Can England join in the devolution process?

Syd Morgan and Alan Sandry argue that it’s time for a ‘Rainbow’ alliance in UK politics

For many observers, the 2010 UK parliamentary election was dominated by the Prime Ministerial television debates. Politicians, media pundits and academics agree this mini-series changed the election dynamics and, not least, thrust the Liberal Democrat leader into the consciousness of UK voters. A by-product was a lowered profile for parties other than the Big Three. Certainly, the votes for Greens, Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru were depressed, as were others. Of course, we await the results of full research on these contentions, of course. But to the extent they are embedded in conventional political discourse, they are, therefore, ‘real’.

The spat over the 5 May 2011 date for the UK referendum on the Alternative Vote for the next Westminster elections seems to confirm a reactionary, UK centralizing tendency, despite devolution. The electoral system for next Westminster elections will over shadow the vote over who will run the three territorial administrations.

This scenario presents decentralists of all stripes with a new dilemma. How can they get their political messages through the apparently narrowing UK public space? Under the ‘British constitution’ we have presidential-style debates, but voters can’t directly elect the contenders. Instead, electors only choose their MP surrogates. Although primarily lawmakers, these double-up as an electoral college which elects the premier who, in turn, appoints the government. Meanwhile, the post of head of state being firmly hereditary. None of these givens are likely to change soon.

If decentralist voices are to be given fair hearing in future UK elections, is it not time for the creation of an electoral Third Force? There are already building blocks. Scottish and Welsh nationalists are members of a joint Westminster group and often find common cause with parties in the north of Ireland.

However, Westminster’s parliamentary arithmetic demands something more: We need a UK state-wide alliance beyond the three devolved territories of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. We need to bring England in the decentralist frame.

Although revolutionary in Anglo-British political circles, a confederal relationship of coalition governments rather than control by a monopolistic party is demonstrably normal. On these islands, we have the admittedly special case of the Belfast government, Labour and Plaid Cymru in Cardiff (preceded by Labour – Liberal Democrat), and a minority SNP government in Edinburgh. The UK itself now has a Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition.

If a new UK ‘third force’ is to be constructed, we need to ask a strategic question. Can it include Labour? Despite the three-year One Wales government, we see no signs of the two-party coalition’s mostly shared ideology replicating itself elsewhere in the UK, at any level. One Wales seems to be a one-off, which may not endure after 2011. Similarly, Plaid’s repeated attempts to embrace mostly Labour–linked UK trade unions have yielded no concrete gains for the party, either financially or electorally, and this is despite many shared policies.

The elephant in the room is British nationalism. This visceral Labour view surfaced during the brief talks about a possible Rainbow government in June following the May general election. Diane Abbot MP, who epitomizes the British Left position, opposed it for sectarian reasons. You could almost feel the horror of many of her fellow MPs at the prospect of working with ‘regionalists’. Some of the epithets used to describe Plaid and the SNP were worse.

Despite its Welsh façade and public proclivity, it can also be argued that Cardiff Bay is in essence Westminster writ small. Its agenda seems narrowly British, with England as the main comparator. The much fairer and more beneficial prism of other small states or comparable European nations is mostly shunned.

Yet further evidence for successful coalition building and effective government lies outside the British paradigm. In the European parliament civic nationalists work in a joint group with the Greens across the continent, including England. They are the fourth largest group. This is echoed in Holyrood, where a ‘separatist’ Green party has a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with the SNP.

On the mainland, new non-sectarian political alliances are increasingly in evidence. Europe Écologie achieved near parity in France with the Parti Socialiste in the 2009 European parliament elections and consolidated its position in the 2010 regional elections. In Spanish statewide elections civic nationalist and progressive social movements are getting together to increase their electoral footprint. So what are the chances of this happening across the UK?

We already see a working relationship between England’s first Green MP and the Plaid/SNP Group on shared issues. This builds on the established co-operation between that Group and Northern Ireland parties.

A new UK-wide pre-election ‘Rainbow Alliance’ would, of course, have to recognize, and embrace, the distinct national entities within the UK. It would also have to be based on a common programme, openly arrived at. It would make its internal disagreements open and transparent, on the assumption that the electorate can ‘take it’. And if such an alliance elected a joint female and male leadership, that would send a strong message of change.

Simple cries of ‘Tories Out’ do not take us much further given that all three UK parties embrace Anglo-American capitalism, a centralised state and a failing foreign and defence policy. If UK voters are to have a choice of an alternative government, progressive thinkers and political practitioners need to do some radical new thinking.

Dr Alan Sandry is a university lecturer in social and political theory at UWIC. Syd Morgan is a former university lecturer and political practitioner. Together they have formed The Welsh Nationalism Foundation, affiliated to the Centre Maurits Coppieters (, a political foundation researching into civic nationalism that has been recognised by the European Parliament since 2007.

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