This England, What England? (Gordon Brown and the denial of England)

Originally published 13th November 2008

It’s taken seven months from petition end but finally, the Prime Minister has gotten around to replying to my ‘Say England’ petition. Since it’s been a while I will remind you of the details of the petition:

“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to stop saying ‘Our country’ or ‘This country’ when he is talking in relation to devolved issues such as health, education and housing. If Mr Brown is talking about English matters then he should say ‘England’, even if it is politically inconvenient for him to do so.”

Details of Petition:

There is a tendency amongst politicians of all hues to conflate England and the UK as if devolution had never happened. It’s less complicated that way. But devolution has happened and referring to England as ‘our country’ is confusing to a public that is not always aware that Mr Brown may be talking about policy areas that do not have a direct affect on his own constituents (to whom he is democratically accountable) because in Scotland those areas are the responsibility of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament and Government.

Gordon Brown (Andrew Marr interview, 6 Oct 07): “But what I want to do is show people the vision that we have for the future of this country in housing and health and education and I want the chance, in the next phase of my premiership, to develop and show people the policies that are going to make a huge difference and show the change in the country itself.”

Gordon Brown (PMQs, 10 Oct 07): “We will govern in the interests of the people, and what matters to the people is the health service, education, housing, and we will govern to make education, health and housing better in this country.”

The Government’s response:

The Prime Minister has been elected by the people of Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath to represent them in the UK Parliament. As Prime Minister he heads the UK Government. It is in this capacity that he speaks when articulating his vision for the future of the country.

This is stating the obvious. We are all aware that Gordon Brown, the member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, has been elected to represent his constituents and therefore legitimately holds a seat in the UK Parliament. However, England and the UK are two different entities, and even though Labour has no manifesto for England we are reasonably entitled to know which territory – which nation – Gordon brown is referring to when he outlines his policy and vision. Not just we in England, but also we across the United Kingdom, not least Brown’s own constituents in Scotland.

The Prime Minister’s intent is clear. Not only will England be denied national political expression as England, but she will also be denied mention, lest mention of her name raises awkward questions about Gordon’s own mandate.

In his capacity as an English MP, elected by Scots to vote on English Health and Education but not on the concomitant areas in Scotland, Brown’s democratic legitimacy rests on English policy being presented as UK policy; English interests and UK interests presented as indivisible from one another, and therefore the legitimate concern of Scots like himself and his constituents.

It’s a con-trick. Played not just on the English but on the Scots too, as look at the 2005 Labour Party’s Scottish Manifesto will show. For the 2005 General Election, to Westminster, Labour’s Scottish Manifesto took credit for measures that have gone through the Scottish Parliament, and made promises to Scotland over policy areas that were the responsibility of the Scottish Executive:

  • “Investing in schools”
  • “Action to reduce long NHS waits”
  • “In Scotland, we have abolished up-front tuition fees and introduced access payments of up to £2,000, targeted at students from lower income families, funded by the Graduate Endowment.”
  • “Labour has already delivered free local off-peak bus travel for Scottish pensioners.”
  • “We are providing the public with more convenient access to much better information about health and health services through the National Waiting Times Database.” (Curiously the National Waiting Times Database is not mentioned in Labour’s UK Manifesto.)
  • “We will modernise Scotland’s licensing laws.” (Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005, an Act of the Scottish Parliament.)
  • “In Scotland, pensioners will continue to benefit from our free central heating and home insulation programme.”
  • “As we continue investment and reform, we will drive for ambitious, excellent secondary schools across Scotland.”
  • “We have also turned around Scotland’s tourism industry.”
  • We are completing the gaps in the road network and will make major investment to complete the M74, upgrade the A8 and A80, and build the second Kincardine Bridge and the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route.

Even the BBC now understands the reality of devolution. Why then is it so very difficult for Gordon Brown and the Labour Party, who introduced devolution, to understand that it is no longer possible to speak of “this country”, or even “Britain” or the “United Kingdom”, when talking about things like Health policy? Why won’t Gordon Brown refer to England when it is England of which he speaks?