Three Men in a Studio

The Comic Tragedy of British Politics, 2: Can England join the Union?

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
3 May 2015

On Thursday 30 April, a week before the polls close in a general election at once unpredictably close and yet strangely open, the three ‘main party leaders’ appeared on the BBC’s Question Time. They did so one after the other, as the Prime Minister refused to be confronted personally by the competition. It was depressing, it was shocking and it was annoying.

Depressing, because it was a clear regression from the first, or rather only, leaders' debate that kicked off the campaign, where the three women party leaders of Scotland’s SNP government, Plaid Cymru of Wales and the English Greens, plus Ukip’s ‘common man’, brought fresh realities to the studio - and demonstrate that there is the life and desire for a different kind of country than the one shaped and policed by Westminster and its media.

Shocking, because all three men, speaking in the official joint voice of Lib-Lab-Con, declared that the SNP are pariahs, to be treated like medieval lepers, outcasts that can not be touched directly, for they are, all three agreed, like enemies at the gate who seek “the destruction of our country”. In this way what the polls predict will be a majority of all Scotland’s voters were being treated as little better than terrorists with whom one cannot negotiate. What kind of leadership is this? All three men and their parties fought tooth and nail to keep Scotland in a shared country. The same three men in the studio together signed a solomn “vow” promising the Scots “faster, safer and better change than separation”. They thus persuaded them to vote decisively to stay. The Scots stayed as a free people. If this is a threat to Westminster, whose fault is that? 

Annoying, because, well, because of how Miliband joined the anti-SNP-chorus lockstop and barrel. Annoying, I agree, is not a profound political category or high polemical response. Just like marriage, among the most unhelpful things you can say in a dispute is: “I wuz right! I told you so! Didn’t I warn you! And it wasn’t just me who saw it coming! If only you had listened to us…”

Well, reader, I tried very hard to restrain myself. But, however useless, I just can’t.

In the Rochester and Strood by-election Miliband went out of his way to say he felt “respect” for white van Dan who draped two English flags across the front of his house. Yet in the studio he showed no respect for the Scots who are raising their flag. What should he have said when challenged about the possible support by the SNP for his leading a minority government? He should have said, 'Let’s not be afraid of the Scots, they have just voted decisively to stay in the Union, and that when the price of oil was well north of $100 a barrel and has now crashed. They are coming to us, not leaving!'.

The problem for him about saying this is the nervousness felt across the English public and surfacing in focus groups - especially amongst the undecided who are most prone to anxiety. The 'unknown' of Scotland's nationalism makes the English anxious because they have no way of being English to balance any deal with the Scots because the English lack any institutions that can represent their own freedom as a nation. The answer to this is for Labour to call an English convention to give voice to England and let the English work out what institutions they want within the UK.

Why can’t Miliband – or any of them – say this? Because it means appealing directly to the English and that means… democracy: and that means the termination of the ‘Sovereignty of Parliament’ as we have known it. But for goodness sake would that be so terrible? The English just want to be normal. Michael Kenny recently summed up in a clear and measured way what he and others have been saying repeatedly since Labour has been in opposition (not least in the seminars of IPPR, its report on England, The Dog that Finally Barked and its magazine Juncture, which Miliband knows well, journals like Soundings, or Anthony Painter and many others). Kenny says:

The shifting character of an emergent English sense of identity, which has grown in the course of the last quarter century, suggests that the English have a growing desire for their politicians to speak more directly and unequivocally about England and its distinctive interests and worries, but within a wider union framework. Wanting a more Anglicised political conversation and idiom – an inevitable result of system changes that have produced much more self-confident Scottish and Welsh equivalents – does not necessarily signal a turning away from the UK. Nor does it mean that the English have en masse jettisoned the liberal values – of tolerance, fairness and pragmatism – that have for centuries run through their cultural DNA.

Back in September 2013, I argued in a New Statesman essay that alongside his Unionism Ed also needed to “speak for England”, drawing on early analysis of the strategy of then SNP leader Alex Salmond. It was hardly original, even if it was more constitutionally sustained and systematic than arguments long lobbied for within the Labour party, for example by John Denham and Jon Cruddas. Under their pressure Miliband had made a speech saying that Labour members should "speak to" the English. Fine and all very well, but what are they going to actually say, I asked. Blather about sharing ‘English values’, eg tolerance, fairness, pragmatism, as if these are not found elsewhere proved predictably embarrassing, as was saluting Englishness for the spirit of Blitz, as if Cardiff, Glasgow and Belfast has not been battered by the Luftwaffe.

But Miliband and his shadow cabinet spurrned all such advice, fearful of letting the cat out the bag rather than welcoming its energy. They didn't bark. They didn't even wuff. And they will create what they fear, an Englishness deprived of civic expression that cannot but be filled by negativity, resentment and Cameron's shallow instrumentalism.

A late in the day, thoughtful reflection on the UK's national question was published by Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times. He asked, "if the UK can be mortally wounded by a five-week campaign run by a hopelessly unpopular party, is it so robust anyway?". While it is unclear which party he is referring to as "hopelessly unpopular", his conclusion is obviously right: "Unionism must take an interest in England before England loses interest in unionism".

Ganesh grasps a crucial reality: "Unionists pretend otherwise but their cause is itself a kind of nationalism". This is something Nick Cohen has yet to get his head around. In his pre-election Observer column, which is properly scornful of English leftists who attach themselves to other countries' nationalisms while scorning their own, Cohen seems to regard his Britishness as uncontaminated by nationalism, which is presumed to be nothing but divisive and xenophobic. This need not be so, at least for us in our now priviliged continent, thanks to the European Union. The SNP became a tolerant civic force, credible enough to claim to represent all Scotland (however much this is contested), when it embraced membership of the EU and its shared sovereignty: its nationalism ceased to be about leaving and became a claim for another form of joining.

Which is why there is the otherwise baffling sense that the Nationalists are a party of the future while Labour, not to speak of the Tories, is a cause from the past. It is the Scots who are seeking to join the modern world and the English-British who are having problems dealing with it. If Labour wants to keep the nations of the UK together, it has to commit to giving England the institutions and voice that would make possible a positive joint relationship between England and its compatriot nations - with shared membership of the EU as the framework for any such British constitutional settlement.

But no, not even an English national holiday on St George’s Day made it into the Labour manifesto. The result is that Miliband comes across as offering a negative British state conservatism: no to a referendum on Europe, no to working with the Scots, no to the English having their own institutions or representation.

The consequence is all the graver when the energy for self-government is linked to a disenchantment with the Westminster regime evident to one and all. About this, as I said in my previous election column, Labour seems to have nothing new to say to the country as a whole. It seeks improvement, undoubtedly, and more economic democracy, but not the renewal of Britain, especially not post-referendum Britain despite the constitutional revolution contained in the 'Vow' that the Scottish parliament is “permanent” and will have “extensive new powers”.

At a time when everyone can feel the entire political environment is changing, Labour needs to be the party of that change, to generate a sense that it can set a path through which our system can be altered. Instead, Miliband and company have trapped themselves. They now seem to fear the transformation of the British state their own party permitted after 1997, and are failing to attract those who, rightly, hope for more. Even if Miliband's Labour party gains more seats than the Tories, or gets less yet remain the only party that can form a government, it has not won the country when it could have done so. There is an economic aspect to this, that Labour failed to show how the Tories are the problem not the solution to economic growth. But the national-cultural argument for a forward-looking, constitutional democracy is just as important in electoral terms, as it provides the confidence to sustain the economic case. Does the Labour leader not see this? Has he not got the vision to recognise what those around him are pointing towards? If he gains office and then governs without taking off his blinkers it will be much more than annoying.

This article was updated on 4 May

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