Brief Remarks on the English Question

At a joint IPPR/Open Democracy event yesterday there was a brief discussion of the prospects for the Union between England and Scotland. The point was made that the Scottish nationalism is not so much a political party as a political movement – and that a progressive movement in support of the Union would be needed to stop it.

I found myself wondering aloud what a progressive movement in support of the Union would look like. The Union is a union of crowns. And unionism as a political identity is, to my mind, inextricably linked with notions of Protestant supremacy and capitalist imperialism. To put it another way, when I think of Unionism I think of Niall Ferguson. I can quite understand why the Scots might want to be shot of the thing.

For myself, I don’t feel very British most of the time. Although I don’t support England in the World Cup, don’t especially like the English (some of my best friends are English, I hasten to add), I am sentimental about the Cotswolds, and that’s what I think of as my country when I am abroad. Like lots of English sentimentalists I live in London and pine for deciduous trees.

To be suspicious of the Union isn’t to think that Britishness is empty. Some people feel more British than English, Scottish, or Welsh. But that is not the same as wanting to preserve the Union, I don’t think. After all, a Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland would still be populated by British people.

Those who want to keep the Union with Scotland presumably want to do so for a reason. Conservatives embrace the Union because it is part of the moth-eaten brocade of flummery and familiarity that allows them to perform their magic tricks in front of the electorate. You think I am privatizing the NHS? Now look! It’s a royal wedding!

The Left has a more complicated task. I can see why the Left might want to keep the two countries united, but I can’t see how we can insist that they do so on the existing terms. The constitutional order in Britain is, after all, a shambles.

On the other hand, the idea of a federation of the various countries of the current United Kingdom would have a certain amount of appeal. Each country would have its own legislature, judiciary and executive. Their powers would be clearly defined and that would be an end both to the West Lothian Question and Westminster’s system of parliamentary despotism, in which the executive has attached itself snugly to the face of the legislature (see illustration below).

The Westminster Model. Is it time to consider reform?

These separate governments would benefit from coordinating institutions. We could, for example, imagine establishing a currency managed by an elected central bank. This elected central bank would ensure that monetary policy served the interests of the population as a whole, rather than those of the City of London. It would strengthen the bargaining position of the North and the Midlands as well as Scotland (outside Edinburgh, perhaps), Northern Ireland and Wales, by ending the financial sector’s privileged relationship with the Bank of England.

We’ve tried leaving monetary policy to a technocratic central bank inside the Square Mile and we are still in shock from the noise when the edifice collapsed in 2007-8.

A democratically controlled currency, combined with large banks that are mutually owned and grounded in particular regions and devolved nations, would help us to bring decisions about investment under public control – each region and nation would strive for the best possible deal for itself, but each would have a reason to act in the interests of the whole. A democratic version of the regional oligarchies that balance the Federal Reserve, if you like.

One could imagine a reformed BBC taking its place quite comfortably in a federal Britain of this kind. The regions and the nations would have democratically controlled investigators, researchers and reporters and a national broadcaster would collate and share the most important information gathered. The federal nations would together create a more robust public service broadcaster and it would in turn provide the many English speakers around the world with a better source of news than the material currently on offer.

Given that the Scottish Nationalists are in no hurry to join the Euro, then a democratically controlled central bank and a democratically controlled broadcaster/publisher might be the best way to maintain the link. We could all defer joining the Euro until they too adopt a properly federal and democratic way of managing monetary policy.

The Scottish Labour Party could spend some time developing a plan for more extensive devolution that assumed the existence of a federal Britain. The English could then have a referendum to decide whether they liked the idea. The English are quite keen to have their own parliament, and they can hardly be blamed for that. Throughout Britain there is consistent support for greater democratization – decisions should be taken by those who are affected by them. If Englishness is problematic as a civic identity in a way that Britishness isn’t, then English civic institutions will surely remedy that.

A campaign for Scottish independence will force the British media to notice constitutional matters. Jeremy Paxman will huff and puff about practicalities, but still, it gives us an opportunity to make a progressive case for reform in the British Isles. Whether England and Scotland end up sharing some institutions or not doesn’t make that much difference, to me, at any rate. What matters is whether we emerge from the next few years as freer and more democratic societies.

At the moment we have a British Parliament and a Bank of England. What we need, perhaps, is an English Parliament and a Bank of Britain.

8 thoughts on “Brief Remarks on the English Question”

  1. It’s so refreshing to hear an Englishman other than Anthony Barnett who understands that Scottish nationalism (as expressed by the SNP and others) is not something closed, parochial and obsessed with “sovereignty” in the way Westminster is. Nationalism as espoused in Scotland is characterised by the extent to which it is flexible, progressive and forward-looking.

    One of the reasons so many Scots voted SNP is that we are fed-up with the anti-European (whether EU or Council of Europe) banalities that dominate Westminster. Governing and decision-making in all European countries in the 21st C. should be shared between appropriate levels of institutions – they may be local government, national government (Scotland, England etc), British, European or international (UN).

    In the coming debate it is vital that we in Scotland hear the views of English people, let’s share proposals for a new constitutional settlement. We can discuss whether it’s called independence, federalism or confederation but if any of us just digs our heels in and refuses to accept changes to the status quo I think we will all be worse off.

  2. Interesting. But, please, get facts correct. Second paragraph – the Union is NOT the Union of the Crowns (that was never a union but merely Scottish King also took up English Crown – both remain legally separate constirutional entities). The Union is the Treaty of Union of 1707 which is founded on the two Acts of Union passed by each Parliament. Scotland as it happens has full rights under international law to walk away from this treaty and its existence is also why the UK is not a unitary state but a union state.

  3. So you don’t like the English? – then – wait for it – yes here it comes; the equally offensive ‘Some of my best friends are English” – I wonder why you live in England if you don’t like them – and I bet as you sneer and scoff your way through London you are equally detested by them.

    1. I didn’t say that I don’t like the English. I said that I don’t like them especially. Like any sensible person I like and dislike people on the basis of what they are like, not on the basis of their nationality.

      You’re English, as far as I can tell, and I don’t much like you, for example..

      Not because you are English, but because, on the basis of what you’ve posted, you’re obnoxious.

      1. Haha. (I notice over on Media Lens the similar degree of flak you’ve been taking for a harmlessly honest statement – operative word ‘especially’.)
        I myself used to hate the English when I was a teenager, despite worshipping the Beatles. It made no sense and came from nationalism. Like all nationalism, it was misguided.
        I liked your review of Ferguson’s book btw (and that photo of him accompanying it). Though I must confess I’m one of those who anticipates industrial civilization continuing to collapse over the next few decades.

    1. Thanks for the link – I shall take a look. Federalism would definitely open a space for Cornish self-government, if that’s what people who lived there wanted, yes.

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