The Importance of Being Frank
Frank Field's speech to Hertfordshire University should be welcomed as an important contribution to the debate on The English Question. Of particular importance is the observation that devolution is a process, not a destination, but that inevitably the destination will be an English parliament.
What's great about the speech is that it works on so many levels and will appeal to several audiences. For English nationalists it reads like a tract of English grievances against the anti-English Labour Government. For Conservatives and the BNP it reads like an instruction manual for beating New Labour on English doorsteps. For the embattled core Labour vote there is consolation in the fact that at least one Labour MP is prepared to speak out on their behalf on English issues. For die hard Unionists the gory spectre of Alex Salmond wrecking havoc with Britain is played out. And for Labour Party MPs and activists the speech is a call to arms because it raises the prospect of Labour's twin foes - the BNP and the Conservative Party - benefiting from the unanswered English Question, a question that when left unanswered will lead to the death of English Labour:
Labour stands poised at a similar juncture to that occupied by the Liberals prior to 1918. Labour has failed to represent its core vote on two issues which these voters put towards the top of their agenda. It has allowed uncontrolled immigration with its impact not just on earnings but more generally on housing, schools and other public services, to the disadvantage of working class English voters, both white and black.
For Brownites the speech is more sinister, and those that pick up on the sometimes subtle attacks on Brown's leadership will recognise this speech as a continuation of the personal vendetta between Field and Brown, again played out in public - brilliantly - by Frank. Some of the attacks on Brown are subtle, and many will not pick up on it, but Gordon Brown most certainly will.
The attack on Brown's authority begins innocuously enough with a references to Walter Bagehot and the battle between Parliament and the power of the Executive. Frank begins by telling us that Bagehot, and his Magnus Opus - The English Constitution, is important to us today because, "Bagehot made the transference of power between institutions the canvass on which he painted his whole study", and today very significant powers have been transfered from London to Brussels, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. To such an extent that in these times Bagehot would have put greater emphasis on the adjective in his title The English Constitution. Frank mentions Crossman's attempts to set up Committees (for these read an English Grand Committee) through which he hoped MPs would claw back some of the power they had lost to the Executive. Frank then mentions Lord Hailsham and the fact that "his vain attempt to to gain the keys to Number 10" has been overshadowed by his part in popularising the phrase "elected dictatorship". Ring any bells, Gordon?
A more explicit challenge to Brown's authority, and that of his Executive, comes later:
One move I would expect the Leader of the Scottish Parliament to make shortly would be to agree with the nationalist parties in Wales, and Northern Ireland that no nationalist Members who normally attend Westminster will in the future vote in the UK Parliament on those issues which have been devolved to each country’s constituent Parliament or Assembly. There is no single move which would highlight more clearly the role Scottish Labour Members of Parliament play in voting through laws which only apply to England. Gordon Brown needs to act to prevent the English question erupting in the run up to a general election.
The germ of an idea, and one to which a Scottish PM has no immunity. The Leader of the Scottish Parliament is Alex Salmond, and in the event that Salmond managed to put together a cross-party self-denying ordinance on English legislation, then Scottish and Welsh Labour MPs could be left as the only non-English MPs that vote on English legislation. How could Gordon Brown act to prevent this becoming an electoral liability? Well, there's not much he could do but ban himself and other Scottish and Welsh MPs from voting on English legislation; in effect instituting English Votes on English Laws as a damage limitation exercise, before the Tories even came to power; and preventing himself and some other ministers from voting on their own government's legislation. It's a ludicrous scenario but it stems from the fact that Gordon brown has no democratic mandate on English issues, a point that Frank drew attention to previously...
The content of the home affairs section of this Queen’s Speech applied in its entirety to my constituents. The same was not true for the constituents of the Rt. Hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath.
Again, this is "No Mandate" terrtory. Gordon Brown wrote the Queen's Speech. He exercises executive power without democratic accountability over England and the English; and this when he has not stood in a General Election as leader of the Labour Party, and when Labour received fewer English votes than the Conservatives in the 2005 General Election.
There is also, I think, a passing reference to Brown's style of government when Frank notes that Scottish citizens are treated with Lucentis for macular degeneration of the eye "while English citizens simply lose their sight awaiting action from NICE". This is the doctrine of restrained discretion for England while the freewheeling devolved nations pursue the policies that their citizens actually want and need.
Wrapping up his Bagehot theme Frank finishes with a flourish:
I believe Bagehot would today suggest that we need to understand how power has moved from the UK Parliament in a way that damages English voters.
Well said. Very well said indeed. However, it's unfortunate that Frank doesn't get the English Question right:
The debate is also beginning to centre on the fiscal discrimination currently being experienced by the English, Northern Irish and Welsh people. My constituents do not believe it is fair that they should face a constitutional discrimination as well as meeting additional costs which identical people in Scotland, and to a lesser extent in Wales, do not face. This, in a sentence, is the English Question.
The English Question, according to Prof Robert Hazell, is "not an exam question that the English are required to answer". Yes and No. Whilst it's true to say that the English could, in theory, plod on indefinately with an unsatisfactory constitution that discriminates against them, it's also becoming apparent - not least to Frank Field - that we are no longer prepared to do so. So at some point The English Question does become an exam question that the English have to answer. The English Question is about sovereignty; it's about the English deciding how they wish to be governed, internally by themselves, and externally as part of supranational states like the United Kingdom and European Union. Only the English people can answer the question. It is, or should be, a matter of popular sovereignty; a constitutional sovereignty that permits the English the right to determine the form of government best suited to their needs.
So The English Question is not a debate "about the practical results of the first stage of devolution" and the consequential "inequitable treatment between my constituents and the constituents of Scottish MPs". Those are legitimate grievances Frank, and ones that you are correct to raise, but they are not The English Question.
Frank Field believes that Gordon Brown is ideally placed to resolve The English Question. Complete rot, but a nice ruse if Brown is daft enough to believe it. Gordon Brown is a Scot elected by Scots - England is none of his damn business and the English don't trust him. Frank also believes that the choice facing English voters is a choice between who should lead the debate: David Cameron or Gordon Brown. What a choice! It is the English people who must lead the debate, we cannot leave it to partisan politicians with vested interests in maintaining the power of the UK Executive and the near Lab-Con duopoly on power.
Although anti-Brown, Frank Field is till pro-Labour, and it appears that this speech is delivered in a state of anxiety about the fate of Labour rather than the fate of England. So I would hesitate to call Frank Field an English nationalist, especially as he fails to frame The English Question in terms of sovereignty. But maybe that's exactly what he wants us to think. It is a very clever speech after all.
Read the full speech here.
More from me, on this, over at Our Kingdom.
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