George Monbiot: Future of England

A transcript of George Monbiot’s speech to the Campaign for an English Parliament’s ‘Future of England’ debate, 26 April 2008

Speaking as an honourary Welshman – and that’s the only introduction you’re going to get – I feel entitled to observe that the English are crazy. They will put up with anything except an improvement in their lives. They regard an enhancement to democracy and social justice as a mortal threat. They will defend the unjust Status Quo to their dying breath. And hence, we have the situation which everyone is talking about tonight.

Let’s examine some of the implications of the absence of an English Parliament. The English are currently governed by a Scotsman who uses foreign mercenaries to impose decisions over purely English issues upon the English. Take for instance the issue of university top-up fees, these were resoundingly rejected by both the Welsh and Scottish Parliaments, and yet it was Welsh and Scottish MPs who imposed them on England. There is no justification, no right, no democratic basis for doing that.

Similarly with foundation hospitals, again rejected in Wales and Scotland, imposed on England by the Welsh and Scottish mercenaries drilled through the lobbies by the Scottish prime minister. That is simple unfairness and injustice of a kind that people like ourselves, certainly the progressive people in this audience, have campaigned about in other countries when we campaign against the dictatorial powers of undemocratic governments. And yet somehow we find it so much harder to see it in our own country.

Heathrow! The third runway at Heathrow, whatever you might think about it, this was entirely imposed upon the English by MPs from the other three nations. The Government won with a majority of 19 votes in the House of Commons, after 67 MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were induced by that Government to vote for it. It was an English affair but it was not allowed to be resolved in an English chamber or even by English MPs within the British chamber. That again is grossly unfair.

But the unfairness, as David has suggested, extends much further than that because the only government of England, such as it is, is the network of regional development agencies. And with the exception of the London development agency they’re subject to no direct democratic scrutiny whatsoever. At the moment the only oversight of the RDAs is through unelected regional chambers. Now next year the Government has announced this wonderful democratic policy of replacing the unelected regional chambers with local authority leaders boards. Well, it sounds sort of OK if you can accept the principle of photocopy democracy. In this case you have an elected body – the local authority – which appoints a leader, who then joins a committee which has oversight over another committee. And with every copy, democracy becomes fainter and greyer.

But Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s not even that good, because under the Government’s proposals the RDAs will have joint responsibility with the local authorities leaders boards for setting the regional strategies and then monitoring their delivery. It’s the only official body I can think of in Britain which has been charged with monitoring and overseeing itself. This is a colonial model of administration. This is a model of administration that bears no reference whatsoever to the people of this country.

We hear all these wonderful statements about sustainability and delivery, and regional growth and employment, and all the rest of it…Whatever those stated terms might be, in reality they are pork distribution offices. And they’re there to hand out lavish grants to undeserving causes. Now I did a bit of research on this myself and I found out that over the past ten years these regional development agencies in England have handed out £63M to regional airports to expand those airports.

Now, we’ve always been told by government that airports are commercial operations, and that if we don’t like the expansion of airports we should “vote with our feet and not fly abroad”, and “I’m sorry, we can’t buck the markets, that’s just how it is”. But suddenly, as a result of this research, I have discovered that these RDAs have been bucking the market. Now again, whatever you think of the expansion of airports in Britain – and we’re back to the old third runway business – it is surely either a matter for government intervention or it is a matter for the free markets. I would argue as an environmentalist, that if it’s a matter for government intervention then the government should be intervening to reduce our use airports and trying to channel us to alternative means of travel. The consequences of global warming, and many other issues like the quality of life for those living under the flight paths, get worse and worse as those airports expand. But secretly, without any proper oversight, without any democratic control, these RDAs have been handing out slatherings of money to these regional airports.

It’s no surprise to find that all nine of the RDAs are run by former corporate executives, three of whom were formally senior officials of the Confederation of British Industry. These are people who are well known to business but completely unknown to the electorate. These are not representative of the people of this country. If you want to elect former corporate representatives you have plenty of opportunity to do so, but I don’t see why we should accept that they be foisted upon us. What this system of RDAs reminds me of is the system of district commissioners and district officers imposed by Britain on its possessions in colonial times. These are people who, in this case, actually aren’t even answerable to the centre. But they are appointed to the centre to govern the unruly natives and to keep them in their place and make sure that those interests of the colonial centre are represented, even if the interests of the subjects of the colonial centre are not.

This time you crazy people have been doing it to yourselves. The great colonising nation has acquiesced in this project to turn it into yet another colony. As David says it has become an internal colony, which is a profound irony here because the idea was that Britain was the great colonising nation. It has internalised that oppressive power.

Now. here’s where a lot of people in this audience are going to disagree profoundly with me. But that’s why we are here. I believe that one of the reasons why so little has been done to address this is that two completely different issues have been mixed up. One is democracy and the other is nationalism. My own feeling is that you don’t have to be English and you don’t have to be a nationalist to support the case for an English parliament. You just have to be a democrat. You don’t even have to love England, you just have to love democracy. That’s what we’re talking about Ladies and Gentlemen, we’re talking about the fundamentals of democracy – that you can make your own decisions over your own country, it’s as simple as that. And so as much as I admire Blake’s great poem and Parry’s setting, I won’t be singing Jerusalem with you this evening. I actually love the hymn, I think it’s a fantastic one, but I think these are two separate issues which should be kept apart. By all means love England. By all means express your love through English nationalism, as long as doesn’t tread on anyone else’s toes, as long as it harms no one else – that’s absolutely fine by me. But you don’t need to confuse and conflate these two issues, as sometimes, it has to be said, the Campaign for an English Parliament does. They can be kept apart and I think it is much better to do so because I think there is a latent progressive interest in the idea of an English parliament out there, that tends to be put off by what they perceive – rightly ot wrongly – as jingoistic attachment to certain English values, which are a different argument as far as I’m concerned.

Let’s support the idea of democracy everywhere and in all its forms.

Now I completely agree with Paul when he says this should be done by referendum. But I would like to put forward my own favoured idea and how I would like to see that referendum pan out. Because it seems to me that we can solve two problems very simply in one go, and we can solve them right here in this House. Everybody has been wondering what on earth we should do about the House of Lords, and every proposal that comes up is met by a counter proposal and there’re all sorts of problems thrown up. It seems very obvious to me, we’ve got two chambers here. Isn’t that what we want? Don’t we want a chamber whose purpose is to oversee issues that have to be dealt with by a UK parliament because they are issues which are issues that are relevant to the whole of the UK, and can’t be divided up by the national borders; and don’t we also need a chamber whose sole purpose is to deal with the affairs of England, and the people dealing with it should be England’s elected representatives?

Should we not turn the House of Lords into the UK parliament and the House of Commons into an English parliament?

It is profoundly ironic Ladies and Gentlemen, that the English, who believe they invented parliamentary democracy, should be one of the last nations on earth to benefit from it. I hope that situation doesn’t last much longer.

George Monbiot is a writer and political and environmental activist.

Peter Facey: Future of England

A transcript of Peter Facey’s speech to the Campaign for an English Parliament’s ‘Future of England’ debate, 26 April 2008

Thank you for inviting me.

I hope there will be a big clap at the end. Hopefully. Well, we will see.

Unlock Democracy, like the Campaign for an English Parliament, is a pressure group. Our basic mission is to change and improve the quality of democracy in Britain. We believe that this country is too centralised; that power is held by too few people; that our constitution actually enables government, not citizens; and that fundamentally that to unlock the potential of the people of these islands we actually have to empower individual citizens and communities. We are a democratic organisation that you’re all welcome to join, and I am accountable to my membership and to our elected board. However, the views I’m going to speak here are fundamentally my own, so shoot me not the organisation.

When I was asked to come and speak I was thinking about where to start. I think probably the first thing to do is to start with me and how I feel. My father is from Devon and my family name, Facey, is a Devon-Cornish name, so it’s half English and half Cornish. My mother is Manx and is very, very proud of being Manx. I’m one of the few who as a child would have heard the Manx national anthem being. I think of myself as English. I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a citizen of the United Kingdom. I’m married to an Australian, and I have two children who are both English/British but also Australian. And we’re arguing at the moment about what cricket team they play for when they grow up.

I for a long time have considered myself to be English. The question is, what that actually means in terms of governmental structures and what that should mean in terms of how we as a people are governed. Today, as well as being the Queen’s Speech, in Wales the All Wales Convention reported and actually recommended that there should be a referendum on giving Wales more powers, effectively, but not quite, bringing it up to the level of the Scottish Parliament.

So we are facing the possibility of a devolution settlement in terms of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that gives a large amount of decentralisation of power to 15% of this country. Now I’m in favour of that, Charter88 – one of our predecessors – campaigned for it, I apologise to nobody for it, and I think in terms of those parts of the United Kingdom it is an asset positive good.

But the question remains, what about the 85% ?

For me, and I live in the great county of Cambridgeshire, my life is probably more centralised today than it was 12 years ago. Decisions that affect me where I live, whether it’s about the new towns being built around me, or education or health care, are more centralised than they were 12 years ago. I have very little say, and my neighbours have very little say, about the priorities in our area. This place [The Houses of Parliament] dominates every decision, whether it’s about licensing laws, healthcare, education or the A505, which runs past my village. All of that is dominated not by my county council, not by my district council, or parish council, but by this government.

For me that is wrong. In some ways those people who campaign for an English parliament and us, at that point, agree. I believe that power should be decentralised more to people so that they can shape the issues in their lives that affect them. I do not see why people in Scotland should have a say over education in England, I don’t see why people in Northern Ireland should have a decision on that – but also, to be honest, I don’t see why the people of Yorkshire should have a say over lots of things that happen in Cambridgeshire, because actually it’s none of their business, it’s our business locally.

For me that’s an important democratic issue.

So to the constitutional question about where England is. One of the few places where you can see England mentioned in our constitutional settlement is when you walk through central lobby. Look up, it’s beautiful. You look up and you see the four patron saints of the United Kingdom: St George, St Patrick, St Andrew, St David. And that’s one of the few places you will see England mentioned. Part of the problem is that This Place used to be the English Parliament, but it became the British Parliament, and England and Britain became one. They didn’t become one in Scotland, but in England they did. In fact we are governed in a way that doesn’t actually recognise that there are four distinct parts to the United Kingdom.

Earlier this week I had a meeting at the Department of Communities and Local Government. Now, for all intents and purposes that is an English department; it has nothing to do with Scotland, nothing to do with Wales and nothing to do with Northern Ireland. There is a nice Union Jack flying outside it – that’s a new thing! Up until recently we weren’t allowed to fly the Union Flag – apart from the Queen’s birthday and other strange days – so that flag flies outside but nothing else flies outside. There is no recognition that it’s not a UK department but, actually, it’s an English department.

It isn’t just about the constitutional situation, it’s also about a cultural situation. There is a redneck quality about saying “I’m English”, it causes a particular stir. Every day on my way to the train station I pass one of those roadside snack bars that flies the English flag, it alternates between the Confederate flag and the English flag.

That cultural sense I think can be addressed in a very simple way. Here’s a novel idea. Everywhere that we have a town hall or flagpole, why don’t we fly flags? At the moment we have the idea that we can fly one flag. Flying one flag is boring. Alongside that Union Flag why not have the flag of St George, and in your locality why not fly your local flag, and if you want to why not fly the EU flag? If you want to! I know, I know, that last suggestion was a terrible one.

I used to live in Croydon, and in Croydon, for a while, unbeknownst to anybody, the council suddenly started to fly flags. If anyone knows Croydon, it’s one of those wonderful 1950s towns that had its centre taken out. There’s a big motorway runs through its centre and there’s a bridge that goes over the top with four flagpoles on it. All of a sudden, the council decided that they’re going to fly something from this, and so they began to fly the Croydon Flag, the Flag of St George, the Union Flag and the European Flag. Then they were most probably told that it was illegal to do that at the time, and they stopped. But actually, that says a lot. Flying those flags said where Croydon was in the world: It said it was proud of being Croydon, of being one of the largest parts of London, of being the largest town that is not a city in the United kingdom; it was proud of being in England; it was proud of being in the United Kingdom; and we can have a debate about whether it was proud of being in the EU or not.

If that was replicated across the breadth of England, whether it is in Stoke-on-Trent, or in South Cambridgeshire where I live, then that itself would start sending the message that actually identity isn’t just a single one. My problem with the Government’s agenda of Britishness is that they’ve effectively told the people of England that they can only have one identity. That’s not true.

I originally grew up in the South West, in Devon, and for a long time you saw people crossing the Tamar with the Cornish flag, and we went through a popular time were they flew the Cornish flag and the Canadian flag from their fishing boats – a little issue to do with Spanish fishing boats.

The people of Devon know that they are equal if not better than the people of Cornwall and decided to create a Devon flag. This phenomena of people creating or recreating and flying local flags is spreading. For me it is a trend that should be encouraged.

What do we do about the question of centralisation? I agree that we should have people deciding their constitutional settlement for themselves in England, I support a constitutional convention, and I support people being involved in that process. But I also support an idea that goes beyond just simply saying “we need an English Parliament”, and that idea is a Great Enabling Act – a Devolution Enabling Act – which basically says that we’re going to do it fundamentally differently in England to how you did it in Scotland and Wales. We’re not going to let the centre say “this is what you can have, these are the options”, we’re going to say, people of England you can have this power, this is the power you can have, but we’re going to allow people to call it down.

Now it may be that those of you in the Campaign for an English Parliament will succeed and we will decentralise power to England, but it could be that we decentralise it to Cornwall or Kent. One little fact: Kent actually has more people than ten US states. All the power which we have exercised at the moment in Wales, in most European countries is exercised at a level a lot below the nation. A German lander has significant power, a Swiss canton has significant power, and the US capital – Washington DC – has more power than Cornwall. But Cornwall has more people than Washington DC.

The idea that we have simply to decentralise power to a large unit, that being England, is wrong. Now I’m not going to sit here and say that it has to be one or the other. What I’m going to say is that the people of England have the right and that we should have a process whereby that power can be pulled down.

We should have two principles.

Firstly, it should be driven from the bottom not the top, so that either local authorities or people via petition can trigger it. That would encourage competition between rival campaigners. Those of you who campaign for an English Parliament would have an opportunity to trigger a referendum, pull down power, and have an English parliament, if you persuade the people of England that that is what they wanted. But also other people, like the campaigners in Cornwall – who have raised 50,000 signatures for a Cornish Assembly – could actually have a Cornish Assembly, if they could get it.

And the second principle would be that power, once devolved, could not be taken away and back to the centre without the consent of the people in that area.

That would say to the people of England that it’s in our hands to decide how we are governed and where power should lie. People like me who are localists, and who want to draw it down further than England, would argue one thing; and those people who believe that actually devolving from 60 million to 50 million is sufficient can have another argument. But that would be a wonderful argument to have.

Peter Facey is the founding director of Unlock Democracy.

David Wildgoose: Future of England

David Wildgoose’s speech to the Campaign for an English Parliament’s ‘Future of England’ debate, 26 April 2008

The major parties seem determined to pretend that we in the Campaign for an English Parliament are in some way “not representative” of what ordinary English people are thinking.

On the contrary. We in the CEP and the wider English Movement are the “canaries in the coalmine”. Merely the vocal element of a growing body of opinion.

Perhaps more to the point, is in what way can MPs and their parties themselves claim to be representative? After all, the combined Labour and Conservative vote has fallen from 98% in the 1950s to barely 68% at the last election. It used to be that 1 person in 11 was a member of a political party. It is now 1 person in 88. Voter turnout itself is in catastrophic decline. In last Thursday’s by-election less than a third of the voters actually bothered to do so.

UK Democracy is in crisis.

Alec Salmond has openly stated that SNP MPs will vote exclusively in Scotland’s interests even though their mandate is to act as British MPs in Britain’s interests. The same is also true with Plaid Cymru and with the Northern Irish Parties. England is disadvantaged because there are no explicitly English MPs voting exclusively in England’s interests. This matters. Issues that affect Scotland are devolved to Scotland and under Scottish control. With the major exception of the Anglo-Welsh legal system the same is also true for Wales. Issues affecting England though are voted on by all MPs at Westminster, including those MPs for whom English issues are not their overriding concern. And not just Nationalist MPs. Many Scottish Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs, including both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, signed the “Scottish Claim of Right”, a public oath to treat Scotland’s interests as paramount. But as the Bible says, “No Man can serve two masters”. Quite clearly, “Dual-Mandate” MPs are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The great claim of Democracy is that if you don’t like what your representative is doing, you can hold them accountable for their actions at the ballot box. Unless of course, you are John Reid MP, yet another signatory of the Scottish Claim of Right, representing a Scottish constituency, but placed in charge of the English NHS. Or the Welsh MP Kim Howells, voting to restrict the number of musicians permitted to play together on licensed premises in England and making the comment “the idea of listening to three Somerset folk singers sounds like hell”. English culture, English traditions, English issues, but overruled by MPs from outside England and not answerable to voters in England.

No surprise then that Dr Travers of the LSE Research Centre has described England as “little more than a centrally governed colony”.

But why should we English tolerate MPs we don’t elect forcing health, education and other policies on us that we don’t want?

Why should we put up with a government that is so desperate for cash that it is currently indulging in a fire-sale of largely English assets, such as the Dartford Tunnel and the playing fields and cemeteries of English Local Authorities? After all, assets belonging to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are under the control of their respective governments. England though has no such protection.

National Devolution has emphasised the fault lines within the Union. Rather than trying to deny that these exist I believe it is necessary to cement the Union along these lines by creating a federal state – the only practical way of separating what divides us from what unites us.

You may have heard the ridiculous argument that England is too big for a federation to work. This is palpable nonsense. A federation would *address* the problem of an out-sized England because English voting weight would only affect England itself. England is the same size it has always been. If a federation with England wouldn’t work then a Union without a federation’s protections certainly couldn’t – except of course it did, for nearly 300 years before being wrecked.

National Parliaments dealing with the national issues concerning the nations of the United Kingdom would mean that all the citizens of the UK would stand together in the same relationship to the centre, with the same rights, and as *equal* citizens. Just as there is no better way to drive a wedge between us than treating the people of England as lesser-class citizens, there is no better way of reinforcing the UK family by recognising our individual needs but treating us all equally.

However at this point it is also worth asking another question. To what extent is the vote for nationalist politicians also a plea for more control over people’s lives and away from a distant impersonal Westminster, or an even more remote European Union?

Because we need to re-invigorate local democracy as well.

Right now, the lowest tier of government in the UK has about 120,000 voters. By constrast, in the United States and Italy it is around 7,000 voters. In Spain and Germany, 5,000 voters. And in France, just 1,500 voters. The proposals to strip yet more powers from local Councils, centralising them in artificial and unwanted “Regions” is precisely the wrong approach. The true purpose of these “Regions” is simply to strengthen centralised control. They are too small to deal with national issues such as the legal system and the laws we all live under, but too large to have local understanding, accountability and crucially, sympathy.

We only have to look at the appalling state of the public finances to know that harsh cuts are on the way. Last week there were warnings that the UK could lose its AAA credit rating if the next government fails to bring spending under control and to reduce debt. That would result in a sterling crisis, gilt yield falls and sharp rises in interest rates at the worst possible time. The situation we are facing is far worse than that even Margaret Thatcher had to deal with. I was 16 when Geoffrey Howe gave his savage 1981 budget. The son of a Sheffield steelworker. My home areas of Rotherham and Sheffield lost 25% of all their jobs in just a 5 year period – twice as fast as Liverpool suffered. There was no Barnett Formula financial cushion for South Yorkshire.

To implement a severe fiscal tightening without also addressing the current political injustices is a recipe not just for discrediting the Westminster Parliament still further, but also potentially for serious civil unrest, damaging confidence in Sterling along with its attendant economic dangers.

Quite simply, to govern requires the consent of the governed. We need serious reform and this really cannot wait. We need an English Parliament and restored Local Government. And we need this NOW.

David Wildgoose is the vice-chairman The Campaign for an English Parliament.