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

 Frank Field's speech to The University of Hertfordshire, 3rd June 2008

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.  


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