By Niki Seth-Smith
Contributing to this Bella Caledonia series only reminds me how far behind England is relative to the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Scotland decides on independence in less than a year, Wales is debating devolving police and criminal justice powers, while the Republic of Ireland has just voted in support of retaining the Senead, the upper house of their parliament. Then look at England – or rather, at the Westminster political class and London cultural elite. Here, ‘constitutional matters’ are not considered fundamental to the workings of the nation or Union, to be decided by the will of the people. Instead they are routinely dismissed as dull and a distraction from ‘real politics’.
The exception is Europe. Euroscepticism in England is tangled in a curious and in many ways paradoxical relationship with the rise of English identity in recent years and the emergence of Englishness as a political community. As this report from centre left think-tank IPPR shows, the disaffection among people in England with the constitutional status quo is growing. There is a strong link between anti-European sentiment and the desire for a renegotiation of England’s position in the Union or indeed outright independence.
UKIP is the only major party in England that is speaking to this growing constituency, which goes a long way to explain its recent surge of support. When asked which party “best stands up for English interests”, the majority root for Farage. Labour lags significantly behind, the Conservatives come a bad third, and the Lib Dems are hardly worth the count. Of course there are the English Democrats. With their roots in the ‘English National Party’ that formed in 1998 in response to the devolution settlement, EDP continues today to be a fringe party with little prospects. Today they have just one elected representative, the councillor David Owens, formerly of the British National Party – hardly an advertisement for the party.
It’s no wonder that constitutional issues in England are so often dismissed and avoided. The traditional mainstream parties of Westminster – I say ‘traditional’ as the Lib Dems now consistently poll below UKIP – are running scared. While they have their heads in the sand, the populist right and far right in England have ceded this rich and volatile ground.
In electoral terms, Labour has immediately the most to lose from further devolution. The Tories have some 100 more English seats at Westminster than Labour. England faces the nightmare of a ‘Forever Tory’ nation if Scotland breaks away from the Union. I personally believe that this could lead to a healthy re-engagement of Labour with left-leaning voters across the nation and even prompt a much-needed reincarnation of the party. But Labour politicians are understandably terrified to confront this challenge. It’s of no surprise that the Labour for Independence group in Scotland has faced slur campaigns from party HQ. Even if Scotland votes against independence, further devolution should still keep Miliband up at nights.If the Tory’s proposal of English votes on English laws is introduced, Ed faces the surreal scenario of winning power but remaining impotent to legislate on ‘England-only’ matters. Imagine PM Ed Miliband battling English Minister Boris Johnson – or even Nigel Farage. I for one would move to Scotland.
Meanwhile, Cameron is desperate to keep the rising discontent in England with the two Unions – Britain and Europe – at bay. He has tried to appease unruly backbenchers and win back defectors to UKIP with his promise of an in-out referendum on EU membership in 2017, but this doesn’t address the English question. In fact, the often explosive, irrational nature of the debate in England on Europe can be seen in part as a symptom of the repression of the English question. What exactly would the Prime Minister “win back for Britain” in his proposed pre-referendum negotiation of powers? The freedom to make doctors work longer hours? Is that really why he’s putting his neck on the line? Just remember the farce of the 2011 veto, ignored by Brussels as the childish tantrum that it was, and ridiculously trumpeted by Eurosceptics as a victory of which “Britain” could be “proud”. Why is this political arena so emotive and ridiculous? I think it’s useful to read ‘Britain’ here as ‘Greater England’. While Putin’s spokesperson riled Cameron by calling the UK “just a small island that no-one pays attention to”, the PM’s wounded reaction should be read in the context of a man who fears he will preside over the end of the Union and the reduction of his cherished Britain that ‘ruled the waves’ to an impoverished Little England no longer calling the shots.
I think Phil Mac Giolla Bhain was spot-on in his contribution to this series in identifying a markedly different “value base” within the political elites of Westminster and Holyrood. Take the health service: the NHS in Scotland and Wales have been sheltered from the restructuring and privatization visited by the Coalition on the English NHS. This is a key to a larger picture of drift between the ruling ideologies of the nations, with Scotland and Wales retaining the spirit of the post-war settlement, while Westminster is free to use austerity in England to attempt a radical shrinking of the state and the sell-off of our welfare services, public institutions and national treasures such as the English forests. While the rest of the UK can be seen to be pulling away from this essentially neo-liberal project driven through by London, people in England and particularly those outside of the dominant South East are justified to fear abandonment to this fate.
Finally, to answer the question ‘what does the constitutional process look like from England?’ I’m afraid my conclusion is far from palatable. The Westminster class has avoided what they term ‘constitutional matters’ for far too long, in the apparent hope that refusing to acknowledge the fast-changing nature and attitudes towards the Union and its place in the world would some-how disappear the issue. This refusal has fed into an often deranged debate on Europe. It is a mentality born of the peculiar history of the Anglo-British state, the post-imperial legacy and our unique lack of a written constitution. England cannot continue to ‘muddle through’. We are like a toddler stumbling over our first words while Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic have been fluent in the language for generations. We cannot continue to be silent about our own nation. The world will not wait for us to catch up.