The English Question and the Rise of a Zombie Political System

Gerry Hassan refects on the culmination of a strange political process and how radical change is a simulacrum for more of the same.

The British constitution is in a bad way. The Westminster system of absolutism is creaking and falling apart as we speak, centralisation has been taken to a point under the Blair-Brown dual monarchy of New Labour beyond caricature, and the British political classes are held beneath contempt, along with bankers and journalists. This should be a golden era for radical reformers and democrats, with idealists and campaigners pushing at an open door in terms of the popular imagination and mood, a political community looking desperately for a different kind of politics, and a country knowing that the eviction of one political party of the Westminster state, Labour for the Tories, will change little for the better. One of the paradoxes of our current malaise is the widespread crisis of the British political system is combined with a crisis of confidence amongst reformers. The crisis of our politics seems to have not only affected the corrupted, tainted ‘mainstream’, but those who want to replace the whole rotten edifice.

The usual culprits to cite here are the Lib Dems under Nick Clegg’s strangely demure, cautious leadership, which has failed to make any real headway in the economic and political storms we have endured (and this despite Vince Cable). Thankfully for Lib Dems another group have come along in recent weeks, mouthing the platitudes of reform, while engaging in processes and ideas which don’t have any real spark or urgency. The Power 2010 inquiry has significant monies from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and its Reform Trust (1). Chaired by the formidable and impressive Helena Kennedy and led by Pam Giddy, previously of
Charter 88, it has attempted to build on the work both did with the Power inquiry a few years ago.

This isn’t the best place to start, because the Power inquiry was characterised by a convincing, powerful critique of our failing democracy and politics, which in its recommendations went nowhere, focusing on narrow political structures and processes, such as PR and state party funding (and could not even bring itself to make the case for a written constitution). There was no acknowledgement of the interwoven nature of the economic and political concentration of power which had happened in Britain under Thatcher and Blair, and that any serious reform needed to respond in kind: with a programme of economic, social and civil transformation. The Power 2010 campaign then held a series of deliberative discussions out of which emerged a list of 29 reforms to the UK political system, and it in this that the problems began. For a start, there was the lack of imagination of engaging in what amounts to a self-selecting super opinion poll which is of little real value, and can be blown apart by critics as being totally unrepresentative.

The last time I looked at the overall figures they were at 80,000 votes, and considering you can vote as many times as you want as long as you vote only once for each demand, the overall reach will be many times smaller. Yet, there are even bigger flaws with the whole process. The Power 2010 campaign decided from their super February primary to select only the top five and then promote and argue for them in the forthcoming election, just like New Labour’s five pledges on their infamous card in 1997. However, another problem was lurking in the issue of the English dimension. The final list of 29 left the English question represented by English votes on English Laws, while a referendum on an English Parliament, which had been on the original list, was knocked out. As we entered into the last few days, Unlock Democracy, the successor to Charter 88, asked supporters to vote for an elected second chamber, the demand which was below English votes. The Campaign for the English Regions urged their supporters to vote for any issue but English votes. Peter Facey, director of Unlock Democracy, stated that his motivation was that: This was not an anti-English votes for English Laws email, simply a positive one for an issue we think needs to be in the top five. (2) The disingenuousness is shocking from supposed radical democrats, combined with their complete lack of understanding of the lack of democracy at the heart of the UK in the English question.

This was articulated by Paul Kingsnorth in a powerful piece in ‘The Guardian Comment’: Imagine that you live in a nation which is, or claims to be, a democracy. Imagine that in this democracy, your elected representatives make laws by voting on bills in parliament, as they do in pretty much every other democracy in the world. He goes on to say: ‘Thus is the country in which 80% of the UK’s population lives; this is England’ (3). Fascinatingly as we speak with hours to go to the closing of the Power 2010 vote the whole thing has backfired on them. Yes, their campaign of attempting to fix the ballot has raised the number of votes for a fully elected second chamber and pushed it into third place, but the counter-campaign to their
manipulation, has pushed English votes up to fourth. What is more striking is the tiny number of votes involved which with just over three hours to go stood at: Proportional Representation 11,878 Scrap ID Cards 10,325 Fully Elected Second Chamber 6,454 English Votes on English Laws 6,197 A Written Constitution 6,051 Fixed Term Parliaments 5,909 And then after this there is a long drop off.

What is striking is the tiny number of votes, the sheer lack of political imagination and radicalism, along with paranoia about letting the English tiger out. This has been combined with an attempt at a form of fixing. And a set of processes, which seem to be incredible in terms of their banality. At the heart of the Power 2010 failure is the collapse of the liberal radical tradition in Britain. Thatcherism and New Labour didn’t happen by accident; they happened because we allowed them to happen, and we allowed the political system, the state and radicalism to be captured by zealous anti-democratic revolutionaries.

The Power response is, according to Facey, to have a ‘Constitutional Convention’ which surely sums up the political worldview of such chatterers. It is based on an elite view of politics, and an inaccurate view of how change came in Scotland, which didn’t happen because of Canon Kenyon Wright and his blessed Constitutional Convention, but because civic and political Scotland, both organised and disorganised, wanted it. In short, such change is driven by shaping political space, identity and imagining a nation: a long, diffuse, messy process which can never be summarised by establishing a Convention.

There are many by-lines to this story, but one is that Rowntree gave a significant amount of monies to employ a substantial body of staff of well over a dozen to oversee such a poorly thought through project. It has thrown up the limitations of much for what passes for constitutional reform and democratic renewal in the UK, and also reminds us that despite the multiple crises of the system, there is a distinct prospect that it will just muddle along, for want of anything better.

Rather like the current crisis of neo-liberalism, for want of a better alternative, the British political system could just stagger along, in an undead state. Truly we could be entering the age of Zombie politics and a Zombie political system which still felt it had the right and power to act like an all-powerful leviathan.

Notes

1. Power 2010: Countdown to a new politics, http://www.power2010.org.uk/votes
2. Peter Facey, ‘Shock: Unlock Democracy supports an elected second chamber’, Our Kingdom, February 17th 2010, http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/peter-facey/shock-unlock-democracy-supports-elected-second-chamber
3. Paul Kingsnorth, England is a pseudo-democracy, The Guardian Comment, February 18th 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/feb/18/devolution-england-pseudo-democracy

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  1. Toque says:

    Great post Gerry. Of course, those of us involved in getting English Votes to the position it finished in, did so for entirely disingenuous reasons.

    We don’t think English Votes is worthy or workable. We only wanted it on there to spite Unlock Democracy/Charter88, Rowntree, and all of those ‘right-on’ constitutional reformers who have willfully ignored the English Question for so long.

    I look forward to reading the press releases from Helena Kennedy, Pam Giddy, Unlock Democracy, Make My Vote Count, the Electoral Reform Society, and all Power2010’s worthy partners requesting that their supporters lobby their prospective MPs to pledge to introduce the completely divisive and pointless English Votes on English Laws.

    Will I be laughing? You bet I will.

  2. joycemcmillan says:

    So, what then? As someone who worked really hard around the Constitutional Convention, I am staggered by the hostility and negativity towards that process often expressed by people who think of themselves as radical, but have no better positive suggestion to make. Gerry, your attempt to suggest the Convention and “civic Scotland” were two different things is baffling; obviously, the two were completely intertwined at the time.

    And Toque – well, I don’t know who you are, but why are you wasting your scorn and hatred on good people like Helena Kennedy and Pam Giddy, who are at least making the effort to try to reform our democracy, rather than on the casino capitalist boss-class who have simply bought and corrupted the system, and on the pernicious neoliberal and neocon ideology that opened the way for this ? I agree that the “English votes” solution is nonsense, but get your priorities right. And try, for heaven’s sake, to suggest something positive, rather than just sneering at other people’s efforts.

  3. Ian Campbell says:

    Well, I didn’t vote for EVOEL to ‘spite Open Democracy’. I want it to happen. Its proponents, the Conservatives, have already backed off it, accepting Ken Clarke’s fudge, which offers only window-dressing. Under Clarke the 40 Welsh and 59 Scots MPs will still be able to over-ride the English vote. The General Election is now looking too close to call. Labour has 29 Welsh and 40 Scottish MPs. It could well hang on to most of those seats. We need the Conservatives to plump for full EVOEL in the hope of incrreasing their English vote and then to implement it in full if elected (I hope by a small majority over Labour or an even smaller one over all other parties) so that England is governed without the input of Scots and Welsh MPs. EVOEL may or may not work. It has not been tried. If it works, it may grow into a parliament-within-a-Parliament. If it fails, then all parties are forced once again to face up to the English Question. Meanwhile, we will be doing our best to keep the EQ in front of the people of England, many of whom are are completely unaware of the undemocratic nature of the post-devolution arrangements. We want them to be well aware of what is going when both the Scottish Parliament and the NAWA press, as they will do and are entitled to do, for more autonomy. Wales wants a referendum. Parliament should grant England one at the same time.

  4. Toque says:

    I’m not “just sneering at other people’s efforts”. I’m trying wreck them by introducing an English dimension that they would rather ignore, in the hope that they will no longer ignore the English Question. There’s a subtle difference. If they were truly ‘good people’ then perhaps the option of an English Parliament, inconvenient though it might be to their vision of a new Britain, may have made the final poll instead of being experted out at the deliberative phase.

    Charter88, and Rowntree, spent years trying to break England up into regions against the will of the people. I see this as just a little by way of payback.

    If you want constructive: I support proportional representation for an English parliament; I support reform of the Lords into a British parliament (leaving the Commons as the English parliament, elected under PR), and; I support a written constitution for a federal United Kingdom.

    I don’t however support those three reforms if they are introduced without resolving the national dimension. We are a Union of Nations and it’s about time these constitutional reformers started treating the UK as such, rather than supporting national governance for Scotland and Wales but offering England reform only at the UK or local level.

  5. Toque says:

    Actually Joyce, I should qualify my previous. To be fair the vast majority of people who attempted to get EVoEL included probably did so to get the English Question on the wider political agenda and to put pressure on the Tories who plan to introduce a procedural change to the Commons voting system that continues to allow non-English MPs to vote on English legislation (banning them only at Committee and Report Stage). However, for those of us with long memories, who remember well the CfER and John Prescott, revenge was a big motivation.

  6. bellacaledonia says:

    Hi Joyce, thanks for your comments. I don’t believe Gerry was being negative, saying: ‘chaired by the formidable and impressive Helena Kennedy.’ We have to have a critical movement for change.

    The reality is that many of the proposals were mild to the point of being meaningless. For me ‘Elected Second Chamber’ is just the system innoculating itself against change.

    The Constitutional Convention was a force for change in very different circumstances – which we have moved on from, and to assume that it is the same thing as civil society is just wrong.

    We have had pr in Scotland for years, a mainstay of this process was a question irrelevant to you or I.

    Much of the Power 2010 had nothing to say on deeper questions of the realitiees of state power, the Union and our future.

    Mike

  7. Guy Aitchison says:

    “We only wanted it on there to spite Unlock Democracy/Charter88, Rowntree, and all of those ‘right-on’ constitutional reformers who have willfully ignored the English Question for so long.”

    Gareth, that’s a stupid statement to make and I think it’s unworthy of you. Being spiteful and vengeful is hardly going to win people to your cause. If you truly believe the injustice so great, then take the issues to the public rather than spiting those who campaign on other issues. You might find people respond to a positive English agenda better than they do pettiness and paranoia.

    Bella, on the need to address private concentrations of power, yes, that should be part of any broad progressive agenda, but this is a campaign specifically about democratic and constitutional reform. It’s not a political party. In my view it’s only through democratising the state and asserting our autonomy as citizens that we’ll be in a position to tame the “boss class”, as Joyce puts it. Opening up the political system is key to that. Are you really saying that voting reform, a written constitution, and abolishing state databases and ID cards – all ideas submitted and voted for by the public – wouldn’t be transformative? I think they would – they certainly have the potential to be if done correctly.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Guy – thanks for that. I don’t see a problem with the agenda just that its partial and out of context, and to Joyce I’d defend the right to have a vigorous and open debate, we cant venerate Canon Wright or Helena Kennedy.

      Why are they partial and out of context?

      We’ve had PR and fixed terms in Scotland for a decade – so the first two items specifically exclude people outwith Scotland. English votes for Engloish Laws is about restricting voting in a parliament where we are outvoted 10:1. Take Trident, for just one example, where there is huge opposition throughout Scotland yet the ‘UK’ parliament votes it through with a huge English majority.

      This is routine practice, this is the real democratic deficit. When England votes Tory later this year Scotland will once again be ruled by a party it didnt vote for, as it had been for decades before.

      The challenge and opportunity for Scotland is independence and the vision of tinkering with electoral reform in the Lords seems a distant and abstract irrelevance.

      I for one dont believe the British State to be a redeemable entity. So while abolishing ID cards is something I’d absolutely support, I dont believe the British State can become a liberal, open democracy. It’s one I want to leave not reform.

      I’d also like to know what consultation for Power 2010 was done in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as part of this process?

      1. Guy Aitchison says:

        Bella, I can understand this point – if your ultimate aim is independence then at best this will seem like a distraction. But like it or not Scotland is still under the jurisdiction of Westminster and therefore how democratic the place is affects Scots too. Power2010 is focusing on a UK election so it makes sense for it to focus on reform of the UK system.

        There are numerous Scots, Welsh and NI organisations involved, see:
        http://www.power2010.org.uk/partners

        They promoted the issues to their members and encouraged them to submit ideas/vote – the consultation was UK-wide. Summits were held with NGOs/campaign groups in Scotland and Wales. And currently the campaign has full-time organisers in each of the nations recruiting volunteers and supporters.

    2. James Graham says:

      “Gareth, that’s a stupid statement to make”

      But it is an honest one.

      1. Toque says:

        Yes it is. Seriously, did anyone think I was urging people to vote for English votes on English Laws for genuine reasons?

        There are no genuine reasons to vote for it, it would be unconstitutional and undemocratic to prevent non-English MPs voting on English matters without fiscal federalism and and English executive.

        The only reason to vote for it is to make the English Question an issue for the wider movement for constitutional reform and the Tories (many of whose supporters, over 70% according to ConHome, support EVoEL because they’ve been told for the last ten years that it was the answer).

  8. DougtheDug says:

    I think a lot of the disengagement with modern politics is that there are no big ideas among the parties, none that have any resonance with the electorate in Britain anyway. It’s all how the Lib-Dems or Labour or the Conservatives are going to manage Britain, not change it or reform it. The SNP has a big idea with Scottish independence as does Plaid Cymru with Welsh independence but these two are restricted to Scotland and Wales and the bulk of Britain has only a choice between Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib-Dems. In essence Tweedledum, Tweedledee and Alice. It doesn’t matter how you vote you’ll never get out of the rabbit hole. The big problem is that most people in the UK as a whole have just given up on politics. Nothing they can do as individuals can change anything so it’s less stressful and easier just to avoid thinking about it. It means that reform is driven by a small minority in the country.

    I don’t see why the Lib-Dems should be regarded as a failed power-house of reform since they’ve never been in power since they formed in 1988. Even their “federal” solution to internal government in the UK is just a re-hash of Labour’s, “Nations and Regions”, devolution plan.

    One of the big problems for all constitutional reform in the UK is what to do with England, so most reformers just avoid it. It’s difficult for several reasons. Separating England out from Britain reduces the status of the, “British nation”, that the establishment is trying to build and if England is to be recognised with its own parliament within the union it will require a root and branch reform of Government in this country to achieve that federal aim. In addition, many of the reformers are so embedded in the idea of Britain as a nation with fuzzy boundaries between England and Britain that it is actually difficult for them to recognise it as either an issue or a problem in the governance of the UK.

    An English Constitutional Convention won’t solve this problem because it is looking at something entirely different from the Scottish Constitutional Convention. The Scottish Constitutional Convention was looking at devloving power from the centre to Scotland, a provincial solution. An English Constitutional Convention will be looking at the changing the UK into a federal state with all the massive upheaval in central government that this entails, something that devolution was designed to avoid. Those who call for an English Constitutional Convention are those who have so far avoided thinking about the problem of how to separate England from Britain and still keep the union.

    What is striking is the tiny number of votes, the sheer lack of political imagination and radicalism, along with paranoia about letting the English tiger out.

    Fear of the English Tiger is is the reason there is a lack of reform ideas. The place of England within the UK is central to any reform of the constitution or of its governance and most of the stuff that the Power 2010 campaign has come up with looks more like avoidance tactics or displacement activity when faced with the English question than any real reform agenda.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      This response posted by Peter Facey (of Unlock Democracy) on Gerry’s article:

      Nice article Gerry, but it would be even better if it had a few more facts to back up the argument. I do not speak for Power as you state in the article. For the record I have no position in Power2010. The only organisation I speak for is Unlock Democracy.

      You accuse me of shocking disingenuousness for stating that the reason we sent a email to our supporters asking them to vote for a elected second chamber was because we wanted it in the top five. But unfortunately that was the reason we did it. The fact that our Parliament has a chamber that is made up of hereditary chiefs and people appointed by party leaders is a disgrace. Lords reform was one of five issues we championed in this process, the others being PR, A
      Written Constitution, stronger local government and a cap on donations).

      A week ago it was about 200 hundred votes behind. So we asked our supporters to vote for it. Yes I accepted that it would knock one of the other issues out of the top five (and seeing that English Votes and a Fixed term Parliament were in fourth and fifth pace I accepted that it would displace one of them). The process pitched supporters of various reforms against one another and no this is not the process I would have designed if Rowntree had given us the money. There was no more a conspiracy by us to prevent English Votes than Paul conspired to keep Fixed Term Parliaments out (though that was the effect of his article).

      You say that our email was a manipulation of the process if it was then it was manipulation built into the process. So yes we tried to manipulate the process, but so did CAMRA, Countryside Alliance, Compass, Progress, Tax Payers Alliance, the Freedom Association, ERS, War on Want and a number of other organisations all of whom put out emails to their supporters asking them to vote for certain issues.

      Do I think English Votes for English Laws is good policy – no I don’t but for that matter neither does Paul or the other campaigners for an English Parliament. In the end of the day I will probably be happier with English Votes than Paul is. As an organisation we don’t support it because it does not deal with centralised nature of power in England.

      Paul Kingsnorth in his thanks to you says that I am against giving the English people a voice. Paul knows that is complete rubbish as he was on the panel with me when I gave a speech calling for the right to self-government for the people of England. In it I called for an English Devolution Enabling Act that would allow people to decide how they should be governed. So if the people of England want an English Parliament they can have one. But if like me they want a decentralised
      England with power exercised in Manchester, London, Yorkshire and Cornwall they can have that. Yes Paul and others like him like me want to give the English People a voice, but they want them to only have one song to sing (a English parliament) whereas I want them to be able to choose the song as well. And no this was not a option in the Power 2010 process.

  9. Toque says:

    “You might find people respond to a positive English agenda better than they do pettiness and paranoia.”

    They don’t, hence the pettiness and paranoia.

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