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’


No comments

Post a Comment

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...