UK Politics

The English Question

Peter Hain exposes the opportunism of the Tories over the voting rights of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MP’s.

There is no doubt that Hain is right about the behaviour of the Tories which he puts in context:

Labour MPs in Scotland remember the long years spent watching English (Conservative) MPs impose Scotland-only legislation against the wishes of the majority of Scottish (Labour) MPs. Now the boot is on the other foot. They are voting for legislation that applies only to England and Wales – not to get their own back, but because they were elected as members of the UK parliament. They have a right and duty to vote on issues that come before it.

Howard’s “ban the Scots” may be transparently cynical in garnering maximum votes to try and defeat Labour on tuition fees next week. But it also reflects the Tories’ failure to accept that devolved and decentralised government is here to stay. Not only in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but in London and – if they want it – in the regions of England too, where referendums will begin in autumn.

It will be interesting to see if the Tories go all the way and attach English nationalism to the emerging Conservative Correctness. The majority nation as victim of ‘PC devolution’ wouldn’t look out of place alongside other fake victimhoods.

If Howard takes this approach to its logical conclusion he will find himself campaigning for an ‘English parliament’ – which some sections of the right are already enthusiasts for.

The Campaign for an English Parliament , which celebrates England’s rugby win in the ‘World Cup’ as ending ’37 years of hurt’ (presumably a reference to all those defeats by the Welsh in the seventies) is the most explicit about the issue. They make the constitutional case but there is also a dose of English nationalism thrown in as well:

A parliament would give the people of England a legally and constitutionally recognised national identity as English, and allow them to be proud of their own national identity. At present they are English, but outside sport they have no way of showing it. That’s wrong. But if they got their own parliament again, then they could point to it knowing it was originally founded in 1153 and existed as the very Mother of Parliaments and the seed bed of modern democracy, and proudly say, that’s part of what we’ve achieved as the English nation. That’s our contribution to world civilisation and progress. That, along with our English language, our unrivalled literary culture and our scientific and engineering achievements.

It’s a classic example of CC, a parliament would allow the English to be proud of their national identity – with the implication that at the moment English people are not allowed to be proud.

But Hain’s article does not deal with the real issue here which is – exactly how is the ‘English question’ going to be resolved. Because on one level the English Parliament campaigners are right – since New Labour embarked on the devolution process, the question of the constitutional status the most populated part of the Isles has been stuck to the back of the cupboard.

Regional assemblies, which I support, go some way towards resolving the question, especially for those of us in the North who do not share the almost entirely conservative and southern interpretation of English ‘national identity’.

After all what is the English national identity? All nationalisms are based on symbols, mythical or otherwise and on imagery and emotions.

What does Englishness present us with? St George, Jerusalem, the Royal family, the green and pleasant lands of the home counties, punting on the Thames, cricket on the village green, our great and famous public schools, Last Night of the Proms?

All those parts of the already ill-defined British identity that are mocked and rejected by the Celtic nations in the UK? You tell me because this nation that is crying out to be proud of itself doesn’t seem to know what it is.

That description of identity is not an Englishness that appeals to everyone in England and crucially it is not one that resonates much in the North of England, where there is another identity, which while also hard to define is certainly distinct from that of the south. But for the moment this ‘tourist board’ national identity is all there is on offer.

It could actually be worse. Conservative Correctness pushing the English as victim line, could encourage a nasty, resentful post-imperial, post-British Englishness that defines itself in opposition to the Welsh, the Scots and probably the Europeans too. Call it the Serbian road to Englishness.

My view is that the devolution process cannot be carried out in the time- honoured British fashion of trial and error, with the usual unwritten, ad-hoc approach to the constitution.

Michael Howard and the Tories may just be trying to score cheap points and have no real intention of forcing what Hain calls the “Balkanisation of Britain” but there is a real danger of constitutional breakdown some time in the future if there is not serious consideration given to the status of the United Kingdom and the ‘English question’.

A Federal Republic with devolved powers to the English regions as well as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with Westminster’s functions taken over by a Council of the Isles to deal with a few intra-national issues such as defence, is my prefered option. I don’t want an English parliment in which southerners would have the North as their last little outpost to rule over.

But there has to be a debate on this and this is certainly a topic I will be returning to here.