On the day after the Conservatives published a draft manifesto for the English NHS that failed to mention ‘England’ a single time, I thought it would be fitting to publish an article of mine that was originally accepted for inclusion in the ‘Platform’ section of the ConservativeHome blog back in November of last year. However, they subsequently got cold feet and decided not to publish.
The rejection of the article, coupled with the Conservatives’ refusal to accurately present their English-NHS policies as limited to England, doesn’t make me optimistic that the election campaign will be marked by honesty over English matters. Here’s the article:
It has been said by some – and I would tend to agree – that the biggest threat to the continuation of the Union is likely to come from England, not Scotland. There is a groundswell of feeling and opinion throughout England that our present constitutional and political arrangements have left England in both a democratic and financial deficit; and it is arguable that the wave of disaffection with Parliament and our political system that broke in May and June of this year was primarily an expression of English alienation and disenchantment with the status quo. At the very least, the UK-wide eruption of disgust at MPs’ perceived corruption was more acute in England, which does not have a parliament of its own, thereby exacerbating the feeling that the political class has become unaccountable to the public.
There are now many people in England who secretly or not so secretly wish that the Scots will get their independence referendum and will vote to leave the UK. Indeed, if the English were offered a referendum on independence for England, it would not be surprising if the percentage in favour exceeded the 29% of Scots who reportedly back independence for Scotland at present.
Arguably, in any case, all UK citizens should be allowed to participate in any definitive independence referendum for Scotland, as opposed to the SNP’s proposed consultative referendum asking for a mandate for the Scottish government to negotiate an independence settlement with the UK government. This is because Scotland cannot technically vote to ‘leave’ the Union. The effect of a vote in favour of Scottish independence would actually be to dissolve the Union: Great Britain would cease to exist, as this entity is the product of a union between two nations (Wales being subsumed within England at the time); and if one of those nations decides to go, that breaks up the union. In other words, Great Britain is the name of a marriage; and when a divorce arises, there is no more Great Britain – just separate entities known as England (and Wales) and Scotland.
So part of any deal for Scottish independence would have to be a new constitutional settlement for the residual nations of the UK to form, for instance, a new ‘United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’. And it would only be right and proper that the prospective citizens of the new state should be asked whether they wanted to be part of it. So perhaps you’d need two referendums, in fact: one for the Scots about their national future; and one for the rest of the UK.
This is, of course, a scenario that traditional unionist Conservatives would like to avoid at all costs. But you can’t deal with English disaffection with asymmetric devolution and with the lack of a representative parliament for England by denying English-national feeling and identity, as the Labour government has tried to do. New Labour has tried to manipulate English people’s traditional patriotic identification of England with Great Britain – the two often being interchangeable in English people’s hearts and minds – to engineer a ‘New Britain’ that denies the existence of a distinct English nation altogether: a Britain / UK that no longer comprises England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but is viewed as Britain + the devolved nations – Gordon Brown’s ‘Britain of nations and regions [formerly known as England]’.
Whilst this new British-nation building has arguably mediated a profound Anglophobia at the heart of the liberal establishment, it has also been a reaction by the Westminster establishment as a whole to the traumatic shock to the 300-year-old Union that was delivered by an ill-thought-through devolution settlement. The fear was that a new English nationalism would build up in parallel to the growing national consciousness and self-confidence of the Scots and the Welsh; and that the English would start to demand their own parliament and national institutions that could rip open the Union from within.
Instead of acknowledging that it was an inevitable consequence of devolution that the English would start to become more aware of themselves as a distinct nation, and would consequently start to demand English civic institutions like those of the other British nations, the approach has been virtually to deny that England even exists, which – politically and constitutionally speaking – it in fact doesn’t. In this way, the Union parliament can be presented as a perfectly adequate representative democratic body for England because there is no England, only the UK. As Tony Blair’s first Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine memorably put it, “The way to deal with the West Lothian Question is not to ask it”.
Given the Conservative Party’s profound attachment to the Union, it would be understandable if a Tory government were to continue along this path of denying any distinctly English dimension to national politics and constitutional affairs. Clearly, this is the case not only because of the perceived threat of a growing English nationalism but because the Conservatives are desperate, for electoral purposes, not to be perceived by Scots as an English party – which they mainly in fact are. But to replicate New Labour’s actions and attitudes in relation to England would not only be unjust but would also be alien to Conservative tradition and counter-productive to the aim of preserving the Union. Traditionally, that is, the Conservatives have been adept at balancing the competing English and British identities and patriotisms of the English people: channelling English national pride into a One Nation Britishness that yet did not deny Englishness.
If, on the other hand, the response of a forthcoming Conservative government to the contrary challenges of English and Scottish nationalism is, like New Labour, to make it unacceptable to publicly articulate pride in Englishness, then this will in turn be unacceptable to the English public in the long run. The Union cannot be sustainable if its largest constituent part has to deny its own identity and democratic aspirations indefinitely while allowing its other parts to affirm their own – indeed, in order to allow the other nations to affirm their distinct identities, requiring England in a sense to become the Union by itself: the place of Britishness from which only the other nations are allowed to differentiate themselves; whereas if England becomes merely England, not Britain, then there is no more Union, just four distinct nations.
So what are the alternatives? Well, Ken Clarke’s answer to the West Lothian Question, which has been dubbed ‘English pauses for English clauses’, manages to avoid really asking the question, too. While it makes it possible for English MPs to amend England-only clauses of bills at the committee stage, Clarke’s recommendation still leaves the structural West Lothian anomaly in place: bills affecting England only or mainly can still be put forward by an executive comprising MPs from across the UK’s nations, and still need to be passed by a parliamentary majority made up of MPs from all four countries. In any case, such a procedural titivation is hardly likely to stem the growing tide of public dissatisfaction with the workings and representative character of Parliament in general, let alone the aspirations towards English self-government.
It seems to me, then, that if the Conservative Party genuinely seeks to preserve the Union as a true, undivided Union of equal nations, then it will have to seek a way to allow a distinct and healthy English-national politics and civic life to develop and prosper, even if this is within the broad confines of the existing Union structures. This may in fact be a last-ditch chance to save the Union as we know it from the alternatives of a federal UK of four nations or a total break-up of the UK into its component parts.
Quite what shape the new English politics would take once the English genius is let out of the asphyxiating British lamp is not something that can easily be foreseen. But it seems to me that the Conservative Party is the natural party to guide and steer this process, precisely because of its deep roots in English society and traditions, and the naturally conservative (small ‘c’) character of the English people.
To begin with, the Party could start honestly referring to its England-specific policies and, in government, laws as English, rather than maintaining the present pretence that its policies in areas such as education, health or policing relate to the whole of the UK. In their manifesto at the general election, the Conservatives should reserve a dedicated section to their policies for England, which in fact will make up the majority of their legislative activity in government, given the very many policy areas in which UK governments now have competency for England only. This would be a hugely refreshing change and would demonstrate to people in England, including those that might otherwise be tempted to vote for more nationalist alternatives, that the Conservative Party is mindful of the specific social and economic concerns and needs of English people alongside its responsibilities to the whole of the UK in areas such as the economy or national security.
Such a degree of honesty about England-specific policies need not provoke a cry of indignation from the nationalists and Labour alike that the Conservatives are putting the needs and priorities of English people above those of Scotland and Wales. On the contrary, many people in those countries would also find it refreshing that national-UK politicians were finally accepting the post-devolution realities and not talking about England-specific matters as if they were relevant to them, too. This sort of honesty would be in stark contrast to the behaviour of Labour, in particular, which is clearly seeking to bolster its traditional support in Scotland and Wales based on an appeal to its traditional policies on the NHS and education for which Westminster governments are no longer responsible in those countries.
The Tory response to Labour’s gerrymandering manipulation of the West Lothian Question should not be to deny the validity of the question but to show up Labour’s deceit for what it is. The Conservatives can present themselves as a government for Scotland and Wales; but they can’t do so by denying that, in many ways, Westminster administrations are now governments for England alone. There are English matters and there are UK matters, and the way to restore the trust of the public is to recognise the difference and present strong policies in both departments.
The Union is presently under a greater threat than at any previous time in its history, other than in times of war. But the way to respond to this threat is not to deny the identity and democratic aspirations of the largest nation within the Union. New Labour has tried to craft a soulless Britain without England. The challenge for the incoming Conservative government will be to shape a great Britain that still has England at, and in, its heart.