Devolution for England, a modest proposal

Here’s my submission to Compass’s How To Live In The 21st Century project:

Devolution for England

“It’s worked in Scotland and Wales!”

Contrary to the opponents, an English parliament would provide constitutional balance within the UK; an English parliament would have a progressive majority.

2. How does it fit with Compass’ core beliefs of equality, solidarity, democracy, freedom, sustainability and well being?

An English parliament would give England the same kind of representation that Scotland and Wales were granted in the late nineties and put an end to the anomaly of England-only laws being voted on by MPs whose constituencies lie in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland.

It would allow the articulation of a civic conception of English national identity – based not on race and exclusion, but on place and participation – as has happened to some extent in Scotland and Wales.

The arguments against: it would make no difference to ordinary people; it would encourage the break-up of the UK; and it would reduce England to Tory domination.

3. How does it build the institutions of social democracy, like social groups and collective and cooperative forms of ownership and control?

An English parliament will provide a focus for those issues that are currently decided by the British government – which is comprised of MPs from across the nations of the UK – issues such as healthcare and education.

The establishment of devolution involved referenda in both Scotland and Wales; there is every reason to expect that there would be a public vote within England on the question of a national parliament and this will reinvigorate a sense of popular soverieignty, perhaps leading to more decisions being made through the use of plebisites.

4. How much will it cost or raise and where will any cost come from?

An English parliament could sit in the Commons at no extra cost.

5. Which groups in the electorate are likely to support or oppose this measure? Is there any polling evidence you have on this?

In November 2006, an Ipsos Mori poll for the Sunday Telegraph found 68% support. In January 2007, a telephone survey conducted by ORB (Opinion Research Business) for the BBC last year found that 61% of people in England were in favour. In April 2007, an opinion poll conducted by ICM for the Campaign for an English Parliament found 67% in favour.

Opponents have long suggested that an English parliament would lead to the break-up of the UK, but polling suggests greater support in Scotland and Wales for an English parliament than for either nation’s idependence!

6. Is there a place or country where it’s worked? Please provide some information.

As above, it has worked in both Scotland and Wales.

7. What are the three main arguments in favour/against it?

The arguments in favour: it’s popular amongst the general public who have seen the benefits in Scotland and Wales; it would allow decision-making on issues specific to England; and it would lead to the transformation of the UK into a federal republic.

The butcher’s apron and the bus pass

While reflecting upon the centenary of the old age pension, it was pointed out to me by a senior citizen of my acquaintance that citizens over the age of sixty can now travel for free on England’s buses.

The English National Concessionary Travel Scheme has been welcomed by millions of pensioners and is a rare progressive policy by New Labour administration – though since pensioners are most likely to vote, it’s likely to be a cynical move.

Note that the cards feature the St George’s Cross and the red rose symbol of England:

The Labour party would be advised to drop Brown’s Britishness agenda as well as Brown himself (because he’s a useless Tory, not because he’s Scottish) – if there’s one issue the Conservative and Unionist party are weak on, it’s the position of England in the UK.

The ENCTS is a modest social-democratic policy, but it’s exactly the kind of inclusive Englishness needed to fight the fascist BNP and embarrass Cameron’s New Tories.

Government ministers are considering a windfall tax on the energy giants, with the monies going to help people struggling to pay the soaring bills – which is a pretty radical policy for Thatcherite New Labour. While they’re feeling open-minded, let’s hope they consider giving us an English parliament to go with the bus passes…

After St George’s Day, after Britain

Comrade Mark Perryman has this article up over at the Compass website and I think you should read it:

The first three terms of a Labour government have been constitutionally dominated by devolution. Whilst the English, at the outset of this process, mostly took a take-it-and-leave it attitude, the impact in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has been much more profound.

So much so that in May 2007 nationalist parties became a central part of government in each of these parts of our once united Kingdom.

Gordon Brown finally became Prime Minister just as Britain appears to be entering an irreversible drift towards some kind of separation. Although the time-scale remains uncertain, any idea that the moves towards devolved power will be reversed is an untenable position – whichever party wins the next Westminster General Elections. Yet Brown seems to be seeking to reinvent himself as the ‘Bard of Britishness’ (in a wonderful phrase from Tom Nairn).

Thirty years ago Tom Nairn was a lonely voice on the left in his argument about the Break-Up of Britain, and the democratic potential in bringing an end to the Union. Now it is Brown who appears the lonesome one when he urges us all to run a Union Jack up the flag pole in the face of the much greater appeal of identities framed by our English, Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish belonging. ‘British Jobs for British Workers’, Brown demanded, in front of a huge Union Jack backdrop at his inaugural Labour Conference as prime minister. This was an appeal to the most backward, defensive and narrow version of national identity, wrapped in a flag that increasingly lacks the unifying appeal he is so obviously seeking. One wonders how often Brown has been out canvassing back home in his constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, urging voters to fly a Union Jack out of their window to celebrate their ‘Britishness’, or stuffing Labour Party leaflets adorned with the same flag through letterboxes. Just what kind of response would Gordon get if he tried?

Instead of retreating into a sour-faced jealousy of our Celtic neighbours who have achieved something denied to the English – a measure at least of independence and difference from the one-flag-fits-all politics of the Union – the English would do better trying to learn from our nearest, if not always dearest. It is time to embark on a process founded on engaging with what England might become, rather than what it once was. Not just a St George Cross to stick out the car window and a national dress of bri-nylon football jerseys, but the beginnings of shaping some kind of state of independence out of those summer tournament bursts of ninety-minute nationalism.

It is time to move on from a simple celebration of the enormous, friendly and increasingly multicultural flag-waving parties of football’s world cups and Euros, or the rugby world cup and Ashes series. Instead we need to consider the connections between these eruptions of Englishness and a broader cultural, social, and political emergence of Broken-Up Britain. My thinking here is in part a response to points made by Beatrix Campbell. Speaking at a discussion of Billy Bragg’s book The Progressive Patriot, Beatrix questioned the centrality often awarded to football in re-imagining Englishness: ‘By aligning football with national identity you are ignoring the fact that football has been connected with some of the worst things in English history. It’s a mistake to think that national culture is defined by football. What is it about the insecurities of masculinity? Why would anybody want to think that football should define in any way at all the new English sensibilities?’ England and football have certainly been responsible for some of the nastiest expressions of English patriotism, but they have also contributed to moments of a popular, inclusive, multicultural Englishness. Yet Bea’s point is essentially correct: if football is all we’ve got, what kind of nation do we imagine England might become?

It is the discontinuity between the current version of devolution and common-sense democracy that is most likely to create the momentum towards change. It is in this context we cannot afford to ignore the potency of the BNP’s appeal. Jon Cruddas has been absolutely correct when he has talked about the BNP’s capacity to mobilise support by defining national identity not only racially, but as the frontline against both immigration and Europe. This, of course, is an option not limited to the far right: such defence-mechanism politics is resorted to by a much broader constituency. But if we fail to engage with these arguments they will almost certainly come to define Englishness on their own terms – of insecurity in the face of difference.

Our engagement should revolve around imagining England as a new nation, though of course it comes complete with an ancient history. Our history and language isn’t simply constructed out of an imperial and martial legacy, though it is pulled into different shapes by these past episodes, and migration and colonialism add layer upon layer to the story. The full English isn’t to be found by trying to locate a pure, deep English – a task which is thankless and futile. It is the mix, the impurity, that is so distinctive.

Environmentalism adds a key perspective to this English imaginary; in an era likely to be defined by the imperatives of climate change, this is no longer an added extra but central to progressive thinking. The rubric of Green politics is basing our preservation of the local in our commitment to the global. Does this offer us a different way of settling national and international loyalties, to their mutual benefit? A green and pleasant England – a patchwork of particularities – is one route to Jerusalem; and perhaps it has the potential to merge the progressive and the patriotic.

We urgently need to make a start on connecting popular affiliations to Englishness with a political expression for the emotional investment that so many share. No one should underestimate the difficulties in such a process, but that shouldn’t stop us recognising its crucial importance. What is required is a soft patriotism – one that is open and inclusive, and hard to take for those who favour hate and prejudice. Its aim: an England which will be for all, after a Britain that was always for some.

St George’s Day surprises

Yes, for the first time the St George’s Cross is flying from the roof of 10 Downing Street – but alas it will take second place to the Union flag. Said a spokesperson for the PM:

“The prime minister’s view is that of course we should celebrate our Britishness, but celebrating our Britishness does not mean we cannot also celebrate our Englishness, Scottishness, Welshness or Northern Irishness.”

Hmm, who on Earth celebrates their “Northern Irishness”? Northern Ireland doesn’t even have an official flag!

It’s a tribute to the artifice of Britain that there exists no patron saint for a day of celebration. It is at this time of the year that you see Union flags flying – reflecting the confusion between Britain and England in the minds of many English people, a misunderstanding which is encouraged, the better to diminish calls for devolution.

By the way, Mark Perryman has an article in today’s Guardian entitled “A nation for the building“:

England can usually be relied on to thrash Europe’s microstates on the football pitch. But Andorra, San Marino and Montenegro are all able to claim more of the trappings of a nation state than England. There may be a flag to wave and teams to cheer, but as another St George’s Day rolls around, the English don’t even have an anthem to call their own. Like it or not, however, the imagined community of England after Britain is in the process of construction. If those of us who are English fail to engage with this process, we risk seeing it dominated by the nationalist right.

Confusion is what typifies the state of the English. Eleven years of Blair and Brown have produced a constitutional jumble. In the face of increasingly independently minded Scotland and Wales, Gordon Brown’s big idea has amounted to little more than Britishness this, Britishness that. He wraps himself in the union flag in vain: we increasingly live in a land of St George, Welsh dragon, Scots saltire. No amount of flag-waving for the old union is going to change that.

The English lack the tools for a national democratic politics and make do with emotion and imagination, even if that takes the form of the new national dress – a nylon football shirt – and the expectation of a quarter-final penalty shoot-out failure. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm said of England: “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people.” But is football really all we’ve got?

It is no accident that English identity politics has largely been expressed in terms of fandom, rather than any party political movement for an independent England. In reaction to this popular, cultural patriotism, a do-nothing determinism has led the left-of-centre to write off its country as a Conservative nation, or worse. This is nonsense, however: Labour’s three consecutive election victories have been based on a bedrock of English votes.

A soft patriotism would celebrate a nationalist politics for three states on one island, mostly speaking the same language and with significant chunks of culture and history in common. We can learn from each other at the same time as we entrench our separation. The two are not contradictory. The contradictions that do exist are, after all, the product of unionism. This is neither Greater Britain nor a Little England in its place.

The St George’s Cross today has the potential to represent a new England – a nation that is almost impossible to imagine without black and Asian people as an integral part. The black experience is now interwoven into the fabric of English daily life in a way that is not so obviously the case in Scotland or Wales.

A new England will take shape out of a modern separation as well as ancient origins. We would do well to incorporate Blake’s vision of a green and pleasant land. Blake’s Jerusalem was both unmistakably English and universal in the ambition of its values – and if we’re searching around for an England anthem it’s not a bad tune, either.

My imagined nation I found in a real place: a Saturday at Wembley last autumn for an England game with my friends Nahid and Hajra in hijabs beside me in my bobble hat. Granted, not all would share in my dream of an England for all. But there is a space in which we can establish some kind of common purpose as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland take their leave – a purpose that combines our yesterdays with some of our tomorrows, and depends on popular identification. The process of imagining all this as a nation has begun. It is an irreversible process but with uncertain outcomes. Welcome to England.

· Mark Perryman, the editor of Imagined Nation: England after Britain, is convener of the London England Fans supporters’ group

Socialists for England!

Noel Currid, of AngloNoelNatter, has written an article for the What England Means to Me project, which thusfar has a handful of socialist contributors (including yours truly)…

I reproduce Noel’s WEMTM essay here in full:

I think of myself as an old-style English Radical in my politics, somewhere on the Left. I see the English people, whatever their origins, as having struggled for centuries to reverse the effects of the “Norman Yoke”. When I was about eight, living in a Labour-voting (or, more accurately, Tory-hating) household in the West Midlands, I remember learning at school about the Roman and Viking invasions of England and how they left eventually. Then when learning about the Normans, the obvious question to me was “when did the Normans leave?” I never got a decent answer at the time. As I got older the obvious answer was “never”, but l knew from the callous destruction of much of the West Midlands’ industrial base under the Thatcher regime that we were a nation of lions led by donkeys. When I was 19 I came across the Levellers in the English Civil Wars and their idea of the “Norman Yoke” which deprived the “free-born” Anglo-Saxons of their liberties after 1066. Ever since, I have basically held onto the idea that England is still under the thrall of a much-modified “Norman Yoke”. The faces and names may change (and if your ancestors came over in 1066 I don’t hold you personally responsible for anything!) but “the Thing”, to quote William Cobbett, has persisted for centuries. Its “golden thread”, to coin a phrase, runs from the “Harrying of the North”, Magna Carta (a baron’s carve-up), the Glorious Revolution (a banker’s coup d’etat) all the way up to New Labour’s paeans to “New Britishness”.

Why does anyone on the Left have hang-ups about the idea of being English? It sure beats the idea of Britishness. For about two decades I’ve thought the whole concept of Britishness (for which my spellchecker suggests “Brutishness”) as an idea whose time has gone. The only question is how we give the United Kingdom a decent burial. However, too many on the Left hold onto the idea of Britishness, fearing Englishness. However, how on Earth can holding onto the ideology of a big business dominated imperial state, which is in its death throes, be progressive? There is simply no “Britishness”, new or otherwise, that political progressives can subscribe to and be true to their ideals. It is a concept too weighed down by the gap between its democratic, enlightened rhetoric and the sordid reality that the British state has presided over for centuries.

Instead the Left should embrace English Radicalism, which inspired thinkers and movements such as the Levellers, Tom Paine, William Cobbett, the Chartists, the mutualist and co-operative movements, William Morris, the pre-1914 syndicalists and Guild Socialists such as GDH Cole. It was driven underground politically by the triumph of “top-down” socialism, in both its Fabian and Leninist forms, after 1918. Now that global “top-down” models of organising society, whether by states or corporations, are under attack from decentralising, democratic tendencies, it is time for the English Left to embrace a national identity that accords with the spirit of the age.

It also means we need a national identity that draws upon one of the most abused phrases in modern politics: “Little Englander”. The original “Little Englanders” were patriotic radicals who were opposed to the Empire building that underlay Britain’s participation in the 1899-1902 Boer War. Our nation can only be at ease with itself when we abandon imperial adventures, whether our own or on behalf of the USA or EU, and realise that our real gifts to the world are our language, our culture and our sense of humour, none of which the Normans gave us! (“Taking the piss” is something that William the Conqueror, Oliver Cromwell, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair would never appreciate!). We should become a country where, to quote Orwell, we “hate to see England either humiliated or humiliating anyone else.”

I was born in Walsall in the Black Country two weeks before the end of 1969. My mother was also born in the Black Country. My father was born in County Sligo. He came over in 1948 at the age of six after his dad served in the British Army during WW2 (and was to again in Korea in the early 1950s). However, I think of myself as English rather than British, and have done for 30 odd years. My blog is at: