Real Change: Britain or England?

About the author
David Rickard is a freelance researcher and writer.

This is an amended and abridged version ofa post that was cross-posted in its original form on 30 July from my NationalConversation for England blog. Events move fast, and it was suggested thatI should modify the focus of the article (and shorten it, for the sake of Our Kingdom’s busy readers) to takeaccount of this week’s developments.

I recently signed up to 'Real Change'. Readers of OurKingdom will of course be familiarwith this movement and its aims, as some of OpenDemocracy’s leading lights wereinstrumental in setting it up; and there has been a lively and in-depth debate onthe pages of OurKingdom about thebest tactics for advancing the constitutional-reform agenda (the latestcontribution being from JeremyGilbert). To recapitulate, Real Change corresponds to number three of sevenpossible courses of action originally suggested by AnthonyBarnett. In essence, the movement aims to set in motion a nationwidedebate, at local level, about fundamental constitutional reform, culminatingultimately in a citizens’ convention to collate and deliberate on all theoptions, and to come up with proposals for a new written constitution.

The change of plan for Real Change that hasoccurred this week is that responsibility for running and funding theorganisation has been handed to the Rowntree Charitable and Reform Trusts, thelatter of which is also the inspiration behind the PowerInquiry. This is excellent news, and I feel sure that the backing of suchprestigious bodies will help enlist more citizens to participate in the RealChange process as well as stimulate vital media coverage and engagement.

In the light of Rowntree’s taking on of theReal Change baton, this post represents in turn something of a throwing down ofa gauntlet that I hope the Rowntree Trusts will also pick up. Many of the PowerInquiry’s recommendations about redistributing power and extending democracywithin the UK have been aired again in recent debates on constitutional reformin the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal. I do not intend to rehearse thesehere, other than to observe that the Power Inquiry paid virtually no heed toarguably the most important constitutional change that New Labour can claim toits credit (or discredit, depending on your point of view): asymmetric devolution.

The Power Inquiry report andrecommendations referred to the ‘object’ of reform as ‘British democracy’, asif this entity were a unitary and consistent structure throughout the UK. Inreality, after devolution, the structures of parliamentary and local democracyit described apply consistently only to England; and the Power Inquiryprogramme of reform could be implemented in full in England alone. Furthermore,the possibility that greater accountability on the part of politicians, andimproved levels of citizen participation in decision making, could perhaps befacilitated, among other things, by the creation of an English parliament (i.e.through devolution for England) was not even contemplated by the report. Yetsurveys have consistently shown that there is majority support in England for somesort of England-only parliament, if you include all of the possible options,ranging from an English Grand Committee to full independence.

Why did the Power Inquiry ignore theEnglish dimension to political and constitutional reform? This was also aconcern I had about the Real Change movement prior to the Rowntree take-over. RealChange articulates its aims in relation to Britain / the UK: the British peopleforming a nationwide (UK-wide) movement culminating in proposals for a newBritish constitution, a (British) Bill of Rights and / or a radically re-shaped(British) parliament. But as with the Power Inquiry’s view of British politics,such a reformed ‘British’ system would encompass only England in any systematicway, unless something were done to separate out the UK-wide andEngland-specific aspects of British governance. The other countries of the UKwould be to a greater or lesser extent beyond Real Change’s remit. And yet,Real Change still envisages itself as a comprehensive, unitary UK-widemovement.

In essence, Real Change was and, underRowntree’s auspices, is still in danger of being an Anglo-British movement:believing that it is possible to implement a new unitary-British system ofgovernance that would be the product of ‘British’ popular sovereignty exercisedin a consistent manner across the whole of the UK; and which, indeed, wouldrepresent the expression and consolidation of a redefined ‘British nation’.Such concepts are products of the traditional English conflation ofEngland and English government with Britain as a whole. But this blurring ofEnglish and British identity and habits of thought about governance does nottake account of the post-devolution political realities. Nor does it take intoconsideration the fact that each of the UK’s nations, including England, hasembarked on an irrevocable process of defining and reaffirming its distinctidentity; and this process is inextricably bound up with the search for theappropriate type and degree of national self-rule: the search for the ‘form ofgovernment best suited to its needs’.

This search, in England, is stillwrapped up for many in the forms and structures of British government that haveevolved out of centuries of English political history, of which they are thecontinuation today. In other words, the people who conceive of constitutionalreform in ‘this country’ in terms of the British constitution and parliamentwill tend to be English (or at least, Anglo-British) people who have still notdissociated the identities of England and Britain. No such problem for theScots and Welsh, who view their own conversations regarding the forms ofnational self-rule they would like to have as quite distinct from – thoughbound up with – considerations about the British constitution. Surely, at a‘constitutional moment’ such as this, where we have a unique opportunity toredraw the whole framework defining the relationship between the UK’s nationsand its political centre, it is time to separate out those parts of the picturethat relate to the government of England from the elements that may still beable to form the basis for a trans-national British system of government ofsome sort.


New British Parliament, or separateEnglish and British parliaments?

Constitutional prescriptions that focus onthe British Parliament and political system as a unitary entity are thereforebound up in the traditional non-differentiation of Britain and England. Butthis model and this view of ‘the country’ (a term that is generally deployed toavoid specifying whether one means Britain or England, or to express theambiguous conflation of the two) have already begun to radically break down,and they cannot be carried forward into a new, re-moulded Britishparliament. Not ‘should not’ be incorporated into a new parliament, but‘cannot’. It is quite inconceivable, in fact, that a radically new parliament,designed with the express intention of eliminating the democratic deficits andlack of accountability of the present system, should perpetuate the mostglaring example of the present system’s injustices: the fact that MPs fornon-English constituencies can legislate for England, which they have not beenelected to represent; while neither they (nor English MPs) can make legislationor decisions for their own countries in policy areas that have been devolved.

Once a new constitution is written down, itcould not possibly embody an asymmetric structure such as this. Indeed, one ofthe main reasons for not coming up with a written constitution – and some wouldsay one of the benefits of not having one – is that you would have to addressanomalies of this sort that have arisen as a result of Britain having aconstitution that has slowly evolved through successive statutes, rather than asingle, largely immutable, set of fundamental constitutional principles.

Devolution as introduced by New Labour in1998 effectively also created a distinct English layer of governance: thoseareas of responsibility of the UK government that now apply to England onlybecause the devolved administrations deal with the same policy areas for theirown countries. A new UK constitution – or, indeed, a constitution for a newkind of UK – should rationalise and systematise the devolution arrangements:certain areas of government to be carried out by the respective nationalparliaments and assemblies (including one for England), and the remainingreserved matters to be handled by the new UK parliament. It is unimaginablethat a written constitution would seek to set in stone something along thepresent lines: ‘Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland have their own parliamentarybodies to deal with matters x, y and z; but for England only, the correspondingmatters are dealt with in the parliament for the whole of the UK byrepresentatives from Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland alongside Englishrepresentatives’.

It is still of course possible that thepoliticians might seek to circumvent the eventuality of an English parliamentby promoting a regional model of devolution – as New Labour attempted to dobefore this was roundly rejected by the voters in the ‘North-East’ region – orthrough various forms of local devolution, as the Power Inquiry among othersrecommends. But if the constitutional-reform process is genuinely bottom-up andtakes account of what English people actually want, the option of anational-English parliament must also be on the table. However, given theunionist and Anglo-British habits of thought that still seem to pervade theconstitutional-reform movement, attempts will no doubt be made to ‘accommodate’the England-only tier of governance within a supposedly unitary Britishparliament; e.g. through some variant of the English Grand Committee model,with English MPs only being permitted to vote on England-only matters. But thisis a highly messy and arguably unworkable compromise solution that certainlywould not satisfy very many English voters and would miss the opportunity thata new written constitution presents: that of setting out which parts ofgovernment the people of England, Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland [and Cornwall]wish to be handled by separate national parliamentary bodies, and which bits(if any) they wish to pool together in a continuing UK government.

It may not be possible to produce a ‘onesize fits all’ solution, with all of the nations having the same degree ofautonomy from the centre, and the same set of devolved responsibilities. Andthe constitutional framework that was devised would need to be flexible enoughto accommodate further change, such as popular demand for independence inScotland or progression towards a united Ireland. But if constitutional reformis truly to be driven from the grassroots, then the new structure that is puttogether will need to be the expression of the different nations’ visions fortheir future and blueprints for their governance. We should not necessarilypresuppose that enough common ground can be created to continue with the UK,certainly in its present form. On the other hand, if the ‘nationwide’ processof debating and attempting to reach consensus on constitutional reform inEngland does not see itself as being part of a process leading to theestablishment of a new national-English politics and system of government, butrather as a ‘British’ process in the old Anglo-British mould, then it will losethe legitimacy it might otherwise have had as an expression of English popularsovereignty.

British sovereignty is parliamentary;English sovereignty is popular

Real Change and the broader movement ofwhich it is a part are bound to consider the English Question not only on thegrounds of logic, fairness and democratic accountability, but also out of whatmight be termed basic structural considerations. By this, I mean, to whatnotion of sovereignty does the whole constitutional-reform exercise appeal, andon what national foundations is this sovereignty built upon? The Real Changeproject appears to presuppose some notion of ‘British popular sovereignty’: thepeople of the whole of the UK coming together to redefine the terms under whichthey are governed. But it is far from obvious that the ‘British people’ as suchexist as a sovereign nation of this sort. By this, I don’t just mean thatBritish sovereignty has always been defined in terms of the sovereignty of theUK Parliament as opposed to the sovereignty of the people; but rather thatpopular sovereignty itself has tended to be conceived of as being the property,if at all, of the various UK nations rather than the British people as somesort of unified collectivity.

This certainly is the case for Scotland,where the principle of popular sovereignty was (in)famously re-stated in theScottish Constitutional Convention of 1988. This body issued the Scottish Claim of Right,to which I have already alluded above, that asserted “the sovereign right ofthe Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to theirneeds”. It is on the basis of this constitutional principle that devolution wasenacted, and to which any further extension of devolution or right of Scottishindependence effectively appeals.

Insofar as it has historically beenconstitutionally and politically assimilated to the UK, England has notmaintained such a strong tradition of popular sovereignty but has tended toaccept the legitimacy of UK-parliamentary sovereignty. But it is nonethelessarguable that UK-parliamentary sovereignty relies on the more fundamental andhistorically more enduring principle of English popular sovereignty. Withoutgoing into all that history, I would argue that English people – at least,since the English Civil War and the English Bill of Rights – have tended tobelieve in the proposition that the sovereignty of first the English Parliamentand subsequently the British / UK Parliament derived from the democraticallyexpressed sovereign will of the people: the English people, that is. Freedomand democracy, on this view, reside in the free will: that of the people whoelect the representatives of their choice; and that of those representatives,the MPs, themselves who, if they are truly to re-present a free nationin parliament (if they are the parliamentary ‘instantiation’ of the people),must also be free to vote as their conscience and free intellects dictate –making them representatives of the people, not mere delegates orparty-political pawns. This is the English model of parliamentary democracythat the British Parliament – after the Acts of Union with Scotland in 1707 –took on in its essentials, with the consequence that the English people havealways regarded Parliament as still an English parliament in all but name, eventhough its geographic remit was extended to Scotland and Ireland. That is,UK-parliamentary sovereignty, in the popular imagination of the English,was sovereign by virtue of continuing to express and represent the sovereigntyof the free English people.

Devolution introduced a radical break withthis, at that time, nearly tercentennial, unwritten set of assumptions; and much of the popular, Englishsentiment that Parliament has lost its legitimacy and that politicians havelost touch with the people derives, in my view, from this schism whoseeffects in the national Anglo-British psyche are far-reaching and traumatic,and will probably ultimately tear apart the unified Anglo-British consciousnessitself. Putting this in logical form: if UK-parliamentary sovereignty derivedits legitimacy from the popular will, and if the people whose will is inquestion were the English people, then once Parliament no longer feels it hasto reflect the will of the English people, it has lost its legitimacy.

One clear example of this is the WestLothian Question, discussed above: the fact that Parliament believes it isstill entitled to legislate for England alone despite not being arepresentative body for England, elected by and accountable to the Englishpeople in its decisions on England’s behalf. But in addition to thisparticularly blatant example of disregard for England as a nation, many of theother examples of Parliament’s assaults on our traditional Englishliberties can be seen as an expression of the fact that, post-devolution,Parliament has effectively abrogated sovereignty to itself alone, i.e.sovereignty has become divorced from the very wellspring of its legitimacy: thewill of the English people. How many of the infringements of our liberty thatParliament has enacted since 1998 would have been accepted by the Englishpeople if they had been given the chance to have an informed public debate andvote on them in a referendum: detention without charge; weakening of theprinciple of innocence until proven guilty; restrictions on jury trials; etc.,etc? Probably very few, if any; and the fact that these measures, undermininghistoric English freedoms, would not have been ratified by the English peopleis almost the very form and frame through which their illegitimacy is to beviewed and understood.

So the UK parliament has lost itslegitimacy because it is no longer a valid English parliament; and thereason why this is so is that parliamentary sovereignty has become divorcedfrom the English popular sovereignty that once informed and supported it. Howhas this happened, and what is the link with devolution? In essence, Parliamentsevered its organic link with popular sovereignty because – as a result orprecondition of devolution – it altered its profound identity as the Englishparliament; and as Parliament ceased to identify with the English nation, sothe English nation increasingly no longer sees Parliament as an institutionthat represents it. Under the unitary system before devolution, Parliament couldsafely be at once the English parliament and the British parliament: English inits traditions and ground of popular legitimacy; British in its administrativeand legislative remit.

After devolution, the ultimate ground ofsovereignty throughout the UK could no longer be said or thought to be the willof the English people. Redirecting English popular sovereignty into a separateEnglish parliament similar to the new bodies in Scotland and Wales would haveexplicitly broken up the long-standing organic identification of the Englishwith Britain and British parliamentary democracy. The fear was that once thatAnglo-British national identity had dissolved, so would the Anglo-Britishparliament and state that depended on it. So, in order to maintain the pretenceof a supposedly still unitary British state, run from the Westminster centre,that state had to recast itself as a monolithic Britain / UK whose sovereignty,authority and national identity was conceived as having no fundamentalreference to, or dependence on, their traditional foundations: this becameBritish-parliamentary sovereignty as a self-validating thing, not popularEnglish sovereignty as validating Parliament; Britain and Britishnesssuperseding England and Englishness.

More than any other factor, it is thisfundamental occulting and suppression of England from the heart of the Britishstate, which the English people previously regarded as their own, that has ledto the huge disenchantment with politics felt by the English; whereaspolls reveal that Scottish, Welsh and N. Irish people generally feel thatdevolution has brought more accountable and more effective government to theirown nations. This ‘de-anglicisation’ has also been the basis for New Labour’sand Gordon Brown’s efforts to assimilate (English) national identity to (British)citizenship, involving the mobilisation of a huge political and culturalmachinery in attempting to reinvent and re-describe everything that hashistorically been English as ‘British’, and in referring to every governmentaland political action that relates to England only as if it affected the wholeof the UK – if only by omitting the key fact that it concerns England alone.

The sovereign will of the English peoplehas, then, been suborned by the British state-in-Parliament, which has madeitself the sole founding, sovereign entity and embodiment of the ‘nation’;while, at the same time, government has carried out a hitherto unwritten project to create a new‘British Nation’ replacing England. Producing a brand-new written constitution also partakes of this sort of nation building:constitutions make claims concerning the identity and values of the peoplewhose forms of government they are setting out. Constitutions define and createnew nations as much as they reflect pre-existing nations. Real Change and itsfellows must resist playing into the drive to establish a new, England-denyingBritish Nation – if only because the English people do not want it. But onesuspects that many of the advocates of the Real Change movement, initially atleast, supported New Labour’s drive to create a New Britain.

New constitution: British or English?

Writing up a constitution involves placing‘the nation’ on a new foundation, then; if not establishing a new nationaltogether. What kind of nation do we want it to be? And, more importantly, dowe want the nation to be Britain or England?

This question relates to anotherfundamental problem that has prevented the UK from formalising its constitutionin a single master document: states with written constitutions tend to alsoconsider themselves as nations. The uniqueness of the UK is that it is a statecomprising four [or five] national communities: not a nation in its own rightbut nonetheless having all the unitary state apparatus and external identity ofa nation state. Setting and writing up a ‘British constitution’ potentiallyestablishes the UK as a nation state for the first time. It says: ‘This is whatBritain is and who the British are [as a whole]; this is our founding law; thisis our system of government; this is what we regard as ‘British rights’ [andresponsibilities], etc’. In this way, an overarching ‘national-British’ unitywould formally and officially subsume the separate national identities, values,legal systems and institutions of the different UK nations, unless the distinctstatus and sovereignty of those nations were explicitly guaranteed in theconstitution. We’d then all be just British. Full stop. Citizenship andnationality united in one kingdom.

No wonder, then, that so many of NewLabour’s anglophobic leading lights and acolytes have supported ideas such as awritten constitution and a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. Butwhat kind of constitution does RealChange want: British or English? Support for a British constitution – and apreference in general for a de-anglicised ‘Britain’ over either the oldanglocentric UK or a new, distinct, self-governing England – is oftenpredicated upon an assumption that ‘British’ identity and values are moreprogressive, secular, inclusive and universal, whilst ‘English’ identity andvalues are seen as conservative, Christian, ethnically exclusive and insular.The reasons for this cultural trope are many and varied, not the least of thembeing the general repudiation of the English popular consciousness and identityin the wake of devolution: England being associated as the (formerly) dominantand oppressive national power behind the British Empire and the pre-devolutionUK; England, and English popular sovereignty, needing to be denied in order fora new ‘inclusive’ (multi-national, multi-cultural) Britain to emerge.

This sort of dualistic thinking is ofcourse profoundly flawed, stereotypical and insulting (if not on occasionsdownright (inverted)racist); but it continues to inform much of the thinking about ‘Britain’s’identity and future not only in government circles but on the part of the‘chattering classes’: the educated liberal middle class that is also the classfrom which the ‘political class’ is drawn, and who see themselves as the onesbest qualified and most entitled to set the direction for the ‘nation’. Willthe Real Change movement be dominated by people of this class and mindset? Andwill they pursue an agenda to build a British constitution and nation that ignoresthe identification of working-class people with England?

Am I exaggerating the risk? Possibly, yes.The one guarantee that Real Change will not end up producing proposals for aBritish constitution that confines the nationhood of England to the dustbin ofhistory is that it is (supposed to be) a genuine process of popularconsultation and participation, in which there should in theory be sufficientscope for the merits and demerits of establishing a distinct English-nationaltier of governance to be properly debated; and, if they are, I can’t see whatrational and just alternative could emerge, given that Scottish / Welsh / N.Irish devolution are here to stay and the English are also entitled to aparliament that represents them and speaks on their behalf.

Real Change: Time for a new England tocome into being

There doesn’t have to be a starkblack-and-white choice between modern, secular Britain and supposedlyatavistic, Christian England. However, the choice is between Britain orEngland. We can debate our values once we know who we are. This is anexistential choice as much as it is a constitutional or philosophical choice.Who are we; who and what is our nation; and what do we wish to become?

A choice for Britain is a choice either foran Anglo-British past that has in reality gone for ever after devolution, or fora new, homogeneous British nation-state: the stuff of New Labour’s and GordonBrown’s dreams. This might formalise the present devolution arrangements andinstitute some form of devolution, regional or local, for ‘England’. But thedistinct millennial British nations that so many of us continue to cherishwould effectively be a thing of the past: subsumed into a formalised Britishcitizen-nationality. No England but also no Scotland, Wales, Northern Irelandor Cornwall. Not in the same sense, that is: as sovereign national communities.Sovereignty would reside in the British state and its self-identification withits people.

The real alternative? England. RealChange in England becomes an exercise of English popular sovereignty, inwhich English people collaborate in working out the forms of government bestsuited to their needs. This process can then be dovetailed with similarprocesses and national conversations that are already much further advanced inthe UK’s politically more self-aware, because self-governing, nations, as wellas with the Real Change and other associated processes as they are rolled outacross Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. From this process, which isclearly an ongoing, evolutionary one, should emerge distinct views on how eachnation wishes to rearrange its constitutional and political affairs. There mayjust be enough consensus on which aspects of national sovereignty and areas ofgovernment to pool together in a new sort of UK; or there may not be. But atleast, such a process will be a truly bottom-up one, in which the nations ofBritain work out for themselves how they wish to be governed.

Sovereignty belongs to the people and tothe nations. We the English people can choose to be a nation in our own rightand in our own name. And we can redesign the way we are governed, so that theEnglish people not an unaccountable British state are in charge.

Now that’s what I call Real Change.