Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Absence of a parliament has not yet created a serious move towards nationalism in England

I read, with a great deal of interest, O’Neill’s post on English nationalism, which examines a speech by David Wildgoose, from the Campaign for an English Parliament, delivered to the Liberal Democrat conference. He begins by quoting Arthur Aughey, who has observed that English nationalism is ‘a mood, not yet a movement’. It is a useful distinction. There exists, fairly commonly in England, an amorphous sense that the country has been disadvantaged by its exclusion from the devolution experiment, but it has not yet been harnessed to a popular or coherent campaign.

In his book ‘The New British Constitution’, Vernon Bogdanor contends that the United Kingdom requires a certain degree of English forbearance, in order to function smoothly. By this reading the identity, ‘English’, has to be suppressed in order that ‘Britishness’ can operate unfettered. Certainly the United Kingdom is dependent on the acquiescence of its largest ‘national’ unit, but I would argue that the English identity need not be given specific political expression, in order to flourish. In the same way that committed unionists can be proud Irishmen, those who advocate a parliament for England are no more the bearers of genuine ‘Englishness’ than countrymen who are perfectly happy for Westminster to deal with their affairs.

Bogdanor also argues that Britain’s constitution has never been, and does not need to be, precisely symmetrical, in order to command the allegiance of a majority. On this territory he is thoroughly convincing.

It is widely acknowledged that England is too populous, by comparison with other regions of the UK, to sustain a parliament without dangerously unbalancing the Union. The nationalists’ retort is simply that they don’t care. The perceived injustice embodied by England’s exclusion from the devolution settlement outweighs any consideration of the Union’s integrity. There are a range of more moderate responses to this problem of scale, whether they comprise Malcolm Rifkind’s call for a grand committee for England, or the unpopular notion of regional assemblies. Bogdanor’s view is that England’s disadvantage is exaggerated, and exists alongside countermanding advantages. He suggests that empowering local government and the resultant strengthening of local identities might soften the focus of campaigns for separate institutions.

It is difficult to disagree with either of Bogdanor's arguments. Westminster remains the national parliament and it is dominated by English members. It retains a grip on the purse strings and, thus, its decisions impact upon every level of government in every region of the United Kingdom. The locus of power remains England, the centre of employment, prosperity and culture remains London and the South East. To be truthful, the theoretical difficulties which preoccupy bloggers and commentators rarely arise in practice. There is a strong argument that the Barnett Formula is a source of some resentment and should be revisited, but it is far from clear that a needs based system would distribute money in radically different fashion.

When Lord Goldsmith delivered his review of citizenship it uncovered resounding support for the notion that Britishness is compatible with its composite national identities. In England in particular, most people recognise Britishness as something they subscribe to, at least in conjunction with another professed identity.

The contention that devolution has exposed the UK to a popular tide of English grievance, which will inevitably pull it apart, is, at worst, an exaggeration. In a recent article examining ‘Englishness and the Union in Contemporary Conservative Thought’ Richard English, Richard Hayton and Michael Kenny also found that vocal nationalist populism, personified by columnists like Simon Heffer, had failed, thus far, to ignite the collective imagination of the English public.

The absence of an English parliament has, for the time being, failed to incubate a serious nationalist movement in England. Those who claim that it has are being disingenuous.


MisterDavid said...

Very astute post.

I'm English, and steadily getting more 'glad' to be English (though not 'proud' yet), especially since living in Scotland for a few years (and I mean that in a nice way). And I have absolutely no appetite for an English Parliament.

And to add to the reasons you gave, I think I'd add that on some level the English have a feeling that being electorally incommoded at present is merely karma coming back to bite us for all the stuff we've done in the past. Which is fair enough but it does frustrate me that we are the only people group of the UK who aren't allowed (or able) to be proud of ourselves for fear of being branded stuck-up, racist, jingoistic colonialists.

I am hopeful that it won't remain like this for ever ...

Toque said...

I agree that the "absence of an English parliament has, for the time being, failed to incubate a serious nationalist movement in England".

The English have traditionally regarded Westminster as their parliament, so it is more a case of simmering English grievance caused by the creation of parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland which have moved power away from Westminster in a way that has damaged English voters.

The English haven't yet made a connection between their feeling of disenfranchisement and the lack of an English parliament. Maybe they never will. But that disenfranchisement itself is damaging to 'Britishness' and has a destablising effect on the Union state.

It takes unusual occurances to demonstrate this outward transference of power to the English who, by and large, are constitutionally illiterate and far less conscious that they live in a multinational state than the denizens of the other home nations.

The al-Megrahi case, complex though it was, brought to England's attention the satellite quasi-state on its northen border. The English/Anglo-British reaction to that affair was extremely revealing.

I think it's safe to say that the United Kingdom is a state in flux. At the moment the English constitute the immovable mass at the centre on whom the centrifugal forces have little effect. The English are the bedrock of the Union but it shouldn't be taken for granted that they always will be. If more power moves away from Westminster towards Brussels and the UK's peripheries, the English will begin to question the role of non-English MPs and the sovereignty of Westminster, and with it their own national sovereignty and national sense of self. Foolish, I think, to underestimate just how central Westminster and Parliament is to the English (and consequently British) national psyche.