Readers may be sadly familiar with the TV ad for Country Life butter, in which former punk rocker John Lydon – aka Johnny Rotten – struts around a rolling, green, English hill farm extolling the benefits of the product, concluding with the words: “it’s not about Great Britain, it’s about great butter!”
The advert uses the classic advertising technique of appearing to deny or ironise what is in fact the key selling point: Country Life’s ‘Britishness’. Maybe the advertising agency felt they needed to make a joke of it because the recent re-branding of Country Life from an ‘English butter’ to its present incarnation as a ‘British butter’, complete with Union Jack symbol on the packet replacing the former Cross of St. George, didn’t in fact go down well with customers. The ad is an appeal to those former loyal customers to return to the brand, whose Britishness is both sent up and celebrated by the symbol of 70’s working-class English ‘anarchy’ aping the aristocratic demeanour of a British imperialist: ‘we don’t have to make a fuss about the superiority of products “made in England”, do we now; we’re British, after all’.
Well, I don’t buy it. Indeed I do all I can to avoid buying English produce on whose packaging the supermarkets seem to go to such trouble to stick great big Union Flag signs and stickers: apples from Kent (‘British’); pork from East Anglia (‘British’); cheese from the West Country (‘British’) while somehow, the Welsh cheddar or the Scottish salmon seem to escape the British branding, and are clearly identified – flags and all – as Welsh and Scottish.
All of this might seem petty – it’s not about Great Britain, it’s about great food, isn’t it? – but I keep up my embargo because I object to the re-branding of England itself as Britain, sanctioned by and aped from the British establishment, of which food labelling is an apparently trivial but nonetheless ubiquitous manifestation. Our peculiar Euro-American establishment would have us English plebs need to rise above petty preoccupations with ‘national’ interest and symbolism. But below this is a fear that Englishness will become a generous, multi-racial expression of genuine national identity that pulls the rug under their global pretensions, from Afghanistan and Trident (no two-party politics on either of these) to the UN and the City.
But there are three issues we should wake up to, all of which have a big impact on our democracy and which we can do a little thing about thanks to the excellent Power 2010 initiative. They are issues of policy, of principle and voice.
Policy: Top-up university tuition fees (for English students only); foundation hospitals (England only); the maintenance of the Barnett differentials (to England’s detriment); Heathrow’s third runway; 42 days detention without trial; these are all measures that went through parliament despite the fact that a majority of English MPs voted against them.
Principle: But over and above these particular issues, there is a very important universal democratic issue at stake: no representative should pass laws affecting areas other than those that (s)he was elected to represent. What’s wrong about Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs voting on English legislation is that the people those laws affect can’t vote them out of office. That’s just plain undemocratic.
Voice: We all know that there is a void opening up in our so-called democracy between the public who do not feel represented and our political class. The heart of this problem is in England, and it is exacerbated by the Welsh and the Scottish gaining their own governments. There has to be some kind of way for the English to be represented.
That’s why I’m very concerned that the proposal for English Votes on English Laws (EVoEL) has now dropped out of the top-five ideas in the Power 2010 poll, meaning that it may not be one of the reform suggestions that candidates at the election will be asked to support. It was overtaken yesterday by the proposal for an elected second chamber, after an organised campaign from Unlock Democracy which seems, ironically, to have been motivated by a fear of democracy.
I have no problem with the idea of an elected second chamber. I voted for PR, rolling back the database state and fixed-term parliaments. I also think that EVoEL is a messy compromise ‘solution’ to the English Question: stopping short of democratic parity for England and beset with problems about how to implement it. But, to mix metaphors, it puts the elephant in the room on the agenda. If we want democracy in the United Kingdom we have to take the debate about the national question to the people.
All the other suggestions in the Power 2010 poll concern how to improve British democracy. But without at the same time addressing the English Question, the ideas of introducing PR, an elected second chamber or even a written (British) constitution are like putting the cart before the horse. What use is there in improving the electoral system and the functioning of British-parliamentary democracy if representatives not elected – under any voting system or for either house of parliament – by the English can still decide laws for the English which do not apply to them as they are not English?
Indeed, an elected second chamber would potentially make the disenfranchisement of English voters even worse, as Gareth Young states in his post on Our Kingdom earlier today. What chance is there of English votes prevailing in exclusively English matters if both the Commons and the second house have British majorities and mandates, and refuse to recognise any distinctly ‘English’ aspect to British governance?
This is why it is so important to vote for EVoEL in the Power 2010 poll, if you haven’t done so already. You can’t fix Britain’s broken politics if the system remains fixed against England. The democratic rights of the majority cannot be overridden indefinitely; and the longer they are, the greater will be the erosion in people’s faith in British democratic institutions and the further the cancer of unaccountable power will spread throughout the British body politic, possibly leading to its demise.
So we’re talking about something far more serious than bread and butter here. We must act now and not let Britain as a whole become a latter-day Rotten borough, with its democratic system – however improved – manipulated to engineer a permanent Union veto on democratic English governance.
And this ‘English matter’ should matter to you whether you are, or consider yourself to be, English or not – because, ultimately, it’s not just about England but about the future of British democracy too. That’s why however unsatisfactory it sounds, it is essential to put the issue on the wider public agenda as Power 2010 offers: vote for EVoEL.