England: Still Learning to Speak its Name


Bily Bragg plays Cranhill (1990)

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.

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  1. gerry mcgregor says:

    If it ever comes to English MP’s for english bill’s, will there ever be a non-english PM. They would not be able to vote for a large part of queen’s speech. The same can be said for ministries where responsibility has been devolved, they must be English ministers

    If more taxation was devolved, could a scottish or welsh MP be chancellor imposing taxes on England while their home country could be reducing them.

    All of the major offices of state apart from Foriegn Office & the Armed Forced would be barred to everyone apart from English MP’s. What would that do for the state of the Union?

    1. polwarthian says:

      that is a very, very good point Gerry, Thanks

      1. gerry mcgregor says:

        maybe some media interviews should as the No campaign if they would be happy with this situation.

  2. First I noticed that UKIP was the English party,why would UKIP be called the English party after all it makes claim to be United Kingdom party,but that is part of the English attitude as it comes across to me.I see it that Westminster thinks only in the terms of England,and Britain is “just a part of England” I know its not but that is the impression given.There is a site on facebook called “why are the English not British” and that is the real question,it seems like Westminster has always had an England bias,and used the term “Britain” just to make us in the Celtic fringes think that we were really a part of a much bigger country,and we have not and never have been accepted as equals,just “tribes” to be tolerated at least that is the impression I have had.We do have this strange way of dealing with perceived problems or problems that might arise,and by seeking out those possibilities, the problems are then created. We have this method of weather maps on TV,especially the BBC which elongates England and shortens Scotland,this is a subtle way of making those in the “smaller” part of Britain think that they are “too wee” and need to cuddle-up top the bigger part of the island,when in fact Scotland is more than one third of this island,but it about perception and more and more people have woken up to these wee tricks.If you look at any other country in the world their TV stations do not distort the size of the country they all use a “flat map”,that is one example,time and typing make me hold back from typing more,but I believe we can all think of other similar slights.I think its best summed up with “The chickens are coming home to roost”

  3. Can I just say I’m not a big Billy Bragg fan.. for the record!

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Sorry Niki! I realised there’s quite a problem in representing this story ie how do you visually represent England without it having connotations of the right?

      1. IndependentEngland says:

        I suggest avoid using the Union flag which is the symbol of the BNP and other far right groups. use the more moderate English flag the Cross of St George.

  4. alfredtheok says:

    After 30 years solid support, I ceased to vote for Labour straight after 1998 Devolution Act became law. A lifetime of always voting and always voting socialist, I will never vote for Labour again.. (or for that matter, the LibDems & Tories). That conniving cabal of control freaks, oh-so eager to march into any despotic country (usually with oil reserves) in order to bestow upon them their vision of Mother-of-Parliament democracy. Finger-wagging this Dictator and that Clan Leader on the absolute imperative of all things democratic; while here in England, 50 million+ wallow in a national democracy-free zone – a morass of Govt appointed quangos, no-mandate Scots, Welsh & NI MPs shoving their beaks into our supposed devolved matters – and successive Prime Ministers continuing to try to give the impression that their remit in Health, Education, Planning, Transport, Local Government, Culture etc is UK wide, when in reality it’s England only.

    I don’t give a toss whether Nicky Seth Smith, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Billy Bragg, Professor Robert Hazell, Kenneth Clarke, Richard Herring, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown or any other brain of a planet pundit thinks that an English Parliament is a bad idea… A sort of grubby English nationalists step too far.

    It isn’t.

    Well I’m an English nationalist, I know, I know, an attack of the vapours all round, right? But with me it’s all about NATIONAL DEMOCRACY – it’s the thing lots and lots of people died for. An English Parliament! It’s our democratic right to have one, it’s not up to some Eton-educated wide boy spiv or an ‘I feel your pain’ millionaire socialist to tell me and 50 million others that somehow, SOMEHOW, our English national democracy is not required, too expensive, dangerously divisive or a price worth paying to preserve the union.

    It’s not.

    It’s England who were the first nation in the world to willingly join together as a unified and codified nation state. It’s England who originated the Magna Carta, the world’s first document to detail basic freedoms of the individual. It’s England who passed the 1685 Bill of Rights…….

    Not the UK, not Britain and not, as Cameron so often tells us, ‘our country’…

    And it’s England who are the only Country in Europe who has no national parliament, no First Minister and not even our own national anthem….

    The movers and shakers in the Westminster bubble should be bloody ashamed of themselves for such a state of affairs. Forget wittering on, handwringing as you go about Englishness, give us our bloody parliament back. Our English pride will follow……..

    …… Oh, but just hang on a minute, isn’t that what you people are scared of?

    NOTE TO THE SCOTS: Please do the right thing, vote YES, YES, YES next year and do us all a favour… Kill this God awful union, this supposed ‘Union of Equals’ once and for all. English Parliament NOW! (It’s called national democracy, we should give it a go)….

    1. G. P. Walrus says:

      “It’s England who were the first nation in the world to willingly join together as a unified and codified nation state.”
      Check your facts mate! There were other nations, including Scotland, before England. If you want to argue for an English nation state, more power to your elbow but you’ll do better to argue from a basis of fact. And you’ll do even better if you base your arguments on social justice, not appeals to a fictional past. There’s a lot you can learn from the Scottish debate. Stick around these pages.

    2. Old Albion says:

      Hear hear

      1. Old Albion says:

        To Alfredtheoak, i mean……………………..obviously

  5. andyshall says:

    Why assume the English are English Nationalists ? Most English people have no interest in a separate English state and no obvious reason why they should.

  6. Steve Pocock says:

    The independence debate barely registers in England. Those that are awake to the consequences of separation consider it a road to financial disaster. Interest in politics has hit rock bottom and Farage offers the only alternative game in town down here. Another reason to vote yes next year. Politics in England is a shambles.

    1. IndependentEngland says:

      More English voters want Scotland to declare independence than do Scottish voters. We can’t wait for you to go. Please vote YES.

      Vote SNP Set England Free!

  7. England: Still Learning to Speak its Name? Don’t know about that! It seems in Cornwall ‘England’ and ‘English’ are shouted very loudly at the local peasants. English nationalism is an overt policy of the anglo-british establishment in Kernow.

  8. Barontorc says:

    We Scots are doing something about the stoopidly abusive political scam that governs the UK, as is.

    If the MSM and BBC do not totally skew a fair democratic solution, we Scots are more than capable of returning an independent Scotland, which will be the catalyst, surely, for all inferior regions outwith the South East and London to recognise their own claim of rights and get something done about it.

    Even the BBC is reporting that almost all funding – 80/20 understates it, is heading into the overheated London area – what about the needs of the other English regions?

    Get a grip greater England and sort out your case for equality – we ‘re doing our job – it’s past time for you to wake up, smartish and you go for it. UKIP ain’t the answer by a country mile!

  9. Stevie says:

    The article is interesting but… oh there’s always a but… it is mathematically incorrect to sat that Scotland becoming independent abandons England to a forever Tory government because in only 7 (at the very most) out of the last 70 years has the Scottish contingent affected the colour of Westminster parliaments. 2 short lived minority Labour party parliaments and one slim to eventually non-existent majority parliament (Callaghan). The Callaghan parliament was a disaster leading to the winter of discontent, grave digger strikes and a vote of NO confidence and a GE which brought Thatcher to power. As a matter of fact, over the last 100 years, each time there has been a Labour minority government that has resulted in a Tory landslide victory at the next GE.

    So, no, Scotland is not leaving the Tories in charge but is leaving the Tories with a YES vote.

    Moreover, I feel it is up to the English to choose their government and not blackmail the Scots into accepting the same horrors the English get just for the sake of it, for after all England chooses the Westminster government with, or without the Scottish contribution of representatives.

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