You don’t have to be a nationalist, or English, to accept the case for an English parliament.
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, 17th February 2009
One of the most striking features of the massive response to my article last week on Hazel Blears and the Labour Party was the number of Labour activists who wrote in to agree(1). If, as I suspect, their fury and dejection is representative, Labour will be eliminated at the next election. Just three years ago, almost all the pundits agreed that the Tories were finished as an electoral force. Suddenly, Labour looks like the force that might never recover. Has any party in modern politics done more to squander the goodwill that swept it into power?
But I noticed something else as well: something that wasn’t there. Every other issue I mentioned was picked over and debated. One was not. It concerns the most glaring democratic deficit over which this government has presided, yet almost everyone is too polite to mention it.
Three nations in the United Kingdom, as a result of one of this government’s rare progressive policies, now possess a representative assembly. The fourth and largest does not. England, the great colonising nation, has become a colony. It is governed by a Scotsman who uses foreign mercenaries – Scottish, Welsh and Irish MPs – to suppress parliamentary revolts over purely English affairs. There is still no democratic forum in which English interests can be discussed only by English representatives. The unfairness is staggering, the silence stranger still.
One of the peculiarities of UK politics is that issues which hardly anyone supports receive majority assent in parliament. Under the current system, no popular support is required. University top-up fees, for example, were rejected by the Scottish and Welsh assemblies, but Scottish and Welsh MPs were frogmarched through the lobbies to impose them on England (the government won by five votes)(2). Foundation hospitals were voted down in both Wales and Scotland, and foisted on the English by the representatives of those nations(3). Had Heathrow’s third runway been debated only by English MPs, the proposal would have been resoundingly defeated; it was approved by 19 votes, after 67 MPs from the other nations were induced to support the government(4). They can support such measures without any electoral risk, as their constituents are not directly affected. Devolution, which has had such beneficial consequences here in Wales and across the other borders, has left the English high and dry.
So why does no one – with the honourable exception of a tiny band of thinkers like Paul Kingsnorth and Gareth Young(5,6,7) – who is even vaguely on the left want to discuss it? Perhaps it is because two quite different issues have been muddled up: democracy and nationalism. English nationalism takes many forms, but the image which comes to most minds is of skinheads waving the flag of St George. These are, or should be, separate concerns. You don’t have to be a nationalist, or English, to accept the case for an English parliament.
Last month I was fiercely attacked by the Campaign for an English Parliament (CEP) for writing that “England means nothing to me”(8). I meant two things. First that I consider myself a global citizen – a member of the species – before I consider myself a national citizen. I believe that everyone has an equal entitlement to the world’s wealth and power. I don’t love England, but nor do I hate it. I am indifferent. Secondly, I do not know what England means. The problem for those who wish to define this nation is that England has universalised itself. English culture, thanks to English imperialism, has seeped into everyone’s culture; the English language has become everyone’s language. The acts of union, forged by a dominant England, have submerged English identity into a British or Unionist identity. British imperialism, in turn, has destroyed the sense of a discrete and self-contained nation. The values, language, governance and business structures, the global integration we imposed on other nations have come back to bite us.
The hero of the film Slumdog Millionaire, for example, works in a call centre in which cold-callers in Mumbai, tutored in British accents, politics, weather and geography, seek to persuade their British customers that they are phoning from just around the corner. I happen to think that the transfer of jobs like this is a good thing, a restitution of employment once forcibly relocated from India to England, but I realise that most people here are appalled by the implications. Whether you approve or not, you have to accept that Finland has no such issues, as no one else was forced to speak Finnish.
Those five words in December, claimed the CEP’s head of media, Michael Knowles, were “as good an illustration anyone can get of the prejudice England experiences from the UK Establishment.” It is because of the “indifference and hostility” of people like me that the English “are so discriminated against”(9).
Knowles, in other words, confused a good case founded on democracy and human rights with patriotism, giving people of more cosmopolitan views every excuse they need to turn away. To support an English parliament, you don’t have to love England, you have only to love democracy.
Labour politicians use this excuse to sustain the government’s inordinate executive power. Instead of a parliament, England has been given nine regional assemblies. Only one of them (in London) has been elected; hardly anyone even knows that the others exist. They represent the opposite of devolution: a transfer of power away from local authorities towards a higher level of government, over which the people have no direct control. Next year they will be turned into Local Authority Leaders’ Boards(10), representing the final abandonment of the government’s promise of regional referenda leading to elected assemblies(11).
On Sunday David Cameron revealed his own plan: a great bog of fudge pudding which makes the parliamentary system even more complex and opaque than it is already. “For English-only legislation, we would have a sort of English grand committee,” he told the Mail on Sunday. In “exceptional circumstances” (and what isn’t?) the committee can be overruled by the rest of the Commons(12). Today he writes in the Guardian of his plan for a “radical decentralisation, to reach every corner of the country” and turn Britain’s “pyramid of power on its head”. But there’s not a word about an English parliament.
No one is suggesting we disband the government of the United Kingdom (though I propose that it be moved close to the geographical centre of the UK – Liverpool, say, or Rhyl). The Campaign for an English Parliament argues that it should retain control over matters such as the UK’s constitution, foreign and defence policy, employment legislation and social security. The remainder – some taxation, health, education, transport, local government, planning, the environment, police, courts, prisons and the rest – should be devolved to the four nations(13).
England is no longer my home and not much of my business. But I would be surprised if anyone across the border who has understood the implications is happy with the current deal. The nation which claims to have brought democracy to the world is in dire need of it.
2. BBC News Online, 27th January 2004. Scots MPs attacked over fees vote. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/3432767.stm
3. Deirdre Kelly, 8th July 2003. Vote raises devolution issue. BBC News Online. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/3054562.stm
8. Michael Knowles, 1st January 2009. Campaign For An English Parliament: UK Establishment Prejudice against England, typified by George Monbiot, is blighting England’s Future. http://englandparliament.blogspot.com/2009/01/campaign-for-english-parliament-uk.html
10. For reasons I can’t possibly guess at, the government has removed the relevant pages from the web. But they are cached here: http://18.104.22.168/search?q=cache:HVpM0j_xXHUJ:www.communities.gov.uk/citiesandregions/thesubnationalreview/faqstransition/communicationsotherissues/+%22Local+Authority+Leaders%E2%80%99+Boards%22&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=3&gl=uk
11. See the astonishingly back-handed announcement to Parliament by John Prescott, 8th November 2004. Hansard Column 587.
12. Michael Tait and Brendan Carlin Cameron, 15th February 2009: I would ban Scottish MPs from voting on English-only issues. Mail on Sunday.