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Fending off the English

Gordon Brown's campaign for 'Britishness' is dishonest and doomed.

Comment Is Free , 30th March 2008

Here we go again. Every few weeks, Gordon Brown’s crusade to re-establish ‘Britishness’ rears its tired head. A fortnight ago we were treated to Lord Goldsmith’s proposals for schoolchildren to pledge allegiance to the Queen, and a new ‘ Britain day’ to help ‘create a greater sense of shared belonging.’ This week, Justice Minister Michael Wills was wheeled out to fire the latest salvo with a speech on ‘the politics of national identity.’

Britishness, says Wills, in a precise echo of Brown, is the glue that binds us together. English or Scottish, Jewish or Muslim, black or white, bourgeois or proletarian – everyone loves being British. Which is why the government is going to draw up a ‘British statement of values’. It doesn’t know what these values are yet, but when it’s worked them out (with a little help from all of us), it’s sure that we’ll be keen to celebrate them – perhaps on ‘ Britain day.’

Clumsy but dogged – rather like the Prime Minister himself – Brown’s ongoing campaign for ‘Britishness’ is an exercise in top-down futility. The reality is that Britain is dying, and the government knows it. An institution which was clumsily welded together from four distinct nations in order to service a global Empire has today, that Empire gone, lost its point and purpose. Westminster politicians of all stripes regularly talk in hushed tones about ‘the breakup of the union’ as if it were the worst thing in the world. Yet the breakup of the union is probably inevitable – and if the government doesn't like it, it only has itself to blame.

Britain is under assault from many quarters – but the biggest threat, perhaps counter-intuitively, comes from the English. When Labour created a Scottish Parliament, and Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland , it claimed they would strengthen, not weaken, the British state. But the devolution process was incomplete because the largest British nation – England – was not included. Today’s constitutional settlement brings almost daily reminders of why this is an injustice – and the English are waking up to it. As they do, they threaten not only the future of the union but the future of Gordon Brown, Michael Wills and the government of which they are a part.

The Scottish today have a powerful and effective Parliament; the Welsh have a less powerful but still impressive devolved Assembly, as does Northern Ireland . All of these nations also have representatives in the British Parliament at Westminster . The English, meanwhile, have the worst of both worlds. Instead of our own elected Parliament or Assembly, we have unaccountable ‘Regional Assemblies’ – eight of them, which make major decisions on housing, spatial planning and transport, amongst other things, with no recourse to the people they claim to represent. Meanwhile, at Westminster , Scottish and Welsh MPs can make decisions about the future of England to which they will never have to answer to their constituents.

This – the thorny old ‘ West Lothian question’ – is the timebomb ticking quietly under Brown’s ‘Britishness’ agenda, and it is what will eventually doom it. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs sitting at Westminster can vote, and have done, to impose policies on the English which their constituents at home will not have to suffer, and for which they will not be answerable at the ballot box.

Most notoriously, this has happened in two of New Labour’s most controversial policy areas. In 2003, government proposals to create Foundation Hospitals were rejected by the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Only England remained, and Labour MPs were split. A parliamentary amendment removing Foundation Hospitals for England from the proposed Health and Social Care Bill was supported by most English MPs – but Welsh and Scottish MPs, drilled into the lobbies by the government, defeated them. The next year the same thing happened when university ‘top up fees’ were rejected in Scotland and Wales but imposed on the English by just five votes – the votes of Scottish MPs.

England today is the only British nation without any form of democratic devolution. It is the only nation in Europe without its own parliament or government. It has fewer MPs per head of population than the other British nations, and receives considerably less money per head from the treasury. Opinion polls show that the English are increasingly aware of this injustice – and increasingly unhappy (Alex Salmond enjoys reminding the English of the unfairness of the situation, for obvious reasons). This unhappiness, which is coalescing into resentment and anger, threatens not only the union, but the government's power base. New Labour is a Scottish creation, and any devolution to England could destroy not only the (Scottish) Prime Minister but the legitimacy of his government – a government which, if you removed its Scottish and Welsh MPs from the equation, would be a minority administration in England .

In this context, it becomes clear why the government is so keen on 'Britishness': it is trying to hold the English at bay; trying to avoid having to finish the devolution project by ensuring that England , too, controls its own affairs. As a result, we are seeing a mirror-image of the UK ’s pre-1997 constitutional injustices. Back then, the Scottish were resentful at being ruled from Westminster by a political party – the Tories – which did not represent their interests and which used their country as a ‘testing ground’ for unpopular policies, most notoriously the poll tax. The Tories responded either by ignoring them and hoping they would go away or by issuing hysterical warnings about the breakup of the union.

Sound familiar? Today England has the illegitimate government, and the English are the guinea pigs for its unpopular ideas. It responds by simply denying the legitimacy of their claims (‘ separatist nationalism must be taken on’, squeaks Michael Wills) or by feebly grasping at a fading British mythology. Some Scottish or Welsh nationalists may be enjoying the schadenfreude of seeing the English get a taste of their own medicine – but they shouldn’t. This is not about setting the English up against the Scots or the Welsh. It is, at root, about democracy and about justice. It is about all of us – Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and English – getting Britain off our backs.