Paul Kingsnorth’s speech to the Campaign for an English Parliament’s ‘Future of England’ debate, 26 April 2008
I don’t want to talk about the constitutional problems thrown up by the unequal devolution settlement. I hope we all know by now that the situation is unfair; that the people of England are being loaded with things that their representatives in the main voted against – foundation hospitals, for example, tuition fees or a third runway at Heathrow.
I hope we can all accept that devolution has created a bias against England that needs to be righted. What was seen by some as devolution from England to the other UK nations was in fact devolution from the British government to only three out of four UK nations. You don’t need to be English to see this as unfair, and you don’t need to be of any particular political persuasion. It is a simple matter of democracy and fairness that this situation should be righted.
But instead of talking about the political and constitutional case for a fair English settlement – and there are people here far better qualified to do this than me – I would like to talk about the cultural case, because I think it is a strong one.
England is the only nation in the UK without its own government, it is the only nation in the UK without its own representative assembly. Arguably it is the only nation in Europe without these things too. It is the only nation in the UK whose people have not been given a say in how they are governed. I think this is having a big cultural impact on its people.
It seems to be a truism within the political classes that people don’t care about ‘constitutional issues’. They care about crime, healthcare, education, immigration, but not about the AVplus voting system and the reform of the house of lords. In one sense this may be true, but in another sense, how people are governed and how much of a say they have in that government clearly has a cultural impact. It has an effect on how a people sees itself, how positive its outlook is, and how in control of their destinies its people feel.
I am struck, for example, with how much more confident Scotland feels since devolution. I feel the same in Wales. Rather than railing at a Westminster government which, however hard it may try, is too distant from their concerns to be able to respond to them, people in the smaller British nations seem now to have not only a political but a cultural outlet for their needs and desires. Their Welshness and Scottishness is represented as well as their votes. However much they may complain about their assemblies or parliaments, which of course they do, they would not give them up because they are closer to the people and have been forced, sometimes against their will, to use the peoples’ language.
England, by contrast, is in a cultural mess. A while back I spent nine months travelling the country meeting people from all backgrounds, and this was very clear. The English feel that they are not listened to. They feel that their Englishness is not respected by a political establishment obsessing over Britishness. They feel they do not get the same treatment as the other UK nations. Their town centres are being carpet-bombed by chainstores, their sense of place and identity and continuity as a nation is being eroded by decisions made by corporations and by the British government. They are also – and this is now at the forefront of debate – bearing the brunt of a very high wave of immigration which is causing real upheavals in some areas, they are governed in some cases by representatives from other nations and government of their own has been cut up and hived off to regional assemblies they have never heard of and cannot hold to account.
As a result, they are unhappy. Unhappy is a word i would apply to much of England today, and it seems to me to be the unhappiness of an unrepresented people. I was not surprised to see almost a million BNP votes at the last election. To me Nick Griffin – who I have to put up with as my own MEP in the northwest – is a symptom not a cause of a national malaise. The BNP are not an English party, but much of their support is in England and I suspect that if we had a more positive, forward-looking and fair political settlement in which peoples’ concerns could be heard properly and not subsumed beneath the weight of a government concerned primarily with the British economy and Britain’s place on the international stage, then the BNP bubble would be at least partly deflated.
I think that the people of England are unheard in the UK settlement at the moment. It sounds at first like a curious thing to say; after all they are 50 out of the 60 million UK citizens. But they have no direct outlet for their concerns as a nation, and they have had no say in what being a nation means to them.
This is going to have to change, because a pressure to change it is clearly building. I would suggest that an English settlement could release some of the pressure that is building up, and give the people of England a positive outlet for the concerns and feelings they clearly have about where their country is going. My choice would be a parliament for England. But what I would suggest is that the English should, like all the other UK nations, be given the chance to vote on how they are governed. I would like to see an English referendum in which three choices are laid out as to the future government of England: the status quo. Strong regional assemblies; or an English parliament. This, and the debate which would precede it, would be a wonderful first step to giving the English people their voice back again. I don’t think we should underestimate how unheard they feel that voice is at the moment.
Paul Kingsnorth is the author of “Real England: The Battle Against The Bland“.