Meeting arranged by the Campaign for an English Parliament (CEP)
House of Lords 20th November
Frank Field Labour MP
Lord Maclennan (Lib Dem)
Professor Wyn Jones ( Professor of Welsh Politics, Cardiff U)
Eddie Bone CEP
There were around 100 people attending including a sprinkling of young faces which is always encouraging. The audience was also pretty hostile to any suggestion that England should not have a Parliament or be Balkanised with regional assemblies. This type of audience reaction has been growing in meetings I have attended over the past couple years which have dealt with the EU, immigration and England’s place in the Union. I would suggest it is indicative of a growing anger and desperation amongst the native population to what they rightly see as the selling out of their country one way or another. People have had enough of what in any other time would have been given its true name: treason.
Frank Field MP on the need for an English Parliament
Field began by pointing out that he had been against devolution in 1998 (when he voted against it) because he could see that it was a flawed settlement that was on offer which would inevitably lead to future conflict. The chief flaw in the settlement was the absence of England within the devolutionary plan.
To his credit Field argued for an English Parliament despite the fact that his Party derives great advantage from having many Scottish and Welsh MPs sitting in the Commons and, consequently, Labour would struggle to form a majority in the Commons if either the Union dissolved or it remained intact but with ever more powers being given to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Indeed, even as things stand it is difficult for Labour to get a majority of English seats. His reasoning was this, if Labour does not embrace the cause of an English Parliament the increasing dissatisfaction felt by the English would erode Labour’s electoral base, because sooner or later those in control of the Tory Party would recognise that it is de facto the English party and successfully appeal to the English . This would radically undermine present Party loyalties. Because of this Field saw the only hope for Labour in the long term was for the Party to embrace the cause of an English Parliament and accept that it was desirable for the English to be able to assert their identity.
Field rejected regional assemblies for England because it was clear the English do not want them and would divide the country with different regions competing against one another. Instead he favoured a federal system for the four home countries with foreign policy, defence and finance being federal matters dealt with in a federal parliament and the rest left to the four national parliaments.
I would support this structure (I would even go so far as to invite the Republic of Ireland to join) , but some further matters would need to be decided at the federal level most especially immigration policy. There would also be the problem of welfare benefits, NHS provision and educational facilities if each home country funded its expenditure from taxes it raised within its borders. If there were significant differences in benefit levels in the four home countries, eligibility for the benefits would need to be decided at federal level because otherwise people would flock from the lower benefit level countries to the higher benefit level countries. Nonetheless, a federal government would deal with only a minute part of what Westminster deals with now.
Field’s explanation for the failure of the English in the past to display national identity strongly is the loss of Empire (he seemed to be unaware that the English never had any shyness about doing so at the height of Britain’s imperial power). He argued that while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland used the occasion to carve out a new national rather than imperial identity for themselves, England did not because her people went on in the imperial mindset because they could not face the loss of world importance.
Frankly, I think this is unsustainable. I was born in 1947 and I have never encountered anyone outside a political group or meeting where any lament for the loss of Empire was heard. The much more likely explanations are that the English being the dominant nationality in the UK never felt to the need to bumptiously press their nationhood. Then came Post War mass immigration with the vast majority immigrants ending up in England. The British elite who permitted the immigration saw the danger that this could and probably would lead to English nationalism being hitched to anti-immigrant feeling and set about ruthlessly suppressing it by the law and the support of the mainstream media. English nationalist became shorthand for racist. But devolution has made it increasingly difficult for them to censor the subjects of England’s place in the Union and with that debate comes the wider one of immigration.
Lord Maclennan (Lib Dem) A Constitutional Convention for England
Maclennan described himself as a man of many allegiances saying he was a Glaswegian (he speaks with an RP accent and anyone would take him for English), a Scot, a Briton, a European and God help us a citizen of the world. Just in case the audience had not got where he was coming from, Maclennan added that he was very pro-EU.
He is in favour of an English Constitutional Convention being but there is a good deal of fudge in it. Maclennan says he wants it have popular input to prevent it being a body which simply hands down its ideas from on high. Rather curiously he thinks that popular involvement means that it should not be time limited. This lack of a time limit could be a device to allow the Convention to be manipulated by those controlling it by choosing the time most favourable to their interests for any final proposals to be made. At worst the process could even be deliberately stretched out until a government favourable to the wishes of those controlling the convention was elected. Moreover, unless the Convention was elected by the general population it is a little difficult to see how popular opinion could override the wishes of those making the final recommendations. It would not even be a question of saying the Constitutional Convention’s recommendations should be put to a referendum, because the electors would still be unable to control what the question was and what the proposals were. Those two things would go a long way to determining the outcome of any referendum.
Maclennan raised the spectre of regional assemblies by speaking warmly about them, something which produced considerable dissent amongst the audience, with people shouting out their disapproval. He tried to justify them by making a comparison between Bismarkean Germany and a UK where England had a parliament to look after her affairs. The newly unified Germany in 1870 was dominated by Prussia and Maclennan said he feared the same would happen if England had her own parliament. This was a poor analogy because the newly unified Germany had two substantial states – Bavaria and Saxony – as well as Prussia while the UK has only one large state, England. Hence, England dominates the UK naturally through her vastly larger population whereas Prussia did so by her political and military standing, the Kaiser being a Prussian. Because England is naturally dominant it will always be so. It is also insulting to the English to suggest that her Parliament or government would abuse their dominant position to the disadvantage of the other home countries.
To justify regional assemblies in a slightly less obviously Anglophobic way, Maclennan introduced the EU concept of subsidiary and trotted out the EU line of “taking decisions at the level at which they could be best implanted”.
In short, Maclennan peddled the Balkanisation of England, just as the last Labour government had done.
Professor Wyn Jones ( Professor of Welsh Politics, Cardiff U) The data on the English
Jones is Welsh. However, that did not prevent him providing a good deal of useful data to knock on the head the claims of the Anglophobes that England is too diverse for Parliament for the entire country to meet the aspirations of devolution or that the English are content with the present constitutional settlement. He drew his data primarily from two papers he had been involved with published by Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR): The dog that finally barked (http://www.ippr.org/publication/55/8542/the-dog-that-finally-barked-england-as-an-emerging-political-community) and England and its two Unions. (http://www.ippr.org/publication/55/11003/england-and-its-two-unions-the-anatomy-of-a-nation-and-its-discontents).
Jones made these points from the research:
1. With exception of London, there are no significant differences by English region of the English attitude towards both seeing themselves as English and their attitude towards the devolutional disadvantage England labours under. In London the presence of large numbers of ethnic and racial minorities makes the attitudes towards devolution and how people see themselves in terms of their nationality less pronouncedly English. However, this is simply a reflection of the attitude of ethnic and racial minorities throughout England where there is a strong tendency to describe themselves as British rather than English.
2. The English are discontented with the constitutional settlement and are growing ever more so: the more English you feel, the more discontented you are.
3. There is a strong correlation between feeling you are English, Euroscepticism and the desire for England to have a Parliament or independence.
4 IPPR research which offers the people being questioned a series of political policy areas to rank in order of importance finds the EU at number one and England’s devolution predicament at number two.
5. The English overwhelmingly do not want regional assemblies. Fewer than 1 in 15 are in favour.
6. In the IPPR research there was a dead heat between those who want an English Parliament and those who want English votes for English laws. This division would almost certainly vanish if the choice was put to a referendum and the matter discussed honestly in the mainstream media, in particular discussion of the severe problems of definition when it comes to deciding what constitutes and English law. Moreover, once it became a matter of public debate with politicians and the media making the case for a Parliament , the public would begin to ask why should England not have what the other home nations have? However, I suspect that if a government simply announced English votes for English laws it would probably dampen English discontent in the short term.
7. English nation feeling is becoming politicised.
8. There is only a weak demand for English independence – 15% according to the IPPR research.
I take issue with the Professor on one major point. Jones, claimed that what he called political Englishness is a recent growth and this explains why there has been so little public dissent from the English following devolution.
The reasons I disagree are very simple. First, there was no English politician let alone Party with substantial representation in the Commons who would voice English anger at what has happened, while the mainstream media has been very reluctant to give the subject any space. To that censorship can be added the gross intimidation offered both by the state in the form of ever greater legal restrictions on what may be said in public, the disgusting eagerness of the police to harass any attempt to provide public demonstrations of English national feeling, the complicity of the media who conduct hue and cries after anyone deemed to be non-pc and large employers, particularly those in the public sector, who routinely sack or demote people “convicted” of pc “crimes”.
If a public voice is denied and the power of the state used to intimidate people it is scarce to be wondered at that no public campaign for an English Parliament has entered the political mainstream.
Eddie Bone CEP
Bone began by pointing out that 32 million people in the last census described themselves as English. He followed this by asserting that people were no longer demonised for being English. (I took issue with this strongly– see under questions from the audience).
Bone then turned his guns on the IPPR (and by implication Jones) for being behind the curve, of concentrating on what Englishness is rather than discussing the governance of England.
On the question of English independence, Bone said that the idea that there was little support as yet did not agree with his personal experience whilst working for the CEP. He believes it is a strong trend and getting stronger.
Bone dwelt on the dismal fact that there is not major British political party producing policy for England. Nor are there regional parts of the major party which are devoted to England, no English Tory Party , no English Labour Party as there have long been in Wales and Scotland.
For Bone an English constitutional convention is wanted before the Scottish referendum on independence is held to both allow policy for England to be made and demonstrate to the Scots what independence would mean.
He described the Blair devolution settlement as stupid and lamented the fact that the cabinet papers relating to the cabinet meeting where the decision on devolution was agreed have not been made public despite FOI requests.
Bone derided regional assemblies as a tool for divide and rule and believed that piece of elite mischief at least was over and done with for ever.
Questions from the audience
The questions from the audience (not that many) centred around particular issues such as the recent sacrificing of warship building capacity in Plymouth in favour of Glasgow to curry favour with the Scots and considerable hostility to any suggestion that England should be Balkanised with regional assemblies. There was also a certain politically correct concern with whom can be considered English following the mass post-war immigration.
Lord Stoddart, who was there simply as a member of audience, said that he had recently put down a question asking whether the government had any plans for an English parliament to which the answer had been a curt no.
The Lib Dem MP for North Cornwall Dan Rogerson raised the question of Cornish separatism claiming that the Cornish “are not English”. Apart from the howling impracticality of Cornwall existing as a sovereign entity, I would doubt whether more than 50% of the present population of Cornwall have been there for two generations, there having been a considerable influx of people from outside the county over the past 50 years. But even if every person living in Cornwall was born there it is difficult to see how they could be anything but English, the county having been effectively part of the English state since the Norman Conquest and arguably before that time.
I managed to put two questions after a decent preamble:
1, Where is the evidence that the English are no longer being demonised for asserting their Englishness?
Against this idea I pointed out the EDL’s crawling adherence to multiculturalism had not saved them from a shameful level of harassment by the state most plausibly because they had English in the movement’s title. When I described their treatment as more suited to a police state than a democracy this brought sounds of approval from the audience but looks of disapproval from some of the speakers. I further pointed out that as far as the Labour Party is concerned, the fact that two of their current MPs, Gisella Stuart and Jack Straw (who both sit for English seats), had referred to English national feeling as being “dangerous”.
I ended that part of the preamble by saying that before the English could feel safe from the persecution by the state all laws which proscribed speech which was un-pc would need to be repealed and the police restrained from their current pathetically eager interference with any public political activity deemed to be un-pc.
2. In the absence of any major British party showing any interest in taking up the English question how will anything change?
I received no meaningful answer to either of these questions.
It is difficult to see how progress can be made while the major political parties are controlled by elites who are resolutely opposed to giving the English a voice and a focus for political action through an English Parliament. Ironically, the most likely instrument for change would be a vote for independence by the Scots.
The other event which could provide impetus is an EU IN/OUT referendum, if one is ever held. A vote to leave would toss British politics up in the air and force the British political elite, whether they want to or not, to concentrate on national rather than supranational issues.
Robert Henderson 22 11 2013