Interdependency of devolution and progressive politics

John Osmond says that until the English take a cold, hard look at their own country and its place in the world, social democracy will continue to languish behind Offa’s Dyke and Hadrian’s Wall

One year on from Labour’s defeat in the 2010 UK general election I’ve come across a first glimmer of some new thinking about the party’s future. Labour’s problem over the decades since I’ve been following its fortunes – and that is since the early 1960s! – is that it develops all kinds of progressive aspirations when in Opposition, only to see them corrupted by the blandishments of power and the pressure of events, once in office.

Looking back at the governments of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in the 1960s and 1970s who could not agree that, lacking the sheet anchor of comfortable majorities in the House of Commons,  they were simply blown off course by “events, dear boy”, as Harold Macmillan famously put it. In the case of Tony Blair’s more recent efforts, between 1997 and 2007, he threw away the advantage of substantial though reducing majorities in his three elections, by following dubious foreign adventures, most notably by accompanying George W. Bush into Iraq.

Why have Labour’s essential progressive social democratic instincts, so passionately articulated when in Opposition,  been so easily undermined when in power? Writing in the current issue of the social democracy journal Renewal, Patrick Diamond, a Research Fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, and one-time Downing Street adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, puts his finger on the beginnings of an answer. When in government he says Labour has always been captured by the Westminster way of exercising power. As he puts it, the key feature of the Westminster model of governance is untrammelled executive dominance, with a parliamentary majority handing the Prime Minister the sovereign powers of a monarch:

“This guarantees that political power and authority remain heavily concentrated at the core of the state. Governing is seen as a process conducted by a closed elite constrained by their concern for the public good, and within the framework of a balanced and self-adjusting constitution. Executive dominance is justified in order to achieve strong and decisive government, a core feature of the flexible and adaptive British political tradition which has endured since the Glorious Revolution of 1688.”

Of course, this is the opposite of a democratically responsive system where accountability is dependent on a much more decentralised view of how power should be distributed. Labour’s problem has always been that, since the days of Keir Hardie, it has never understood, let alone believed that delivery of its social democratic project, dependent as it is on robust civic institutions across the whole of the Britain and not just in Whitehall, is intertwined with the decentralisation of power.

Oh, you might say, didn’t Labour achieve that with devolution to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, very early on in the last Labour government? Yes, it did but only to a very limited extent. As far as Whitehall is concerned, it still operates within a sealed system of executive sovereign power in which Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – fobbed of with their block grants – can be forgotten about. In the much larger English polity, devolution has never registered. As Diamond puts it:

“Despite devolution and the creation of several ‘policy laboratories’ within the UK, Whitehall has not yet developed any systematic processes for monitoring policy innovation across Scotland, Wales and England.”

And it has never been under any pressure from Labour to do so either. Indeed, in the main Labour has been half-hearted about devolution anyway. It was only because he inherited a cast iron commitment from John Smith that Tony Blair implemented it in the first place. In his memoirs, published last year, he said he regretted it. As far as Gordon Brown was concerned, he certainly was a committed devolutionist in his earlier Red Paper on Scotland incarnation, but by the time he became Prime Minister, in the dog days of the last government, devolution just got in the way of his ill-fated attempts to argue for a renewal of Britishness.

Labour needs to understand that for social democracy to work in Britain, we can’t depend on running experiments north of Hadrian’s Wall or west of Offa’s Dyke. It has to be made to work in England as well. Patrick Diamond gets this, up to a point. As he puts it:

“What is required is a culture of disciplined pluralism in which locally elected, democratically accountable authorities are able to innovate and experiment freely within a highly flexible regulatory framework unencumbered by constant interference from Ministers in Whitehall.”

For this to happen, he says, there must be a root and branch reform of the way local government is funded, so that local authorities are responsible for raising and spending most of their money.

This would go some way to dealing with the problem. But there’s a lot more that Diamond doesn’t touch on, and that concerns the behaviour of Britain abroad.  Gwyn Alf Williams used to say that “We won’t get rid of the bomb until we get rid of Britain!” Why does a government under such financial stress refuse the £25 to £35 billion saving it would make by ditching the Trident so-called nuclear deterrent? Because it still believes that without it Britain wouldn’t be able to throw its weight around in the world: in Afghanistan and Iraq yesterday and today, in Tripoli today…

All these are fundamental questions about, essentially England’s identity and England’s place in the world. Diamond’s article is useful because it demonstrates  some cracks are beginning to open up in the Whitehall monster. The trouble is that he fails to couch his argument in terms of England. He’s still fixated with Britain, which prevents him seeing the wood for the trees. Until the eyes of the English are opened up to take a cold, hard look at their own country and the reality of its place in the world, the progressive cause of social democracy will continue to languish behind Offa’s Dyke and Hadrian’s Wall.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

18 thoughts on “Interdependency of devolution and progressive politics

  1. It’s a bit unfair to single out Diamond for criticism when the entire British establishment is institutionally racist against the English. In his speech on public service reform in England, David Cameron managed to avoid mentioning the word ‘England’. Instead we were treated to 18 instances of the phrase ‘our public services’, 4 instances of ‘our country’ and 2 mentions of ‘our schools’ (not to mention ‘our schools and hospitals’, ‘our universities’, ‘our teaching hospitals and universities’, ‘our children’, ‘our health outcomes’, ‘our society’, ‘public services in our country’ and ‘our Foundation hospitals’). He managed to mention the word ‘Britain’ 4 times but to his credit he spared us the moralising guff about ‘Britishness’ and ‘British values’ that would have cluttered up a Gordon Brown speech.

    If Cameron and Brown never mention England, even when they are explicitly talking about England or issues relating to England, it’s hardly surprising that Diamond also couches his arguments in the language of the anglophobic establishment.

  2. “The progressive cause of social democracy”. Not entirely sure what that is, but it clearly implies moving further to the left.

    Well, if the English, like the Scots and Welsh, get their own national Parliament (not spurious localism) that might happen, but it will be entirely a matter for the English. We aren’t obliged to do things because they are what the Scots and the Welsh have chosen to do. In a devolved UK these things are none of your business.

  3. An overseas travel ban on the Windsors might be a good starting point for re-evaluating England/Britain’s place in the world. While we still have the Royal Establishment desperately hanging on to its ‘soft’ power and pursuing its own self-interest (William despatched to New Zealand and Australia, Canada chosen for the first post-wedding tour etc to keep the old white dominions on side) our external relations will never really change.

  4. England/Britain will never get rid of the bomb because without the bomb there is nothing the UK state can do ‘better’ than the constituent nations, Wales, Scotland or England as independent nation states.

    Whilst most of what is appealing about Britishness – comedy, pop music is not dependent at all on having a British state, the military is. The military is absolutely central to the UK’s future. Without it, the UK, in the words of one MP (Labour or Tory, I forget which) is ‘just like Belgium’.

  5. I can’t for the life of me establish what this article is on about. It never seems to address the point by explicitly saying what is meant by devolution for England, is it an English Parliament or is it a regional carve-up?
    It quotes Gwyn Alf Williams, “We won’t get rid of the bomb until we get rid of Britain!” without explaining what this actually means. So far, it is England that is being got rid off since devolution, not Brtiain. It is England that has been replaced with regions on the EU map.
    The English do not have to do anything, especially not to “take a cold, hard look” at our own country (that’s England by the way). We are fixing our cold stare on the United Kingdom that is actively working against us. Any kind of English home rule is thwarted by the British, such as Welsh MP Paul Murphy, because the the “social democrats languishing behind Offa’s Dyke and Hadrian’s Wall” are in fact “anti-social undemocrats” as far the English are concerned.
    As for Scotland and Wales being “fobbed off” with their block grants, I’m more than willing to hazard a guess that the English would be eager to award Wales and Scotland full fiscal autonomy and to pay for their own services out of their own taxes.
    Having read this article again, I still fail to see its point.

  6. I took a long hard look at myself this morning, and yes I was still an Englishman, an Englishman who is getting rather narked by those whose noses should keep out of English affairs. When Wales took the chance to have devolution I and my fellow English nationalists kept out of the discussion, it was for the people of Wales to decide and no one else. So it is with England, we shall decide what’s best for us but the “little Britishers” will keep denying us our democratic right to an English Parliament, why? Because they are anglo-phobic, England you see is the last colony of Empire

  7. Like Stephen Gash, I’m not sure what the Director was driving at either. But I’d go easy on the English victimhood. England has the votes and calls the shots in the UK. If they wanted to reform Barnett and reduce excess payments to Scotland they could. English party leaders anxious for Scottish votes at Westminster are the ones who resist change. And English votes got us into Afghanistan where Welsh kids die alongside their English comrades. A majority of Welsh MPs would be opposed but we go along like loyal subjects of Her Majesty.

  8. “England has the votes and calls the shots in the UK”. No it doesn’t! The so-called “English” MPs in the British Parliament are British MPs of English constituencies, many of whom do not identify themselves as English and some are positively Anglophobic. Unlike Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, for internal affairs, we in England are ruled by a British Parliament composed of MPs from British parties that form a British government in the palace of Westminster that flies the British flag.

  9. Hmmmm, difficult to know what to say really. It seems like an awful lot of hot air, rearranging of the deck chairs and general navel gazing without actually mentioning the elephant in the room…
    It’s not about root and branch local reorganisation in England, it’s about NATIONAL representation! And if we in England aren’t offered that democratic birthright very, very quickly then the British state is doomed – for it will the English who will want away – and who can blame us after this laughable ‘union of equals’ has treated us with such nose-holding distain…

  10. Re: Tredwyn’s comments. ‘English’ party leaders? No, they’re all fanatically and inflexibly British and poisonously anti-English. Members of the Westminster parliament are British MPs, voted on a British mandate. Therefore, there is no such thing as an English MP, even though most of them were born and ‘bred’ in England, and have English constituencies.

    The decision to go to war here, there and everywhere is taken because the Brits are essentially imperialists who feel some need to throw their weight around and be ‘big’ players on the world stage. I’d like to think an independent England would refuse to be involved in such foolishness.

  11. Labour refused to respond positively to the Cornish petition of 50,000 signatures calling for devolution and so lost out on the chance to decentralise power ‘within’ England to a Cornish assembly. We are still here and waiting. I wonder if Labour can be convinced to take a fresh look at Kernow and help us realise our potential. The Tories and Lib Dems promised us so much before the election and have, to be blunt, stabbed us in the back (see Devonwall). Now is the time for Labour to make gains in the Duchy with a progressive approach to the Cornish question.

    The Campaign for a Cornish Assembly :

  12. Labour is in a mess of its ‘New’ moniker creation of Tory lite Tony Blair and anything for power Brown.

    In Scotland, Labour’s fixation with Westminster ensures its MSPs are of appalling incompetence who see Scotland only through Westminster’s eyes. They have no policies for Scotland except those they have stolen from the other parties. Ed Balls was up giving us the benefit of his ‘wisdom’ that we Scots needed to vote Labour in the Holyrood elections to send a message to Cameron and Clegg … missing the point completely that Holyrood is about how we spend our pocket money to Scotland’s best advantage – a problem for Labour as their Holyrood manifesto is not costed, have a track record of spending £30 billion to build £6 billion of public buildings and when faced with unscheduled protests their front man hides in Subway then does a runner for a taxi to make his escape.

    Labour have not a clue in any part of the UK what they actually believe in any more but it still seems to be “Westminster, Westminster, uber alles” …. first and foremost – as Balls’ pathetic attempts to raise the ‘Tory Ghost’ in Scotland demonstrate.

    Westminster is not going to reform as the current status quo is to the 300+ English MP’s advantage, the City of London’s advantage, the London media’s advantage in fact everyone appears to benefit except the voters. It has had its day and it is time for the nations making up the UK to go their own way.

    Britain does not exist except in the mind of Westminster and its associated hangers on even the BBC now makes clear it is talking about the English NHS and not just the ‘NHS’ when discussing ‘Government initiatives’.

    Brown tried to put the devolution genie back in the bottle with Calman. Cameron does not understand the mistake Labour made trying to use Calman as an attempt to stop the SNP at all costs – by continuing down this path and forcing a major claw back of devolved power in his amendment bill now before Westminster.

    Keir Hardy would be spinning in his grave, if he had one, as Labour has given up on any pretence at socialism in the chase for individual advantage, preferment and status.

    Labour in Scotland are going to have to rely on Tory and Libdem votes to have any chance on May 5th.

  13. So, the fundamental problem is the continued hegemony of British nationalism or, rather, Anglo-British nationalism, and the very nature of the British State? Back to Gwyn Alf Williams again. In my view, the central repository of that reactionary ideology is now the Labour Party.

  14. No Anglo-British nationalism, just British. British politicians are usually vehemently opposed to England. We can’t have English politicians until England is allowed to exist politically. At the moment, it’s several UK regions.

  15. Geoff, so an English born and bred MP sitting for an English seat is not English but British if he doesn’t agree with you? Blimey, if I followed that line there would be no other Welshmen at all! But joking apart, it’s ENGLISH politicians who have the power in the UK. Talk to them. No point whinging at the Welsh who are the real peasants in current arrrangements. We get less money per head than we would if in England – fact.

  16. Tredwyn, I don’t think anyone was whinging at the Welsh – merely trying to point out that the article was based on a flawed premise.

    Did you like being lectured by English critics in the lead up to the Assembly vote ? No? – and neither do we.

    And comments without clear referencing to support their claims do not become established fact, merely by typing the word.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy