We [The English Radical Alliance] emphasise the traditions of rebellion and radicalism in English history because we want our people to realise a) what their ancestors have achieved by resisting tyranny and why we should not let this be thrown away, b) that they do not have to accept what is offered them today when it is clearly not in their interests. The English radical tradition established the rights of the freeborn English to have work, bread, and freedom from arbitrary justice. The present Establishment parties have given away those freedoms to the EU and to the USA (witness the Englishman being sent to the USA for trial for something he did in England) and are, through their supposed War on Terror, restricting our rights and imposing themselves on our everyday freedoms of communications.
Capitalism puts profits before people and ensures that people in England have to compete with the wages of Bangladesh and North Korea, and when they can't compete throws people onto the benefits system (which we all pay for) until they need them again. In other words the taxpayers subsidise capitalist's profits. Socialism is merely State-run capitalism and encourages mass bureaucracy and inefficiency. Neither offer ordinary people much say in the running of their businesses and leave them at the mercy of centrally, often foreign, management. Distributism offers the people of England the power and control over their own financial and economic destiny, and by spreading the ethos of self employment and co-operatives we will reduce the power of the multi-nationals to hire and fire at will. We wish to see a more localised business and financial sector with an emphasis on locally-owned businesses, locally-owned shops and locally-owned banks. We would encourage the break-up of the major supermarket chains so that groups of retailers would work within the shell of the 'superstore' - providing the same convenient service but all under local management and control. Such a localised economy would also be more environmentally sustainable.
Why are we different? We see the EDP as a mini-Tory party that wants an English parliament. They have no policies that would answer the current economic problems or offer an alternative to the globalised economic ethos that needs strong, independent nations to disappear in order for it to prosper. The FEP have vague economic policies and even vaguer policies on NATO and other issues of foreign and defence policy, they seem to be just an off-shoot of the EDP. The EFP are a racist organisation with totally unworkable, unreasonable and immoral policies on immigration.
David Owens, ERA Executive Committee
I am writing to raise a matter of concern regarding the manner in which particular areas of political policy are often reported on the BBC and in the media in general. I am greatly worried that, during coverage of the next general election, these policy areas will be described and presented by the BBC in an incomplete and inaccurate way, which – it must regrettably be observed – is a not infrequent occurrence on a day-to-day basis. If this were to happen, the Corporation would be failing egregiously in its duty as the UK’s leading public-service broadcaster with an obligation to inform the public about matters of interest to it.
The areas of legislation and policy to which I am referring are those that have been devolved in varying degrees to separately elected parliamentary bodies and administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. One consequence of devolution is that when the same matters are discussed, and laws relating to them are enacted, in the UK Parliament, they very often relate to England only – or to England plus one or more of the other UK nations, depending on the subject matter of the legislation; but always to England.
In the context of the general election, this means that many of the major areas of party policy that will be discussed and presented to the electorate will concern England only. These include: education; health; local government and communities; policing, crime and justice (which includes Wales, too); regional and local transport policy; planning; housing; culture and sport; the environment and farming; etc. The main UK-wide political parties generally try to obfuscate the fact that, as far as the Westminster Parliament is concerned, its competence in these areas is limited to England. They do so, in the main, either by misleadingly referring to the country to which their policies on these topics are addressed as ‘Britain’ (implying the whole of Britain, which is simply not true), or by vaguely invoking ‘this country’ – thereby letting people believe they mean Britain when in fact they’re referring to England, but avoiding having to say so.
Why the political parties don’t want to admit openly that, of necessity, their proposed legislative programmes in these matters relate mainly to England alone is a matter of debate. One obvious reason is that, by making it explicit that so many of the key election issues affect only England, this would call into question the whole legitimacy of an election process that allows people in the other countries of the UK to vote on them. It would potentially be hugely embarrassing and confusing for the parties to have to admit that they were canvassing the support of people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on issues that affect only the people of England.
But that is no reason to allow them to get away with it. The parties are basically practising a deceit on the British public – well, actually, two deceits: 1) pretending to English people that their policies on England-only matters also affect the other nations of the UK, so that they won’t object to people in those countries voting on them; 2) allowing politically uninformed people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to think that the representatives they will be sending to Westminster can influence decisions on these matters that will affect them, whereas they can’t: those matters are now dealt with by the separately elected devolved administrations.
It is surely the duty of the BBC to cut through all this duplicity to report the parties’ policy proposals accurately and impartially. If parties’ manifesto pledges relate to England only, the BBC should report them as such even if the parties themselves try to avoid referring to England. In order to do this really well, perhaps the BBC should consider making clear divides, within programmes and news bulletins discussing the election campaign, between UK-wide issues and England- (or England and Wales-) specific ones. This should not be too complicated: it would be simply a case of, say, devoting the first 15 minutes of a half-hour programme clearly and explicitly to UK-wide matters (and perhaps throwing in those that relate to England plus Wales); and then dedicating the last 15 minutes to England-specific subjects. Presenters should clearly flag up the ‘geographical extent’ (as the government puts it) of the policies that are going to be discussed at the beginning and end of each section, and at the beginning and end of each policy area that has been debated. When coming to the England-only topics, the script could draw viewers’ / listeners’ attention to the fact that the rest of the programme relates directly to England alone; and it would even perhaps be appropriate to apologise to people elsewhere in the UK: ‘we apologise to viewers not in England that the discussions throughout the rest of the programme relate to policy proposals for England only’.
It should not be too difficult for the BBC to differentiate between UK-wide and England-only policy areas: the responsibilities of the devolved administrations and, correspondingly, the England-only competencies of UK-government departments are well documented. Some of these departments deal with England-only matters in some areas but UK-wide ones in others, e.g. the Department of Culture, Media and Sport: culture and sport, England; media UK. But then the BBC would just have to make sure that any debates dealing with policy on the arts or sport are clearly demarcated as England-specific, and those concerning media policy are dealt with under the UK rubric. If in doubt, I feel sure that someone from the Campaign for an English Parliament, or an academic expert on devolution, or even I myself would be prepared to act as a consultant to help the BBC separate out the English issues from the UK ones.
I cannot stress too highly how critically important it is to get this right. In the absence of a separate English parliament to deal with legislation affecting England only, a UK general election is the only opportunity the English public are given to express their views – however imperfectly under the present electoral system – on the parties’ policies for them. As a public-service broadcaster, it is the BBC’s duty to help the public to understand and scrutinise how parties’ proposals may affect them, and how they will not. And an essential component of this public-service function must surely be to inform the English people that some proposals affect them only, and to inform UK citizens living outside England that those same proposals do not in fact concern them. In this way, voters in England can use their votes as an expression of their wishes and priorities for their own country – England – alongside their preferences in matters affecting the whole of the UK. And voters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can be helped not to waste their vote on policies that are irrelevant to them.
History never repeats itself, it only stutters as the Parisian radicals of 1968 used to say. What appears to be Groundhog Day is really something different. Nevertheless, politicians cannot avoid drawing lessons from history not because history does repeat itself but because they are interested in politics not history. For example, in October 2007 Jack Straw, Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor, argued that pursuing ‘Little England’ policies that ‘create resentment between the peoples of Britain is a sure means of destroying the union’. Defending the current ‘asymmetrical’ state of the British constitution, he couched his argument with reference to the debate on Home Rule in the late 19th century. Straw’s message was that those who criticise devolution from a Little England perspective should ‘learn from that experience and understand that it is by embracing devolution that the union has been able to survive and to thrive’ (Straw 2007). But what lesson is to be learnt from the Home Rule debate? If Straw really was pointing to a lesson from history, what were the warnings of critics like A V Dicey? I think it is worth revisiting Dicey not in the spirit of drawing a lesson but in the spirit of allowing members of the Campaign for an English Parliament perhaps to understand themselves better. I take as my text Dicey’s England’s Case against Home Rule (1886) and consider an irony – that his arguments against Home Rule for Ireland have become transformed today into England’s Case for Home Rule – at least that is how I read the strategy of the CEP.
Dicey’s objective in England’s Case against Home Rule was ‘to criticize from a purely English point of view the policy of Home Rule’ for Ireland because he believed it to be ‘at least as much opposed to the vital interests of England’ as it was a threat to the stability of the Union. Of course, by ‘England’ Dicey meant ‘Great Britain’ and he used the terms interchangeably, something that is less easy to do today. Certainly, the CEP never confuses the two. Dicey was fully aware of the objection that to consider Home Rule for Ireland from an English point of view was to consider policy from ‘the wrong side’. Surely this was a matter ‘for the people of Ireland alone’ and a question which should be subject only to an examination from an Irish point of view? Far from this objection being valid, Dicey believed that leaving such matters for the consideration of the Irish alone was an entirely misconceived policy, a claim of political convenience rather than of constitutional validity. Home Rule was ‘a plan for revolutionizing the constitution of the whole of the United Kingdom’ and so there was no English arrogance ‘in insisting that the proposed change must not take place if it be adverse to the interests of Great Britain’. The case for Irish Home Rule was a case for a new political partnership, a revision of the Union’s ‘Articles of Association’, and there was nothing imperialistic or denigrating to the principle of nationality in the argument that ‘no modification can be made which in the judgement of his associates is fatal to the prosperity of the concern’. The only scheme of Home Rule which could be acceptable to England, according to Dicey, had to satisfy three conditions:
- it should be consistent with the supremacy of the British Parliament
- it should do justice to each part of the United Kingdom
- it should promise finality.
It must, in short, be ‘a scheme which promises to England at least not greater evils than the maintenance of the Union or than Irish independence’.
In the first instance, Dicey explained that Home Rule was not Local Self-Government. The latter was compatible with the supremacy of the Westminster Parliament but the very aim of Home rule was to introduce a new relationship between the Irish people and Westminster. ‘Local Self-Government however extended means the delegation, Home Rule however curtailed means the surrender, of Parliamentary authority’. In an anticipation of one constitutional debate after 1997, Dicey noted how advocates of reform in England wished local self-government to be greatly extended there and thought that this was a sufficient principle of democratic government. But what was on offer to Ireland was a form of government designed to meet the ‘feeling of nationality’ and it was desired by Irish nationalists precisely because it would check the authority of Westminster, something which no reform of local government could do. ‘When they wish to minimize the sacrifice to England of establishing a Parliament in Ireland, they bring Home Rule down nearly to the proportions of Local Self-Government; when they wish to maximise – if the word may be allowed – the blessings to Ireland of a separate legislature, they all but identify Home Rule with National Independence’. Did not Tony Blair speak of the Scottish Parliament being a mere ‘parish council’? But did not Gordon Brown subscribe to Scotland’s Claim of Right? Dicey’s summary of the effects of this policy was that it was likely to bring not the best, but the worst, of all worlds for England: ‘Home Rule, while involving almost all the evils of Separation, will be found on examination not to hold out anything like the same hopes of compensating advantages’. And this larger point was crucial even before any detailed examination were made of the practicalities of the new constitutional arrangements.
Second, Dicey disputed the proposition that Home Rule was an equitable compromise between English interests and the legitimate claims of Irish nationality. He was not impressed by the notion that England owed anything to Irish nationality by virtue of the need to redeem past wrongs. To anyone who looks at history with philosophical calmness and not with the intent to agitate, argued Dicey, the failures of England in its relations with Ireland ‘have to a great extent flowed from causes too general to be identified with the intentional wrong-doing either of rulers or of subjects’. Though it could be shown that a majority of Irish electors supported Home Rule, and the claim be made that the will of that majority should be recognised, it could equally be shown that a majority of electors in the United Kingdom willed that the Union be maintained. The point that Dicey was making was the insufficiency, not the inadmissibility, of arguments according to popular sovereignty. Such arguments were often at odds with principles of sound government and usually at odds with the idea of the Union for they involved an assumption that the rights of the parts – nations – were greater than the sum of British interests. In this view, Home Rule was indeed unfair because whatever its ‘hypothetical benefits it threatens more than countervailing loss to England’ (286). It would dislocate the whole ‘English Constitution’; it would bring ‘large pecuniary sacrifice’ without reasonable hope of ‘creating real harmony of feeling between Great Britain and Ireland’; and it would mean that England continued to carry a burden of responsibility but had no power to ensure that solidarity was reciprocated by the Home Rule jurisdiction.
Finally, Dicey was convinced that Home Rule would lead inexorably to the break-up of the United Kingdom. Interestingly, Dicey’s case was influenced just as much, perhaps more, by the likely attitude of England as it was by the dynamic for separation he believed Irish nationalists really intended. If it were true that Home Rule could be nothing other than ‘injurious to England’ (this was a big ‘if’ but Dicey was certain of the outcome), his famous conclusion that Home Rule was ‘the half-way house to separation’ needs to be put into Dicey’s own consequential context. The sentence that follows is: ‘Grant it, and in a short time Irish independence will become the wish of England’ (my italics). This break-up of the United Kingdom would be as much the product of English discontent as it would be the product of Irish nationalist policy. At that point, ‘it will be clear that the Union must for the sake of England, no less than of Ireland, come to an end’. One could argue that Dicey’s case was misconceived in its predicted outcomes – ‘a gigantic evil’ - for the stability and well-being of the United Kingdom. Or one could argue (as does Straw) that it was Dicey’s argumentative logic which helped to bring about the very thing that he opposed - Irish separation. Underlying this argument is the old (and rather dated) liberal assumption from Gladstone through to Roy Jenkins and beyond that one of the great missed opportunities was the failure to pass Home Rule in 1886, thereby saving all the bloodshed and preserving Ireland within the Union. That is an honourable argument and it was also the argument in favour of devolution to Scotland and Wales after 1997. Home Rule is a Unionist policy.
The Union is in a different condition today, of course, from the one Dicey described. There has been a re-balancing (some would argue un-balancing) of nationality and a re-ordering of the ‘complete unity’ of Britain as Dicey understood it. However, it is possible to argue that a new Diceyean moment presents itself, one which, though drawing on his logic, now advocates a very different case for England. In short, one can argue that England’s case against Home Rule has become transmuted into England’s case for Home Rule (for itself). That, as I see it, is the way the CEP looks at the United Kingdom today. Here is how I see England’s case against Home Rule becoming the CEP’s case for English Home Rule (and England is England, not Great Britain).
Here are the seven elements of the CEP’s case reviewed in as a fulfillment of Dicey’s concerns:
- Dicey had argued that Home Rule for Ireland could not be considered by the Irish alone because the consequences for the Union would be general, not particular. The starting point of the CEP case is that England has been ignored in, and its people excluded from, the process of constitutional change. The substance of the case is put as an issue of equity. England has been denied the same opportunity as the other nations of the United Kingdom to express any collective view about how it should be governed.
- For Dicey, local self-government was not home rule. For the CEP, equally, the Government’s policy of regionalism cannot meet England’s case. On the contrary, it represents another way to deny England its proper recognition. Only England as a whole can be the frame of reference. Parliament first, then local self-government (if required).
- Dicey had disputed the claim that Home Rule would be an equitable compromise, one that would create ‘real harmony of feeling’ within the Union. It is the consistent argument of the CEP that devolution has not, as Labour claimed, strengthened the Union, but weakened it. And the major reason is the constitutional asymmetry of a Scottish Parliament, Assemblies in Wales and Northern Northern Ireland but no reciprocal arrangement for England.
- Dicey believed Home Rule would involve a ‘large pecuniary sacrifice’ for the English. His prophesy is one that the CEP asserts has now been realised – that everyone else has got the self-determination and the English have got the subsidisation. That explains the polemics against the Barnett Formula.
- Dicey believed that Home Rule would deliver for England the disadvantages of Celtic separatism without the advantages of Union. The CEP claims that the English are now required to sacrifice their legitimate claims to nationhood in the interests of maintaining a Union which satisfies only the needs of the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish.
- Dicey’s view of federalism – or the devolution of ever more powers to national legislatures - was that it would, ‘likely enough be in our case the first step towards a dissolution of the United Kingdom into separate States’. The CEP is more equivocal on that proposition – some are in favour others possibly less so. But this question identifies, I think, a difference of opinion within the Campaign in 7 below.
- Dicey also feared that independence for Ireland would become the wish of the English, based on his calculation that the frustration the majority nation would experience trying to make a devolved state function. It would become intolerable to England. This is actually the conclusion of a recent book by McLean and McMillan The State of the Union (2006) - the ‘Slovak scenario’, a scenario that ‘would be driven from England’, the result of an ‘English backlash’ - a book which criticises Dicey but reaches a Diceyean conclusion.
Here Dicey perceived a tension between the lure of simple separatism as a way to address national grievances and the drudgery of fashioning intra-Union compromises based on a (possibly) diminishing sense of British solidarity. It is a tension, I believe, which partly constitutes the character of the CEP. In short, the CEP occupies a position profoundly national but not necessarily separatist. This, of course, is the division between nationalism and unionism but it is not one which the CEP needs to resolve – its only objective is to lobby for a Parliament – but it does indicate a tension in the process of lobbying.
Arthur Aughey is Professor of Politics at the University of Ulster and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He is the author of The Politics of Englishness and has an academic interest in the Campaign for an English Parliament.