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.