Whose England?

Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget.
For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.

G.K. Chesterton, The Secret People

Ten years ago last month a petition of 50,000 signatures calling for a Cornish Assembly was delivered to Downing Street, to the home of a Prime Minister renowned for his commitment to devolution. As long as it was to a pattern that he’d thought of first. Cornwall, Mercia, Wessex. All were equally ignored, all equally off-message.

The anniversary was marked by an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons, tabled by three Plaid Cymru MPs. Such motions are a means to publicise a particular event or cause, enabling MPs to show support by signing. In the case of the Cornwall motion, all of ten MPs in fact, including the sponsors. No matter. That the Westminster Parliament – supposedly existing for the benefit of us all – cannot bring itself to debate the future governance of one of our constituent nations will only deliver a further boost to the nationalist vote.

Reactions to the idea of Cornish self-government have been as expected. The usual nonsense about lack of viability – despite the evidence that the small nations of the world are often the richest and happiest. And the supposed trump card, played by one commentator at the Huffington Post: “What next? Independan­ce for Wessex, East Anglia, Yorkshire etc. etc.?” Well, tell us where the problem lies. Are folk in these areas not capable of making their own decisions? Is it a Celt-only thing, this ability to be free of London’s suffocating influence?

Hold that thought while considering Scotland’s bid to bound from its bonds. David Cameron’s recent attempts to treat the First Minister as the junior partner in the governance of Scotland have done incalculable harm to the unionist cause. They may even mark a turning point in the history of these islands. Yet the ostriches cannot see a thing. Most hilarious of the gypsy’s warnings wheeled out this week is one suggesting that the United Kingdom might, in a fit of post-colonial spite, veto Scotland’s application to join the EU. The SNP’s response, that Scotland would be a succession state, not an accession state, is sound, but they deserve better opponents. A United Kingdom without Scotland? Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Cameron? Bleached of its blue, the Union Jack would be at best the flag of the United Kingdom of England and Northern Ireland, with the Principality of Wales (and Duchy of Cornwall). More likely, the show would be over long before the ostriches raised their heads and shook the sand from their eyes and ears.

The Welsh Government has made good use of the past dozen years, consolidating the plethora of agencies, boards and committees that used to run Wales into the makings of a self-confident, inclusive democracy. (We set out our own plans to do the same for Wessex back in 1982, but this side of the Severn remains as disorganised as before – and it shows.) The peace process in Northern Ireland has created a fluidity that in turn has enabled nationalists to operate on an all-Ireland basis to an extent not seen since before Partition. Will the Province survive the demise of the United Kingdom? Probably not.

England has never demanded its independence to anything like the same degree as its neighbours. With a permanent 85% majority in Parliament it really hasn’t needed to: none of the huffing and puffing about the West Lothian question has ever led anywhere beyond crude party advantage. But it may now be staring independence in the face whether it likes it or not. And that means a lot of catching up to do.

The first line of defence is that of the abusive spouse contesting a divorce. It’s so UNFAIR that Scotland should have the right to vote for independence when England doesn’t have the right to vote to stop it. What about all those who feel British above all and who face having their identity taken away from them? (Honestly! I need you, so I can feel good about myself. Don’t you dare leave!) One poll suggests that, given a chance, English voters would in fact be even more keen to vote for Scottish independence than Scottish ones.

The Campaign for an English Parliament can probably be blamed for half of that, forever harking on about the Barnett formula and other forms of selective accounting. The facts are, most likely, that Scotland subsidises England, that both Osborne and Salmond know this, but that the former daren’t admit it. And WITHIN England, regional disparities are huge. London receives more public spending per head than Wales, despite the obscene levels of personal wealth enjoyed by its top echelons. If an English Parliament could address regional disparities, so could a British one have done, but hasn’t. Only regional parliaments can make that difference. And the other half? Well, Salmond can be blamed for that, if blame is the word. If the SNP leader has so annoyed English voters that they want to see the back of his whole country, that’s the achievement of a very canny politician.

So what next? The second line of defence is to fight it out over the marital home. It’s to shrink Britain so that it becomes England, a lesser Britain. Not the real England, content within its own borders. This is an England motivated not by any positive thoughts about itself but by continuing negativity towards the Celtic separatist challenge. It is a supremacist, irredentist England, clinging to every clod, actual or potential, from Berwick-on-Tweed to British Antarctica, claiming Gwent as Monmouthshire and Cornwall as a conquered county. It’s the political equivalent of an amputee believing his limbs are still there to respond to his will. It’s a surprise no-one seems to have thought yet of claiming Calais, which returned MPs to the English Parliament at Westminster long before County Durham did.

The third line of defence is over custody of the future, of the soul of England. What does it mean to be English? What SHOULD it mean? The English identity is – or ought to be – a hotly contested concept. The match is lit but the fuel has yet to be ignited. What we can expect to see, if an independent England starts to seem likely, is an explosion of interest in defining its essential character, in seizing the prize.

Billy Bragg apart, there has been little sign of urgency about building an alternative to the right-wing narrative of ‘the warrior nation’, two world wars and one world cup. In the short-term, the most likely scenario remains that England will be defined as a unitary state, run from London, licking its post-British wounds by inflicting new ones on others. The battle lost, the war can still be won. By making sure that no-one else can challenge London hegemony. Freed from the need to offer a decentralist veneer to save the union, such a new England would have no room for regional structures in any shape or form. The politics would be jingoistic, to inhibit independent thought. The economics would be – no, already are – rabidly libertarian, substituting market forces for anything that might engender loyalty to a territory smaller than England. The culture would be, even more than now, that which promotes a uniform past, present and future.

It ought to be a cause for comment that such a vision owes an extraordinary amount to Celtic nationalism, even though Celtic nationalists, in Cornwall, are liable to be among its first victims. The idea of England as political nation, with one law, one executive, one parliament, mirrors the idea of Ireland, Scotland, Wales or Cornwall as political nation. The idea of Britain is not challenged by any of these because it leads to bad government but because Britain groups as one nation areas that assert politically their own separate national status. Celtic nationalists are often the staunchest advocates of an English Parliament precisely because it looks like a neat and tidy solution to the national question. Whether it actually is so is another question entirely. Historically, Celtic nationalists haven’t shown much interest in a well-governed England living next door. They’ve been more interested in maintaining their differentials in an exchange of blows with an ever-adaptive British state. And that’s meant a certain hostility to regional devolution because it leads to the all-too reasonable point that Wessex, with the same population as Scotland and Wales combined, is at least as capable of running its own affairs.

Nationalism means an England no less badly governed than it already is as part of the UK. London would remain dominant, regional differences would continue to go unacknowledged. Those differences matter at a profound cultural level, though the case for regionalism would be no less real even if they did not exist. Firstly, it is simply inefficient to refer decisions to London when they could be made much closer to home. Secondly, decisions made in London ‘in the overall public interest’ are not effectively informed by the perspective of those who live elsewhere and so in practice always reinforce London’s dominance. And thirdly, as we move into the post-oil age, the argument for smaller political units built around clusters of regional-scale infrastructure will be at least as compelling as ancient cultural loyalties.

Those loyalties are not about to disappear. There’ll always be an England, but it will have a different meaning and role once it has to share the limelight with Wessex, Mercia and the like. It will have to, because the sane, humane, ecological England we need is one that respects and values its regions even more than itself – just as regions in turn need to treasure their counties, cities, boroughs and so on. It’s the only England worth having, the only England that deserves to emerge triumphant from the forthcoming cultural and political struggle. In truth, it’s not about England, and never has been. It’s about whose England. And who gets to choose between the paths.

2 comments on “Whose England?

  1. January 25, 2012 Nick Xylas

    Guardian columnist Simon Hoggart once wrote that anyone employing that Chesterton quote "is almost certainly up to no good". But anyone who knows Hoggart's work would expect him to say that.

  2. January 26, 2012 David Robins

    I prefer the lesser-known quote, from 'Songs of Education',

    "The day of St George is a musty affair,
    Which Russians and Greeks are permitted to share."

    St Aldhelm, however, is all ours!


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