Opinions vary on the value and efficacy of the government’s e-petitions initiative. Writing in Our Kingdom at the time of the recent English riots, Anthony Barnett described the e-petitions as “another humiliating gimmick that displays the constitutional backwardness of the UK in the name of ‘popular involvement’”. Barnett recommended that a target of 500,000 signatures, not the present threshold of 100,000, should be set for a petition to oblige Parliament to consider debating its proposals; and that UK citizens should be limited to signing one petition a year, to ensure that this was a question that really mattered to them.
These restrictions would, however, make it extremely difficult for any petition to be successful, as the number of citizens who can be bothered to sign any e-petition must surely represent only a small percentage of the population, and the wide range of topics that really matter to that group would most likely ensure that few if any petitions could garner the 500,000 signatures required. So we would be thrown back on to the exclusive wisdom of a sovereign parliament whose capacity to not engage with popular opinion and sentiment on so many questions is legend.
One such issue is that of an English parliament. Opinion polls over the years have revealed strong popular support for an English parliament, and that the constitutional issue that most concerns English people is the current right of MPs from non-English constituencies to vote on legislation that affects only or mainly England. The most recent poll, conducted for BBC Radio 4 by ComRes, showed that 36% of the English respondents supported the idea of independence for England, “irrespective of the outcome of the Scottish [independence] referendum”, including 47% of respondents from social group C2: the much-maligned English (skilled) working class. This particular finding was largely overlooked in media commentary on the poll, including in a Newsnight show dedicated to looking at the impact of Scottish independence on the rest of the UK. This discussed the poll’s other results but ignored the question about English independence altogether.
This is an all-too typical example of the elision of ‘England’ from the national conversation, a phenomenon which in part accounts for the lack of support that has thus far been garnered by e-petition No. 78 – ‘Creation of an English parliament’ – which, as I write, is languishing in 50th position having gained only 3,665 signatures in nearly three months. At that rate, the petition will fail by a large margin to secure the 100,000 signatures required by the closing date of 4 August 2012, let alone 500,000. The petition reads:
“That England be given within the framework of devolution the same national political institutions as Scotland, including the creation of a Parliament, the office of First Minister, of a Government and a dedicated civil service for all of a united England. At present, England has no purely English national political institutions and thereby suffers from unfair treatment within the UK. The creation or revival of an English Parliament will answer the question 'Who speaks for England?' and should ensure that the interests of all the people of England are given higher priority and greater care. As John Bright famously said: 'England is the Mother of all Parliaments'. It is well time that England regained her own Parliament.”
This relatively modest proposal for English devolution has been starved of publicity in the media and blogosphere, in contrast to petitions on matters such as withdrawing benefits from (London) rioters, disclosing government documents relating to the Hillsborough disaster and restoring capital punishment (or retaining the ban on capital punishment), which either have already crossed the threshold of 100,000 signatures or look likely to do so.
These are all highly popular issues in England, and it would be tempting to conclude that the e-petition system provides an outlet for English people to feel they are being listened to by Parliament on such matters, which mitigates the need for an English parliament to do the same thing. I wonder whether a petition calling, for instance, for English students studying in Scotland to be charged the same level of tuition fees as students from other EU countries, or for non-English MPs to be denied a right to vote on English matters, wouldn’t easily secure the 100,000 signatures required to oblige the UK parliament to consider the proposal in the absence of an English parliament, which would be the surer way to prevent such abuses from happening in the first place.
Ironically, the e-petitions validate the primary authority of Parliament, because it is up to Parliament to decide whether it debates a successful petition and does anything about it, not the people. In this context, I think it might have been better for the English-parliament petition to call for a referendum in England on English devolution, on the basis of fairness towards the English people, who have never been offered any say in the ongoing devolution process. It would be generally perceived as more unreasonable for the UK parliament to deny the English people a referendum on devolution than for it to debate and reject the idea of establishing an English parliament without a plebiscite, which would, after all, involve making itself redundant in its present form.
Despite the flawed e-petitions process, and the flawed English-parliament petition, I would nonetheless urge the readers of Our Kingdom to support it. The petition was launched at the same time as riots were erupting across England’s major cities. These riots and their aftermath are a fitting illustration of the need for national English governance and leadership. Initially, the riots were characterised by the media as a ‘UK’ phenomenon. Eventually, however, the BBC and other England-based UK-national media were forced to refer to them as ‘English’ riots as it became clear the disturbances had not crossed over into Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
And yet, most of the discussion on the social causes of and possible solutions to the violence again elided the England-specific nature of the riots, referring to ‘society’ in the abstract and ‘our country’: the classic trope that enables politicians to gloss over the question of which country they are actually talking about. Indeed, in their speeches on the troubles on 15 August, both David Cameron and Ed Miliband managed to avoid referring to ‘England’ altogether, apart from a passing allusion by Miliband to “English cities”.
For me, this is an outrageous and scandalous, and yet wholly typical, example of the British establishment’s denial of England and evasion of its responsibilities to her. Indeed, if one is looking for an explanation of the riots, you could perhaps do no better than look at British politicians’ systematic repudiation of England as a country in her own right, to the extent of denying her very existence. If the rioters’ criminal acts at least in part expressed a feeling that they have no stake in society, this is objectively true in the sense that no one in England has a stake in England as such, other than the British government, which is England’s 100% shareholder and rules England in the interests of the British profit and loss account, not of her people.
By contrast, an English government would be existentially concerned with the wellbeing of English society as such and with the welfare of her people as the English people, facing problems specific to England, and requiring solutions involving the engagement and support of the English people collectively. English self-government is an essential prerequisite for this. Why, after all, did the riots not spread to Scotland and Wales? Partly, no doubt, because the people in those countries have governments that speak for them and act in their name, and so feel that their countries belong to them.
It is arguable that only a government whose role is to act in the interests of the English nation, not the British economy, can be adequate to the task of addressing the deep social problems that erupted in the riots. Certainly, a British government that cannot even acknowledge the existence of England will never succeed in creating a sense of shared nationhood there, in which all the people feel they hold a stake. And equally as certain, if the actions of English people reaching for the keyboard and mouse, and signing up to an absurd petition demanding benefits be withdrawn from rioters, bore fruit, that would only serve to make further riots more inevitable, not less.
The beginning of the process of creating a nation that the inhabitants of England can feel proud about, and will seek to improve rather than wreck, is a parliament and government for England. And that is why you should support the petition for an English parliament. If the UK parliament will not provide government for England, then we the English people must ask it politely to step aside.