Mike Knowles: Future of England

Speech by Mike Knowles to The Campaign for an English Parliament’s “Future of England” Conference, 26 April 2008

We are here to consider the future of England.

Why should we have a concern for England’s future?

After all, England has been around for a long long time. The Venerable Bede wrote a History of the English Nation (gens anglicana) in 731, 1300 years ago. Even then there was recognition of a distinct English identity. And England became a unified nation state in the 10th century, if not before, the first nation state in Europe. ‘There’ll always be an England’, the song says. What is there to be concerned about?

There are a number of things. Very serious things. For example, there is the future of England’s environment which is being battered and kicked about like a tin can in an alley. There is the issue of local and national cohesion, weakened and dangerously misdirected by governments over decades. For us, unlike our governments, England is one people, that is our campaign belief, no matter the differences of ethnicity, religion and cultures. An English parliament will be for everyone for whom England is home and future. And then there is the issue of the European Union, a huge growing issue in respect of national identity and self-government, not just for England but for every nation state in Europe. Just to mention three major issues about England out of many.

But our concern today is another one. It is, in the pithy phrase of Philip Johnston of the Telegraph, about England’s identity and governance. It is about our right to have our English identity given the same political and constitutional recognition as has been given to that of Scotland and Wales and about England getting the same degree of self-governance as Scotland has and potentially Wales has. It is about England’s future in the United Kingdom and its relationship to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That is not a narrow concern. I would maintain that it is the platform from which all our other concerns can be effectively addressed and resolved.

As up to 1998 England’s future like that of Scotland and Wales was just as part of the UK. But the 1998 devolution legislation changed all that.; and the constitution of the United Kingdom fundamentally. It had two basic principles::
(1) devolution is granted as to nations. The language of the legislation spoke of Scotland and Wales as nations, not as anything other than nations.
(2) devolution is self-rule by means of a national parliament or assembly separately elected.

Devolution 1998 established Scotland and Wales, constitutionally and politically, as distinct and separate nations within the United Kingdom, with their own parliaments; and formally terminated the political fact established in 1707 of one British nation with one parliament.

A parliament, where freely chosen as in Scotland’s case, is the most potent and effective statement of a common national identity; and the Scottish Parliament has governance of all Scotland’s internal affairs. It has made Scotland 75% independent of the UK. And it has this feature, one that cannot be given too much significance- it is a parliament with 129 members who are there as Scots. Not as British but there as Scots. To represent not British interests but those, and only those, of Scotland. And the same principle obtains in Wales too with its 40 Assembly members. I cannot emphasise it enough, they are elected to govern in the specific interests of Scotland and Wales, not Britain. And England? Nothing. No recognition. no self governance, no parliament or assembly, no voice, no MPs elected to concern themselves solely with English interests. Instead, to make matters even worse, the insultingly undemocratic direct opposite -the WL situation. Scotland’s future, like that of Wales, is now in the hands of their own people. England’s future is not in the hands of the English people at all. And 550 MPs from England voted for all of this.

But that was them. Besides them there is us. A second thing happened in 1998. Unheralded, and unnoticed -but it will prove no less important than either the 1707 Act of Union or the 1998 devolution legislation. On June 14th 1998, ten years ago, six people met in a house in Thetford Forest in Norfolk. They founded the Campaign for an English Parliament. Guy Green, Tony and Pearl Linsell, Roy Meadowcroft, Harry Bottom and Terry Brown. In the Policy Document which remains the foundation statement of the campaign ever since, they made this statement: ‘The people of England have an identity separate from a British identity, and they need a parliament and a constitutional arrangement which recognises that identity and serves their special interests‘. The statement is about governance and identity. It is a demand that the two foundation principles of devolution implemented in Scotland and Wales, be applied equally to England.

That is our vision for England’s future which for the Scots and the Welsh is already a reality. A nation once again. Like what they have. Just like what the Union government, the political set, gave them. On it depends so much that also has to be done for England: environmentally, governmentally, and culturally and socially in respect of community and national cohesion. It does not challenge the existence of the Union. All it does is call for the changes in the Union already brought about by the 1998 legislation to be extended to England.

But there are other visions too of England’s future. It is with just one that I will deal. It is that of Gordon Brown. It is the one that matters because he is the Prime Minister. His is a vision of Britain and of England consisting, as he says repeatedly, of ‘nations and regions’. By nations he means Scotland and Wales, by regions he means the divisions of England into regions. No political or constitutional recognition of England as a nation, or of its identity; as was explicitly given to his own Scotland in the 1998 legislation. No English Parliament; its territory to be the only part of the United Kingdom ruled in every aspect by the British parliament. It is a policy that would terminate England qua England altogether. And in the two years of office that might be all that is left to him, he will use every lever and every instrument of power in the British state to bring it about.

He will proceed by dictat. He will not place his plan for the future of England before the people of England by means of a referendum. The government burnt their fingers with the 2004 referendum in England’s North East counties and cities. For him the regionalisation of England is the device by which, with deliberate deception, he can fudge and, he hopes, dissolve the West Lothian Question. But more than that. Much more, For Brown the termination of England as a nation, and its dissolution into regions, will resolve the English Question. There can be no English Question if there is no England. He is already proceeding by dictat. He has already appointed 9 MPs as ‘regional ministers’, which was not in Labour’s manifesto. And there is open speculation that in his next reshuffle he will appoint a Minister for the English Regions. The battle lines for the future of England, for England to be or not to be, are being drawn between the Member for Kirkaldy and Cowdenbeath and us. Because we here in this hall are England.

What is it that is driving Gordon Brown to use all the power of the British State to deny to England what he has so successfully achieved for Scotland? In Edinburgh on March 30th 1989 together with 133 fellow members of the Scottish Constitutional Convention he signed, the Scottish Claim of Right, ‘We, gathered as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, do hereby acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs, and do hereby declare and pledge that in all our actions and deliberations their interests will be paramount’ He signed that pledge. So did the present Speaker of the House, Michael Martin.

Look at those words –Brown’s pledge to make the interests of Scotland ‘paramount in every action and deliberation’. We have seen what his deliberations are for England, what action he has taken already. Is it for Scotland then that he wants England to become a collection of regions? Does Brown see it as in the interests specifically of Scotland that England should in effect be denied devolution and a parliament and through regionalisation be terminated as a nation? He will of course deny it. He will argue that it is in the interests of preserving the Union, that for England with 80% of the population and producer of some 85% of its wealth to have its own parliament will fatally unbalance the Union. From the ardent Scots he declared himself in 1989 he’s now become the most ardent of Britishers. Why?

Brown signed the pledge to support the sovereign right of his own Scottish people to ‘determine the form of Government best suited to their needs’ and he got it in the form of a referendum. Doesn’t the people of England have that right too? On his terms only an outright hypocrite would say no. That therefore is what he is. But he is something even worse. The Member for Kirkaldy and Cowdenbeath thinks he can tell the English people what form of government is best suited to their needs’ The arrogance of the man is incredible.

The present arrangement of the Union suits Brown. In that he differs crucially from his fellow countryman Alex Salmond. Salmond believes Scotland has the economic critical mass to go it alone. And believes Scotland has the sovereign right to go it alone if it wants to. Brown believes that Scotland being in the Union best serves Scotland’s interests and does not have the sovereign right to choose otherwise. I believe that on the evidence we can say this: that for Brown England is the milch cow. England environmentally, England’s identity, does not matter to Brown. England could be windswept with plastic bags and its countryside hidden under concrete –no matter. What matters to Brown about England is just the wealth and the power it produces from which Scotland benefits.

It is he who is in power. That is why I am focussing on his plan for England. First and foremost we must address what threatens England now. Look at the forces lined up against us: the might of the United Kingdom government, all three political parties; a media either opposed or indifferent; the BBC which organises itself precisely the way Brown thinks of Britain, as nations and regions, a BBC which has a BBC Scotland, a BBC Wales, a BBC Northern Ireland and an Asian Network but adamantly refuses to have a BBC England; and heaven knows how many Establishment think-tanks like the Fabian Society, Democracy Unlocked, the IPPR and the Constitution Unit. To list but four. How can we possibly win against such a Goliath of forces like that?

We can and we will. Because our cause is both very just and very fair’ We ask only for the principles of the 1998 legislation to be extended to England. We present the only just and fair answer to the West Lothian Question and the English Question’ and just as crucial, the only solution that will hold the Union together . And that is no silly idle boast. Strangely, unexpectedly, confirmation for that assertion comes from the very same Goliath of forces that oppose us. In the year 2000 in the Fabian Society publication ‘the English Question’ Professor Robert Hazell, Director of the Constitution Unit., a think-tank set up to promote the division of England into regions, asked what the 1998 devolution legislation might lead to in five to ten years’ time. ‘One option’, he says, ‘can be quickly dismissed: an English Parliament’. Seven years later, November 14th 2007, the Professor appeared as a witness before the Justice Select Committee and informed it that: ‘the closest to a complete answer to the West Lothian Question is a separate English Parliament’. It took him and his fellow university academics 7 full years to reach the conclusion the founders of this Campaign arrived at in a matter of hours in Thetford Forest.

And we are now surrounded by support. The latest four professional opinion polls, conducted in 2006 and 2007, averaged 60% in favour of an English Parliament. And how was it achieved? First, by the sheer instinct of the people of England for basic justice and for recognition of their own distinct identity. National identity is a birth right. It is what we are and we will govern ourselves by what we are, with all the complexities, variety and vitality of modern England, which together are producing a new, a changing and vibrant culture.

And secondly, it has been achieved by our unremitting campaigning and our arguments. Our weapons, our instruments in our struggle are not the arrows of the Cheshire bowmen as at Agincourt or the little boats of the men of Kent crossing to Dunkirk. No, our weapons and our instruments now are our arguments One brief summary of them, the Booklet ‘Devolution for England’, has been placed on every chair for you to take away, read, understand and tell people about, write to news papers about, organise branch meetings wherever you live and discuss. And you can take more if you want to for distribution. Knowledge is power. The influence and power of this Campaign has been incredible. Now, you must organise for England and for an English parliament wherever you live. You here in this hall, you are England.

We want England’s destiny to be in the hands of the people of England. Surely no more than a very basic human right.

Will England see it? It will. Of course not all of us possibly. But our attitude must be that embodied in the message which the London Correspondence Society gave to its delegates setting out across England in 1795. 1795 was a dark year. A year of harsh political repression in England. Hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, were in dire poverty and subject to terrible conditions as the Industrial Revolution changed and ravaged their lives. The delegates went out to get people to unite to struggle for the very basics of a decent living. And the message they carried with them should be ours. ‘Remember. You are wrestling with Injustice, not for yourselves only, for you may not see the full Day of Liberty, but for the Child hanging at the Breast

Thank you.