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New Labour and the English Questions

Andy Mycock
16 September 2010

The performance of New Labour in government, its defeat in the general election and the potential legacy of its 13 years in power came under sustained and informed scrutiny at a lively and enlightening Political Quarterly-sponsored event organised by Patrick Diamond and Mike Kenny in London. Although identity politics were not addressed explicitly during the sessions, it proved a pervading theme in a number of panels, speeches and contributions from the floor.

The legacy of Labour’s constitutional reform programme was discussed by a strong panel involving Vernon Bogdanor, Meg Russell, John Curtice and Francesca Krug. The panel agreed that New Labour in government will be most likely be best remembered for their radical re-shaping of the constitutional landscape of the UK  - ironic considering Blair’s lack of empathy or interest in such issues.

Bogdanor noted constitutional reforms merely moderated the power of the executive and fragmented the dominant centralised top-down elitist model of politics, dispersing power to sub-state national and regional elites. Russell argued that there was a (possibly accidental) coherence to the constitutional reform programme in seeking to make government more accountable. John Curtice agreed but he noted that good intentions had a number of unintended consequences that went against Labour.

But the panel only briefly considered the constitutional elephant in the room - the English Question or Questions. It was agreed that, with the rejection of devolution to the English regions, Labour were faced with a constitutional conundrum which they never fully understood or cogently addressed. Curtice noted that there was no thirst for regional assemblies lacking the potential to engender historical or contemporary civic identities akin to the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly.

Neil Kinnock responded forcefully to this point, noting the current constitutional settlement was unstable as it was founded on the preparedness of English tax-payers to continue to support higher levels of public spending in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. There was, he continued, the potential for a political party to exploit this by agitating for further constitutional change – either through the creation of an English parliament or outright independence – by arguing for the exclusive use of English taxes for English public services or even to fund English tax cuts.

Curtice responded by noting that a majority of English people appear to continue to be happy – at present – to be governed by Westminster. This is a point also made by Chris Bryant in a recent paper in a special ‘Politics of Britishness’ edition of Parliamentary Affairs. He notes that survey data often suggests widespread support for an English Parliament when presented as an absolute choice with the current constitutional settlement. But this somewhat dissipates when the option of English Votes for English Laws is also offered. No mainstream Union-wide political party would currently consider ‘going English’ to exploit the electoral potential of English dissatisfaction about national disparities in public spending or the democratic deficits of New Labour devolution settlement.

The only party with a truly UK-wide profile that explicitly argues for an English parliament is UKIP. They propose that an ‘English Westminster MPs would meet monthly to discuss English only issues in an English Parliament’, a partial solution that is unlikely to appease campaigners for an English Parliament and others seeking English independence. UKIP are also hindered by their limited appeal in domestic elections, a problem shared with other fringe parties who support the creation of an English parliament such as the BNP and English Democrats. This suggests it is unlikely that a sustained political party-based campaign for an English parliament will emerge in the immediate future.

In the current climate of cuts and austerity it is unlikely that many English people will seek to incur the expense of an English parliament. But a number of factors could rekindle interest in English Questions. Intra-national tensions concerning disparities in public spending and levels of public services could be exacerbated if the Coalition fails to manage cuts in an equitable manner across the UK. Grievances concerning asymmetries in public spending and service provision across the four nations of the UK are shared by many English Conservative MPs and some sections of the press - with particular ire reserved for Scotland. The Westminster government is already seen by many outside of England as a Conservative government and cracks in the Coalition could encourage the further its Anglicisation.

Failure to articulate such concerns in a temperate manner could have repercussions as the forthcoming national elections in Wales and Scotland and the local elections in England might provide a convenient vehicle for nationalists of all hues to agitate.

The Conservatives appear not yet to have fully grasped the complexities of governing in a post-devolutionary UK state. Tensions are already apparent between Scottish Conservatives and the rump of party based in London. The failure to learn from the experiences of Labour in government could see Scottish Conservatives forced to create a new political identity that de-emphasises links with its English counterpart. The Coalition government in London persistently talks to Britain when it often means England.

Many of the Conservative-inspired radical policy initiatives in areas such as health and education have dealt with predominantly with English matters with some crossover to Wales. Its Big Society rhetoric is also conceived as a largely English Big Society, with programmes such as the National Citizen Service based in England and rejected by the SNP minority government in Scotland. As Gareth Young noted on OD, the Coalition has ducked the English Question of constitutional reform by establishing a commission on the ‘West Lothian’ question. Political pressure may however necessitate that this commission formulates a substantial response sooner rather later.

It is likely that future students of British constitutional and identity politics will consider the growth in expression of English nationalism as one of the most important unintended consequences of New Labour’s reform. But there was some divergence at the Political Quarterly event regarding the political importance at present of debates on English national identity. Curtice reiterated his view that growth in ascription to an English national identity has not yet translated in sustained calls for political reform – though the dog is now growling, it has not yet barked.  

However, in his keynote address, John Denham argued that the growth in English national consciousness meant that Labour needed to be more ‘English’ to address the concerns of those communities who feel their identities have been compromised by a period of significant social and cultural transition. He suggested that Labour should develop policies that foster a sense of civic nationalism akin to that promoted by the SNP in Scotland which acknowledges of the plurality of English society.

This is not new political territory for Denham; he spoke in June of the need for Labour to adopt ‘a strong national and progressive case for England’. In searching for answers to their election defeat, other leading Labour luminaries have also finally engaged with such English questions. David Miliband has argued that ‘Labour needs a revived politics of Englishness rooted in a radical and democratic account of nationhood’. Jon Cruddas has urged Labour to ‘to engage with the electorate and fashion its own cultural language of Englishness’.

All argue that Labour need to build a narrative founded on the strength of English civic pride founded on local and national institutions and organisations. This is presented in a largely unproblematic manner that fails to acknowledge that the existence of local civic frameworks often highlights differences as much as commonalities.

It remains unclear how these cohere into a common sense of English national identity without the creation of a national institution or other umbrella organisation. There is a danger that such an identity is so fragmented that it is danger of encompassing everything and nothing. Moreover, if civic localism had the potential to sate demands for English civic nationalism then it would surely have already done so.

In closing his address, Denham urged Labour to become more ‘national’ without acknowledging that this can be understood within British and English contexts. But his promotion of Englishness also overlooks differences in the national civic frameworks of England and Scotland. The separateness and distinctiveness of many political, social and cultural institutions in Scotland after the Union of 1707 provided a substantial framework to articulate a Scottish civic nationalist narrative that many Scots have readily identified with.

The conflation of Englishness and Britishness over the same period has clearly hindered the development of a similarly distinctive English civic nationalism. Labour failed to come to terms with this conundrum whilst in power and, it would appear, continue to do so in opposition. Proposals for an English parliament were consistently rejected by Labour during their programme of constitutional reform – even after the failure of their regional devolution programme in England. In opposition, Miliband recently rejected an English parliament without elaborating on what grounds. But Jon Cruddas has rightly called for debate on the idea of the English parliament and how it would link with its local, regional and UK counterparts.

He has also spoken of the need for Labour to adopt a language that encompasses both cosmopolitan modernity and English conservative culture to create a sense of national purpose. Such calls are founded in concerns about the loss of working-class voters in England, immigration, the breakdown of community identities, and the threat of far-right extremism in east London and elsewhere.

Calls to embrace cultural Englishness raise more English Questions that need to be answered sensitively. Emphasis on the cultural plurality of Englishness is key. But Labour should be conscious that conservative English culture can sometimes draw on narratives that promote an organic identity underpinned by a sense of loss which has ethnic and racial undertones. Calls for cultural Englishness should also be tempered by recognition of the lack of surety that many people have in celebrating events such as St George’s Day. A recent study undertaken of staff and students at the University of Huddersfield this year highlighted that a growing number of people sought to celebrate their Englishness. But many respondents said they were happy for the state at local and national levels to organise official events that provided some guidance in how to mark such English moments.

Top-down solutions could however provoke those very disaffected Labour voters in Middle England and Barking they seek to appease. In articulating an inclusive English identity, Labour need to careful in considering how civic and cultural dynamics connect and cohere.

The Anglicising of Labour could also have implications for the party in other parts of Britain. Devolution has ensured that Scottish and Welsh Labour have been drawn more closely to their own national roots. This presents new tensions in how we understand a British identity and British Labour party. The overt articulation of an English party could however place those in Wales and Scotland under new pressures. Both Plaid Cymru and the SNP are sensitive to accusations of Anglophobia and were careful to couch their criticisms of the Labour government in coded terms. Both the Blair and Brown governments were therefore described as ‘London’ or ‘Westminster’ Labour. Now out of power, the promotion of a new Englishness could create new problems for Scottish and Welsh Labour. Nationalist opponents seeking new avenues to stimulate momentum for independence will surely attempt to make political capital if ‘English Labour’ is not sensitive to issues in Wales and Scotland.

The failure of Labour to articulate a clear and coherent of vision of a post-reform UK state and how it would function was a major shortcoming not identified by the Political Quarterly panel. Gordon Brown’s version of Britishness, founded on social, cultural and political institutions, practices and values, differed little from the civic nationalism articulated by many other states. But its rejection by many people across the UK was indicative of his inability to incorporate on-going constitutional reform within his Britishness narrative. This, in part, was due to a lack of surety as to the precise nature and outcomes of such reform.

An uncertain and sceptical British public rightly questioned Brown’s version of Britishness as Labour faltered in their reform of the UK state. This noted, although David Cameron was quick to deride Brown, the Conservative view of British civic nationalism draws on the same institutions and values though with greater emphasis on ‘forgotten institutions’ such as the monarchy and armed forces. They will face similar difficulties in tying UK citizenship to a British civic national identity unless they can provide such coherent vision of a post-reform British state.

Denham, Miliband, Cruddas and others in the British Labour movement are now beginning to address existing and new English Questions. But there is uncertainty as to how best address such questions. Labour must use its period in opposition to consider the electoral implications of their incomplete programme of constitutional reform. They must also be prepared to design and articulate a coherent vision of a how a post-reform UK state will cohere and function.

Labour cannot continue to casually discard or overlook the thorny issue of an English parliament. Furthermore it must also answer pressing ‘Labour Questions’ such as how does ‘English Labour’ mesh with its Scottish and Welsh counterparts. There is a need for the new leader to define a new British Labour party identity that embraces its multi-nationality but also clearly distinguishes between British and English policy aspirations. This means not only addressing English Questions but also their implications for an increasing federalised UK state and party. It promises to be an interesting journey.

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