Wednesday 24 April 2024

Frank Field: The Strange Death of Labour England?: Revisiting Bagehot’s English Constitution

To mark the death of former Labour MP Frank Field on St George's Day 2024, we are republishing his Chancellor's Lecture to the University of Hertfordshire. At Westminster, Frank was a tireless campaigner for an English parliament and something of a lone voice on the Labour benches when it came to speaking for England's sense of nationhood. Rest in Peace, Frank.

Frank Field meeting Birkenhead's own St George today at Bidston Avenue Primary School in 2015

The Strange Death of Labour England?: Revisiting Bagehot’s English Constitution

The Chancellor’s Lecture
given at
The University of Hertfordshire
on the
3rd June 2008
The Rt. Hon. Frank Field MP


English voters are awakening from the great slumber into which they fell when Parliament passed its first devolution measure establishing a Scottish Parliament.

The Act of Devolution cannot be a final settlement. Indeed the Scottish Labour leader, Wendy Alexander, registered as much when she recently called for an early referendum on independence. Yet her plea was couched as though it was an exclusively Scottish matter. For reasons I am about to detail any referendum needs to be UK wide. The English, Welsh and citizens of Northern Ireland have as much interest and as much a right to be consulted over the break up of the Kingdom, and on what terms, as do the Scots themselves.

Pressures have been building up to revisit the devolution settlement. The English feel that the settlement is unfair both constitutionally and financially. Scottish Members vote on legislation that does not affect their constituents but it does mine. Likewise, the fiscal disadvantages devolution places on my constituents compared with Scottish and Welsh voters, will also ensure that there is inevitably a second great Devolution Act. The fiscal discriminations cover, for example:

  • frail citizens in Scotland not facing residential care home fees as they do in England;

  • Scottish citizens being treated with the Lucentis drug for macular degeneration of the eye while English citizens simply lose their sight awaiting action from NICE;

  • Scottish students going to University not paying top-up fees of £3,000.00 per year as do English students going to University; and,

  • most English citizens paying prescription charges while none face such charges in Wales.

These advantages would be entirely acceptable if they were funded by Scottish and Welsh taxpayers. Yet the Scottish Parliament has resolutely refused to use any of its fundraising powers and, of course, the Welsh Assembly has no such powers to employ.

The choice is not whether there will be a second devolution measure. That will occur. The choice is now about who will lead the change – whether it will be Gordon Brown or David Cameron. No one is better placed than the Prime Minister, representing a Scottish constituency, to deliver justice to English voters. The political rewards of doing so could be considerable.

The dangers for Labour of failing to lead the debate are perhaps even greater. That conclusion may come about not simply by the Tories being generally accepted by voters as the English Party. An even worse outcome would be for Labour to concede to the BNP yet another issue – along with immigration – with which to appeal to Labour’s core voters. If this was allowed to happen we would then begin to witness what a future historian might call The Unnecessary Death of Labour England?


I begin by thanking Lord Salisbury for a further act of friendship by inviting me to give the Chancellor’s Lecture. I remain grateful to him and Lady Salisbury for the many acts of kindness they have extended to me over three decades of much valued friendship.

Walter Bagehot may not be as well known to many of you as he is to your Chancellor. But if I had been standing here a hundred and forty years ago this would not have been so. Bagehot was one of a small group of Victorians who had what is called today ‘name recognition’. Not a recognition, to be sure, like that of Mr Gladstone who was Prime Minister and superstar rolled into one. Bagehot was not quite in that league. But among a significant proportion of the population his was a name with which to conjure.

Bagehot was a journalist of great distinction. He edited The Economist, the weekly magazine that now sells a record 1.2 million copies worldwide each week. But it is not for his editorial skills that Bagehot is now best remembered. His fame primarily comes from his study which he entitled: The English Constitution.

Political power on the move

This volume is a monument to Bagehot at his best. It reveals him to be one of the most original political observers of his day. Bagehot was less interested in the persons who strut and fret their hour upon the stage and, as Shakespeare tells us, are then heard no more – although it is doubtful whether he could have written his great book without this day to day contact with political action.

When Bagehot came to write his Magnum Opus he wasn’t much interested in the doings of those who exercised political power. Much more important, Bagehot thought, was the recording of those institutions through which power was exercised, how the hierarchy of institutional importance had changed, was changing, and would continue to change. If politicians as a class want to exercise power they have to be ready over time to indulge in a never ending game of musical chairs, moving as power moves from one political institution to another.

So why is Bagehot important to us today? Bagehot has an obvious attraction for the historian of ideas. He was the first writer with wide appeal to focus exclusively on how power within the British constitution had moved from the monarchy, to the great landed interests represented in the Lords, only for the Lords to see power shift to the Commons as the country moved to a universal franchise. Other writers had, of course, described this turn of events, but only as part of a much larger scene. Bagehot made the transference of power between institutions the canvas on which he painted his whole study.

But it is not as an historian of political ideas that Bagehot is relevant today. One of Bagehot’s other books was on the relationship between physics and politics. Here lies the key. Physics, as you know, is a term for those sciences which deal with natural phenomena such as motion, force, light and sound. Bagehot rightly saw political power as a force which was similarly almost impossible to contain in one place, let alone in one institution, on a permanent basis. Politics are never static. That is why the picture Bagehot painted, of political power on the move between the great institutions of state, was an accurate one. The institutions through which power was exercised had changed, was changing and would continue to change.

When I was an undergraduate a gifted labour politician, R H Crossman, wrote a new introduction to The English Constitution and this is the edition I read. Here Crossman brought up to date Bagehot’s story of power on the move. The Commons had lost out to the Executive. Later, Crossman as a reforming leader of the House of Commons during Harold Wilson’s Governments, tried to introduce a new range of Committees through which, he hoped, MPs would claw back some of the power they had lost to the Executive.

This story, it is true, was also told by other politicians who had the gift of observation. Quentin Hogg, who later became Lord Hailsham, only to revert back to his Quentin Hogg status, and then yet again to become Lord Hailsham, in a futile attempt to gain the power of the premiership, is a story in itself of a person moving between Lords and Commons twice over. Yet there is so much more to Lord Hailsham than his vain attempt to gain the keys to Number 10. Lord Hailsham was also a great craftsman of the English language, erudite, and an astute political observer. Even if he did not coin the phrase of an ‘elected dictatorship’, he certainly popularised it. Power had moved from the Commons to the Executive and Parliament had failed to develop counter balancing forces.

Power moves from London

If Bagehot were standing here before you today I believe he would radically change the framework within which he would now audit power. In Bagehot’s day much economic and most political power was exercised in London. As this is no longer so I believe his eye would have led him to open new chapters of his book. Since Bagehot wrote, political power has moved from London. That shift has primarily been to Brussels. More relevant for this address, it has also moved from London into the newly established Parliaments and Assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I am also confident that Bagehot would stress the adjective in his title The English Constitution.

The German Parliament has recently issued a report detailing how the vast majority of legislation going through the Bundestag is not now initiated directly by the German Government, or by German members of Parliament, but on the direction of Brussels. If that is a correct figure for Germany then similar figures must relate to all other member countries of the European Union.

I do not now want to use Bagehot’s eyes to develop this geographical movement of political power from London to Brussels. It was quite clear when we had the debate over the new European Constitution, which the Government prefers to call a Treaty, that voters rightly wished to have a say on whether that constitution should be adopted. Yet, while British voters are by a large margin against any further loss of political power to Brussels, they are far from clear, if the polls are to be believed, on how they might regain some of their lost sovereignty.

Rather, I wish to turn Bagehot’s eyes to the second and less remarked upon geographical movement of power within the United Kingdom: the establishment of a Parliament in Scotland and Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland and what will inevitably flow from these initial changes.

The Government seeks to present devolution as a process that is now complete. They could not be more mistaken. Devolution currently is a process, not a destination. That destination will inevitably be the establishment of Parliaments or Assemblies which treat the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom. A UK Parliament will then deal only with those matters that have not been delegated to each of the four country-based Parliaments.

The West Lothian Question

Sometimes political change is brought about by the sheer force of argument. More often, the political landscape begins to shift as a result of those people with enough power to bring about change beginning to flex their muscles. In the early days of devolution the then Member for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell, posed what has since become known as the West Lothian Question. Once some power has been conceded to a Scottish Parliament how could Scottish Members of Parliament continue to vote on issues from which their constituents were exempt? That was the question Tam posed and for which he, and now a growing body of us amongst the English electorate, are waiting for an answer.

The question initially carried little weight because, prior to establishing a Scottish Parliament, devolution could only be discussed at a purely theoretical level, and the English in particular have never been much interested in theory. In stark contrast, today, the debate is about the practical results of the first stage of devolution and those practical consequences are seen, in part, in the inequitable treatment between my constituents and the constituents of Scottish MPs.

I have constituents going blind through the macular degeneration of their eyes. The policy in England is that the Lucentis drug has yet to be formally licensed by NICE. Of those of my constituents in this position, one has a relative in Scotland suffering the same degeneration of his eyes as himself. His relative’s sight is being saved. For in Scotland, unlike in England, there are no restrictions on the use of this drug. My constituent, however, continues his downward path into blindness already so developed that, when I met him recently in Liverpool, he did not recognise me until I spoke.

The cost of personalised care in a person’s home or in residential accommodation is another growing bone of contention. Constituents of Scottish MPs do not face these charges although some of my correspondents from north of the border tell me the policy is not applied as universally as the English media reports. What is certain is that my constituents gain help on a means tested basis. They see their home for which they saved all their lives, and capital which they hoped to pass onto their children, being eaten away by the payment of fees their Scottish counterparts do not face. The Government has just published a consultation paper on how the English and Welsh should pay for the long term care. In stark contrast and without any consultation papers, the Scots receive free care.

There is a discussion to be had on whether housing capital is a form of savings which should be drawn down in weekly income to supplement a pension, or to meet nursing home bills. But that is a debate for another day. What is becoming centre stage is the birth of what can simply be called the politics or the question of England. That debate is beginning to focus around the objection English voters have to Scottish MPs voting on matters that do not apply to Scotland. The debate is also beginning to centre on the fiscal discrimination currently being experienced by the English, Northern Irish and Welsh people. My constituents do not believe it is fair that they should face a constitutional discrimination as well as meeting additional costs which identical people in Scotland, and to a lesser extent in Wales, do not face. This, in a sentence, is the English Question.

My third example is one which will probably strike a more immediate note with many younger people. Students attending University in this country will have to pay top-up fees of £3000 per year to the University towards the cost of their degree, to say nothing of the additional living costs while you study. In Scotland, higher education is provided completely free of charge and consequently Scottish students do not leave college with a huge debt as they do in England. Instead once Scottish students graduate they pay an endowment equivalent to less than one years worth of fees in England.

It is not, however, solely Scottish citizens that are enjoying such financial advantages. My last example concerns a decision that was made by the Welsh Assembly earlier this year. As of the 1st April all Welsh citizens ceased paying prescription charges for their medication.

English taxpayers stump up

There might be a case for allowing different levels of provision within the different constituent parts of the United Kingdom if those areas claiming favourable treatment paid themselves for those additional services. However, that is not what is happening. With respect to prescriptions, residential care, and student fees, Scottish and Welsh citizens are treated more favourably than English constituents and, furthermore, these differences are not financed by any additional revenue from Scottish or Welsh voters.

Wendy Alexander, the leader of the Labour opposition in the Scottish Parliament, has gone on record to advise the English to stop whingeing about Scottish cash. Figures from the Scottish executive show that, on average, the UK Government spends £1,236 more on every person in Scotland than it does in England. The Scottish Labour leader went on to say that “it does not come down to numbers. Every part of the UK outside London is a net beneficiary from the Exchequer, and Scotland does not get a uniquely good deal”.

But that is what it does come down to. Numbers are, after all, the only means we have of measurement, and indeed the Labour leader in Scotland is wrong to assert that every region bar London is a net beneficiary from the Exchequer. Three regions are net contributors and they are all in England.

It is true that regions like Merseyside, part of which I represent in the Commons, are net beneficiaries of funds over the South East, but I come back to the examples I have already given. The different levels of funding do not result in different levels of services between the different regions of England. Yet my constituents suffering from degeneration of the eye are treated differently and less favourably from Ms Alexander’s. Similarly, students going to University from my constituency are treated differently and more unfavourably than students going to University from her constituency. Likewise, frail elderly constituents going into residential care in my constituency, or having personal care delivered to them in their own homes, are treated differently and more unfavourably than constituents in her constituency. Moreover, it is noticeable that there has never been a hint that Scotland should pay for its advantages by asking Scottish voters to pay directly for them.

A sign that the present settlement cannot continue came quite recently. As a prelude to her becoming the leader of the Labour Party in Scotland, Wendy Alexander conceded that the Barnett Formula – the fiscal settlement that entrenches the monetary advantage given to Scotland – should at least be up for debate. The new Labour leader is to be congratulated on acknowledging that the first Devolution Act has not delivered a final settlement in stone.

There are other pressures for change in addition to these inequalities. Four other events will bring the English question centre stage. The first came from the first speech from the throne which Gordon Brown wrote for the monarch. The content of the home affairs section of this Queen’s Speech applied in its entirety to my constituents. The same was not true for the constituents of the Rt. Hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. I concede that that need not be of immediate concern to the life of the Government. Its majority is assured in the Commons. But we need to think beyond the life of this parliament. How will these issues play in a General Election? I would hazard a guess that the debate in the country is likely to begin a new turn and will become less friendly to Labour in England.

The second event which will itself begin to engender change will be the Budget. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, himself sitting for a Scottish constituency, published the pre-budget statement along with the much delayed deliberations on public expenditure levels for 2008-09 to 2010-11. These publications offer an opportunity to begin discussing in earnest the Barnett Formula. I am anxious to seek ways in which all public expenditure announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer can be defended on need, and not simply by historic accident. People on lower income levels in Scotland and Wales should continue to be supported but not to a greater extent than people living on the same level of income in my constituency.

The inequities in the present system are not defensible and should be addressed. But there is for Labour a real threat which could all too easily have a catastrophic impact on the party’s ability to challenge for power in England.

The Blair Governments stubbornly refused to face the English Question somehow believing that, if it recited enough times the word ‘British’, the English would become confused enough to let current matters rest. But polls suggest otherwise. During the last Scottish Parliamentary elections, for example, those polls that addressed the devolution question to the English found that there was a higher proportion of voters in England in favour of greater independence for England than there were Scottish voters wanting that independence for their country.

The English Question, that slumbering giant in British politics, is beginning to stir. Either Labour can complete that process of awakening by seeking a radically new settlement. Or that debate will inevitably be initiated by those who will be less friendly to Labour’s interest. Failure to act may not simply benefit the Conservative Party. Further inaction could provide the BNP with another political bridgehead into the core Labour vote.

Gordon Brown is ideally placed to lead this initiative. Just as it was conventional wisdom that the Tories were best placed to enact decolonisation so, similarly, will a Scottish Prime Minister be best placed to resolve the English question.

By initiating a debate, and admitting that at this stage no one quite knows where the process will lead, Gordon Brown would both set some of the parameters as well as the speed of the debate. More importantly, the new devolution settlement would be one upon which Labour can put its imprint. And most of us know how first impressions are often decisive.

The Prime Minister does not have much time if he is to be seen to be the instigator, rather than simply reacting to the next wave of devolution. Since drafting this lecture Wendy Alexander is showing a strong political will where Scottish Labour interests are put before the equivalent UK interests. It shows how strong the myths of political parties are that David Cameron is so blinded by the Unionist part of the Conservative Party’s logo that he doesn’t see that he leads in all but name an exclusively English Party. The Tories are hard-pressed to win a single seat north of the border or across the Irish Sea. All their seats bar four come from English constituencies.

England is in resentful mood. It believes that the settlement made during the first round of devolution was unfair and remains so unfair that it is becoming one of the festering sores in English politics.

A further advantage of Gordon Brown beginning a debate on an English Parliament would be that he would hopefully extend the agenda to cover the voting system as well as the powers of an English Parliament, although it was noticeable that the biggest constitutional question facing the country was omitted from the terms of reference for the Speaker’s Conference the Prime Minister intends calling.

It should also set new parameters to the debate on House of Lords reform. The second chamber should become a vocal point where UK interests are debated and settled. A regional elected Lords would have the authority to do this, although such a turn of events, with the second chamber gaining new key powers, would excite Bagehot, amongst others.

Anyone who has heard the Prime Minister in private realises that his views on devolution are set by the need to protect minorities in an island dominated by the English. This may be an argument that wins through in the end, but it won’t if Britain slides resentfully into a new political arrangement after little meaningful debate.

But that is an issue to be fully debated in the round. The question is not whether there is going to be a new debate leading inevitably to a new devolution settlement, but who will lead that debate. Will it be Brown or Cameron?

Pressure for change may come from a third force. Alex Salmond has played a pretty faultless hand since becoming First Minister in Scotland. In his White Paper on Scottish Independence he has made it plain that he sees the monarch as continuing to be the head of an independent Scotland. That statement alone neutralises one of the political cards which Alex Salmond might have found being played against him. But it does so in a way that begins to lay down how the four independent countries of the UK would continue to work together on those political issues which cannot be settled by each country’s constituent Parliament.

If past form is anything to go by, Alex Salmond will be a very proactive player in this debate which is another reason why I would plead with the Prime Minister to act quickly. One move I would expect the Leader of the Scottish Parliament to make shortly would be to agree with the nationalist parties in Wales, and Northern Ireland that no nationalist Members who normally attend Westminster will in the future vote in the UK Parliament on those issues which have been devolved to each country’s constituent Parliament or Assembly. There is no single move which would highlight more clearly the role Scottish Labour Members of Parliament play in voting through laws which only apply to England. Gordon Brown needs to act to prevent the English question erupting in the run up to a general election. At that stage it will be too late for the Government to save its face in many of its English seats.

Power moving between political parties

There is also a fourth and final force at work making for a new Devolution Bill and this relates also to Bagehot’s analysis pinpointing the mobility of political power. Bagehot lived during the establishment of two recognisable political parties that began competing for power from a growing electorate. Part of his brilliance was to notice that, as these parties were establishing themselves to act as the agents through which our ideas of representative and responsible government would operate, political power was also on the move between the institutions through which these political parties would exercise power.

Great as Bagehot’s powers were they did not extend to futurology. It was decades after his death political power moved again, but this time not just between the great institutions of state, but by the replacement of Liberal Party by the Labour Party.

That fate was determined by the failure of the Liberal Party to come to terms fully with a growing enfranchisement to the working class. Reluctantly Labour leaders responded to this failure by the Liberal Party to represent more fully the Labour interest by forming their own political party that significantly went under the banner of the Labour Representation Committee.

Parties that consistently fail to represent their core vote are liable to die. The fate of the Liberal Party was summed up in George Dangerfield’s book The Strange Death of Liberal England.

Labour stands poised at a similar juncture to that occupied by the Liberals prior to 1918. Labour has failed to represent its core vote on two issues which these voters put towards the top of their agenda. It has allowed uncontrolled immigration with its impact not just on earnings but more generally on housing, schools and other public services, to the disadvantage of working class English voters, both white and black.

Here is another opening for the BNP. Just as Labour voters have been prepared to support the BNP as a means of registering their wish to see the number of new arrivals to this country controlled, even more maybe prepared to look around to find a party that will assert their English identity.

I hope I have succeeded in demonstrating that Bagehot’s approach to studying English politics is as relevant today as ever. While spin may settle the daily political account it ignores those long term changes which prove fundamental to the kind of nation we are. I believe Bagehot would today suggest that we need to understand how power has moved from the UK Parliament in a way that damages English voters. It is an issue which, I believe, will come to dominate politics. I hope this might lead some of the students here to borrow a copy of Bagehot’s The English Constitution from the library. Perhaps others of you might buy a paperback edition which is still in print - a sure indication that publishers, if not all politicians, believe that Bagehot’s ideas are once again likely to become highly relevant. I hope above all that I have persuaded at least some of you to read this great classic as I did when I went up to University.


Let me in this conclusion move the debate further into today’s politics as I am sure Bagehot would have done. The two issues of immigration and Englishness have been denied a legitimate role in our parliamentary representative system. Speaker Weatherill was fond of asserting that, if parliament refused to discuss issues of great importance to voters, voters might try and settle these issues on the streets.

Speaker Weatherill did not see the role the BNP might play in keeping these issues largely off the streets by taking them back into the council chamber and then, if we fail to act, into parliament itself. Bagehot would have appreciated how new forms of representation might come about, and that a new political party would work through, instead of outside our political institutions.

The failure to act decisively to protect our borders accounts in part for the widespread disillusionment with Labour and, in particular by our core working class supporters. Failure to embrace the English Question will account for more than a political double whammy. It may act as the final straw for many families who have been Labour ever since we became a political force. To allow another party to embrace and steer the debate on the English Question harbours a danger that could threaten our existence as a major political force.

Too many voters have already thought the unthinkable on immigration and then acted by voting BNP. Labour voters are increasingly footloose and will vote against us at the General Election if they believe we have sold them short on both immigration and the English Question.

70 years ago what became a best selling book was written by George Dangerfield and published under the title The Strange Death of Liberal England. To concede the English Question to others because, in the short-term, that is the easiest course of action, could lead a future historian to write The Unnecessary Death of Labour England. We must act to keep such a book firmly in the realms of fantasy.  


Monday 22 April 2024

Labour is the party of English patriotism

The build-up to St George's Day 2024 was a busy one for Keir Starmer. His first offering was an article proclaiming Labour to be the true party of English patriotism.

I’m proud to be English precisely because it’s a place where we can disagree – whether that’s a debate in the House of Commons or in the local pub – and still celebrate a common identity, a shared history and a future together. That’s what makes Britain the strong democracy that’s the envy of the world.

As Caroline Lucas pointed out, the article conflated England and Britain.

Having watched Labour spend the English local election campaign referring to England as Britain and only using the Union flag on campaign literature, it was strange to read, only a day later, in another article, that Starmer had written to all Labour's general election candidates asking them to 'celebrate St George's Day with enthusiasm' and to 'fly the flag' on St George's Day. One presumes he only wrote to candidates in England, though the Guardian did not make that clear.

Why only on St George's Day? Why not fly the flag of England all year round? The problem, of course, is that the Labour Party is not an English party. It is a UK Party. It can only do English patriotism as a sideline, on special occasions, like St George's Day or when England is in a football tournament. To be a patriotic English party year-round would alienate the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish.

There is something to be said for banal nationalism. It might provide a sense of cohesion and make English identity more inclusive if Labour occasionally used England's national flag. But for a party to be truly patriotic, they need to have a vision of the type of country they want England to be and a means of achieving that - they need policies and a manifesto for England.

A third article, one that this time did not conflate England and Britain (possibly because it was only about sport), showed that maybe Starmer had set his mind to trying to articulate a vision for England, albeit within an extremely limited set of sporting parameters.

“The pride we feel in our sporting heroes and national teams runs deep in the country’s psyche. It forms our identity and is a cornerstone of our national life, and our national teams exemplify so much of what it means to English,” Starmer said.

“When I speak to young people up and down the country, the confidence, pride and patriotism that comes with national sport is clear for all to see. And that patriotism is a force for good in English sport.”

“We must widen access for the next generation, because if playing team sports is the preserve of a handful of children, we will simply miss out on the talents of so many. Only by harnessing our pride and patriotism can we reverse this damaging decline, develop the talent of future stars and cement national pride in sports for years to come.”

It's really the ultimate affirmation of England as a 90-minute nation. Our national teams exemplify so much of what it means to be English because sport is one of the few explicitly English forms of expression we're permitted. This just had to be the policy announcement for St George's Day.

And how must the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish feel about a UK party referring to 'our national pride' in regard to English national pride? Surely only a Labour Party England should make such a statement.

Later that day it was revealed that, far from being England's truly patriotic party, Labour voters were the most likely to consider the Cross of St George racist. 

But let's not be too downhearted. From small acorns grow might oaks. Though this was a feeble St George's Day policy offering, it was nevertheless an offering that portrayed England as a political community bound by ties of patriotic feeling that could be utilised as a force for good. In that respect, it was something of a revelation from a party so often fearful of English national identity.

Saturday 13 April 2024

The Leaders Speeches

Rishi Sunak's leader's speech at the 2023 Conservative Conference in Manchester lasted over an hour, but in all that time he only mentioned England once.

Family matters, and as proud Conservatives we should never be afraid to say that. And there's another family that matters to us all, our family of nations: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Today, our Union is the strongest it has been in a quarter of a century. The forces of separatism are in retreat across our country.

The word 'country' (our country/the country/this country) is used 57 times in Sunak's conference speech, irrespective of whether he is talking about England-only policy or UK-wide policy.

For example, he doesn't mention England when talking about the 'Advanced British Standard' (which despite its name is an England-only qualification).

A quarter of our children leave education without the basic literacy and numeracy they need to fulfil their potential. And our students study too narrow a range of subjects. Today, I am changing all of that, pulling one of the biggest levers we have to change the direction of our country. We will introduce the new rigorous, knowledge-rich Advanced British Standard, which will bring together A-Levels and T-Levels into a new, single qualification for our school leavers.

Sunak mentions Britain in relation to infrastructure but doesn't mention England in relation to the NHS, cancer care and education.

We will give Britain the infrastructure it needs, protect the long-term future of our NHS and cut cancer deaths by a quarter and create the best education system in the Western world, to set our children up for the opportunities of the future.

A week later, in his leader's speech from Liverpool, Keir Starmer remarked that people like Rishi Sunak 'cannot see the country before them'. If that country is England, then we're inclined to agree. But did Starmer do any better? No, Starmer didn't mention England once. Starmer talked about Labour policy for England (for example the pledge to build 1.5M homes) but he talked of 'Britain' and 'the country' rather than England:

'So it’s time to get Britain building again. It’s time to build one and half million new homes across the country.'

The fascinating thing about their reluctance to mention England is that the BBC has to get creative and insert the word 'England' for the benefit of a public that may not know which policies apply where.

The Labour leader said he would "bulldoze through" the planning system in England if his party wins power.


Sir Keir promised to accelerate building on unused urban land to create the "next generation of new towns" near English cities, echoing those built by the first Labour government after World War Two.

It wasn't specified by Starmer that it would be England's planning laws he would be bulldozing or that the new towns would be near English cities. Only the words 'Britain' and 'British' were used. So why is the BBC putting words (or two words: England and English) into Starmer's mouth? Well, unlike Westminster politicians, the BBC has a duty to 'locate the story':

When our UK audiences are affected differently by a story or issue we are reporting we should make it clear. We should properly and proportionately label content that has limited applicability across the UK.

In other words, the BBC has a duty to inform the public about which parts of the UK the policies and pledges of politicians apply to. It is ludicrous that politicians themselves are not required to locate the story (or policy) like the BBC is.



Secretary of State for England

An announcement from the new Secretary of State for England:
This is not real. It's a work of fiction based on a blog post from Jim Murphy upon his appointment as Secretary of State for Scotland. 

It's almost impossible to imagine a politician talking about England in the terms Murphy does about Scotland, but it shouldn't be. 

England also deserves to be imagined and talked of as a political community with direction and a future. 

In the absence of a First Minister for England, and with UK Prime Ministers reluctant to mention England in a political context, a Secretary of State for England is one way in which England's political priorities and sense of nationhood could be articulated.

Thursday 11 April 2024

Anglocentric Britishness

As previously noted on this website, the Union Flag is front and centre on Labour's campaign literature in England, while in Scotland and Wales the national flags of those nations are prioritised.

David Lammy wrote a piece for The Sun outlining why Labour is proud to fly the Union Flag.
While Lammy's reasons for Labour's flying of the Union Flag are commendable, the article begs three questions: 
  1. Why not use the Union Flag on your campaign literature in Scotland? 
  2. Why is the national flag of England absent from your English local and mayoral election campaign? 
  3. Why isn't your article in The Scottish Sun?
It appears that David Lammy and Labour's Britishness is an Anglocentric Britishness, important in England but less so in Scotland and Wales. One might even say problematic in Scotland and Wales, which is why the Labour Party prefer not to use it in those nations. Whether or not the lack of appeal in Scotland and Wales is down to the Union Flag's Anglocentricity, perhaps compounded by the actions of the Labour Party, is another matter. 

Conversely, it would appear that Labour sees the English flag as being less important, and less of a symbol of pride, than the national flags of Scotland and Wales. This obviously needs to change. To be 'comfortable' with the Scottish Saltire and the Welsh Red Dragon, but uncomfortable with the English Cross of St George, reveals a party ill at ease with the national identity of the majority of its voters.


Saturday 6 April 2024

Caroline Lucas comes out in favour of an English Parliament

In a review of Caroline Lucas' upcoming book, Another England (released on 18th April), the Independent reveals that Lucas 'argues for nothing less than an English parliament'.

We probably have to go back to Frank Field to find an MP on the Left (vaguely on the Left in the case of Field) who has supported the case for an English parliament.

On 18th Nov 2023, in Edinburgh, to celebrate the life of Tom Nairn, Lucas delivered a speech to The Break Up of Britain? Conference. I watched the whole event and, to my mind, it was the most noteworthy contribution of the conference.

That speech can be watched on YouTube and a transcript follows.

Speech to The Break Up of Britain? Conference, Edinburgh, 18th Nov 2023

Thank you, Adam. Thank you to your lovely daughter and thank you all for the huge honour to be sharing this really important day with you. I'd like to, my congratulations to the organizers for such a fitting tribute to the extraordinary Tom Nairn.

While his death earlier this year was widely acknowledged in Scotland with Gordon Brown, Nicholas Sturgeon and Alex Salmond sharing their fulsome tributes about the significant influence he had on their thinking, I was struck that it barely registered among English political thinkers. And that's a particular shame I think, because much of Nairn's analysis was actually about my homeland and its seemingly permanent state of political crisis. Perhaps it reflects the fact that few of England's political elite are actually willing to accept that they are just English, let alone to contemplate the logic of Nairn's argument that the breakup of Britain, the mutual liberation from the crumbling political construct, which he famously called UKania, might just be good for all of us.

But just as Tom Nairn spent a lot of his time thinking about England, I hope you'll forgive me if I spend most of my time today looking at this issue through the lens of England and the English, particularly since we have such elegant speakers from Scotland and Wales here on the panel beside me. The title we've been given is How did we get here? And I will certainly try to answer that, but I also want to look forward to how we get out of here, which is probably more important. But where is here in the first place? What is the nature of the democratic crisis that we face? Well seen in one way I think the problem is our political institutions, clearly the archaic and undemocratic first past the post voting system, an over-centralized governance system, the unelected Lords, populist abuse of sovereignty, vast networks of patronage, the stuffy and outdated conventions, public school atmosphere, the whole damn, lot of it.

So yes, partly the problem is our political institutions, but seen in another way it's also about nationalisms and identity, and specifically about how England in particular has struggled to find its way in the modern world. How we cling to delusions of imperial grandeur, pretend that we are so much more than just English. And the devastating consequences of that are all around us. It was English exceptionalism that drove Brexit, for example. One way that referendum campaign seems a lifetime ago, although I'm sure you share with me the slight horror of seeing David Cameron slouch back to Westminster in the way that he has over the last few days. But we have gone through so much more since that referendum. And if anything, I would say that the alienation and the polarization are even greater today than they were in 2016. But the truth was clear even then that Brexit were the result of division and would make those divisions worse.

It has deepened the democratic crisis within the United Kingdom. The fact that England and Wales voted to leave and Scotland and Northern Ireland to stay has put incredible strain on the myth that the United Kingdom is an equal partnership of four nations. Government in London decided what form Brexit would take without a reference at all to the elected government in Edinburgh or Belfast or indeed in Cardiff. And unsurprisingly, as a result, support for the reunification of Ireland has grown; the pressure for a second referendum in Scotland remains strong; in Wales, a new sense of national identity is on the rise. I think it is very true to say that the future of the United Kingdom is now in doubt, yet we left the EU, I would argue, primarily because of what happened in England. Outside of the capital, every single English region voted for Brexit. And it's no disrespect to Wales, I hope, which voted by a majority of only 80,000, to say that it was an English vote that drove Brexit.

And in the month following 2016, I traveled to as many leave voting places in England as I could to hear from people firsthand and face-to-face, why it is that they voted for Brexit. And sometimes that was a difficult process. And one reason that came up again and again was that those who benefited economically from the EU membership and from the UK becoming a more open and diverse society, didn't do anything like enough to share those gains fairly and often sneered at those with a more traditional view of England. But those conversations were also refreshing and reassuring because there was so much more that we agreed on than held us apart. Many people were angry, of course they were, but if you took the time to go and pay them the courtesy of listening, then common ground could emerge. And one theme continually did emerge through that whole process, which my small team filmed, and we shared it afterwards as a project called 'Dear Leavers'.

One theme that came up again and again was about people's sense of pride in the places where they lived, but simultaneously their feelings of powerlessness. I was told countless times that London - the power that was held there - was so far away that it might've been on another planet. People felt unheard and ignored. And this was much more than an economic complaint, however corrosive this country's grotesque inequalities of wealth and opportunity undoubtedly are. It was also about culture and identity. Many resented how some expressions of Englishness were allowed while others were not. It was acceptable to love English countryside, English humor, English music, English literature, and to see those aspects of English as welcoming and humane, full of energy and creativity. But the moment Englishness took a political form, it apparently turned into the opposite. Even mild forms of patriotism were frowned on. English flags were acceptable, fluttering from a church hour in a picturesque village, but instantly interpreted as a form of racism if hanging from someone's window on an estate. Yet Englishness should not be something to be scared of or indeed suppressed within the notion of Britain, as if that will somehow contain it safely.

I think Brexit showed us the limits to that particular strategy. I think instead we need to recognize that many people who see themselves primarily as English feel that they are without a voice, including a political voice. There are no institutions that represent England equivalent to those in the three other countries in the UK. Nothing to give political expression while complex and rich and sometimes raucous reality or where difference can be expressed and perhaps resolved. So the so-called English problem is not only one of culture and identity, it is also profoundly one of democracy. And we need to ask ourselves what kind of England do we want now and in the future, either within the United Kingdom, or as an independent state - a reborn kingdom of England. Will it be a smaller diminished version of what we have now? Will imperial delusions and exceptionalism continue to shape our sense of self?

Will it be inward-looking and resentful of lost glories? Or could it - could it? - just become a genuine democracy, confident, outward-looking inclusive and recognizing that our future necessarily involves being part of Europe? These questions, I think, have taken on an even greater urgency as xenophobic nationalism continues its rise across Europe, from the success of the Sweden Democrats and True Fins to the growth of the far-right France, Italy and Hungary. And, at the same time, propelled by the outcome of the Brexit referendum and the 2019 general election in the UK, the populist right strengthens its grip on an increasingly extreme and out-of-touch Conservative party. If a progressive alternative, this national populist agenda, is to be successful, I think it needs to do more than offer bolder, more ambitious policies. Vital though those are. It needs to unify rather than divide and offer hope rather than despair. And one of the most effective ways of doing that, I think, is by telling more compelling stories about who we are and who we can be.

So my answer to the question 'How do we get out of the current democratic crisis?' isn't only about constitutional answers. It's not only about PR or an elected House of Lords or a written constitution. It's about telling more compelling stories about who we English are so that we might finally be more comfortable in our own skin, less intent on subduing our neighbours, whether they be within the UK or across the Empire. Because I would wager that once we English do finally settle with our own identity, we might just establish we are far more progressive than we were ever led to believe. Because right now Englishness has been hijacked by right, the dominant version of our national story solely serves their interests. The only people who dare speak Englishness are cheerleaders of isolationism and imperial nostalgia. But there are other stories equally compelling about who we are, about the English people's radical inclusivity, the ancient commitment to the natural world, their long struggle for rights for all. Stories that put the Chartists and the Diggers in a rightful place alongside Nelson and Churchill.

Stories that draw inspiration from the agreement of the people from Tom Paine, from Blake, Shelley, William Morris, and the Suffragettes. That draw on medieval writers and romantic poets who emphasize the sanctity of the environment, that recognise and celebrate England's ancient multicultural heritage. And so, if I could just end with one tiny shameless plug. My forthcoming book, Another England, sets out to tell those stories because I genuinely believe in rediscovering those stories of an England at ease with itself, and with our past, forward-looking open more equal, diverse and multi-ethnic, and identifying the policies that could actually help to realize those visions and stories. I believe that project has become a political project every bit as urgent and important as levelling up or investing in infrastructure. Because a country without a coherent story about who and what it is can now thrive and prosper. It can't extract itself from its own democratic crisis and it certainly can't rise to the existential threats of our time, the climate and nature emergencies. As the writer Ben Okri puts it, nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they'll suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings. So finding and telling those stories that speak to the truth of England's past and present and inspire us to imagine and pursue new and better futures might just turn out to be one of the most transformative acts that we can undertake. And indeed, one of the greatest contributions to a healthy democracy right across all of the isles. I understand why many Scots have run out of patience with the English. You are constructing your own modern narrative, why on earth should you need to concern yourself with England's need for one? Well, I would just perhaps leave you with the answer that perhaps there has to be a collaborative effort among all of us, if any of us is to succeed.


Further Reading: ‘A Disunited Kingdom? It Is Time to Tell an Inclusive English Story’


Monday 1 April 2024

On this Day in History: Gerrard Winstanley

On 1st April, 1649, Gerrard Winstanley, a prominent figure in the English Civil War period and a leader of the Diggers movement, took significant action to challenge the prevailing land ownership system in England. The Diggers, also known as True Levellers, were a group of agrarian communists who advocated for the common ownership of land and the abolition of private property rights. 

On this day, Winstanley and his followers, inspired by their belief in communal living and egalitarian principles, occupied and began cultivating common land at St. George's Hill in Surrey. The action was symbolic of their broader vision to reclaim and cultivate land that they argued rightfully belonged to the common people, rather than being monopolized by wealthy landlords. 

The Diggers' occupation of St. George's Hill was not just a spontaneous event but part of a deliberate campaign to challenge the existing social order. They saw themselves as enacting a radical reordering of society based on principles of equality and cooperation. By directly taking over the land and working it collectively, they sought to demonstrate their vision of a more just and equitable society. However, the Diggers faced opposition from landowners, local authorities, and even other factions within the Parliamentarian movement. 

Their occupation was met with hostility, and they were subjected to harassment, eviction attempts, and legal actions aimed at suppressing their movement. Despite the challenges they faced, the Diggers' actions at St. George's Hill and other locations inspired similar movements and left a lasting legacy in the history of social movements and struggles for land rights. Gerrard Winstanley's vision of a society based on communal ownership and cooperation continues to resonate with advocates for social and economic justice to this day. 

 The 1976 film, Winstanley, is available to watch on BFI Player.


Frank Field: The Strange Death of Labour England?: Revisiting Bagehot’s English Constitution

To mark the death of former Labour MP Frank Field on St George's Day 2024, we are republishing his Chancellor's Lecture to the Unive...