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Home Rule for England – St George’s day 2010

What are the agendas, ghosts and demons lurking behind the call for an English Parliament?

I have just seen Jerusalem, the hit play that takes place on St George’s day in Wiltshire. It summons up the spirits of England to return to the aid of a forsaken land of suburbia and regulation. It got a standing ovation. It’s Dionysian central character, an outsider living on the inside of a lost identity. Its wonderful assortment of the young. Its broken, rural self-confidence. Its rendition of the slavishly imported yet at the same time ‘up yours’ defiance of life here. It’s confident use of Shakespearian violence.  All suggested it is a play for an epoch – with a future energy just being released.

On this St George’s day, Our Kingdom carries a statement from Mark Perryman in praise of modern England and a marvelous projection of the Cross of St George onto the Houses of Parliament by Power2010, who are now encouraging people to ask their candidates for their views on ‘the English Question’, so far unaddressed in this election - you can ask yours here.

Look at the two words under the projected image: Home Rule.

The call for an English parliament seems unexceptional. I support it and want the idea to be put to a referendum. But it has an odd feeling about it. It looks simple but it isn’t, what are the agendas and ghosts and demons lurking in it? 

Why is this? Why can’t the English just roll out what the Scots did with their parliament, what’s so odd or wrong about that?

A number of things. The English parliament was and is the Houses of  Commons and the Lords.

Nor are there national institutions like the Scottish Church and Trade Union movement that can help convene a national convention. Like our parliament itself, the English equivalents are also British. They are the object and can’t be the subject of the process of federalism (or is it independence).

There is something else. It’s a bit late in the day for parliaments. What the public wants now is government. They no longer believe in parliaments and debating chambers and MPs. What the English public feels, mostly at the edge of its mind, is that it is unfair is that the Scots have a government which speaks up for their interests in the UK and Europe and we English don’t. So the issue is not so much a 'debating chamber' as an executive - a leader if you will to speak out for us, like Boris Johnson (who I once tabbed as the first Prime Minister of England)  or Ken Livingston.

But if the meaning of an English parliament is to have an English First Minister, or it is nothing, this must change the nature of Britain. It can’t be simply added to or subtracted from the existing Anglo-British administration. So the challenge of an English parliament is awkward not reasonable - and that’s before we discuss what it means in terms of Europe.

So I think the use of the term Home Rule is inspired. It has always been a demand made by other countries against rule by Westminster. It summons up the notion (did Tony Benn say it first?) that England is the last colony of the British Empire. It steps around an abstract debate on federalism. Above all, it calls for self-government in a way anyone can understand and not a chamber of blather.

"Home Rule for England". Now it’s been said it’s bound to happen.

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness


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