Unity begins at home

Solving the Union’s problems must start in England

There’s little chance of Nicola Sturgeon’s plans for a second Scottish independence referendum being recognised by the UK government, but it will throw attention back on Scottish voters. Support for independence has dipped recently and there’s a distasteful streak of unionism that revels in the difficulties of independence, including the loss of the UK subsidy and the likelihood of a hard border with England required by the Brexit Scotland opposed. In any future binding referendum, the balance of power might end up lying with voters who want to leave but dare not vote for it.

If that happened, would those fears have “saved the union”? Not if the union (strictly the unions of Scotland and England, and of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) means shared values and aims. According to academics Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones, in their recent book on Englishness, being “British” is no longer an identity that unites the UK. Nowhere is it clearly the dominant identity, and to be British means many different things. In England, the “more British than English” tribe are largely cosmopolitan liberal Remain voters, while Scotland’s “more British than Scottish” were usually Leavers. And working-class unionism in Northern Ireland has a Britishness all of its own.

Break-up of the union may be less likely than stumbling on unloved. In Scotland, where the economic hurdle is too high, in Northern Ireland, where ascendant republicans lack a majority for Irish reunification, and in Wales, where former First Minister Carwyn Jones says, “the emotional hold of the union has been broken”. Even in England, once the heart of the union at the heart of the Empire, discontent is rife. The “more English than British” think devolution favoured Scotland. Their votes took the UK out of the EU, and many would rather the union broke up than forgo Brexit. Meanwhile, England’s “more British” reject that Englishness, but their cosmopolitan, well-educated Britishness largely spurns patriotism and eschews the nation-state. It’s a very English Britishness that has little idea of what Britain is.

England might imagine the UK is threatened by those who want to leave, but the real problem is at home. If England can’t imagine a different union, none can be found. But England is trapped. It clings to a long-lost Anglo-centric UK but lacks the institutions required to re-imagine either itself or the union for the 21st century.

The English always thought the union an extension of England and its institutions. It was an English view of parliamentary sovereignty that the constitutionalist AV Dicey asserted 180 years after the Act of Union. In practice, unionism had to accommodate both that English belief and Scotland’s claim to be a nation within the union. This is perhaps most starkly seen in the failure of a similar ambiguity for Ireland, which ultimately culminated in civil war and partition.

The tensions between these contradictory perspectives were lubricated by the spoils of empire. They supported the post-war construction of a British national economy. A recognisable British business class engaged with the social and economic aspirations of Britain’s organised working class through British politics – politics contested by the same parties on the same issues across the islands of Britain. Consequently, all sides agreed England must not have its own political identity. Recognising England would undermine the Anglo-centric identification of the union with English interests, while the other nations feared England would dominate and de-stabilise. “So unwieldy as to be unworkable”, said the Kilbrandon Commission’s rejection of an English Parliament in 1972. New Labour devolved power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but left England’s national governance unchanged. Labour still calls England “Britain”.

This suppression of England has not prevented the problem it was meant to avoid. Today, a government elected overwhelmingly in England, the largest, wealthiest and most unequal nation, imposes its will on the whole of the United Kingdom, while it lacks even the most basic element of national governance and democracy itself. If the immediate cause is the First Past the Post electoral system that in 2019 gave the Conservatives a 157-seat majority in England (but only an 80-seat majority across the UK), the underlying forces have been at work much longer. British politics began to unravel in the 1960s when modern Scottish and Welsh nationalism emerged and unresolved conflicts in Northern Ireland re-opened. Margaret Thatcher relied on English support but still faced a Labour opposition across Britain, which was able to eventually form a majority UK government in 1997. Only a brave Labour strategist would expect a similar result today. That is because since 2005 different parties have won general and national elections in each nation.

The class foundations of British politics have fractured. The Conservative Party of Boris “Fuck Business” Johnson no longer represents a productive British business class, but a cabal of property developers, rentier capitalists, privatisers, hedge funds and foreign oligarchs. Only in its imagination is Labour the party of a unified British working class. The assumptions of Anglo-centric unionism lie in tatters, and the allowance it made for different nations, forgotten.

The Conservative victory was in England, but Boris Johnson is no English nationalist. His politics are aggressively Anglo-centric British nationalist, equating the UK’s interests with England’s in an unprecedented fashion. Whitehall’s sway over devolved issues is being re-asserted. The Northern Ireland Protocol is the price the province pays for an Anglo-centric hard Brexit. Wales and Scotland were pushed aside when the Internal Market Act replaced EU regulations. The result is chaotic relations with Ireland, the EU and between the nations of the UK and the UK government.

England is alone in the United Kingdom in having had no debate, let alone a referendum, on how it wishes to be governed

Anglo-centric unionism hasn’t even worked for England. As the reach of the mighty British union state shrank it pulled English power to the centre. Few other European nations see so much spending raised and controlled centrally. Local government has been stripped of power, resources, and authority. With no entrenched, devolved, focus for constitutional opposition, England’s union state has proved adept at financialising and privatising the economy, rewarding the owners of assets rather than entrepreneurs, and preferring foreign takeovers to domestic investment. Covid-19 and the current cost of living crisis have revealed the deep inequalities of income, health, wealth, education, ethnicity and geography.

England doesn’t even have a machinery of government. It’s run by a competing mishmash of departments, some UK-wide, some England-only, some English and Welsh, and some all three. Two decades after devolution gave England its own policy on health, social care, education, transport and agriculture, no cabinet committee let alone a minister co-ordinates England’s national policy and implementation. With no democratic national forum, England is alone in the United Kingdom in having had no debate, let alone a referendum, on how it wishes to be governed. No wonder Brexit tore us apart.

In 2001 it made little difference whether a voter was English or British. But strongly held English ideas of national sovereignty and democracy allowed EU membership to become the focal point for resentment of economic, political and geographical marginalisation, and of cultural fears of immigration. Englishness gained a new political salience. It drove support for Brexit and gave Johnson 70 per cent of the “more English than British” vote in the 2019 “Get Brexit Done” election, while Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour won among the “more British” voters.

Over the 21st century, most of England’s voters have become more liberal on inclusion, migration and diversity. The Brexit upsurge was more about democracy and voice than a swing to the right. Yet it’s hard to see how England heals its divisions without becoming a democratic nation. The Commons, elected by proportional representation to prevent the domination of an English minority, should enable English MPs to make English Laws, hold ministers to account and become a national forum for England. England must have a machinery of government that can empower its local communities. With England seeing itself in a union of nations, not the nostalgic remnant of an Anglo-centric Britain, the rights of all nations to manage their own affairs and shape the UK’s macro-economic, trade, defence and foreign policy can be placed on a robust, legal and constitutional footing. Then we might find a union with shared goals: zero carbon, the post Brexit economy, social and economic inclusion, and better relations across these islands and with Europe. The union’s problem is England. The solution is in England.

Prof John Denham is the Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Southampton University. A former Southampton MP, he was a Cabinet Minister in the Labour government and also chaired the Home Affairs Select Committee

Current Affairs

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed

Related Posts