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.