‘Who WILL speak for England?’ came the plaintive plea from the Daily Mail, only to be bombarded with a pleasing deluge of ridicule. But as the pent-up frustration of Little England was unleashed after David Cameron failed to restrain his own anti-European backbenchers, it looks like the full beast of English nationalism is about to be let loose. It’s not surprising to see desperate racists like Farage dog-whistle over “15 million Turkish muslims” massing on the border, and Richard North (his blog EUReferendum was rated by the Financial Times as the UK’s most influential political blog in 2006) is certainly feeling unrestrained talking of ‘dagos’ ‘kermits’ and ‘jungle bunnies’.
But amid the predictable outbreak of bigotry, and the unsurprising constitutional/geographical myopia (see above), there’s a deeper cultural sense of entitlement reaching out.
“Who WILL speak for England?” It seems Tristram Hunt will.
England, it seems, apart from getting such a terrible raw deal from Europe, and despite being ‘over-run by migrants’ (such utter garbage as refuted by David Milband yesterday) is suffering from an equally awful ‘democratic deficit’ within the British constitutional settlement.
Today he will argue not just for an English Parliament, but a cultural renewal in the face of an astonishing sense of vulnerability: “They value home, family and their country. They feel their cultural identity is under threat. They yearn for a sense of belonging and national renewal. Tradition, rules and social order are important to them. And, tragically, they feel that Labour no longer represents them, or understands their lives. In short, they felt we didn’t value England, and we’re not on the side of the English.”
“My instinct is that we need a proper English parliament. But some prefer regional assemblies, and the jury is still out on the new English votes for English laws settlement. But these are complex issues and no one can claim to have all the answers – so we should put all three on a ballot and let the English people decide.”
This is all quite incredible for several reasons.
His speech includes the lines: “Nobody who campaigned in Scotland during the referendum could fail to be shaped by the experience. It was to reconnect with the power and wonder of democracy, to see an entire nation debate and debate again its culture, its identity and every single aspect of its future.”
Well indeed – but not only did your party consistently rule out such a multi-option referendum for Scottish voters but the entire basis of the referendum came after over 100 years (or more) of agitation at a genuine democratic deficit. The very motivation for an English Parliament comes not from any real basis of grievance but as a reactionary response to Scotland changing from being a mute, culturally acquiescent backwater into something resembling a semi-functioning country. That idea, that experience was simply intolerable for most of the British establishment. It’s not enough for that project to have failed. It must be humiliated and the dominant relation must be exerted.
The idea that a comparable deficit exists in England is simply laughable to anyone who is numerate. It’s based on a sense of entitlement that borders on the pathological. It’s premise – that Scotland has an inappropriate say in English affairs, is simply wrong, as a research briefing from 2014 makes clear:
“Of approximately 3,600 divisions to occur between 26th June 2001 and 26 September 2014, 22 (0.6%) would have concluded differently had the votes of Scottish MPs not been counted. The note also compares, for each division since 2001, the lobby in which the majority of MPs per constituent country of the UK have voted to the lobby in which the majority of UK MPs voted. In the current Parliament the lobby in which the majority of English MPs have voted has coincided with that of the majority of UK MPs for 99% of divisions. The majority of Scottish MPs has coincided with the majority of UK MPs for 24% of divisions; that of Welsh MPs for 26% of divisions.”
As the rejected New Labour entryist group looks for a new host, this embracing of an emboldened English nationalist strain is perhaps to be predicted. Given an articulated Billy Bragg style voice it could have a progressive direction. But with the overwhelming noise of xenophobia, both to the perceived European threat to the east, and to England’s neighbouring countries to the north and west, this seems unlikely. In the context of the dominant cultural narrative, perpetuated by the tabloid and broadcast media and with strong support inside and outside parliament, and with the rabid anti-European rhetoric being ramped up each day, this is a disaster for progressive England.
This paranoid tradition has some recent form. Explaining why he’s found public money to finance a huge Agincourt celebration, Chancellor George Osborne said in 2014: “It is also when a strong leader defeated an ill-judged alliance between the champion of a united Europe and a renegade force of Scottish nationalists. So it is well worth the £1 million we will provide to celebrate it.”
But if blaming someone else for your failings is a predictable and well-worn path, and the basis for an English parliament is based on a series of falsehoods, the very idea of a more federal Britain is also a myth. It’s a myth not only in the sense that a highly centralised, London-focused power base won’t ever allow it, but it’s also a myth in that, as the Kilbrandon Report stated in 1973:
“A federation consisting of four units – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – would be so unbalanced as to be unworkable. It would be dominated by the overwhelming political importance and wealth of England. The English parliament would rival the United Kingdom federal Parliament; and in the federal parliament itself the representation of England could hardly be scaled down in such a way as to enable it too be outvoted by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, together representing less than one fifth of the population. A United Kingdom federation of four countries, with a federal Parliament and provincial Parliaments in the four national capitals, is therefore not a realistic proposition.”
There are other myths at work here. Myths of internal British unity and myths of social security scroungers. We’re told that Nicola Sturgeon, Arlene Foster, Carwyn Jones and Martin McGuinness have written to David Cameron requesting he defers the EU referendum as it interferes with elections in other parts of the ‘UK”.
He won’t reply. This isn’t a family of nations. But also, arguing in the National today, Lesley Riddoch states:
“…anti-European arguments are disagreeable and uninspiring – generally based on naked financial self-interest, a thinly disguised fear of foreigners and a grossly exaggerated idea of the UK’s generosity as a benefits-distributing migrant-magnet. No matter how many anecdotes of social security-dependent East Europeans are trotted out, the facts are rather different. Migrant workers from the 10 countries that joined the EU in 2004 made a net contribution to the UK economy of £5 billion in taxes by 2011.”
This idea of ‘scroungers’ is mirrored in attitudes to Jockistan (see below).
As the media feed the frenzy of Tory ‘outers’ this vicious cocktail is likely to get worse. You’ve got to love the Express today wailing that the “SNP takes over TWO major Westminster committees – AND gets debate on Trident.” This sense of outrage that elected members from north of the border exist at all is a compelling and consistent part of the new political landscape.
If the post-indyref settlement had lived up to the love-bombing, instead of widespread James Kirkup style hostility (‘Why doesn’t he just die’) – then this symmetry of myth-making against Scotland and Europe might not have had such traction.
Hunt also mis-understands what has happened. Today he argues that the referendum here “was to reconnect with the power and wonder of democracy”. In fact it was a political education in the power of the British state. As Neil Davidson outlined in the New Left Review:
“The odds were huge. On one side, the might of the British state, the three parties of government, Buckingham Palace, the BBC—still by far the most influential source of broadcast news and opinion—plus an overwhelming majority of the print media, the high command of British capital and the liberal establishment, backed up by the international weight of Washington, NATO and the EU. On the other, a coalition of the young and the hopeful, including swathes of disillusioned Labour voters in the council estates—the ‘schemes’—of Clydeside and Tayside, significant sections of the petty bourgeoisie and Scotland’s immigrant communities, mobilized in a campaign that was at least as much a social movement as a national one. Starting from far behind, this popular-democratic upsurge succeeded in giving the British ruling class its worst fit of nerves since the miners’ and engineering workers’ strikes of 1972, wringing panicked pledges of further powers from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal leaders. By any measure, the Yes camp’s 45 per cent vote on a record-breaking turnout in the Scottish independence referendum was a significant achievement.”
This is a very different picture than that portrayed by Hunt.
Davidson concludes that the Labour leadership might be recalling the words of that arch-Unionist Sir Walter Scott shortly before the Scottish General Strike of 1820: ‘The country is mined beneath our feet.’ Indeed it is.
‘Who WILL speak for England’ isn’t just a social media meme or a hilarious exposure of constitutional ignorance and arrogance. It does raise a more serious question: is England capable of building a progressive culture? Why is it enthralled to waves of xenophobia and can it overcome this phenomena? The European debate, and ts relationship to the Scottish Question will give us the answer.