The Future of England

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
20 November 2009

Gareth Young invited me to ‘The Future of England’.  A debate that followed the annual general meeting of the Campaign for an English Parliament. In plucky fashion it was held in the House of Commons on the day of the State Opening of Parliament. There were more than a hundred crowded into Committee Room 10. I enjoyed it and came away thinking it would last and grow. Not least because it was not the usual gathering of middle-class disenchanted. They were articulate but not Oxbridge, an assembly that could claim to speak for the regular folk of England because it felt representative in terms of class, ages and gender. The only thing missing: ethnic minorities. But the CEP’s vice-chairman David Wildgoose was emphatic that for the Campaign ‘England is for everyone for whom England is their home and their future”.

The meeting opened with an OK occasional, Paul Kingsnorth, who appealed to everything that England needed, not least pubs which, he reported, are closing down at the rate of 39 a week. England he argued, in his speech, to murmurs of approval, is “a huge open wound at the heart of the devolution settlement” and there was an understandable touch of martyrdom in the room.

He was followed by Peter Facey, director of Unlock Democracy but speaking personally, who declared that he is English though his mother was Manx. But he wanted power devolved to the level of the county, from Kent to Yorkshire, rather than to another parliament. He wanted a federal Britain of some kind with local authorities flying as many flags over their battlements as they could – for we have many (if fluttering) identities. It’s fair to say he left the audience as much puzzled as confused as to whether he agreed with them or not.

Then came George Monbiot brilliant but, as so often, a world unto himself. Joking that “the English will put up with anything except an improvement in their lives” he proposed that the Commons be made the parliament for England and the Lords be replaced by a chamber for UK-wide issues as if Tony Benn (not to speak of anyone else) had never been born. He pointed out that top up fees and foundation hospitals had been pushed through parliament thanks to Scottish and Welsh MPs, while these policies had been rejected in their own countries. He might have added 42 Days would not have been passed in any country in the union; only an unrepresentative British assembly voted to undermine habeas corpus.

The main thrust of Monbiot’s call was “You don’t have to be a nationalist or English to support an English parliament. You just have to be a democrat.” Later, in the discussion, he came under questioning and said that “I want to convince people on the left, my fellow radicals, that it is a progressive issue. Let’s make the good, strong democratic case. What more needs to be said?” He assumed that they “have no strong feeling for England" but "have a strong feeling for democracy”. He also explained that it was easier to support the nationalism of small oppressed nations. But England had in the past been associated with the oppression of others. Even when this was done in the name of Britain, the two had been conflated and really the Empire was an English project. There was much resistance to this, even though it is obvious and was a well made point. The participants seemed to feel that England had always been an underdog nation, and the English deprived of their voice, not a mighty and ruthless state once responsible for atrocities and repression that the English felt was, well, English!

At the start Kingsnorth had aroused a cheer when he denounced the embarrassment of having to sing God Save the Queen as the English national anthem in football matches, and he called for us English to have an anthem of our own. It's not hard to guess the front runner for this honour. Monbiot referred to this when he told the meeting that given his rejection of English nationalism he would not stand and sing Jerusalem at the close of the meeting. The point was made to Monbiot and to Facey, that because England is not represented and suffers the democratic vacuum there surely has to be some identification with England and the English as a nation both spiritual (Facey would agree with that) and institutional, for the thing to work at all.

The campaign's call is for a referendum. Its positioning carefully non-party and cross-party. And as Gerry Hassan has just pointed out in CiF,  England is being left out of the current constitutional flurry - but this can’t last.

I’m not a member of the CEP as yet, but I certainly was not going to pass up the chance to sing Blake’s hymn.

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