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.