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.

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.

Paul Kingsnorth: Future of England

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

I don’t want to talk about the constitutional problems thrown up by the unequal devolution settlement. I hope we all know by now that the situation is unfair; that the people of England are being loaded with things that their representatives in the main voted against – foundation hospitals, for example, tuition fees or a third runway at Heathrow.

I hope we can all accept that devolution has created a bias against England that needs to be righted. What was seen by some as devolution from England to the other UK nations was in fact devolution from the British government to only three out of four UK nations. You don’t need to be English to see this as unfair, and you don’t need to be of any particular political persuasion. It is a simple matter of democracy and fairness that this situation should be righted.

But instead of talking about the political and constitutional case for a fair English settlement – and there are people here far better qualified to do this than me – I would like to talk about the cultural case, because I think it is a strong one.

England is the only nation in the UK without its own government, it is the only nation in the UK without its own representative assembly. Arguably it is the only nation in Europe without these things too. It is the only nation in the UK whose people have not been given a say in how they are governed. I think this is having a big cultural impact on its people.

It seems to be a truism within the political classes that people don’t care about ‘constitutional issues’. They care about crime, healthcare, education, immigration, but not about the AVplus voting system and the reform of the house of lords. In one sense this may be true, but in another sense, how people are governed and how much of a say they have in that government clearly has a cultural impact. It has an effect on how a people sees itself, how positive its outlook is, and how in control of their destinies its people feel.

I am struck, for example, with how much more confident Scotland feels since devolution. I feel the same in Wales. Rather than railing at a Westminster government which, however hard it may try, is too distant from their concerns to be able to respond to them, people in the smaller British nations seem now to have not only a political but a cultural outlet for their needs and desires. Their Welshness and Scottishness is represented as well as their votes. However much they may complain about their assemblies or parliaments, which of course they do, they would not give them up because they are closer to the people and have been forced, sometimes against their will, to use the peoples’ language.

England, by contrast, is in a cultural mess. A while back I spent nine months travelling the country meeting people from all backgrounds, and this was very clear. The English feel that they are not listened to. They feel that their Englishness is not respected by a political establishment obsessing over Britishness. They feel they do not get the same treatment as the other UK nations. Their town centres are being carpet-bombed by chainstores, their sense of place and identity and continuity as a nation is being eroded by decisions made by corporations and by the British government. They are also – and this is now at the forefront of debate – bearing the brunt of a very high wave of immigration which is causing real upheavals in some areas, they are governed in some cases by representatives from other nations and government of their own has been cut up and hived off to regional assemblies they have never heard of and cannot hold to account.

As a result, they are unhappy. Unhappy is a word i would apply to much of England today, and it seems to me to be the unhappiness of an unrepresented people. I was not surprised to see almost a million BNP votes at the last election. To me Nick Griffin – who I have to put up with as my own MEP in the northwest – is a symptom not a cause of a national malaise. The BNP are not an English party, but much of their support is in England and I suspect that if we had a more positive, forward-looking and fair political settlement in which peoples’ concerns could be heard properly and not subsumed beneath the weight of a government concerned primarily with the British economy and Britain’s place on the international stage, then the BNP bubble would be at least partly deflated.

I think that the people of England are unheard in the UK settlement at the moment. It sounds at first like a curious thing to say; after all they are 50 out of the 60 million UK citizens. But they have no direct outlet for their concerns as a nation, and they have had no say in what being a nation means to them.

This is going to have to change, because a pressure to change it is clearly building. I would suggest that an English settlement could release some of the pressure that is building up, and give the people of England a positive outlet for the concerns and feelings they clearly have about where their country is going. My choice would be a parliament for England. But what I would suggest is that the English should, like all the other UK nations, be given the chance to vote on how they are governed. I would like to see an English referendum in which three choices are laid out as to the future government of England: the status quo. Strong regional assemblies; or an English parliament. This, and the debate which would precede it, would be a wonderful first step to giving the English people their voice back again. I don’t think we should underestimate how unheard they feel that voice is at the moment.

Paul Kingsnorth is the author of “Real England: The Battle Against The Bland“.