Thursday 26 October 2023

Keir Starmer Negates England

In the words of one commentator, Keir Starmer's Labour Conference speech was a new low.

Without a shread of irony, Starmer also claimed that people like Rishi Sunak 'cannot see the country before them'.
It was left to the media to add the English context. This is how the BBC did that:

Sir Keir Starmer has promised to build "the next generation" of new towns, along with 1.5 million homes, as part of a "decade of renewal under Labour". 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.


But Starmer himself didn't say that, he only talked about Britain and 'the country'.

Starmer was not the only person at the Labour Conference who failed to mention England. Wes Streeting, who as Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has ambitions to be in charge of the English NHS and social care, managed to give a lengthy speech without ever mentioning the nation or the people that his healthcare policies were for. He, of course, managed to mention Britain seven times and 'our country' three times.

We should not be too surprised at this reluctance to talk about England. After all, before the conference it was announced that Labour's new membership cards will be emblazoned with the Union Flag in England but the respective flags of Scotland and Wales in Scotland and Wales.

John Denham called this a 'symbolic rejection of England' and 'a rejection of the idea that England is a nation with its own policy choices'. It certainly reveals a party that is comfortable with its Britishness, Scottishness and Welshness but not at all comfortable about Englishness.

Tuesday 24 May 2022

Is the Conservative Party an English nationalist party in all but name?

We keep on hearing that the Conservative Party is now an English nationalist Party in all but name (for example, see Tory grandees such as Clarke, Major or Pattern). But is it really? As Aughey noted back in 2010, the putative English nationalist calls for an English parliament, voiced by some Tories immediately post-devolution to Scotland and Wales, were gradually whittled away to 'English pauses for English causes':

what has not happened is the nationalistic Englishing of the Conservative Party. If there is any consistency to Conservative policy on England it is the attempt to demonstrate how distinctive English interests could be accommodated within the Westminster Parliament. That they should be accommodated is the moral and the political case which the Party believed had become urgent after 1997 (as do some on the Labour benches. See for example Field 2007). Indeed, the trajectory of Conservative thinking on the English Question since 1997 is not what an English nationalist reading would suggest at all. The party’s shift is the reverse, from constitutional maximalism to constitutional minimalism. It has gone from tentative support for an English Parliament to support for English Votes on English Laws to a suggestion from Sir Malcolm Rifkind’s that there should be an English Grand Committee to something even less radical as set out in the Conservative Democracy Task Force’s (2008) Answering the Question: Devolution, the West Lothian Question and the Future of the Union, chaired by Kenneth Clarke. The Task Force’s recommendation is that certified English Bills should be considered and voted by English MPs only in Committee and at Report Stage but that the whole House would vote on Second and Third Readings, reserving to all MPs decisions on the principle and the final passage of legislation. This represents, as one critic put it (Young 2008), a shift from English Votes on English Laws to English Pauses on English Clauses. 


Those many critics who point out the political illogicality of the Report perhaps miss the conservative point. The logical solution to the West Lothian Question is an English Parliament but Kenneth Clarke’s answer takes five pages to say what Disraeli once said in one line, namely that England is governed not by logic but by Parliament and for the Conservatives that Parliament remains Westminster. 

Eventually, the Tories abolished even Cameron's enfeebled version of English Votes on English Laws. Over time, the Tories' English grievance gave way to unionist pragmatism and statecraft and they arrived at a collective decision: the preservation of the Union and England's sense of Britishness takes precedence over English democracy and constitutional recognition of England. 

Michael Gove urged party members to see the bigger picture:

When some of my colleagues say we need to re-visit the West Lothian Question, or we need to have a new settlement that is fairer to people in England, I say "no, remember the bigger picture."

The bigger picture is British nationalism or, as they prefer to call it, 'unionism'. That England is governed not by logic (or democratic principles) but by the Imperial Parliament has consequences beyond democracy. It affects our understanding of England's place in the Union and our concept of 'us' - the demos. It allows Westminster politicians to not bother delineating English and UK policies, to refer to both England and the UK as 'the country' and to sometimes talk of Britain or the UK in regard to England-only policy.

"The next Conservative Government will ensure the curriculum teaches the proper narrative of British History - so that every Briton can take pride in this nation." - Michael Gove

The English are denied a discrete sense of nationhood and rolled into an Anglocentric British nationalism in which England as a discrete nation is left unimagined and the word 'England' left unspoken. Politicans speak to England but for Britain and about Britain. Changes to the national curriculum [in England] allow every Briton to feel pride in Britain. Pledges for 40 new hospitals, 6000 new GPs and 50,000 nurses are delivered in front of British flags with nary a mention of England, it is 'our NHS' instead of 'NHS England' and 'hospitals across the country' instead of 'hospitals across England'. Changes to planning laws in England are enacted to 'get Britain building'. Beyond England, on the peripheries of the Anglo-British state, the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish see that the Union Parliament has become even more Anglocentric and is, in effect, for large swathes of the Government's legislative programme, an English parliament that talks about England as Britain (a practice condemned by Welsh MPs during the pandemic). This is called 'English nationalism' but is, in fact, a British nationalism that occludes England, which prefers to speak of Britain when it should be speaking of England. It is not the preserve of Tories. Labour leaders (Blair, Brown, Corbyn and Starmer) all regularly conflated England and Britain.

"Britain is a great nation. A country where we can watch the most exciting sport - Wimbledon, the FA Cup, Test Cricket. Where you can listen to the best pop music - the Beatles, Blur, Oasis and Simply Red." - Tony Blair

Our inability to create an English politics separate from the institutions of Britain and the Imperial Parliament at Westminster is an impediment to creating a modern English identity in our own image, as Ben Wellings has written:

One of the greatest barriers to creating a truly civic nationalism in England may, ironically, be the institutions of government themselves, or more accurately, perceptions of parliament as a symbol of English freedom. We have seen how English historiography concerned with England's place in the world since the break from Rome has created the configuration: sovereign parliament equals sovereign nation equal freedom and liberty.

Brexit was a vote for Westminster sovereignty. It could almost be described as a Westminster nationalism. Voters who prioritised their Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish identities (those voters best represented by their national legislatures) were more likely to vote Remain. Across the UK, those who felt strong British and/or strong English identity (those represented best, or only, by Westminster) were more likely to vote Leave, with those prioritising a strong English identity over British identity - combining constitutional grievances against both the EU and the UK - most likely of all to vote Leave (see Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain).

Ironically, many of those who urged Conservative restraint, arguing against an English parliament or English Votes on English Laws, fearing that a discrete institutional and constitutional recognition of Englishness would up-end the Union, now complain that English nationalism has appropriated the institutions of Britain and British nationalism (including the Conservative Party) for itself and blame English nationalism for destroying the Union through Brexit. Even though the Leave campaign spoke the language of British, not English, sovereignty and flew British, not English, flags. Forced to choose between nothing, on the one hand, and a Brexit nationalism that defended Westminster sovereignty, the bastion of their historic English freedoms and liberty, the English chose the latter.


Instead of a civic English nationalism that is rooted in democracy and an understanding of the English as a national demos, the Conservative's refusal to speak to, of and for England, and the absence of an institutional and constitutional Englishness, has left the institutions of British democracy and governance hopelessly Anglocentric, and left England feeling aggrieved and unspoken for. Whatever that is, it is not English nationalism. 

The fact that it's a self-defeating form of unionism that has damaged the Union, implemented largely by English politicians, doesn't make it English nationalism. And the fact that British or European-identifying progressives want to other it and define themselves against it doesn't make it English nationalism either. For the James O'Briens and Alistair Campbells of this world, along with endless Guardian and New European think piece writers proclaiming 'I don't want to be English' or 'I'm embarrassed by my Englishness', this is a difficult concept to come to terms with. But they have no more interest in a legitimate, democractic expression of Englishness than do the Union Flag-waving, so-called English nationalist, Brexiteers that they oppose. It may be an uncomfortable understanding to reach but they are on opposite ends of the same British nationalist spectrum as the Brexiteers. 

It is not English nationalism but, rather, the negation of a discrete English nationalism for the furtherance of Britishness and British nationalism (sometime progressive, sometimes not; sometimes Labour, sometimes Tory; always British, always unionist), that has dictated where England finds itself. If they want an English nationalism that is inclusive, progressive, pro-European and democratic, then they have to argue for that. Conversely, if they want England to wallow in post-imperial British nostalgia, clinging to the symbols of Britishness as they are discarded elsewhere, then don't permit England the tools to normalise itself.

The left should be calling for an English parliament and English institutions. That's the only way we'll get a progressive Englishness. - Anthony Barnett


A progressive Englishness is also the root to a progressive Britishness. You cannot have a progressive Britishness that contains a surly, angry undercurrent of Englishness seeking representation through British institutions. 

The Tories are a British nationalist party and unionist party, and so are those on the benches opposite them.


Toxic English nationalism

 The National reports some interesting comments from Stephen Reicher regarding English nationalism.

I think there is little doubt there are toxic nationalisms in the UK, but it is more English nationalism than Scottish nationalism that is the problem. I think it is quite telling for instance, that in the campaigns during Covid you could use the notion of Scottishness, this is what Scots do, because it was inclusive. In England you couldn’t do that- because if you say this is Englishness and this is England – Englishness is seen as much more ethnic, so it would be quite an exclusive thing to do, it would be quite a problematic thing to do.
Actually, they could very easily have talked about England and Englishness in regard to the pandemic. For misguided reasons of unionist statecraft they chose to stand in front of British flags and to talk about Britain as they laid out England's pandemic restrictions and policy.

So confusing was the UK Government's conflation of England and the UK that it drew complaints from Welsh MPs who thought it undermined their own pandemic response and left people feeling 'angry, anxious and exasperated'. 

This England problem is actually caused by a *lack* of English nationalism, by a unionist political class at pains to promote British identity over English identity. In England, unionist, British politicians invoke Britain as the 'us' or the 'we'. It is Britain that is the national community, even when the policy area under discussion is England-only. England is not imagined as a political community, a social democracy, a demos or a nation unto itself. 

This doesn't happen by accident, it is the policy of unionist politicians and parties. Politically, English identity is negated or occluded by Britishness and only through sport and moments of political populism is England permitted its own discrete identity. While Scottish politicians will talk of making Scotland a fairer, more inclusive and prosperous country, English politicians will frame almost everything in the language of Britishness and the Union. Great Britain, Global Britain, New Britain, Britain Forward. England is left unmentioned and unimagined. 

The Establishment solution to the English problem (or question) is to paint English nationalism (and sometimes English identity) as something intrinsically reactionary, racist or violent. Something to be avoided because it is antagonistic to a more inclusive, civic Britishness, with the potential to undermine unionism and and our collective sense of Britishness. 

It's the wrong solution. Not least because the absence of a discrete English politics means that British politics must out of necessity include England-only policy, the inclusion of which makes British politics more Anglocentric. This Anglocentric British nationalism has the desired affect of denying England a voice but it also denies the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish equal ownership of Britishness. They see UK politicians standing in front of British flags talking about *our* schools and British housing when schools and housing are the responsibility of politicians that they elect to Holyrood or the Senedd.

The correct solution is to build an inclusive, civic English nationalism; to inculcate a sense of national community in England by talking about English policy as English, not British. This is something that has never been attempted by unionist parties who may occasionally think of themselves as representing the English electorate but who always represent the British nation rather than the English nation. 

Thursday 12 May 2022

We Have an England-only Parliament. It’s Westminster.

Nationalists of a Scottish persuasion regularly post this meme on social media. To their mind, it demonstrates that Westminster IS the English parliament (working in English interests, against Scottish interests) and that Boris Johnson is an English nationalist.

But Boris Johnson was referring to the English Votes on English Laws mechanism that operated in the House of Commons at the time he uttered those words. An ‘England-only parliament’, not an English parliament. In actual fact, Johnson opposed an English parliament in favour of the more ‘elegant’ English Votes on English Laws (EVEL):

"The most elegant answer is not to have an English parliament (we have quite enough politicians), but to have English votes on English laws; and to kick the Scots and Welsh out of the division lobbies on matters affecting England alone."  – Boris Johnson, Telegraph, 10 July 2003


English Votes on English Laws was not English nationalism, it was a bit of tactical English populism from a British nationalist party that was designed to pull the rug from under the Labour Party’s feet and simultaneously undermine UKIP's foray into English nationalism (at the time UKIP under Paul Nuttall were for EVEL and debating whether to make the creation of an English parliament policy). The Conservatives feared that an English parliament would undermine a sense of unitary Britishness and attenuate the British state. This is from the Conservatives' own policy paper on the English Question

So EVEL it was. EVEL, however, did not give England a voice and it didn’t stop non-English constituency MPs from voting on English legislation (all UK MPs always had the final say at Third Reading). EVEL was about Westminster party politics, not about improving English democracy. It was a sop to those who felt aggrieved about the West Lothian Question but it fell short of actually answering it. In one instance, the votes of Scottish MPs were still decisive on English policy. Over time it became clear that all EVEL had achieved was to give some substance to Scottish nationalist claims that their MPs were second-class members of the House of Commons. It was a divisive policy that provided ammunition for the SNP and, more importantly, was of little use to the Conservative Party when Scottish Labour became dead in the water and Farage had won his Brexit referendum. And so, Boris Johnson simply abolished EVEL, without even a vote on it. Which brings me to the next quote from the previously quoted Telegraph article by Boris Johnson:

"On Tuesday evening, 40 Scots voted with the Government for its imperfect plan for foundation hospitals, a good idea that has been vitiated by Treasury meddling. Labour’s majority was only 35, which shows how important these Scots can be in a tight vote. But the key point is not the numbers of Scots voting for or against the Government. The infamy is that they are allowed to vote on the matter at all."  – Boris Johnson, Telegraph, 10 July 2003


Johnson describes Scottish MPs voting on English matters as an ‘infamy’ (an evil or wicked act). Should we therefore understand (given Johnson has abolished EVEL) that such infamy now takes place in Westminster’s division lobbies far more frequently and with Johnson’s approval? More to the point, what is he going to do about it now that he’s abolished the EVEL that was supposed to prevent this infamy? Successive UK governments have failed to give England a voice and failed to answer the West Lothian Question. It is time for the people of England to be consulted and for us to decide how we wish to be governed.

Keir Starmer Negates England

In the words of one commentator, Keir Starmer's Labour Conference speech was a new low. Keir Starmer's speech last Tuesday was a...