The Labour leader's attempt to open a conversation on Englishness should be welcomed. But it stops short of real engagement, while its cack-handed clumsiness tell us much about the party and Miliband as a leader.
This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.
In 2009 when Ed Miliband was better known as a policy wonk than as a potential prime minister, I submitted a proposal to his 'Labour Space' website entitled 'A National Conversation for England'. It was a straight forward appeal for Labour to recognise the sovereign right of the people of England and seek our say in determining the future of England:
‘A National Conversation for England’ is a campaign that urges people to engage positively in discussion on the question of England: our national identity, our democracy, our governance, our future. We call for a government consultation of, and for, the people of England, so that we - the people - can determine the form of government best suited to our needs.
Despite being the number one campaign for a number of weeks, Ed Miliband chose to ignore 'A National Conversation on England', whilst responding to campaigns that were not as well supported (The Whizz-Kidz Wheelchair Services Revamp Campaign, Re-Nationalise Railways, Britain goes Fairtrade, Save Our Bees, etc.). Until, that is, he was cornered in a live debate, whereupon he side-stepped the question (For the record, Miliband's eventual Labour Space response is recorded here).
In light of the Labour Party's traditional dismissive contempt for Englishness, not to mention Ed Miliband's personal discomfort (remember that this is a man who does not even know the date of St George's Day), Miliband's speech should be cautiously welcomed. Under the Blue Labour tutelage of Jon Cruddas, John Denham and Maurice Glasman, Miliband has attempted to grasp the nettle of English nationalism without crushing the rose of English patriotism. It's a very clumsy, cack-handed attempt that tells us more about Miliband and Labour's own anxieties than anything else, but if it is a first tentative and faltering step towards proper consideration of English national identity and positioning the politics of Englishness in the mainstream political arena, it should be welcomed and applauded. But, of course, there is plenty to criticise and be sceptical about.
Miliband recognises that "the Labour Party have been too reluctant to talk about England in recent years" but he does not adequately explain why this has been the case and nor does he apologise for it (John Denham has previously attributed it to Labour's preoccupation with Scottish nationalism). He says that Labour have "rightly applauded the expression of Scottish identity within the United Kingdom" but notes that "for too long people" - presumably people other than him - "have believed that to express English identity is to undermine the United Kingdom".
Miliband stresses the plurality of British identity and tells us that it is OK to be simultaneously proud of being English and British (does anyone seriously say otherwise?). And he admonishes Alex Salmond for making the Scots choose between their Scottish and British identities, the contentious implication being that if the Scots vote for independence they will no longer be British. And here I think Miliband has dropped a clanger. If you are no longer British because you opt out of Westminster rule, then Britishness is a purely political rather than cultural identity; an admission that Britishness requires institutional expression to survive. Interestingly this is a view shared by Prof Vernon Bogdanor who says that "to be British is to wish to be represented at Westminster".
By contrast Miliband does not believe that English national identity requires the same institutional expression as Britishness (or indeed 'Welshness' or 'Scottishness') because he rules out an English parliament in paternalistic fashion:
There are some people who say that this English identity should be reflected in new institutions. But I don't detect a longing for more politicians. For me, it's not about an English Parliament or an English Assembly. The English people don't yearn for simplistic constitutional symmetry. Our minds don't work in spreadsheets, just like our streets don't follow grids.
Leaving aside the oft repeated lie about an English parliament resulting in more politicians, Miliband's grave error is in failing to understand that it is the people of England, and not Ed Miliband, who should decide these things. Sadly he's no nearer to supporting a National Conversation for England than he was in 2009. Tell us Ed, why won't you consult the people of England on how England should be governed? As Niki Seth-Smith correctly points out this speech is an enabler for the Labour Party, a rally cry to the troops to help vanish the stain of anglophobia left by the Blair and Brown governments.
What this speech certainly did not do was open a discussion with the English public (it stopped short even of addressing them). The clue is in the 'we'. “We should embrace a positive, outward looking version of English identity”, “We should also proudly talk the language of patriotism”. This was ultimately a message from the leader to his party, the majority of whom run scared of English identity for fear that its expression will lead inexorably to the dissolution of the Union and a 'forever Tory' isolated England.
Labour have good reason to adopt a more conciliatory approach to England. Quite simply they need English votes to govern England, a task that will be made more difficult for them if their legions of Scottish and Welsh lobby fodder are banned from voting on English legislation - a solution that becomes ever more likely as Scotland and Wales gain ever more devolved powers. In order to make a more convincing case against 'English Votes on English Laws' Labour need to speak to the English with a patriotic English voice, to make the case that it is in English interests to tolerate the democratic asymmetry of the United Kingdom so long as our representatives in the British Parliament are proud and patriotic about England and can be trusted to safeguard the English national interest. It's unlikely that many English people will be fooled by this Damascene conversion, but for the sake of the Union Miliband has to try it because a resentful England chock full of Jeremy Clarksons won't help the Unionist cause or Miliband's chances of governing.
Miliband's preferred method of "best reflecting devolution" to Scotland and Wales "lies in taking power out of Whitehall and devolving it down to local authorities" in England. Previous top-down attempts at delivering devolution to England (regional assemblies and city mayors) have been rejected, and rightly so if reflection was the desired aim. Power was devolved to Scotland and Wales on the basis of nationhood, and if that is to be reflected in England then the process of devolution here must at the very least begin with a recognition of English nationhood: It is the people of England - the nation - who should decide. In terms of outcomes, a true reflection of Scottish and Welsh devolution would answer the West Lothian Question, so Miliband better hope that the English people don't yearn for simplistic constitutional symmetry because an English parliament is the only logical answer to the West Lothian Question. It may well be the case that the English are prepared to live with asymmetry for the sake of the Union and reject a national parliament to call their own, but Ed Miliband won't win the battle for English hearts and minds or save the Union by precluding that option.