Time to think of England

This week it was St George’s Day, a time when we in England reflect on what it is to be English – a few of us do anyway, especially when St George himself was so un-English. There was also a small flair in the ongoing campaigning over Scottish independence, when the British government poured cold water on the idea of a currency union between an independent Scotland and the what is left of the UK (which would no longer be a united kingdom…). As I have written before, it is a conceit that there is a Scottish problem for the UK. The issue with Scotland is just an aspect of the English problem. England so dominates the union that governance of England and governance of the UK get confused. We need to look at remaking the constitutional arrangements for the whole UK if Scotland, as expected, decides to stay in the union at their referendum next year. But how?

At this point it is all to easy to craft elegant new constitutional solutions to solve the problem. Alas, that is not how the British constitution works. We are deeply conservative. Any proposed change throws up a series of opponents, who are able to stoke up fear of change. The AV referendum in 2011 was a very painful experience for people who thought that sensible constitutional reform, or even sensible debate about reform, was an easy matter. So where does that get us?

First there must be a crisis. Most people must think that the current situation is intolerable. The crisis is presented by the Scots. Of course, if they vote to stay in the union, most English politicians will want to think that it is an end to matter, and we can go on as before. I don’t think many Scots think this, though. Even holding the referendum is a shocking event, showing that consent for the current British constitution is breaking down. Most think that if they lose the referendum, the Scottish National Party (SNP) will respond by pressing for “Devo-Max”, which will then look like a sensible middle way. Devo-Max implies a much greater level of devolution to the Scottish Parliament, leaving the UK responsible for just defence and foreign affairs in some readings, like Gibraltar, perhaps. Why, then should Scottish MPs have so much say in who governs England? This question is an irritant now, but it would become a much bigger deal. We need to head this problem off with a new constitutional settlement for the whole of the UK.

Second, messing with the sacred sovereignty of the House of Commons is to be avoided. To some people, including me, this is pompous twaddle. A parliament’s fitness for purpose is not derived from history, but from what it actually does. The people should be sovereign. But the sheer weight of traditions and interests that centre on the Commons is not to be trifled with. This body needs to rule all of the UK. Restricting its scope to England, for example, and having a new Federal Assembly is going to get nowhere.  And after the AV fiasco, changing the electoral system is off the agenda too.

And thirdly, there needs to be something for everybody in any new settlement. Each of the three main British political parties, and their backers should see at least some benefits, to weigh against inevitable threats. There will not be a consensus, but any new proposal must have broad support from a cross a wide spectrum.

And so to the English problem. In order to balance out devolution to Scotland (and to Wales and Northern Ireland) there must be an equivalent devolution to England. To many the sensible thing to do would be to establish English regional governments, of the same sort of size as Scotland, to give an overall shape resembling Spain or Germany. Elegant an idea as this may look, though, it has no legs. Local traditions in England have been so hollowed out over the centuries, unlike in Germany or Spain, that there is little in the way of tradition to build on. The English administrative regions, used for things like elections to the European Parliament are mostly named after points of the compass. London and Yorkshire, may be viable, but it ends there. Either identities are too diverse (the Celtic Cornwall compared to the Saxon Devon, for example) or else there is very little identity at all (where does Northampton belong to?). Constitutional change is hard: this is too hard.

Which leaves us with an English Assembly. I used to dismiss this as a nonsense, but it is growing on me. This should have equivalent power to the Scottish Parliament, whatever those are. That means an English First Minister and cabinet, control of education and the NHS, and, surely, over large chunks of tax. The bold, but necessary, step is to say that the capital of England should not be in London. Having it in the same city as the UK capital will make its identity and authority harder to establish, especially since London has its own mayor, making the  layer of government very crowded. Moving the UK Parliament and the paraphernalia of government out of London is too much as well. Besides there is a real grievance in much of England that too much of the establishment is based in London. Where? Geography points to Birmingham or Coventry; others may have better ideas. An old and grand but under-utilised Victorian classical building would be good to use as a base. Building a brand new building is asking for trouble. Like the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, it should be elected under proportional representation (PR).

So what would be left in London? The House of Commons would stay, but needs to be shrunk. It probably doesn’t need more than a couple of hundred MPs, but no doubt a compromise of 400 or so would have to be settled on. It is difficult to get turkeys to vote for Christmas. The House of Lords should be reformed too, though it is tempting to let it collapse under its own absurdity after last year’s reform fiasco. The UK cabinet would be shrunk. The Treasury, Foreign Office and Defence would stay much as is, as would much of the Department of Energy and Climate Change. But others would need to be shrunk down.

So how to sell it? To those in the north of England or Midlands, breaking the Whitehall stranglehold would be an advantage. Frankly this is a big attraction to me, even in London. Even under PR, the Conservatives would have a good stab at dominating the English government. Both they and Labour would benefit from PR giving them a political base in large swathes of the country where they are in danger of extinction – as PR has saved the Tories in Scotland and Wales. The Lib Dems would benefit from PR too, though they might lose out badly in the bigger and redrawn constituencies for the House of Commons. This losing out of the Lib Dems might be an attraction to both Labour and Conservatives, though – they might feel that they have a better shot at an overall majority for the UK if minor parties would struggle in the larger constituencies. Such are the sorts of calculations upon which British politics turn.

Food for thought, anyway. The next step, though, is to start talking up the idea of a UK Constitutional Convention if the Scots vote to stay in the union. The idea of an English assembly does have opinion poll support, though no doubt iti s very soft. But in small steps the idea can grow momentum.

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19 thoughts on “Time to think of England”

  1. Would it not be easier for the Commons to revert to its original purpose: an English parliament. The Lords chamber could then be elected as a federal British parliament or it could be used as a second, revising, English chamber.

    I have no objections to an English parliament in the North of England but it would seem more sensible for the British parliament to be located equidistant between the four national capitals: Edinburgh, Belfast, Cardiff and London. This would make Liverpool a good bet. It has an airport, a fantastic waterfront building, it’s known the world over and it’s a city in decline that could do with the inward investment.

    1. Your proposal has the merit of being sensible and logical. The trouble is that it is too big a change to the status quo for it not to squashed by the forces of conservatism before it gets implemented. It involves the creation of a new, federal level of government, which will take up the most prestigous jobs in the British politics. This body will not have the legacy of tradition that is associated with the House of Commons in the ancient capital. And imagine the panic of the political class of the prospect of the most prestigious jobs being migrated to Liverpool! You and I might feel that’s a jolly good thing, but without the support of a large chunk of the politcal class, nothing is going to happen. For all the bad odour in which this class is in from the general public, when it comes to the crunch they seem to be able to rally people to their cause. Look at what happened to the AV referendum.

      Instead my idea is to try to cut the Westminster elite back a bit, rather than dislocate them entirely, while creating a new English government, which might be a Trojan horse for more modern and sensible thinking (though that is rather optimistic…).

      1. You’re probably correct that I am being overly optimistic. My preferred arrangement would be a British confederation (possibly including Ireland) but something that radical would not ever be considered unless, first, one of the nations votes for independence. I suspect that the Union has to be broken in order for the Union to be satisfactorily reformed.

        Hopefully UKIP will do to Labour in the North of England and the Tories in the South what the SNP did to Labour in Scotland. They’ll all be keener on reform once their little duopoly on power is undermined.

  2. PS The examples of Spain and Germany’s regions are poor examples because Spain and Germany also have national parliaments and governments. England doesn’t have its own parliament and government so many people see regions as a ‘balkanisation’ of England under British (and EU) control.

    It would be possible to introduce Regional Grand Committees into a new English parliament to provide a regional dimension. The beauty of that system is that the regions need not be set in stone and another layer of government would not be required.

    1. Yes, the more I think about it, the less I like the idea of regional English governments. Though to take the Spanish example you could say that Catalonia takes the place of Scotland, and the Basque country that of Wales. Both of these have separate, non-Spanish identities, while all the other regions are clearly Spanish. There is no need for a separate Spanish government without Catalonia and the Basques, though. This creates a different tension, though. Catalonia might feel it is being treated as a mere region, rather than a nation.

      1. The history of Spain is rather different to that of England, whose borders have practically been as they are now for a 1000 years. We also haven’t had to suffer invasion or fascism. And, also, I believe that the right to self-determination is enshrined in the Spanish constitution which also puts a different perspective on the debate.

        Also Scotland doesn’t have the same relationship with England as Catalonia has with Spain. Sure, there was a Union of Crowns but essentially Catalonia became a province of Spain rather than a partner in Union. To put it in simple terms: The Spanish think of Catalonia as part of Spain; the English don’t think of Scotland as part of England.

        I’m sure you’re right that Catalonia feels that it is treated as a region rather than a nation. It’s the same problem with the UK: Scotland too feels that it is as a region with the Imperial parliament retains sovereignty and holds the purse strings. This feeling would be lessened if England too had a parliament so that each nation of the UK related to each other and to the centre on the equal terms. I believe it also undermines the sense of Britishness in the other nations of the UK for the UK parliament to also be England’s parliament, and, for that matter, for England to sing the British national anthem as its own instead of something more suitable like Jerusalem.

        1. Yes, we make a distinction between Britain and England. There is no equivalent in Spain so far as I know.

        2. I found this article ill thought-out; perhaps because its range was too ambitious. And it does the Cornish independence movement no favours. Cornwall often gets lumped in the the South West -an area that goes up as far as Gloucestershire, whereas Cornwall has a distinct identity, the Stannary Parliament in its history.

          1. Isn’t that what I said? Certainly I found the topic difficult to contain, so my arguments may be a bit incomplete. And I didn’t do Cornwall justice (see comments below), though I did say that combining it in a region with Devon (never mind Gloucestershire) was no-go. However I think that the overall logic is quite robust. Devolution to the English regions won’t work, but a new English Assembly has possibilities. Cornwall can be part of it, or have its own autonomous solution – but the various English counties, etc are unlikely to want to go down that route.

  3. Regional Governments for England is out of the question, a country must be treated as one with the same equality to Scotland, a Federal settlement is the best deal so satify democracy and equality, size matters not here.

    1. That’s a critical point, Chris. In federal states the components don’t have to be the same size. Look at California – or Ontario, perhaps the best parallel. British civil servant types struggle with that idea, I think!

  4. Interesting. Yes, there is a democratic deficit and to resolve this, if the English so choose, then they should have self-determination. However this should include a variety of different options something I note this blog author does not want to offer.

    You give us the choice of either the unloved artificial government zone regions or an English parliament. No choice really. Yet another alternative, that of actual historic regions with with some real culture significance, you avoid only mentioning ‘Celtic Cornwall’ in passing.

    As a Cornishman another parliament in England representing 50 million people as well as the UK parliament representing 60 million (both undoubtedly ending up in England’s capital) seems neither fair nor value for money to me.

    We in Cornwall have already collected a petition of 50,000 signatures calling for a Cornish assembly and the campaign continues: http://www.cornishassembly.org/

    You also state that the German lander and Spanish autonomous regions are all similar in size. This is not quite true is it? Perhaps you could research the subject and then get back to us about the actual variety that does exist. Around the globe can be found autonomous regions and even independent states that have a surface area, population or both smaller than that of our Celtic Duchy.

    1. Thank you Philip. My post was already getting a bit long, and a whole host of questions were not dealt with. That included the very special issue of Cornwall – beyond pointing out that ramming it together with Devon as an autonomous region wouldn’t fly. I am afraid that the same English arrogance that has led to the problem with Scotland applies to Cornwall too – and I apologise for exhibiting it.

      The special issue with Cornwall is that, unlike the other, non-Welsh counties in the kingdom, it is not actually English and has had a troubled relationship with the kingdom. I don’t think any of the English counties have anything like the same strength of identity: their English identity trumps the local one. There may be the odd exception (Liverpool perhaps).

      There are two ways this might be accommodated in my idea. First is for a Cornish assemply to have full autonomy, ranking alongside England and Wales. The second is to forge a special autonomy arrangement within England. The difficulty, which you hint at, is Cornwall’s small size. Cornwall has a population of 536,000 (according to Wikipedia). This is smaller than any of the states of the US, or lander of Germany, and all but one (La Rioja) of Spain’s mainland autonomous communities. The example of Wales is not particularly happy: Welsh assembly politicians have the reputaiton of being second-class, and the principality’s record on health and education is lagging.

      But I agree that none of that is conclusive. A few of the US states (Wyoming for example) are not far off Cornwall’s size, and one of the German Lander (Bremen – though that is the smallest by a long way) – and there are Cantabria and Navarre in Spain, to say nothing of La Rioja (Cantabria being as close as Spain gets to Cornwall, I would think). Wales has special problems of coherence that Cornwall does not have. The case for a Cornish Assembly deserves a fair hearing.

      Incidentally I did not say that the German lander and Spanish autonomous communities were all about the same size. What I intended by by the comparison was to say that no single state dominated the whole, and there were no tiny ones (which latter in fact is not quite true). In Germany at least this was a matter of conscious design, with the abolition of Brandenburg-Prussia (admittedly made a lot easier by the redesign of Poland) and the combining of some of the ancient entities, such as Baden and Wurtemburg. I’m not sure how Bremen escaped this process. There is still moaning that some lander are too small (but then they have compromised on historic identities). The Spanish experience, I believe, was more bottom-up, variable geometry and perhaps a more interesting model for the UK. But with a few exceptions I don’t think we have enough regional identity in England.

      1. Thanks for the quick response and clarifications. Sorry if I jumped to too many conclusions about your point of view too quickly. As a Cornish autonomist I can be a bit spiky when I think the Cornish question is being brushed aside.

        When we talk about economic viability it must not be forgotten that decentralisation/devolution/autonomy (whatever you want to call it) is recognised as one of the best routes economic success. If a distinct region, existing inside a very centralised state, is not economically preforming we must ask why and what can be changed. In this Cornwall, despite its size, is no different.

  5. Is the process of cultural centralisation inevitable? 100 years ago in West Norway, you could move from one valley to the next and find yourself unable to understand the dialect. No doubt all regions in England had there own identity, once upon a time.

    I also think of the rainforest, where a single square kilometre may have a number of unique species, compared the thousands of kilometres of plains after the forest is felled, populated by only a dozen species.

    The limit of the human mind is not the number of objects in can deal with, but the number of concepts. One man can administer a forest of thousands of trees, provided they are all the same.

    My contention is that centralisation may lead to efficiency, but it also leads to cultural impoverishment. While the forces towards cultural centralisation are strong, I don’t see why they should be inevitable. I am glad that Cornwall is fighting for it’s own identity.

    What steps could be taken to help reverse this trend?

  6. You can make a good case that in Britian we have taken the idea of centralisation too far. Apart from cultural impoverishment there are severe economic strains and a widespread feeling of alienation with the state and the political process.

    By itself the English Assembly and English government idea won’t help very much – except to give the Scottish and Welsh governments more clarity and more room to breathe. I am happy to accept that Cornwall might get a unique autonomy settlement of its own. I’m not sure this will of itself help alleviate Cornwall’s deep economic problems, but the current arrangements aren’t doing much for them either.

    Stronger local government is a better line of attack. That means giving them much greater taxation powers, rather than just giving them supplication rights to central government. But it is not just the formal powers that need to change, but the whole culture of government, amongst both politicians and their constituents. People need to take more responsibility for the common realm, rather than just getting on with their own lives and getting angry with the politicians when things don’t work out. That can’t happen in one go, but well designed reforms might get a virtuous circle going.

      1. Thank you Philip. I read this blog with interest. I have spent a good twenty years hoping that some for of English regionalism might take hold. I have now changed tack because I feel that it is a politically lost cause. The problem isn’t just that regional identity is so weak here (you have no doubt that you are a Cornishman: I have no idea as to which of the regions on your map I belong to: I have strong connections to four of them); they aren’t big enough to take on the Westminster behemoth, and are likely to be political backwaters.

        My advice to Cornish nationalists is to concentrate on the merits of your cause above that of other regions of “England”. Scotland is destabilising the British constitution: this gives you a bit of a window to stake your claim. As a growing number of people are attracted to the idea of an English government of some sort, push forward the idea of one of your own to stand alongside it. You were right to challenge me on the matter, for example. Don’t try to pursue the idea of English regionalism.

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