My Speech to the Convention on Modern Liberty

Transcript of my speech to the Convention on Modern Liberty, 28 February 2009

“I think almost every question that we have to deal with about the future of Britain revolves around what we mean by Britishness, whether it is asylum or immigration, the future of the constitution, our relationship with Europe or terrorism. Who we are, what we stand for, what we are fighting for, is crucial to any nation’s future in the modern world.”

Those are not my words, they are the words of Gordon Brown, speaking in 2005. But how true are they?

I certainly don’t view almost every political question through the prism of Britishness, I tend to view these questions on many levels, and one of those levels is as an Englishman. The Scottish Government, led by Alex Salmond, have their own ideas about immigration, the economy, their relationship with Europe and the constitution (which includes civil liberties). In Scotland they have thought about these issues as Scots and as they pertain to Scotland. It is perhaps because of this that Privacy International can praise Scotland for its civil liberties record while condemning the British Government for turning England and Wales into “endemic surveillance societies”. In England we are unlike Scotland because we allow the British state to retain the DNA profiles of innocent children, we have a national database of children and English kids are fingerprinted at school without their parents’ knowledge. This is not the England I want, these things are being done to England by a political class for whom the word England means absolutely nothing.

Gordon Brown continues:

“I want to have this debate…about whether Scotland has a different view of tolerance to England, or whether Scotland has a different view of the stiff upper lip and so on—I want to debate these things in far more detail.”

What has happened to that debate? We cannot have a debate on the ideological and political differences between England and Scotland because we are denied a debate about England and what it means to be English. The Government presses ahead with its Governance of Britain project, to define our values, and in Scotland there is a National Conversation (and Calman Commission), in Wales there’s a public debate called the All Wales Convention and in Northern Ireland a Human Rights Commission and an Assembly Road Show. For England there is nothing but denial. A point blank refusal by our politicians to mention the elephant in the room.

Gordon Brown tells us that Britain is based on a covenant that binds England, Wales and Scotland together and that there is no distinction between being proud to be British and being proud to be Scottish or Welsh because devolution acknowledges dual identity.

Well, if you’re Scottish or Welsh devolution does more than just acknowledge ‘dual identity’. Devolution is an act of national liberation, it is recognition of political and cultural difference, it’s a hiving off of political and moral authority, and it’s a division of those things that has occurred along national boundaries.

I would like to try a small experiment. I’d like everyone in the room to ask themselves three questions. Ask yourself:

1.What is my ethnic identity?
2.What is my national identity?
3.What is my state identity, my citizenship?

I’m ethnically English, my national identity is English (it’s England that has my allegiance, I feel that I belong to England and England belongs to me), and my state identity is British. My wife, on the other hand, is a Canadian citizen and her national identity is Canadian, so there is a marriage between her national identity and her citizenship – her national identity is formally recognised.

Now. This is not a test, national identity is a personal thing, and subjective, so don’t worry you’re not going to be judged on this. But can I have a show of hands to see who in the room considers their national identity to be British? (Yasmin Alibhai-Brown puts up her hand). And who considers their national identity to be Scottish? (Gerry Hassan puts up his hand)

The question that we should ask ourselves is why Yasmin and Gerry’s national identities should have constitutional recognition and political expression, but not mine?

In a speech to Guy’s IPPR in March 2008 Michael Wills went to great length to elaborate on why Britishness, and articulating our idea of Britishness, was so important, and he made great play on Britain’s tolerant and plural nature. British identity, he said, was different from English identity because it was “inherently inclusive”.

He then went on to reveal some IPSOS Mori polling (commissioned by the Ministry of Justice) that demonstrated that both whites and visible ethnic minorities have a greater sense of belonging to England than they do Britain.

To feel a sense of belonging to England is different to feeling comfortable describing yourself as English. Asians in Scotland, for instance, are much more likely to describe themselves as Scottish than English Asians are to describe themselves as English. The thought that I would like you to take away from this session is whether, in concentrating on building up Britishness, are we ignoring to our detriment the case for building an inclusive civic English national identity.

Before I came here I looked up liberty in the dictionary. There were a few definitions but the two that seemed most apt for this session on the national question were “the positive enjoyment of various social, political, or economic rights and privileges” and “the power of choice”.

I choose England.


UPDATE

I republish this speech because it asks a fundamental question about why some national identities should have formal recognition while others do not, but also because I want to make a point about nationalism and separatism. I call myself an English nationalist (despite the dirt that gets thrown at me for doing so) because I would like England to enjoy a discrete political identity and for English identity to form the basis of citizenship. We should celebrate an English national day, sing an English anthem, and elect an English government. I think there are benefits to be had from constitutional and cultural recognition of our society as a collective English demos. Does this mean that I am a separatist who wants to see an independent England? Not necessarily. The fact that my English identity goes unrecognised does not mean that I desire to put those who feel British-only or primarily British in my shoes – lacking political representation. I would much rather that the English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish AND British were represented. The fact that this wish seems unfathomable, unachievable or undesirable to the British political class (and to many Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English nationalists) does not dissuade me from the belief that a reformed union of nations would be the most desirable outcome.

The Rise of the Little Englander

Originally published 31st August 2013

“I thought about patriotism. I wished I had been born early enough to have been called a Little Englander. It was a term of sneering abuse, but I should be delighted to accept it as a description of myself. That little sounds the right note of affection. It is little England I love. And I considered how much I disliked Big Englanders, whom I saw as red-faced, staring, loud-voiced fellows, wanting to go and boss everybody about all over the world, and being surprised and pained and saying ‘Bad show!’ if some blighters refused to fag for them. They are patriots to a man. I wish their patriotism began at home.”

— J.B. Priestley
English Journey, 1934

“Disgrace, you’re a disgrace” shouted Michael Gove at the Tory and Lib Dem rebels who refused to fag for David Cameron by supporting the Government motion on Syria. The rebels were, however, merely reflecting public opinion in England and the UK as a whole. Tory attack dogs on Twitter have denounced them as ‘Little Englanders’ and ‘Pacifists’ – as if those were bad things – and opined that Britain’s standing in the World has been damaged.

In actual fact those Little Englander rebels may have helped save Britain. Scottish MPs overwhelmingly voted against the Government motion and it is highly probable that the Yes Campaign would have benefited if Scotland had been dragooned into a war by English MPs.

One anonymous senior minister, quoted by Mark D’Arcy, reacted by claiming that “The Commons has decided it wants this country to be Belgium,” blaming a rise in UKIP-style Little Englandism (but not ‘Little Scotlandism’). George Osborne worried that the vote could put a strain on Britain’s special relationship with the US and suggested we might search our souls:

“I think there will be a national soul-searching about our role in the world and whether Britain wants to play a big part in upholding the international system, be that a big open and trading nation that I’d like us to be or whether we turn our back on that. I understand the deep scepticism that my colleagues in parliament and many members of the public have about British involvement in Syria. I hope this doesn’t become the moment where we turn our back on the world’s problems.”

Paddy Ashdown said that the rebellion “diminishes our country hugely” and has “smashed our relationship with the United States”.

I could quote more in a similar vein from red-faced, loud-voiced fellows who’re worried about Britain’s standing in the World, but you get the general drift. David Cameron has now been written off as broken, weakened and lacking authority but we shall give him credit for arguing his case before Parliament, attempting to build consensus but accepting Parliament’s decision and the mood of the people with magnanimity:

“It is very clear tonight that, while the House has not passed a motion, it is clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the government will act accordingly.”

The ability of Britain to continue to “punch above its weight” on the World stage rests not only on the will of Parliament but also on the continued existence of Britain. The rebels may be the advance guard of a Little England populism that mirrors the non-interventionist instincts of Scottish and Welsh nationalism. If so then it is an irony that this Little England-English nationalism has prevented Big Englanders from bombing Syria against the will of Scottish MPs and in doing so saved the Union.

Little England will watch from a sidelined, diminished Britain as America and France strut the world stage. Our Prime Minister will beat the drum over Gibraltar and reaffirm the ‘special relationship’ but there will be no disguising the fact that one of the supposed raison d’etres of the Union – the ability to punch above our weight – will have taken a rabbit punch.

Time for an English Labour Party

Tom Watson has eagerly embraced Scottish Labour’s call to sacrifice England on the altar of Unionism. Forget those old-fashioned ideas of a ‘union of nations’. What we need for the 21st century (according to Watson) is a ‘union of nations and regions’; where Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are the nations, and ‘England’ is ‘the regions’. To save you time I have prepared a precis of his speech:

I welcome the motion passed here yesterday, calling for a People’s Constitutional Convention.

Not just to set out what powers should return to the devolved nations following Brexit, but what powers should be given to the English regions rather than Westminster.

In Tory Britain whole regions and nations are being left behind.

Especially those regions like mine, the Midlands, and nations like yours, Scotland, which helped to make the country wealthy in the industrial revolution and beyond – but have been neglected by Tory Britain for too long.

Too many decisions about our communities are made in Whitehall, Westminster and the Square Mile, by people who don’t show enough concern for regions that are more remote.

As a country, we cannot go on in the same old way.

In the Brexit vote, large numbers of people in the regions concluded that politics isn’t working for them.

Scottish Labour says that instead of repatriating powers from Brussels to Westminster they should be handed to the nations and regions.

I favour the regions and nations taking from Brussels powers over agriculture and fisheries, regional policy, social funds, and environmental protection.

We can unite together on a radical programme of constitutional change for the regions and nations of the UK. Not everyone forced to go at the same pace; that would be against the spirit of local control of decision making.

We should bring together representatives from local government, business, the trades unions, faith groups and NGOs from every region and nation.

And it’s about how we can unleash the economic potential of every part of the UK.

How we can transfer power from the centre to the regions and nations.

How we can ensure a fair allocation of resources based on need.

And that means power to all of us – here in Scotland, in the North East, the North West, Yorkshire, Wales – power to the north.

Once again, Scotland shaping the future.

Not because Scotland is leaving the UK but because Scotland is leading the UK.

If you’re English you could be excused for thinking that the Labour Party doesn’t much like you. They seem desperate to partition England up into Scotland-sized chunks to secure Scotland and prevent any national English voice. The idea that there could be an English demos, that English identity could form the solidarity and provide the social contract for positive change, seems entirely alien to them. Presumably because (with the exception of John Denham, Tristram Hunt and a few other lone wolves) the entire Labour Party seems to be composed of people who are uncomfortable with – if not downright opposed to – the very thought of England.

Even if Labour did manage to harness the anti-politics and anti-Westminster mood (created by them just as much as the Tories) to convince the English to abolish England as a discrete nation, they wouldn’t be rewarded with Scottish obedience. The Scots don’t want to be the equivalent of an English region. The Scots might be satisfied with a federal union of nations, in which England and Scotland have equal powers in relation to each other and in relation to Westminster, but for the UK Labour Party that option is off the table due to their institutionalised loathing of England.

If only there was an English Labour Party to oppose the Corbyn, Watson and Dugdales of the UK and Scottish Labour parties.