England is the unheard word
The UK is broken, but the political class won’t talk about it
Comment is Free, April 2010
It’s the morning of 7th May, and Britain has woken up to a hung parliament. The Labour party, despite failing to win the popular vote, has the largest number of seats, followed by the Tories and the resurgent Lib Dems.
But it’s not just the Lib Dems who have done well. The new 'Celtic bloc’ – an alliance of the SNP and Plaid Cymru – have had a good election too, and are being courted by Labour. After negotiations, they agree to help keep Gordon Brown in office in exchange for what both parties have demanded in their manifestoes – more money and more powers for Scotland and Wales.
As a result, our Scottish Prime Minister and his Scottish chancellor keep hold of the reins of the British government. Except that it isn’t a British government at all; in many key areas of national life, from healthcare to education to housing to transport, its writ runs only in England. The SNP and Plaid Cymru, who are not on the ballot in 80% of the UK and whose voters already enjoy privileges the English don't, ranging from free NHS prescriptions to free university education, are using their MPs to help the Prime Minister impose his policies upon a nation which did not elect him, or them. His government does so on the basis of a manifesto which uses the word ‘Britain’ over 100 times, but ‘England’ only once – and that in reference to the World Cup.
Happy St George’s Day.
If such a scenario comes to pass after the election, it will only be an exaggerated version of the way England is already governed. English governance is a canker at the heart of our crumbling constitution, yet 'England' has been the unheard word in this campaign. It's the place where 80% of the electorate lives and votes, yet nobody ever talks about it.
It wasn’t mentioned at all during the first leaders' debate, when all three men spoke as if devolution had never happened. In all the talk of constitutional reform – a suddenly popular subject – we have heard nothing from our politicians about the West Lothian question (why can Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs vote on English matters but not vice-versa?) or the wider English Question (why is England the only UK nation whose people have not been given a say in how they are governed?)
Why this blind spot? The political class have a standard answer to this question: it's not important, and nobody cares. Both claims are wrong.
The first claim is increasingly absurd. English voters have to live with the consequences of major policy decisions, like the creation of foundation hospitals or the imposition of university tuition fees, which most English MPs actually voted against. Scotland and Wales receive considerably more money per head from the taxpayer than England, and use it to provide free university education, free NHS prescriptions and other goodies to which the English have no access. This is not a criticism of those nations: they’re simply acting in their own interests. But England cannot do the same, because the British government stands in the way.
The way to understand this is to see England as the last outpost of the British Empire. It is governed by an imperial class which represents the British state, not the English people, and which stamps on any expression of popular culture or demand for representation, lest this undermine its power base. It is now the only nation in Europe without a government or a parliament.
Despite the line we are usually fed, people care about this. Two recent opinion polls show this clearly. A YouGov poll commissioned by the Jury Team shows that 60% of English people now want their own parliament (tellingly, 41% of Scots support them; perhaps they remember what being unrepresented feels like.) A second poll, commissioned by Power2010 and carried out by ICM, reveals even higher levels of support. 68% - over two-thirds of the English nation, of all races, ages and backgrounds – want an English parliament.
This St George’s Day, if we want this situation to change, we should rebel against our imperial masters. The English should demand home rule. We deserve what Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have already had: a say in our own governance. We need a referendum on the creation of an English parliament.
It’s clear that no mainstream politician will touch this issue, so those who care about it are going to have to start the ball rolling. All of us in England should ask our parliamentary candidates where they stand on the English question, and tell them that it will affect how we vote. If we don’t do it, nobody will. What better day to start?