation, to other matters such as were listed. That tactic speaks volumes about the attitude of the IPPR in this matter. As represented by the framers of the seminar it does not want devolution for England qua England.
There is also a Welsh Question which is not altogether different. Brown and Dewar brought Wales into the devolution process because they knew all too well that a devolved Scotland on its own would be unacceptable to the people of the UK as a whole. The naked purpose of the legislation would be exposed for what it was, to promote the benefit and advantage of Scotland. A devolved Scotland on its own however would have exposed their purpose, which was concern only for Scotland as they explicitly acknowledged and declared when they signed the Claim of Right in March 1989, which I will come to below. They needed a devolved Wales even if its powers were shabby in comparison to what they gave to their own country. The Welsh Question is now being worked on within the Assembly as Wales pushes for the powers Scotland has. It is being resisted of course by people like Peter Hain in alliance with Welsh Tories. (It is fascinating in its way to see a South African battling to save the departing form of the Union but possibly that is because he hasn’t, and cannot, shuffle off the notion of empire he was brought up with; and possibly he has no feel for what this island really is, and always has been, the home of three distinct nations. What Devolution 1998 has resurrected from the vaults of history is the English, the Scots and the Welsh as distinct nations. They are what this island is. That is what the legislation stated.
The IPPR has recently given an indication of how it understands devolution. On July 10th, it published ‘Fair Shares: Barnett & the Politics of Public Expenditure’ 10th July 2008 by Ian McLean, Guy Lodge and Katie Schmuecker in which it consistently speaks of Scotland and Wales as ‘Devolved Administrations’. That phrase represents a very critical misunderstanding of the legislation. Ask any Scot if their country is a Devolved Administration (a ‘DA’ as the authors abbreviate it) and he/she will look puzzled, to put it mildly. The Scots did not blazon the Declaration of Arbroath on the entrance to the Scottish Museum to say Scotland is a ‘DA’. Being a ‘DA’ is not what Scottish history and the Scottish Parliament are about. And emphatically being a DA just isn’t what Devolution 1998 was or is about either. Neither do the English people regard Scotland as a ‘DA’. Scotland is Scotland, a distinct historic nation. When the two countries meet at Wembley or Hampden Park, if anyone thinks –devolution or no devolution, union or no union- that just two ‘administrations’ of the UK are playing each other, they are on another planet. The match is blood and guts and nothing less.
‘Devolved Administration’ is colonial-speak. It is the language of the unionist, the language of Whitehall control. It is the language of the pre-1998 Unionist whom time and tide are leaving behind, gradually being left stranded on an alien shore. And something more. Indeed, as far as England is concerned, something much more. What the authors of the publication –and the whole network to which they belong and whose stance they articulate- are trying to do is disembowel the 1998 Legislation of its essential feature in respect of England. That crucial essential feature of that legislation was that it was about two nations, Scotland and Wales qua nations –and that is what I mean when I say that the English Question is about whether or not the United Kingdom will extend the 1998 legislation to England as it was applied to Scotland. These authors want to maintain the old colonial illusion that Whitehall can dictate the way the United Kingdom is going to develop. No longer.
If they can obfuscate the intent of the Devolution Legislation which concerned just Scotland and Wales as nations, and not as something they are now calling devolved administrations, they then can, they believe, apply devolution, as they want it to be understood, to England. That is, they can, they hope, provide the Labour Government with the ideological tools to ‘devolve’ England, not as a nation, but as an ‘administrative area’. That is their instinct. It is in their political guts. Their concern is not really Scotland and Wales. Their concern is England. Scotland and Wales do not worry them.
Strangely, though, the England which they, and a whole strata of English academic, politicos and think-tankers, are concerned with is an England they are not at ease with. They are not at ease in themselves with England, with the idea of England as a nation, with Englishness and English identity. They are English of course, but it is the sort of English whom Orwell had a lot to say about, people itchy and unhappy in their English skin. The mere mention of England brings them out in all sorts of strange political and cultural goose pimples. That was very much on display at the seminar. They duck and dive to avoid anything that might seem like a normal human attachment that love for one’s country is. They just cannot be English in the same relaxed and easy way a Scot is Scottish or the Welsh are Welsh or a person like me can be English. They torture themselves with all sorts of misgivings and hang-ups. They come up with every qualification available to the ingenious mind. They have an in-built default reflex which makes them identify England, just to take one example, with racism. Not Scotland, not Wales, just England.
The 1998 devolution legislation described the Welsh Assembly as ‘the focus for the concerns of the nation’ but for these people just the mere thought of England being considered a nation –their nation- with its own concerns would cause them ideological convulsions and bring them out in an emotional and intellectual rash second to none. Heaven alone knows what the extension of the principles of the 1998 legislation to England would do to their individual and collective psyche. The explicitly stated foundation principle of the legislation was devolution of self-rule to Scotland and Wales over internal matters as distinct nations within the UK, be it in the form of a national –not a ‘regional’- parliament or an assembly. They hadn’t any problem with that for Scotland and Wales; they got into bed with it like lovers on their first night. But England –their England? Now, that for them is a very different kettle of fish. Not a lover. Not even a bedfellow. More a very bad dream. A constitutionally recognised England self-governing itself through it own parliament? - a veritable nightmare. As I have said, George Orwell had them neatly summed up long ago now.
They want England divided into regions, they talk about England as ‘regions’, they hope that somehow that will resolve the English Question (which is as much a question about their attitude to England as about England itself). The IPPR Inquiry into the English Question will turn out to be a promotion of regionalisation. To represent the devolved nations of the UK as ‘devolved administrations’ is a terminological strategy for a political end. It makes no difference to Scotland and Wales. Their distinct nationhood has now been constitutionally re-established, even within the Union. But, they hope and intend, it is not too late to influence the debate about England, which is their real concern anyway. If England can be represented as an area of administration rather than a nation, Whitehall can carve it up as it wishes. The significance of these authors is not themselves of course; it is what they represent and what they articulate. In the UK Establishment what they represent has a powerful following.
However, the clauses of the 1998 legislation not only do not support them. In fact they flatly contradict them. In line after line after line, paragraph after paragraph after paragraph it is ‘Scotland’ and it is ‘Wales’ that are mentioned, never anything like ‘devolved administrations’ nor ‘regions’. Both Scotland and Wales, whether before the Act of Union or after it, have always been regarded by the Scots, the Welsh and the English only as nations. The text of the legislation has to be read. It is perfectly clear. There can be no dispute about its purposive nature, what it intended. The 1998 Devolution legislation was about nations. ‘The Assembly will be the forum for the nation, able to debate all matters of concern in Wales….A directly elected Assembly will provide opportunities for a fully informed debate in Wales, and will take decisions which can reflect the needs and circumstances of Wales’.
The documentation surrounding the legislation bears this out. 'The Assembly will let Welsh people express their own priorities…an elected Assembly will give Wales a voice’ declared the then Secretary of State for Wales. Ron Davies, in his Foreword to the Welsh Act (just pause for one moment, pause to imagine the unimaginable, force yourself to do the impossible and imagine the sort of people who inhabit think-tanks like the IPPR or the Fabian Society or the Constitution Unit or the Justice Committee of MPs speaking that way about England). ‘Scotland is a proud historic nation within the United Kingdom’ stated Tony Blair in his preface to the Scotland White Paper. Substitute ‘England is a proud historic nation within the United Kingdom’ and ask the inhabitants of those bodies to say it out loud. They’d all take to the hills, or rather their burrows, like frightened rabbits. The Establishment just doesn’t talk about England like that.
But now look at a very different declaration about England in the Scotland White Paper. ‘The Union will be strengthened by recognising the claims of Scotland, Wales and the regions with strong identities of their own’. By the phrase ‘the regions’ the Labour Government meant the divisions Whitehall had made of England. Scotland and Wales each has a national identity; they are the ‘nations’. England hasn’t. In place of England there are ‘regions’ and in place of an English identity there are ‘regions with, says the legislation, ‘strong identities of their own’. That is the language of the think-tankers for whom England is not a nation but a unit of administration. It is the language of the Campaign for English Regions (CfER) which became defunct after the November 2004 North East of England referendum, members of which campaign have since found employment within the IPPR.
Leading up to the North East of England referendum the CfER produced a booklet with an extraordinary statement in it. ‘The North East Region is entirely different from the South West region’. It is remarkable what people will lend themselves to to get what they want. Both those two parts of England speak the one language, live under the same law and government, have the same system of local government and education, enjoy the same national health service, watch the same television, listen to the same radio, read the same papers, play the same games, drive the same motorways, use the same railways, and all the rest, all support England in football, cricket, rugby and so on. But somehow, maintained the CfER, they are ‘entirely different’. As I have said, it is remarkable what people are prepared to do for their own purposes.
It is important to nail this IPPR stratagem of speaking about Scotland and Wales as ‘Devolved Administrations’ because it is a specific ideology concealed by a misleading terminology. It would enable the sort of unionist these people are to talk and write as though the United Kingdom is still in essence what it was before 1998 when it is not. Scotland -and progressively Wales- has government of its internal affairs, and that’s just for starters, and there is no going back. Indeed, the movement is the other way, from ‘permissive autonomy’ (Professor Trench) to federation, if not indeed to three independent nations (and logically Irish unification). The DA term is intended to disguise the fundamental element of the 1998 legislation. That fundamental element is that the devolution it brought in was about nations. If, however, devolution can be represented as being about ‘administrations’ and not about nations, Whitehall can carve up England, as it thinks fit; and that in a nutshell is the New Labour/IPPR/Constitution Unit ideology and perspective about England. And that is what this IPPR Inquiry is about. But if devolution as in the 1998 legislation is about nations, which it is, which fact has created the English Question, then England has to be recognised as a distinct nation, which it is, and the issue of self-rule has to be addressed.
The English majority of the Parliamentary New Labour Party sleep-walked into devolution in 1997 and 1998; and though its 1998 devolution legislation brought about the biggest political and constitutional change in our history in 300 years, they actually paid it little or no attention. They left it all instead to Members of the Executive of the Scottish Constitutional Convention and to the Scottish MPs like Gordon Brown and Donald Dewar who were members of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, to actually drawn up the legislation and take it through its stages. ‘Devolution? Oh, that’s Gordon’s thing’ said Blair, as recorded by James Naughtie in his book ‘the Rivals’. Members of the SCC like Canon Kenyon Wright, who weren’t MPs or civil servants –he was the Chairman of its Executive- took part even in the actual drafting of the legislation. The IPPR, New Labour’s leading think-tank, just like the sleep-walking members of the PLP, did not see the significance of it at all and paid it no heed.
In total contrast one English woman and five Englishmen, alive to the political, cultural and constitutional significance of Scottish and Welsh devolution for England, had been following it all closely and on June 14th 1998, precisely when the legislation made it to the statute book, they met in the home of two of them in Thetford Forest in Norfolk, made their response in the form of a policy statement and founded the Campaign for an English Parliament. Time is proving their meeting to be historic.
Gordon Brown and Donald Dewar knew exactly what they were about, in contrast to the indifference and ignorance of the English majority of the PLP. They knew what they wanted, and it was nothing whatsoever to do with ‘Devolved Administrations’. Their concern was Scotland. They had shown their hand quite openly on March 30th 1989 when they and 130 other Scots MPs and MEPs and others put their signatures to ‘The Scottish Claim of Right’: ‘We, gathered as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, do hereby acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs, and do hereby declare and pledge that in all our actions and deliberations their interests will be paramount’. Brown signed that pledge, fundamentally unconstitutional though it was for a Union MP to sign it. So did the present Speaker of the House, Michael Martin. But there, blood is thicker than water. Nothing tells us better than that what Devolution 1998 was all about. It was about, and it is about, the assertion of the distinct nationhood of the Scots whose sovereignty and interests in the pledge and conviction of Gordon Brown and the rest of the SCC are paramount. In a word, to speak of Scotland and Wales as Devolved Administrations is delusion. Nine years after signing their Claim of Right Gordon Brown and Donald Dewar showed they meant it. With the 1998 devolution legislation they made the interests of Scotland paramount precisely as they had pledged.
If people want to understand what Brown means by the ‘Britishness’ he is now promoting, they should look back at that pledge. Brown’s ‘unionism’ is pragmatic. For him Scotland is what matters. What else can that pledge possibly mean? Where he differs from the SNP is only his belief that Scotland is best served by being in the Union. As Brown sees it, the Union gives to Scotland now just what it gave to Scotland in 1707: access to England’s wealth and power and with it much greater employment and career opportunities for the Scottish population.
However, the weakness of the 1998 legislation, though Brown and co with their monocular focus only on their own country and in their haste to get it through did not see it, was just that. It was only about Scotland and it was rushed. Wales was included, as I have said, purely to lend support to its primary intent. Just consider what the devolution legislation did. It made Scotland some 75% independent of the rest of the Union by taking away from all Union MPs, even Scottish ones, any power to make laws and regulations for the internal affairs of Scotland. Yet it maintained the right of Scottish (and Welsh MPs) to participate fully and totally as before in making laws and regulations for England and to be ministers for every aspect of English life. In a word, the 1998 devolution legislation fundamentally unbalanced the Union. The balance of the Union was fatally compromised by the legislation Brown and Dewar, on behalf of the SCC, took through parliament. In other words, for Brown Scotland mattered more than the Union; and if he is promoting ‘Britishness’ now, it is because he has realised that by unbalancing the Union in the interests of Scotland he has in fact put its future at risk, which, as he sees it, and fears, will be Scotland’s undoing. The three historic nations of this island no longer stand in the same constitutional relationship to the Union and to each other. The 1998 Devolution Legislation was, in the legal meaning of the word, perverse.
The 1998 devolution legislation has brought about the biggest and most significant change in British political life in the last 300 years. I would not want to make an estimation of its significance as greater than that of our membership of the EU, which is transforming our legal system and body of law and the composition of the people itself to a degree quite unforeseen, and possibly unforeseeable. The devolution legislation however has made a radical change to the nature of the Union. And it is permanent. It has given political and constitutional recognition and an executive self-governing function to Scotland and Wales as distinct nations. From the vaults of history, from being politically and constitutionally one British nation, the legislation gave rebirth to three –the three historic nations of this island. Political and constitutional rebirth to two of them by intent with varying powers of self-government which will only increase, and very likely become the platform for independence. The consequences will surpass anything else New Labour has done or will do in the time left to it. So why has it taken the IPPR all of ten years to address in an active way the immense constitutional and political significance of the 1998 legislation and its consequences? And I ask that question about the IPPR as representative of the English Establishment in general.
The reasons could be various. It could be that the IPPR has now decided to address the English Question because it has had an infusion of new blood from the Constitution Unit and the CfER. It could also be that it has till now had the Former Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine’s notorious attitude towards devolution issues impacting on England. His response when asked what to do about the West Lothian Question was ‘Ignore it’. That was a response that encapsulated so much of the way the Establishment regarded England. They thought we could –England could- just be taken for granted. How many times in England’s history that has happened? And what a misreading of the English it represents. The English are a people of village Hampdens in all sorts of different guises. Village Hampdens, Levellers, Diggers, Chartists, Suffragettes, peasants in revolt, poll tax protestors, Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Peterloo massacred, Chartists, miners, Pentonville fives and Shrewsbury threes, the list is endless. It is the humble Hobbit mind that just keeps slogging on and on no matter what the Lords of the World throw at it, the quiet determined obstinate bloody-minded bravery the night before Agincourt and on the Dunkirk beaches.
The reason could also be the IPPR’s own instinct for survival. The IPPR is as aware as anyone that Labour is very possibly going to lose office. It has now woken up to what is happening in England, to what is brewing, fermenting and bubbling up among the English. Labour won fewer votes in England than the Tories in the last general election and as things stand it is only a matter of time before English resentment over devolution translates into seats. Labour is also losing out to the SNP who now govern Scotland with the narrowest of majorities in the very institution which devolution set up. Without its usual clutch of Scottish seats in the Union Parliament Labour will be very hard put to muster a majority in Westminster. It could be that the IPPR is now getting together an agenda for New Labour which might –just might- address the whole issue of widespread English resentment at the outcomes of the 1998 devolution settlement and make the Party less unelectable. It might indeed have been persuaded by its new members from the Constitution Unit and the CfER that it cannot ignore the issue for devolution any longer if Labour is to stand any chance at all.
But note how the IPPR approaches the matter. It is not an Establishment body for nothing. Re-read those first words of the blurb it put out about the Seminar: ‘The English Question has recently moved from the margins of British political life to centre-stage. Fuelled by concerns about the perceived inequities of devolution and a growing sense that England and the English are losing out in this unbalanced Union, concerns about the future of England are provoking widespread public debate’. Note that the IPPR speaks of ‘inequities’ as ‘perceived’. The statement is a very significant give-away if ever there was one. It’s a clever New Labour sleight of hand. To say the ‘inequities’ (a posh word, a harmless word) complained about by English people are ‘perceived’ is to imply they don’t really exist, are nothing more than ignorant plebian bellyaching, figments of the imagination. It trumps even the Derry Irvine solution to devolution.
The trouble is of course that the ‘inequities’ are facts, not fiction. English students don’t get university education without paying tuition fees as in Scotland; the elderly in England don’t get free personal care as in Scotland; the council tax of the people of England isn’t being frozen for three years as in Scotland; they don’t get free prescriptions and free hospital parking as in Wales; they don’t get the latest and most effective cancer and eye medications made available in the NHS in Scotland; they don’t have an iota of self-rule and their country has no political and constitutional existence as Scotland and Wales have; the Establishment wants to suppress its identity and balkanise it into regions; and they don’t get universal free eye tests as in Scotland. And in addition to all that the Scots and the Welsh through the Barnett Formula get some £1500 per head more than people in England.
These aren’t ‘perceived inequities’. They’re real inequities. They aren’t dreamed up as if in some fit of nationalistic envy or bias. Either you pay when you park in a hospital car park or you don’t. Either you come out of university with debts to the state to be collected by a private debt-collector or you don’t. Either a widow or widower or their children sell their house to pay for personal care in a care home or they don’t. The things have a real existence, not a perceived one.
So what does it tell us about the IPPR? It tells us that it is a typical Union Establishment body, one that says the ‘inequities’ are ‘perceived’ rather than real because it does not want to admit anything that might mean an acknowledgement of the unfair situation which England qua England is in post devolution. And without a shadow of doubt it tells us everything about what the outcome will be of this IPPR Inquiry. The purpose of this IPPR Inquiry is not really into the English Question created by the 1998 legislation. Its purpose is to find reasons why the English people must not, whatever the cost, be given the political and constitutional recognition Scotland and Wales got with the 1998 legislation. We are living in interesting times. Because of devolution England is reasserting itself after 300 years of self-negation. And it is England that matters in United Kingdom politics. The Empire has gone and the hard economic fact is that England no longer needs Scotland and Wales. And all that is scaring the socks off the UK Establishment. Their angst is because they do not know how they will fit in, all their status and privileges intact, in the new UK that is being brought about without it knowing it by the 1998 legislation.
Soon the big Scottish characters of the 90s will all have gone too. John Smith, Robin Cook, John Reid, Tam Dayell, Donald Dewar, in one way or other they have departed the scene.. South of the border we may not see their likes again. Scotland’s day in England might well be over. When in due course, Brown departs, will any effective Scottish influence in United Kingdom politics end too? To my mind it will unless the Union changes in response to the principles of the 1998 legislation. It just cannot continue if England is denied devolution, the devolution of 1998. The people of England will repudiate, and rightly repudiate, a union that makes use of it for the benefit of a mere 15% of its population and expects it to pay for those benefits. If ever a house is now built on sand, this is it. The Labour Party is crumbling throughout Scotland. The Conservative Part will not remain in Scotland except as a minor player. What we are now witnessing, something unforeseeable in 1998 but brought out of the vaults of history and kicked into life by the devolution legislation of that year –Brown’s own legislation- is England becoming England again, Scotland becoming Scotland again and Wales becoming Wales again. The three historic nations of this island are now re-asserting themselves. It is a process that will not be stopped. What we witnessed at the IPPR seminar was a small time skirmish, very indicative in itself, which is part of a much wider conflict. They are wasting valuable energy. The Union is going to change and if it is going to carry on, it will either be as a union of devolved nations or as a federation. The people now beavering away in such organisations as the Justice Committee, the IPPR and the Constitution Unit to stop England getting political and constitutional recognition as a distinct nation would do far better to assist that process and make it work.
The problem New Labour and its courtier affiliates and think-tanks like the IPPR have had with devolution ever since 1998 has been this unlooked for piece of grit in what they thought would be their tame and lovely cosy devolution oyster. That piece of grit has created the one pearl they never expected, and certainly did not want: a growing awareness among the English of a distinct English identity, with which as night follows day comes the demand for constitutional and political recognition. That demand is taking various forms: English votes on English matters, an English Grand Committee, an English Parliament -all collectively opposed by Labour and its supporters and agents like the IPPR. However, it is now only a matter of time before Labour itself, confronted by electoral realities, will join in. The voice of England is beginning to be heard; and as it is the strongest voice in the UK family, it will have to be listened to –if, that is, the Union is to survive.
After all, England does not need Scotland and Wales. So any political party that continues to gives Scotland and Wales political, constitutional and financial preference over England is asking for its own termination. That’s now dawning on the whole Establishment. They are beginning to wake up the fact that the preservation of the Union is conditional, not upon England not getting political and constitutional recognition as a distinct nation within the Union, which is the idea they’ve been sustaining themselves with till now, but upon actually getting it -and with it for good measure the financial, social and medical benefits which Scotland and Wales have been getting, with more to come, since 1998.
That’s just plain common sense. What’s the point of the Union for England otherwise? England doesn’t exist for Scotland’s and Wales’ benefit. England didn’t establish the Union in 1707 for Scotland’s benefit but for her own. People should get real. The fundamental issue is as always an economic one. The Union is of no economic benefit any longer to the English. People need to cotton on to that basic fact. If both Wales and Scotland became independent tomorrow, it would make very little difference to the people of England. They’d still be in the EU for a start. Their departure would barely raise an eyebrow among English people. We’d still have the same access to the whisky; we’d still be able to take holidays in the Isles; family ties would be just as strong and families just as accessible. Whatever Scotland and Wales produces, be it oil or electricity or water or anything else, can be obtained by trading arrangements just like French wine is. The Union doesn’t put a slice of bread on anyone’s plate in England that we cannot make or negotiate for ourselves. If it is to continue, it will have to be in the interests, not just of Scotland and Wales but equally of England; and that’s the long and short of it.
There were some thirty people at the seminar. In addition to three or so from the IPPR itself. And going on memory and from inquiries, they came from universities like the LSE, Ulster, Strathclyde, Nottingham and others, the Guardian newspaper, think-tanks like Open Democracy (which is doing trojan work on the Communities Bill/legislation), government bodies like the Ministry of Justice (the new department which sounds like something from a Graham Greene novel or Kafka), the House of Commons Library, the Hansard Society, the Constitution Unit, the Quebec Government Office, the Centre for Cities, the London branch of the SNP, three of us from the CEP, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (footnote 4), at least one MP, a former MP and other groups and institutions which I did not catch the names of. Guy Lodge, the Head of the IPPR ‘Democracy & Power’ Team and Dr. Wright MP for Cannock gave short introductory talks. The main speaker was Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde who took immense, almost school-boyish, bubbling delight in exhibiting and explaining the many graphs he had constructed on his research into public attitudes in England on devolution and Englishness. The conclusions he put to the meeting were less important in themselves, not least because they contradict the results of alternative polling, than what they revealed about the political concern behind them.
A most curious thing happened at the start of the seminar. When asked to introduce themselves, everyone round the seminar table with just a couple of exceptions did it by saying what country they were from. Not just what organisation, but also whether they were English or Scottish or Welsh or Northern Irish or what precise mixture of that lot or whatever. Thinking about it maybe it’s the inevitable outcome of ten years of the devolution of 1998, namely an awareness of a distinct nationality. It just showed very graphically how wrong Gordon Brown and co had been on assuming power in 1997. They hadn’t a clue what the repercussions of devolution were going to be. They never applied their minds to it nor thought they had to. They never got beyond counting out the benefits for Scotland. They just wanted as much independence for Scotland as could be squeezed out of the Union while managing to stay in it and have its benefits on tap. Quite incredibly they thought that they could have it all and no one in England would mind. Well, they got all they wanted for Scotland all right but they also got a few things they never bargained for. Like the SNP in power in Edinburgh; and above all, for this is the most important and significant thing, the resurgence on the part of the English of the sense of their own national identity. As I keep saying, what matters in the Union is England; and Gordon Brown will go down in history for being the man who gave the occasion to England to revive its identity as a distinct nation. The very last thing in the world he wanted. As he sees it, it threatens Scotland; and he is now thrashing around trying to push the genie back into the bottle in the name of Britishness. Too late, Gordon, too late.
Guy Lodge did not show any movement from the position on England he has set out in his various publications when he was a member of the Constitution Unit. In the chapter he together with Meg Russell wrote in the CU 2006 ‘the English Question’, he accepted that in the event of changed voting procedures in the Union Parliament for the purpose of somehow resolving the West Lothian Question such as English votes on English matters (which any democrat even with only half a head must agree will not work), he’d stated: ‘it would be far more transparent and democratic to create an English Parliament' (p.88); but then went on to declare a decided preference for regionalism in some form or other. The issue he and his region-supporting colleagues do not face up to is that the ‘devolution’ they associate with regional assemblies is essentially different from the devolution brought into being by the 1998 legislation. The latter was addressed to nations, theirs is not. Theirs amounts to nothing more than yet another round of English local government reorganisation, as instanced with the GLA. Brown’s government has been explicit for example, open and brash about it, that the ‘regional ministers’ he has appointed are there to promote central government policies. They are agents of central government, not donors of devolved power. The decisions taken by Gordon Brown about HBoS and RBS, for example, are a very good illustration, namely in the things that really matter the Edinburgh government will just be ignored. And –picking up the things Lodge said at the seminar- when it comes to England, well, yes, the natives might be stirring a bit but it is all containable. The English, he said, are content to let the UK government look after England’s interests; Englishness is not on the increase; England accepts asymmetric devolution (footnote 5); and the perception the English have of various injustices are nothing more than ‘grumbles’. It is just old-time Westminster colonialism.
Much more interesting in my opinion was Dr. Tony Wright MP. His contribution was very brief, just a few sentences. He together with Selina Chen had edited a collection of essays in the year 2000 for the Fabian Society, the title ‘The English Question’, so I was pleased he was there. In the essay he contributed to that book, the opening chapter, he had acknowledged there was an English Question and said that England should have devolution of some sort, but he didn’t say what sort, though he was adamant that whatever it was it must not be an English Parliament. His one concrete proposal was to call for ‘a Commission on the Constitution with the future governance of England at its centre’. That was ten years ago and nothing has been done since despite his recognition of the urgency of the matter. ‘The English Question is now on the table and will not go away’ he wrote. He also stated: ‘The English propensity for muddling through is an exhausted option’.
At the seminar he called for an inquiry that is consistent with his previous call for a Commission. However, his final statement was curious in the extreme: ‘It is better not to press things to their logical conclusion but to muddle through’. That he was contradicting himself is obvious. But why was he doing it? What has gone on these last ten years to make him change his mind? And what does he mean by ‘muddling through’? Usually it means that we treat a problem in a Heath Robinson sort of way, ad hoc and patching up as best we can, without vision and foresight, getting there somehow, wherever ‘there’ is, and not upsetting the natives en route and avoiding offending vested interests wherever possible. Why, I speculate, as speculate I must, was an MP pre-eminent in constitutional matters, in a matter he had considered urgent, one he simultaneously believed merited a Commission of Inquiry, now asking not for a solution at all but for a ‘muddle through’? Doing in fact a Lord Derry Irvine on the issue?
As I have said, I speculate, as speculate I must. Could it be because Dr Wright is all too acutely aware that the English Question cannot be properly and adequately resolved without one almighty upheaval in the British state which for all its merits he and his fellow MPs just haven’t the stomach to contemplate, let alone carry out? I offer just one example because to set out the full range of the upheaval would require a book, and this piece has now gone on long enough. I would ask you to go back to that crucial feature of the 1998 legislation which cannot be mentioned enough if ever we are going to get this whole matter successfully resolved. This island historically and culturally is made up of three nations. Devolution 1998 was offered to Scotland and Wales as nations. That, as I have shown, is in almost every line of the legislation, sometimes very explicitly indeed, sometimes by the clearest implication. Devolution 1998 wasn’t about local government organisation, not in any shape or form. It wasn’t about mayors or regions or anything like that. It was in every sense the political and constitutional acknowledgement of the distinct nationhood of Scotland and Wales.
Dr Wright is an MP. He’s fully soused out what would happen to English MPs (and indeed to Scottish and Welsh MPs too because they wouldn’t get off lightly either as they did in 1998) if the principles of Devolution 1998 were extended to England. It was the principles of Devolution 1998 that created the English Question, nothing else. If those principles were applied to England, it would be as they were to Scotland and Wales, namely: as to a nation –the English nation. The resolution of the English Question would be to deal with England as the nation it is. In other words by means of a national institution, an institution which would represent the English nation precisely as the Scottish institution created by Devolution 1998 represents the Scottish nation and precisely as the Welsh institution created by Devolution 1998 represents the Welsh nation. Little wonder, in a moment of undisciplined generosity, Guy Lodge put forward an English Parliament as the ‘far more transparent and democratic’ way to resolve the English Question.
But what would that mean for the MPs of the British State? English MPs make up 550 of the 650 in the Commons. When Scotland got its own Parliament, in addition to the 70 or so it already had, it also got 129 MSPs, all to be paid for with good salaries, who took over some 70% of the duties of the Scottish MPs in the British Parliament. Yet, despite losing 70% of their former responsibilities, the latter kept the salaries in full. Just think about it. Think what happens to a teacher who transfers from full time duties to say 2 days a week. His/her salary is cut accordingly, and drastically. And rightly. But teachers are not in charge of their own salaries, MPs are. There wasn’t a bat in hell’s chance of the 1998 legislation going through if the Scottish MPs’ salaries had been cut as they should have been cut. The Scottish Constitutional Convention knew perfectly well that there’d be mutiny inside their own ranks if it as much as breathed the possibility. Besides, the mood of the Commons at the time was such that Scotland, and to a lesser extent Wales, could pretty well have whatever it liked. The Scottish ‘devolutionaries’ ran the show.
However, any MP who applies his or her mind even skimpily to the English Question knows beyond any shadow of doubt that there’s no way that would happen if there was an English Parliament. The people of England just will not have it. If we have an English Parliament with the same powers and responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament and a similar Executive, then between the UK Parliament and the English Parliament the number of MPs jointly will not be allowed to exceed the present number sitting in the Commons. The English people will not stand for having more politicians. They will not stand for more money being spent on politicians. They will not stand for more government. Nor should they. Devolution does not create more people to govern. Where the population remains the same, there is absolutely no need for more MPs. And that should be the Iron Law of Devolution. And should have been in 1998. There simply is no reason at all why jointly the members of the English Parliament, the Welsh Parliament, when it gets one too, the Scottish Parliament and the Union Parliament should exceed the number of MPs in the present Union Parliament. There’s no more governing that needs to be done, no more people that need to be governed.
It is not just in that one way that an English Parliament will bring about the most radical changes in the way England will be governed and impact on the existing MPs. It will also bring in proportional representation and the control of lengths of parliament being taken from the governing party to exploit them to its advantage. It will mean existing MPs having to re-stand for election. If it is outside of London, which in my judgement it must be if London remains the seat of the UK government, say in Manchester or Leeds or Birmingham or Derby or Stoke, it will bring about the biggest transfer of power, employment, culture and media activities in the whole of England’s very long history, the most decisive decentralisation of power ever. It will be a new beginning, a new wave, and a radically new opportunity to break from the paralysing bureaucratic practices which have stifled English government for centuries. We are looking at a fantastic possibility. A new beginning. A new England. An England in control of its own internal affairs, where 300 years of the dead hand of stifling imperial bureaucracy can be removed and nation life restored. Where the Gordon Brown attitude towards England, which regards it just as a trading estate, a giant shopping mall, a monumental car park, one almighty enormous employment exchange, without myth or poetry or vision or beauty, can be dispatched once and for all.
However, books will be written and papers put forward on those great themes when the time comes, as it must. All I want to do here is make the observation that any knowledgeable and thoughtful English MP such as Dr Tony Wright will be all too aware how an English Parliament will impact directly on the salaries, constituency duties, parliamentary responsibilities and positions and career prospects of existing MPs. It is perfectly understandable therefore, that they would prefer the whole issue be put out to an Inquiry, as Dr Wright proposed in his short talk, and indeed proposed ten years ago in the Fabian book where he called for ‘a Commission on the Constitution with the future governance of England at its centre’. That was ten years ago and nothing has been done since despite his recognition of the urgency of the matter. ‘The English Question is now on the table and will not go away’ he wrote. It is not unfair or unkind to observe that an Inquiry would of course send the whole matter into the longest grass on the most ill-kept cricket pitch there is, and have the added virtue of it being dealt with by MPs themselves.
Maybe –I speculate of course- maybe the expression ‘to muddle through’ is another way of saying that ‘we are content’. Things as they are suit us. So nothing drastic. Yes, we can fiddle about a bit with this and that, muddle through on this problem or on that, but nothing that rocks our boat. A Commission of Inquiry? Yes, that’ll give a very good impression and we can sit it out for as long as it takes, and it’ll be our commission anyway and whatever it recommends will be our recommendations and they won’t threaten our jobs, our status, our salaries, our prospects. We are content. No one and nothing will be allowed to disturb that. And as for England –well, whatever it might become, it’s not going to trouble us.
Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University was the final speaker. The main one in the time he took anyway. With enormous zest and bubbling enthusiasm he produced graph after graph based on the polling he and his department had conducted. It was all about how the English are reacting to devolution for Scotland and Wales, to what extent they have a sense of having a distinct English identity and to what extent they want to govern themselves. The long and short of it all were words of comfort to those who are worried the UK might have a peasants’ revolt on their hands. The professor had found evidence they can all sleep secure in their beds. His findings were: The English accept the asymmetric devolution settlement (cf footnote 5); and, yes, though there are grumbles over funding differences and the West Lothian Question, they are all manageable and they have not found any detectable political expression, or shown themselves to be having an electoral effect.
And –and there were sighs of relief all round with this one- the Tories are keeping well clear of exploiting what dissatisfaction there is. In his Democracy Workshop report Ken Clarke made a few arcane proposals but what they really revealed was that the Tory Party under Cameron hasn’t the slightest intention of addressing the West Lothian Question in any serious way. Not the slightest. And the reason for that is patently obvious. If it gets into power at the next election with a workable majority, it will be on the back of English votes. And that will do. Its majority will be English seats. So no need at all for English Votes on English Matters in any guise. KC’s recommendations will gather dust on some obscure shelf somewhere or other. Not needed.
My conclusion is quite straightforward. I would advise the UK Establishment in all its forms to keep their eyes skinned for the likes of us. We are a broad coalition. We just want justice for the people of England, by which we mean anyone and everyone for whom England is their home and their future and that of their children. We want for England in all its great vitality and dynamic variety only what Scotland and Wales have been given. That will be fair and just. That will do. New Labour poured millions into their push for the regional assembly balkanisation of England and on a shoestring it was defeated, and we contributed to that defeat. It was an unjust measure. It would have turned England, our nation, into what the economist Will Hutton has called ‘a veritable witches’ brew of internecine rivalries’. We have kept the injustice of the 1998 legislation on the agenda when for a decade the Establishment wanted it ignored.
What we ask of the people in power and of the agencies that service them is that they do not fear England. England is noble. A new Union is possible where there is trust, where in what is desired there is fairness and justice. What we ask is an open mind, a mind open to a new vision, about which here and there I have presented a few suggestions. It just is no good trying to hang on to the past. The past is gone, it has done its bit, it has served its time; and it has gone to a degree they did not foresee or understand. It is ’mean and base and without noble lustre’ obstinately to stay there and not be open to ideas which challenge what one is content and comfortable with. The foundations for a new vision, a new Britain, have been laid. Now is the time for courage and generosity.
‘Ancient woodland in Britain is being felled at a rate even faster than in the Amazonian rainforest according to research by the Woodland Trust. Almost half the all woods in the UK that are more than 400 years old have been lost in the past 89 years and more than 600 ancient woods are being threatened (NB please note the tense of the verb, they are now being threatened, namely under this NL government, now, at this very moment) by new roads, electricity pylons, housing and airport expansion. This report comes as the government (NB this Brown government) prepares to sign a compulsory purchase order to buy several acres of Two Mile wood outside Weymonth to build a bypass. This remnant of ancient forest is one of Britain’s finest bluebell woods and is full of old beech, oak and hornbeam trees’ (Guardian Oct. 22nd. 2008). The newspaper report provides more information about the barbarity of the NL, indeed Whitehall mindset when it comes to environmental and ecological issues.
The same applies to the financial interests of the Scottish MPs at Westminster. Even though devolution transferred some 75% of their constituency responsibilities to MSPs, they kept their full salaries and allowances. If the devolution legislation had threatened to reduce their salaries in line with the reduction in their responsibilities, it would never have had their support and would not have been passed. Protection of MPs’ living standards is among the first rule of parliamentary politics.
For Brown the degree of Scottish devolution he got through the 1997-98 Union Parliament while remaining in the Union is what he believes is best for Scotland. It could hardly have been any better. He took full advantage of the state of the Union Parliament at that moment. The Tories were in a state of total disarray and devastation; the Liberals were up for anything; and the Labour ranks were heaving not just with all too many MPs who were malleable and supine but who were also very green and inexperienced in politics, even their own. Hard thinking was not what they were expecting, nor were they were used to. The Devolution legislation which Brown took through parliament made Scotland 75% independent of the Union in all internal matters, some of them the very highest matters of state; while at the same time it maintained Scotland’s position in the Union to the full. Its Union MPs kept their full salaries (of course) despite transferring over half of their constituency responsibilities to MSPs. They also kept all the right to be engaged fully in all legislation which concerned England, Wales and Scotland, and to hold any ministerial office of the British state. Scotland kept the Barnett Formula and received in addition immense subsidies to install and maintain the Scottish Parliament and its Executive. Scotland does not pay its way. Its tax revenue falls short of its expenditure by between £7 billion and £11 billion per annum, depending on whether or not oil revenues from fields in the Scottish section of the North Sea are counted as Scottish or as British. The English taxpayer makes up the shortfall either way. With the 1998 legislation Brown pulled off the most brilliant coup in the 300 years history of the Union. He himself would now leave it at that and not push demands matters any further. In the light of the pledge he made in 1989 to the Scottish people we can safely assume that the vociferous declarations of support for the Union and for ‘Britishness’ he has been making since becoming Prime Minister are because he believes the Scottish people are better off in it. After all, they now have almost total internal independence, every office in the Union is available to them and they have a much say in what happens to England and in England as any English MP, while all of England’s tax revenue is very generously at their service.
The JRCT was there, understandably, because it was making a grant to the IPPR for the Inquiry the IPPR is doing. I found that interesting. Round about 2002 the CEP put an application in to the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust for a grant. As we knew that the JRRT had given a very sizable grant to the Campaign for English Regions which was promoting one form of devolution for England, we expected, reasonably enough we thought, it would at least consider ours. However, our application never got past a conversation between JRRT officers the very weekend it was received. As far as we can ascertain, it was not even placed before the Trust. It would seem from how our application was treated that the form of devolution for England we are promoting, which is exactly the form granted to Scotland, namely political and constitutional recognition as a distinct nation with its own national parliament to govern over all internal affairs, was not acceptable to the JRRT while devolution which would abolish England as a national unity and balkanise it into self-governing regional assemblies was. The division of England into regions each with its own assembly, and opposition to England having its own parliament, is Liberal Democrat party policy; and at the time of our application being received there was at least one prominent LibDem member on the JRRT. When I found out at the seminar that its sister trust, the JRCT, was supporting the IPPR Inquiry, it caused me to wonder if this was yet another instance that when it comes to English matters the UK Establishment knows its own by instinct, knows without having to think about it what belongs to it and what doesn’t, what’s in and what’s out. If the outcome of this IPPR Inquiry is yet another call for the regionalisation of England or indeed anything which does not recognise England as a distinct nation, I will not be surprised.
One has to smile a bit at this oft-repeated theme that the 1998 devolution package was ‘asymmetrical’ as if that somehow justifies the mess it left the UK in. Certainly it was very definitely asymmetrical as applied to Scotland and Wales. What Wales got was pitiful in comparison with what Brown and his colleagues obtained for Scotland. But it was hardly asymmetrical as far as England is concerned because England got no devolution at all. Not one scrap. Separately, in quite separate legislation, a mayor here and there as in London but that was nothing more than a bit of local government re-organisation, not devolution.
Extract from the Liberal Democrats policy paper "For the People, By the People", Autumn 2007.
6.3 The English Question
6.3.1 During the 1980s, the Conservative Government used its majority in the House of Commons to force through highly controversial legislation that applied only to Scotland, despite the fact that Scottish support for the Tories had substantially declined. Scottish voters were effectively disenfranchised and increasingly frustrated by the government’s activities. This gave added urgency to the cause of Scottish devolution.
6.3.2 However, devolution to Scotland and Wales has resulted in a new anomaly. Scottish and, to a lesser extent, Welsh MPs can vote in Westminster on legislation that will affect only England. While sometimes the opposite applies, with English MPs voting on legislation only affecting Scotland and Wales, this is far rarer. The issue arises because of the asymmetrical devolution so far introduced in the UK, with the Scottish Parliament having significant law-making powers, the National Assembly for Wales having more control over its own law and policy (though mainly over secondary legislation) and the English having no equivalent separate body.
6.3.3 Some advocate giving powers to an English Parliament as a way of overcoming this anomaly. Others believe that while all MPs elected to the UK Parliament deal with UKwide business, it would be possible for those MPs who represent English constituencies to deal with England only business in a separate forum and as an additional responsibility. To work properly, however, both models would require a separate executive arm for England. Clearly, if a different party were to hold a majority of seats in England to that which had an overall majority in the UK, this would be politically as well as constitutionally imperative.
6.3.4 Such a change would alter significantly the role of the UK Parliament in the affairs of the UK, reducing substantially the policy areas over which it had competence. If an English assembly of some kind were to be established within Westminster, composed solely of UK MPs representing English constituencies, inevitably it would be that assembly which dealt with much of the legislative business. On the Scottish model, the new English legislature and executive would gain power over health, education and training, local government, social work, housing, economic development, many aspects of transport law and home affairs (including, the police and the emergency services), and some policy concerning the environment, agriculture, forestry and fishing, sport and the arts, as well as statistics, public registers and records.
6.3.5 Importantly though, if the English executive were to be established along these lines, UK fiscal, economic and monetary policy would remain with the UK Parliament, with UK MPs deciding the level of taxation for, and allocation of resources to, each part of the Union. It is likely that an English executive, governing a large proportion of the UK in such a wide range of areas, would argue strongly that the UK Parliament should not frustrate its policies by agreeing on a financial settlement which has the consent of the UK Parliament as a whole, but not of a majority of English MPs. We believe this problem would be particularly acute if an English executive were not coupled with the arrangements for fiscal federalism we outline in 6.4, and would still be significant even if it were. It is for these reasons that many feel that a substantial layer of English governance – based, as it would be, on such a disproportionate part of the Union – would bring into serious question the continuing role of the UK Parliament and, by extension, of the UK itself, to which Liberal Democrats in England, Scotland and Wales are firmly committed.
6.3.6 Liberal Democrats want to see, as far as possible, decisions made, and services delivered, as near to the people and communities concerned as possible. To this end our local government policy paper, The Power to be Different, states that local authorities should be “the basic building block of government and public service delivery in England”. However, in the case of decisions and services affecting a large number of communities, or those spread over a large area, it advocates central government handing over powers and responsibilities to regional government. We also state in that paper our support for directly elected regional government in those areas where the public want it.
6.3.7 To this end, there is a wider party and national debate to be had as to whether domestic policy for England should be determined at national level or regional level. For many, England has a distinct national identity and they argue that it would entirely justified for there to be an English Parliament or Assembly and an English executive. Others argue that to devolve power from the UK Parliament, which represents c.60 million people, to an English Parliament, representing c.50 million people, would fail to bring government closer to the people and that instead there should be devolution to the English regions or to even smaller units.
6.3.8 In light of these arguments we believe that further consideration needs to be given to the mechanics and implications of such a constitutional change, and that any proposed change would require the endorsement of the British electorate. That is why we believe that this matter should be part of the remit of the constitutional convention that this paper advocates in chapter 2. The convention’s proposals, which would include a solution to the English question, would then be put to the UK public in the referendum seeking endorsement of the wider constitutional settlement.
6.4 Financial Issues Associated with Devolution
6.4.1 A key challenge of further devolution will be changing the funding system in the UK. The current funding regime throughout the UK is based around grants from Westminster. In the case of both the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly their executives have considerable freedom over the use these grants are put to, while in England much of the grants given to local government are ring-fenced and have to be spent on policies defined by central government.
6.4.2 The amount of the grant given to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is decided by the Barnett formula, which was a temporary measure introduced ahead of the expected devolution to Scotland in the late 1970s. The Barnett formula does not redistribute wealth between areas of the UK. Rather it links increases or decreases in spending in England to proportional changes in the grants to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It does not decide the overall size of budget or take into account public expenditure need. Indeed it was assumed that devolution would result in the establishment of a more needs-based funding calculation, which never took place due to the no vote in the referendum on a Scottish Parliament in 1979.
6.4.3 Liberal Democrats believe that, as well as devolving political power out from Westminster, fiscal power also needs to be devolved from the Treasury if the UK is to have a genuine federal system. While others propose full fiscal autonomy for the devolved governments (where they would raise all the taxes and then remit an agreed amount to Westminster), no other industrialised country has opted for this for a number of reasons. Fiscal federalism, however, avoids the pitfalls of fiscal autonomy and should give the institutions to which power is devolved substantial control over the levers of power controlling funding. That means the devolved institutions should raise as much of their own spending as practicable, and be able to significantly influence the development of their economy. It would also mean establishing agreed rules on such things as prudential borrowing. An essential element therefore of fiscal federalism is for devolved governments to have powers of taxation. Liberal Democrats endorse the principles of fiscal federalism set out in the Steel Commission report, and believe that the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly should have more powers and freedoms to level their own taxes. We are also committed to increasing the percentage of revenue that regional and local authorities in England raise.
6.4.4 How fiscal federalism would work has been considered in detail for Scotland in the Steel Commission report. The Commission concluded that fiscal federalism in Scotland would mean the Scottish Parliament is given responsibility for all taxes except for those reserved to the UK, and that this would include the right to abolish and introduce new devolved taxes. Under these proposals the Scottish Parliament would have the ability to vary the rate and tax base for each devolved tax, and the power to borrow, subject to specific criteria. Were the Steel Commission’s proposals to be extended, the funding powers devolved to each nation and region would be a matter for each to decide and should be considered alongside work on the legislative and policy powers of the directly elected assembly representing it.
6.4.5 As the UK is a diverse country in terms of wealth, income and need, raising a greater proportion of taxation locally means there would have to be an element to redistribution in the interests of national unity and if poorer areas are not forced to have punitively high tax rates or sub-standard services. We believe the Barnett formula should be replaced by a new needs-based equalisation formula – the Revenue Distribution Formula – as set out in Policy Paper 75 Fairer, Simpler, Greener. This would take into account factors such as geography, how rural an area is, health, the state of infrastructure, poverty and deprivation and the cost of delivering services. The Formula would be drawn up by a Finance Commission of the Nations and Regions (FCNR). This would be made up of representatives of the UK government and representatives from the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the London Assembly, plus those from any English regional chambers or assemblies. It would reach its conclusions by consensus and any proposals would be ratified by the respective executive bodies. As well as agreeing the equalisation formula, the FCNR would also be charged with developing work on the whole agenda of fiscal federalism.
Regular readers of Toque, or indeed anyone who takes more than a passing interest in the identity politics of the United Kingdom, will know that the phrase 'The English Question' tends to encompass a broad sweep of constitutional, political and cultural questions. However, it would appear that the Conservatives have been trying to make The English Question as narrow as possible.:
Of course, calling the problem the West Lothian question makes it sound somewhat obscure to most voters. We had a go at rechristening it the English question, but that never seemed to work, so I shall use the old nomenclature. - Mark Harper
I acknowledge that the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire has highlighted through her Bill is important and that the Government want to tackle the West Lothian question or, as she rechristened it on the ConservativeHome website, “the English question”—we have been trying to do that for some time, but we have never quite managed to make that name stick. - Mark Harper
This rechristening could lead, no doubt, to the eventual claim that Conservative MPs have answered The English Question. Such a claim would be poppycock. British parliamentarians can find a parliamentary solution to the West Lothian Question but they cannot answer the English Question because they have no mandate to do so. Only the people of England can decide how England should be and how it should be governed, and we have not been asked.
But good luck to Baldwin in her attempt to mitigate the asymmetry and unfairness of the multinational UK constitution from within Parliament, because if she is successful it will undoubtedly lead more urgent attempts to answer The England Question outwith Parliament.
My advice to Baldwin and Harper is to try rechristening the West Lothian Question as The British Question. Because on this I am for once entirely in agreement with Jack Straw.
The West Lothian question is not an "English question," a "Welsh question," a "Scottish question" or a "Northern Ireland question"--it is a union question.
Jack Straw (2007), Prospect Magazine