Just as awful as Labour’s cringing avoidance of our national identity, however, is its hungry embrace by some on the far Right. Today Nigel Farage has combined cynical nationalism with an attention-seeking scrabble for relevance by calling for St George’s Day to become a national holiday. It is a desperate prod at the open wound of our constitutional settlement – less a tribute to England than an antagonistic poke at Wales, Northern Ireland, and, most significantly, Scotland.
Why a national holiday for England should be regarded as ‘an antagonistic poke at Wales, Northern Ireland, and, most significantly, Scotland’ Myers doesn’t say. Gordon Brown took a similar view. John Denham revealed that Gordon Brown vetoed his proposal for state funding of a St George’s Day celebration.
The shadow communities secretary also discloses that shortly before the election Downing Street vetoed his plans for state funding for an official St George’s Day celebration of Englishness. No 10 told Denham it feared there would be a counter-reaction in Scotland.
Seriously? Are we really expected to believe that! Why would the Scots object to the Government funding a celebration of England’s national day? No, this has nothing to do with the Scots (who would get a St George’s Day kick-back via Barnett consequentials). It has more to do with Unionist, British hostility to the English having a national holiday. Any potential ‘counter-reaction’ from Scotland would be because state funding for St George’s Day could heighten the perception that the UK Government is also the government of England. But that is exactly the policy that the Labour and Conservative parties favour: for the UK Government to also be the Government of England. To be fearful of distancing the Scots from Westminster by acting in England’s national interest, even when acting in England’s national interest does not in any way harm Scotland is complete lunacy of the highest order. It is a political problem that stems from the fact that England has no government of its own. The fact that the UK Government cannot act in England’s interests without worrying about what the Scots will make of it tells you a lot about how unsatisfactory the governance of England is. Don’t blame it on the Scots.
Also from the Telegraph comes the article When the Conservatives speak to the English, they’re mostly talking to white people by James Kirkup:
There’s another question that arises here. Just who is the party talking to when it speaks to the “English”? White people, that’s who.
Does it occur to James Kirkup that by addressing England as a political community the Tories might well encourage non-white people to start identifying as English? Would James Kirkup prefer the political parties to continue to tell immigrants that they’re British and leave English identity to the English Defence League, or would he prefer political parties to address the England in all its diversity as ‘the English’? He needs to think about that. Mainstream English parties, English manifestos, an English demos can play an important part in ushering in a more inclusive English national identity.
If a nation is, in the words of Benedict Anderson, ‘an imagined political community’, then it has to be said that it’s our political class have very little to contribute to our idea of England. They offer no vision of England and rarely speak of, for or to England. England is left unimagined by our political class.
If we look at the number of times each nation of Britain is referenced in the political party manifestos we get some idea of how England, in comparison with Scotland and Wales, is sidelined in favour of Britain/UK.England Scotland Wales Britain UK/United Kingdom Conservative 36 13 19 94 59 Scottish Conservative 23 108 16 65 63 Welsh Conservative 50 9 200 76 82 Labour 3 7 8 55 15 Scottish Labour 4 174 0 46 45 Welsh Labour 21 5 192 64 67 Liberal Democrat 37 23 30 73 113 Scottish LD 25 63 22 66 145 Welsh LD 22 8 90 71 106 UKIP 13 8 8 131 95 Green (England & Wales) 12 8 13 5 109 Green Scotland 2 18 2 3 13 Green Wales 2 0 33 1 5 Total 248 444 600 749 912
As you can see the Conservatives actually reference England more times in their Welsh manifesto than in their UK manifesto. The figures in the table only tell half the story. When England is mentioned it is only referenced as a geographic area where a policy is to be, or has been, implemented. There is no vision for the type of country our politicians want England to be; no idea of England as a homeland, political community, culture or the basis of our national identity. To them England is merely an administrative area.
For instance no party manifesto would traditionally have replaced the word ‘Scotland’ for ‘England’ in this quote (taken from the Scottish Conservative manifesto):
This Manifesto shows how we can use that strong foundation to secure a brighter future for you, your family and Scotland.
The Labour Party manifesto tells us that ‘Britain can be better’ but why does it not tell us that ‘England can be better’. Why is the focus solely on British national identity to the occlusion of England’s political identity? Why do Labour not produce a manifesto for England; do they not aspire to be a party of England; do they not wish to govern England?
So today we await the publication of the Conservative’s first ever manifesto for England. There are those who will attack it as a cynical and opportunistic attempt to pander to English nationalism. Those people may be correct but that is not to say that there is something wrong with a party producing a manifesto for England. It should have been done a long time ago.
The signs, however, are not good. Even before its publication the Tories are dripping out statements to mitigate against accusations of English nationalism:
“We do not support English nationalists, we do not want an English Parliament – we are the Conservative and Unionist Party through and through. This manifesto simply recognises that the democratic picture has got more complicated in the UK.”
Wait. What! You do not want an English parliament and oppose those that do? You don’t believe that England should have its own democratically elected legislature, elected by and democratically accountable to, the people of England; you don’t believe that England should have its own government that governs with the consent of the people of England? Does this rather extreme opposition to national self-governance extend elsewhere; do you oppose those who support a Scottish parliament or Welsh parliament?
Although I suspect that the Tories might come to regret their opposition to England governing itself (as they have come to regret and reverse their opposition to Scottish and Welsh home rule) their English manifesto is a very welcome step in the right direction.
Back in 2009 Ed Miliband launched the social networking site LabourSpace, through which members of the public could submit policy ideas to the Labour Party. One such idea was ‘A National Conversation for England’ which called for an English constitutional convention and became one of the most supported campaigns on the site. Miliband’s response to the campaign was short and rather dismissive:
I believe that devolution has made us stronger as a United Kingdom and given democratic accountability for decisions in Scotland and Wales that used to be made centrally. Across the country, we need to see whether there are further ways of devolving power. However, I do not see a new parliament for England as the answer. The vast majority of the UK parliament is comprised of English MPs, and so there is no reason to believe an English Parliament would enhance accountability. I would encourage all of you with concerns about issues within England to tell us specifically what you care about and see what we can do to help.
So in 2009, when 39 Scottish Labour MPs voted on English matters, Ed Miliband was – inexplicably – of the opinion that an English parliament would not enhance accountability, despite the fact that those MPs were democratically unaccountable to the English electorate. Will he still feel the same way in a few weeks time if it is 50 SNP MPs that are voting on English business? Would he care to explain how the votes of Scottish MPs on English legislation, or the participation of Scottish MPs in the governance of England, increase accountability for English voters in any way, shape or form?
And does Miliband still believe that devolution has made us stronger as a United Kingdom? What is his evidence for that?
The 2015 UKIP Manifesto urges us to ‘believe in Britain’. For those of us who don’t believe in Britain or are simply of a more English persuasion there are a couple of crumbs of comfort:
UKIP will declare St George’s Day, 23rd April a Bank Holiday in England and St David’s Day, 1st March, in Wales.
UKIP will end the unfairness of MPs from devolved nations voting on English-only issues.
And that’s about it really. The single line about EVEL is astounding given the amount of noise that UKIP made on this subject over the past few years. At one point, not very long ago, UKIP flirted with the idea of an English parliament but now they’ve just fallen meekly into line with the Conservative Party.
For a party that is so keen on the Union it has to be said that UKIP appear to take a remarkably cavalier attitude towards the effect that a referendum on the EU would have on the unity of the United Kingdom.
The longer we stay in the European Union, the more we become like ‘little Englanders,’ an isolated, insignificant, offshore province in a country called Europe. We become less and less like the ‘Great’ Britain we really are.
The SNP and Plaid Cymru are reading from a different script.
On a positive note UKIP do pledge to scrap the Barnett Formula and their confusion and ambiguity over territorial extent of policy is partly eradicated. UKIP talk of an English fishing quota and clearly state ‘English hospitals’, as in this example:
Patients who cannot get a GP appointment frequently turn up in A&E instead, putting additional pressure on already over-stretched resources. We will initiate pilot programmes in English hospitals to put GPs on duty in A&E departments seven days a week.
On education, however, they are less clear and discuss schools and qualifications as if government policy extends across the entire United Kingdom:
UKIP’s vision for British education is of a world renowned system; a system designed to allow young people to perform to the best of their ability, regardless of background, gender, race, wealth or class.
Are we to take it that a UKIP government will wrest control of education from the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? And are we to understand that ‘a chronological understanding of British history’ will be in the national curriculum of all Britain’s young people by altering the national curriculums of the devolved nations as well as England’s?
UKIP will encourage pride in Britain among our young people, who have become detached from our national cultural heritage. UKIP supports a chronological understanding of British history and achievements in the National Curriculum, which should place due emphasis on the unique influence Britain has had in shaping the modern world.
Reading the UKIP manifesto you could easily forgiven for thinking that housing, environment and transport had not been devolved. They have progressed somewhat since this abomination but for the most part they still inhabit an alternate reality where Britain is a unitary state.
Having spent the past fifteen years arguing against English Votes for English Laws, the Labour Party have only gone and put it in their new manifesto:
It is also time to consider how English MPs can have a greater role in the scrutiny of legislation that only affects England. This includes the option put forward by Sir William McKay, of a committee stage made up of English-only MPs. These ideas must now be considered as part of the Constitutional Convention process.
The Constitutional Convention proposed will be a people led convention, which will presumably begin after England has had devolution imposed upon it from above by the Labour Party:
We will embark on the biggest devolution of power to our English city and county regions in a hundred years with an English Devolution Act. It will transfer £30 billion of funding to city and county regions, along with new powers over economic development, skills, employment, housing, and business support. This will include control over local transport systems so that in future, local bodies can integrate trains, buses, trams and cycling into a single network. We will enable city and county regions to retain 100 per cent of additional business rates raised from growth in their area. Fair funding will be restored across England, alongside longer term multi-year budgets, so that local authorities can plan ahead on the basis of need in their area and protect vital services. And an English Regional Cabinet Committee, chaired by the Prime Minister, will be convened regularly, attended by the relevant Secretaries of State and leaders of our major city and county regions.
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