England needs time to sort itself out

Geraint Talfan Davies argues against rushing decisions on English government

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

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.

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