England needs time to sort itself out

Geraint Talfan Davies argues against rushing decisions on English government

The febrile atmosphere of the last days of the Scottish referendum, seems not to have abated.  The panic induced by the one opinion poll that, the weekend before polling, put Yes voters in the lead, quickly infected a large part of the London-based press. The infection still lingers in this immediate post-referendum period – demonstrating rather forcefully once again, how English rather than British, a press it is.

Given, too, the press’s right wing mindset, the hysteria has been exacerbated by the knowledge that English grievance, such as it is, can be turned into a stick with which to beat the left, Ed Miliband in particular: How dare he prevaricate when England stands in such mortal danger.

The post-referendum jostling began with David Cameron’s Friday morning statement. It was delivered with his familiar cadences of urgency – one of his favourites tropes. You could almost see him reaching for his cuffs to roll up his sleeves. But the situation demanded more than theatre.

The awful truth is, as Carwyn Jones said, the British establishment almost lost Scotland. The lookouts on the watchtower had either been asleep or awake but unseeing. That in itself requires some explanation and introspection. The explanation lies in dominant modes of thinking in the centres of British power.

First, the establishment view of the British constitution has been expressed down the years in an endless plain chant of hubristic self-satisfaction that leads inexorably to an instinct to defer reform until the last minute. Pragmatism, procrastination and muddling through have been elevated to cardinal virtues, immortalised in that Sir Humphrey-like phrase, ‘there are times when one must rise above principle.” Principles are regarded as rather dangerous, and probably French.

As Professor Peter Hennessey put it in his pre-devolution book, Muddling Through, “One of the cardinal rules of the British way of government is that panic must always be portrayed as poise, and desperate improvisation as the pragmatic product of centuries of wisdom and experience.”

Second, a substantial part of the governing elite – despite ostensibly defending ‘the union’ – paradoxically, in the depth of their souls have never seen the country as a union, but rather as a single unitary state, and devolution a rather unfortunate aberration. Tony Blair did not believe in it, but was persuaded to proceed as an act of piety following the death of his predecessor as party leader, John Smith. Westminster and Whitehall never liked, or perhaps even understood, the change in the nature of the state that was implicit in the creation of the devolved administrations.

The people who bestowed federal systems on Canada and Australia and, irony of ironies, on Germany after the war, could not bring themselves to contemplate anything similar for the United Kingdom. Until now. That in itself is a measure of the Scottish earthquake.

Third, as the author David Goodhart, has commented, “the English remain semi-literate in the language of modern identity.”  England may be coming up the learning curve, but it has some way to go.

These factors explain why so many approaches to constitutional change by those in power seem strangely incomplete and ill thought through. David Cameron’s morning after statement fell into both these categories. No consultation with the devolved administrations. The problem stated only as one involving discrete issues in four separate territories – four country rhetoric, but two country action that morning – Scotland and England. No hint of a means to bring consistency and coherence to the whole.

Neither did he point to any connection to the wider aspects of the constitution – the Commons, the Lords, electoral reform, the empowerment of local government or any other means to the renewal our democracy – or to any possible foundation of principle. (The UK’s Changing Union, a joint project by three Welsh organisations, including the IWA, has suggested three guiding principles: consistency, subsidiarity and social cohesion.)

No. Any repairs on the battered British constitution were to be limited and despatched with all the speed of the Dangerous Dogs Act.

None of this should come as a surprise. Wider movements for constitutional change in this country have always found themselves struggling up a very long and steep hill – a Sisyphean journey. The extension of the franchise to full suffrage took 96 years – from 1832 to 1928. More recently, the Charter 88 movement in the late 1980s, the Power Inquiry a decade ago, and the campaigns of the Electoral Reform Society, have mostly run into the sand. The reform of the House of Lords has been obstructed for more than 100 years – that is how effective English or British conservatism (small ‘c’) can be.

Given this dilatory record, what is it that explains today’s rush? The desire to keep one’s vow to Scotland is understandable, even if that vow was cobbled and pledged with undue haste. But the notion that the English suburbs and countryside are aflame with a resentment that brooks no compromise or delay is scarcely believable.

Yes, many English people are now prioritising their English identity over British. Yes, many English people (and not a few Welsh) are irritated that the Scots have had such an unwarranted good deal out of the Barnett formula. But I doubt that the general population are exercised by the West Lothian question quite as much as English Conservative MPs, and UKIP candidates.

One has to ask how much of this anger is manufactured? After all, the notion that the British constitution, taken as a whole, is somehow grossly unfair to England, or that England has not done well out of the union beggars belief. England is a nation with 84% of the population of the UK, and 82% of elected members in the Westminster Parliament, a similar percentage of its peers. England dominates the Whitehall machine.

Even quoting expenditure per head figures for the four countries is usually confined to identifiable expenditure on functions that, outside England, are devolved. The figures leave out of account things like the distribution of defence expenditure and research spending – such as that by Vince Cable’s Technology Strategy Board not to mention things such as the Olympic Games. There is still some doubt as to whether Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, will benefit from any payment of Barnett consequentials in resect of HS2 that is planned to cost £43bn.  Meanwhile Wales has to haggle with the UK Treasury over the electrification of the Valleys Lines.

All this without considering other examples of dominant non-governmental English influence, such as the financial system, or our press and broadcasting institutions, or even arts philanthropy where more than 80 per cent of all arts philanthropy goes into central London. The truth is that even devolution scarcely dents English influence. That is the reality of co-habiting with an elephant. And from England’s point of view London is a bigger problem than Scotland.

Moreover, none of the solutions posed to the West Lothian question are without their problems for England as much as for any other country in the UK. English votes for English Laws (EVEL) attempt to get round the problem of differing party majorities in the UK and in England, but they also raise questions about Cabinet responsibility as well as the role and composition of the House of Lords.

The same might not be true of an English Parliament separate from a UK Parliament, as long as England was content with a unicameral legislature. But even that solution does force us to consider the political dynamics of the co-existence of UK and English Parliaments and governments. Surprisingly, in this context, the division of power between Yeltsin and Gorbachev in the last days of the USSR has been mentioned warmly by some commentators. Some precedent! The tension between the English Boris and the current Prime Minister might be of a different order if Boris J. ran England and not only London.

This is not to argue against either EVEL or an English Parliament, but merely to confirm that these are issues that need more care and study than can be achieved before next year’s general election. Carwyn Jones has been right all along in calling for a UK Constitutional Convention. But England, too, needs to have an internal debate, especially at a time when its own internal dynamics are in flux. Strange that the gradualism that England has always lauded, is now intolerable for some.

Geraint Talfan Davies is former Chair of the IWA. He is Chairman of the Welsh National Opera and former Controller of BBC Wales.

17 thoughts on “England needs time to sort itself out

  1. My prefered solution would be to make London a separate part of a federal UK with a status on a par with, say, Northern Ireland. It would still be bigger than all the others in terms of wealth but would have less power. The capital of the UK could then be somewhere else move geographically central. Of course it is quite possible that some of the other English cities or regions would then want the same status and we could then move to a the federal solution.

  2. I believe the title of the article sums it up very nicely, “England needs time to sort itself out” the only way this can happen is with an English Parliament. England can not sort itself out when decisions are made by a UK government made up of 117 unaccountable MPs from other nations.

  3. In my view those who call for the English Parliament for English people may end up with a Poisoned Chalice as the only way for this to work of a sort would be to confer the Devo-Max on the other three constituent ‘nations’.

    Then, we’ll end up with an inward looking England protecting it’s interests and demanding equality of UK’s public funding share – In this context and in my view not an unreasonable notion, then what about the ‘minions’ as in the rest of ‘us who would end up a lot poorer!?

    Politicians have a knack of ‘Screw Things’ up and UK’s road for ‘More Democracy’ via devolution route seems to have achieved the total opposite by damaging and blurring the notion of Democracy and creating divisions and racial intolerance.

    Perhaps we should all unite behind the British Flag and start addressing devolution issues with greater scrutiny and ask what has Devo given us and do we still want it (Additional tiers of Governance cost seriously big money and this money could be used for a lot better causes in my view)!?

  4. He makes a very good case for an English parliament among independent states.
    The only argument put forward by the peripheral countries are self-interest. Money–English money.
    If they are entitled to self-interest then so is England and that can only be satisfied in the same manner as gifted to Wales, Scotland and NI.
    England governed by a parliament of English.

  5. England will sort itself out. The mood is now far more independence minded than the mood here. Whilst people in Wales are talking extra powers, many people in England are now seeking more radical solutions. When UKIP does well at the next General Election, the call for an English Parliament will increase. Eventually English independence will become a mainstream conversation. Here, no doubt, we’ll still be discussing devolution. Wake up Wales!

  6. Even if one does not share GTD’s starting assumptions and world view, there is a lot of truth in the descriptive and analytical part of this article.

    The problem is that it is still in denial about what exactly happened last week. The pressure that has been building up since, and as a direct result of, the decisions taken in 1997 came close to triggering the explosion that some of us predicted at that time. It cannot be ignored any longer.

    A desire for caution and careful consideration similar to GTD’s was the motivation behind some friendly e-mail exchanges with a few English Conservative MPs over the weekend. The starting position was that Conservatives in particular ought not to initiate major constitutional change without it first being put to the voters in a manifesto. This position – entirely correct in itself – was demolished when one MP said he seemed to recall that there was something about it in the manifesto. Although it has barely been mentioned, this is indeed the case:


    The throwaway last paragraph at the bottom of page 83 changes everything. The Conservatives are not only permitted but obligated to answer West Lothian. If they are voted down in the Commons, ‘English Votes for English Laws’ is a potential Election-winner for them.

    Note that – also as predicted – the devolved Welsh Assembly is marginal in all this. Scotland matters and England certainly matters but no one is really interested in what happens to Wales. The pigeons released in 1997 are finally coming home to roost.

  7. England doesn’t need sorting out – apart from re-naming the London Assembly the Greater London Council and abolishing the NUTS1 Regions. England is working reasonably well. What needs sorting out is the waste and uncompetitiveness of Scotland, Wales and Ulster – all of which have an inefficient and unnecessary layer of administration at both the political and establishment levels.

    If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! Conversely, if it is broke then do fix it…

  8. All of the Federal systems mentioned in this article are not based on nationalism which is the problem in the UK. The Germans also had a similar problem to the UK between 1871 and 1933 because of the dominance of Prussia. The Second World War solved the problem and Prussia no longer exists. The German system works precisely because German politicians unlike some members of UK national political parties do not emphasise the differences between the Lander. Even in Bavaria the Bavarian Nationalist party polls about 2% just below the figure ironically for Plaid in the recent opinion poll.

    I know that many people are shattered by the Scottish result. But please let’s not start rewriting history. NO won in 28 of the 32 Local Authority areas. Only one age group according to YouGov’s poll of 3000 voters voted yes. The 71% of 16 year old who voted YES in he Ashcroft poll came from a sample of just 14 voters. Salmond was hammered in his own constituency by 60 to 40. John Kay in the FT is surely right when he points out “If you ask people in Scotland what tax and welfare policies they want , you find they do not want different policies. They want more generous ones.” It’s not constitutional change that people want. They want a change of political culture and as a result perhaps a better life for themselves and their families. It is also a mistake to see the English question as something that only the Tories are pushing. It is also an issue which concerns many Labour politicians in both Parliament and local government. Those who attended the fringe meeting in Manchester organised by John Denham were not mavericks. At another meeting all the leading contenders to be Labour’s candidate for London Mayor criticised the mansion tax as tax on London and argued that London should retain more of the tax it raises.

    Carwyn Jones it seems to me wants a constitutional convention where the’ four nations’ are equals. Who represents England in all of this he doesn’t say. I’m also sure that there are many who would object to the artificial creation of Northern Ireland being described as a ‘nation’ at all.He probably also wants the delegations to be made up by the great and good who of course will also be chosen by the great and he good. Constitutional conventions which bring about fundamental change have to have the support of the people. Even if they are not directly elected as the Constituent Assembly which agreed the Weimar constitution was their deliberations have to be agreed by the people. That can only be achieved through a convention for all the UK and a subsequent referendum of all UK voters. The referendum last week and all social surveys show that the vast majority of people who live on these islands feel British. I know that nationalists in Scotland and Wales will not like that fact but it is a fact I’m afraid. Devolving power is not the same as appeasing Celtic nationalism and that unfortunately is the mistake that Labour made at the end of the last century.

  9. “England is a nation with 84% of the population of the UK, and 82% of elected members in the Westminster Parliament, a similar percentage of its peers. England dominates the Whitehall machine….”
    Yet the author cannot bring himself to follow his evidence through to it’s logical conclusion and GTD states that
    ” the British establishment almost lost Scotland”
    rather than the English establishment almost lost Scotland.

    “All this without considering other examples of dominant non-governmental English influence, such as the financial system, or our press and broadcasting institutions…”
    England could pretend that the above didn’t matter because it was all Britain’s. The Scottish referendum and associated events have torpedoed that construct. Now they’re rapidly coming to the conclusion that it’s all England’s and they like it.
    That honesty needs to be matched in the other constituent parts of the UK and they then need to act accordingly.

  10. In terms of England sorting itself out, there is very little we can do to intervene since it would be both hypocritical and unhelpful to do so. What is interesting is how this issue has become a party political dogfight between the Conservatives and Labour. What is clear is that the Conservatives have finally given up on Scotland. With only one MP left there, they have responded by offering full power over income tax and are already planning English votes for English laws. The more curious response has been that of the Labour Party who seem to wish to deny the existence of England as a distinct political entity. This seems a strange position to take with 8 months to go before the General Election.

    The constitutional convention as advocated by Carwyn Jones and endorsed by the Labour Party has a great deal to commend it for the reasons outlined above. The calculation is that Labour will at least be the largest party in the next Parliament, if not a majority government, and therefore will be able to organise such a convention on their terms. But I think Ed Miliband is already showing signs of miscalculation if he believes he can patronise the English into silence over their rights of representation and the right of non-interference from jurisdictions outwith England on English matters. England was one of the first countries in the world to have a Parliament to govern their affairs. They are never going to roll over on this one. Ben Bradshaw believes that the West Lothian question must be addressed now yet the Shadow Cabinet show no signs of acknowledging this pressing issue.

  11. JWR, the fact that no-one cares what happens in Wales is in fact a huge opportunity. It means we could write our own ticket if we wished. The difficulty is that Welsh politicians do not know what they want so they do not know what to ask for, never mind insist upon. I fear that in that they reflect a Welsh public that does not know what it wants and is fearful of taking responsibility for itself. Truly we are very far gone as a nation, racked by self doubt (self loathing in a few cases) and hooked on subsidies and hand-outs. Dependency culture in every sense.

  12. The issue is not so much an English Parliament as an English executive. The English MPs at Westminster could constitute themselves into an English Parliament for some days in each week and vote up or down laws proposed by the UK government of the day as they apply to England. While there is some awkwardness, that could work. The problem comes when the English Parliament wants to pass laws against the wishes of the UK government. Then it would need an English prime minister and executive to see the laws implemented. That leads inexorably to a fully federal solution with four governments plus a federal Parliament and government with power over a few reserved areas like foreign affairs. Fred may be keen on that but the great majority of English people that I speak to do not want it at all. Their attitude seems to be that the West Lothian question is unanswerable. They don’t want a whole new Parliament with more politicians. Their pragmatic solution seems to be to just reduce the numbers of Scottish and Welsh MPs at Westminster so they have less influence over who forms a government and then muddle through. That may be the outcome. It is not evident what Wales would contribute to a constitutional convention since the only thing our parties agree on is that they want the UK to give us more money.

  13. Mr Tredwyn, although we come to this place from different perspectives and would probably move on to different conclusions, your actual words are entirely correct.

    It is also difficult to disagree with Gerald Holtham today: the English want an answer to West Lothian, but, quite rightly, do not see that answer in terms of two separate Legislatures and certainly not two separate Executives.

    That begs an interesting question: if – big if – Wales requires a separate legislature, do we really need two sets of politicians? Why not simply have the Welsh MPs sitting alone when Welsh affairs are discussed in the same way English MPs will soon be sitting alone when English affairs are discussed?

  14. Taking up your point about what happens when an English Parliament wants to pass laws against the wishes of a UK Government, aren’t these the battle lines that are being drawn up now?

    The Conservatives know not just that they’re onto an electoral winner, but that this is a credible route to power that will enable them to them keep the England they love and cherish.

    I agree that the concept of a new English Parliament is not popular among the English electorate but neither is the idea that they are getting an unfair deal compared with Scotland. If it were to come to pass that a Conservative led English Assembly clashed with a Labour led UK Government, it would provide the perfect rallying point for the EVEL cause. And this clash will eventually happen. Taking your point about reducing the number of Scots and Welsh MPs and muddling through, I cannot see the Conservative Party holding back on the opportunity to gain power in England for the sake of a constitutional nicety. They are too venal for that.

    Clearly it is early days but the meeting in Chequers and Labour Party constitutional convention proposals mean that we see a debate heating up in earnest during the course of 2015.

  15. Reading the Belfast Telegraph it’s clear that some Northern Ireland politicians are not joining the Welsh First Minister in demanding more powers. In Stormont this week Peter Robinson Northern Ireland’s First Minister stated that he was not convinced of the benefits of transferring stamp duty and land fill tax to Northern Ireland as for income tax this would involve ‘very considerable difficulty and cost’. in the same debate another MLA argued ‘The idea that an assembly which cannot handle the powers it already has should be handed additional fiscal powers is the road to disaster.’

    Meanwhile in England Margaret Hodge the Chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee to the readers of the Evening Standard I the UK’s fifth nation London ‘I’m totally against constitutional conventions.’. Mrs Hodge wants action now which probably means EVEL.

    It looks as if solving The Schleswig Holstein question in the 19th century which after all only required a short war was a piece of cake compared to achieving the Welsh First Minister’s dream of Home Rule all round. Gerry Holtham is probably right when he argues that at least in the foreseeable future the most likely solution will be a reduction in Scottish and Welsh MPs and then muddle through .

  16. Gerry may be right but it would be very difficult for Carwyn to come away without anything substantial after he has made such bold claims in public.

    A question that was doing the rounds recently was what leverage do we have to get a better deal for Wales, other than just asking for more money. Carwyn’s tactics appear to be that he is the only Labour leader in the UK that actually runs the government. In terms of the Labour Party, he is the only one who has delivered. Given that, he is in a strong position within his party to make that case. The scenario would be that Labour either gets a UK majority next May or is at least the largest party. It will call a constitutional convention and Carwyn will speak for Wales at that negotiation. If Labour is not returned to Westminster, then the lack of leverage question comes back into view.

    Whether these powers will in any way be meaningful is a moot point, given the poor performance of our economy. That said, the sight of a Welsh Treasury on the horizon in 2018, on top of the announcement this week just gone that Wales will be raising its own taxes for the first time since the 14th century, suggests a financial powerhouse vis-a-vis the funding of policies. Should a Welsh Treasury be seeking to accrue more power to itself will make for a contentious debate towards the end of the decade.

  17. It is not much consolation but Northwrn Ireland has a government that is even more dysfunctional than the Welsh one. Since their executive is a ‘power sharing’ one it is permanently split and seldom able to agree on anything. Since nothing moves or can be decided, it is reasonable to ask what is the point of devolving further powers. In the Welsh case one could hope that more powers would induce better politicians to ply their trade in Wales and the Welsh public might take a bit more intelligent interest. Certainly no interest would be taken in specifically Welsh problems by any Westminster government. We do not have enough MPs or marginal seats to get anyone’s attention. We must work out our own salvation within the UK.

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