An Interview with Andrew Gwynne MP

An Interview with Andrew Gwynne MP, joint project with Toque.

Andrew Gwynne, Labour MP for Denton and Reddish, answers questions on the English Question.

According to research by IPPR , backbench Scottish Labour MPs are nearly 50% more likely to vote with the government than their English counterparts. Do you think Scottish Labour MPs are less likely to rebel because much of the Government’s legislation does not directly affect their constituents, or can the difference in rebellion rates be accounted for by a more profound ideological difference in politics that exists between Scottish Labour and English Labour?

Andrew: I haven’t seen the data but I don’t think nationality has anything to do with it, more likely other underlying factors. Most MPs, most of the time will support their party whip in Parliament (from whichever party). Occasionally, when MPs feel strongly about an issue they ‘rebel’. Am not sure that Scots are any less rebellious than English MPs when it comes to key issues but I might be wrong!

Sorry, my mistake, I must sack my researcher. It was the Constitution Unit, not IPPR (I can’t find the paper but see the Scotsman “Scottish Labour MPs least likely to revolt in Commons”). And what I should have I should have said is that English backbench Labour MPs are nearly twice likely to rebel against the Government as their Scottish counterparts. But let’s not dwell on my double mistake and get back to the subject – which is democratic accountability – by taking four issues where the votes of non-English constituency MPs over-turned the will of English constituency MPs: Top-up fees, Foundation Hospitals, Heathrow Third Runway & the recent creation of Regional Select Committees in England. Is it seriously your contention that Scottish MPs, who are far less likely than English MPs to be lobbied by their constituents on these four matters, are no less likely to rebel against the Government?

Andrew: I don’t dispute the issue needs resolving. Am just not sure that Scottish MPs are less rebellious than English MPs on contentious issues, but if that’s what the stats show then it must be so!

I wonder if you might shed some light on the Parliamentary Labour Party’s reluctance to address the West Lothian Question. To an outsider it appears that the Labour Party always believed that the West Lothian Question would be mitigated through their policy of creating regional assemblies in England. In 1995, George Robertson, the then Chairman of the Labour Party in Scotland, wrote that “The answer to the West Lothian question is the fact that our constitutional plans are not confined to Scotland and Wales. It will also embrace regional government in England, and that’s a firm commitment too.”

This was a view similar to that espoused by Gordon Brown in his 1992 Sovereignty Lecture to Charter88: “it is because the Scottish parliament is the precursor for one in Wales and regional devolution throughout Britain that the West Lothian question – essentially that different M.P.s will have differing roles at Westminster – is not a genuine problem in proceeding with change.”

And in his book ‘The Politics of Nationalism and Devolution’ (1980), Gordon Brown speculated that given devolution to Scotland the Labour Party might consider a version of what is now referred to as ‘English Votes on English Laws’: “a revised Scotland Act could embody some form of the ‘in-and-out’ principle. Under such a principle the remaining Scottish MPs at Westminster would not be allowed to take part in the proceedings of the House when it was debating England or Welsh domestic matters. The ‘in-and-out’ principle ought to be attractive to Conservatives since it would ensure them a semi-permanent majority on most social issues at Westminster – no small prize. Labour remains formally committed to devolution and may be expected to consider a plan along these lines in the future.”

Andrew: Yes, Regional Assemblies were seen as a possible answer to the West Lothian Question. However, I never supported them (a) because I don’t have any affinity with ‘the North West’ – a region of 7 million people stretching from Carlisle down to Crewe – I am Mancunian; and (b) the powers they were offered were far too weak and made them virtually meaningless talking shops anyway. Had the referendum in the North West have gone ahead, I would have supported the NO campaign.

The problem has been without the introduction of some form of devolution to England (whether by the creation of an English Assembly of some form or by regional devolution, or by giving more autonomy to local government over matters Westminster currently decides) there is the situation we have now. I liken it to a missing piece in a constitutional jigsaw that’s almost – but not quite – complete.

If I had had the choice I would have voted against the regional assemblies simply because they were a top down solution to the English Question, and were therefore could not be the answer. It is only the people of England who can answer the English Question, but we’ve never been asked for our answer. As the Guardian’s Peter Hetherington noted in the wake of the Government’s referendum defeat, many North Easterners “raised worries about the impact a partly-devolved North East would have on the unity of England”. Elected Regional Assemblies would not even have answered the West Lothian Question, not unless they had primary legislative powers like the Scottish Parliament – so Gordon Brown, John Robertson, Charter88 & Co were deliberately misleading insofar as that particular claim was concerned.

Andrew: Don’t think it’s as deep as that. I just don’t have much affinity with the ‘North West’ in the same way I do with Manchester, England and the UK.

So it would appear that the Labour Party recognised the West Lothian Question as a problem – an unfairness – but decided to leave it unaddressed. Your colleague Andrew MacKinlay suggested that this was because “My colleagues present arguments about needing votes from Scotland” [Hansard, 2 February 2009]. Is the truth that simple, or is their more to it than that, and; given that elected regional assemblies are off the political agenda, what is Andrew Gwynne’s preferred solution to the West Lothian question?

Andrew: This is the area I struggle with the most. The problem you have is the devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is not a-symmetrical so Westminster has different reserved powers for the various parts of the UK.

That’s why ‘English-only Votes’ (which seems an obvious short term fix) are difficult, not least because there will be legislation with clauses that affect England, Wales and Northern Ireland – but not Scotland; and then further in, clauses which are England only; and then maybe a clause which is for England and Wales only; and then maybe even clauses that relate to the whole UK.

It’s also clear there is no appetite for regional assemblies, as already discussed – so that’s not a viable option, though it would have been a possible solution, depending on the level of responsibility devolved down to them.

Personally, I would favour massive constitutional reform by introducing a federal system to the UK. All the home nations (including England) would have their own legislature, which would cover precisely the same areas of responsibility (unlike now) and have their powers codified in a written constitution. The Westminster parliament could be scaled back in size, and would be responsible for all federal UK matters. This is precisely the system the British Parliament introduced into Canada (British North America Act 1867) and Australia (Commonwealth of Australia Act 1900) – so it does work within the ‘Westminster’-style political system and is tried and tested.

There may be other options too. As I blogged, I think we need to have a proper debate about what kind of constitutional change would we like to see. I have suggested in the past that an English Constitutional Convention may be a good way forward to build a consensus for change – not just with politicians and civic leaders etc., but by engaging with the public who, to put it bluntly, don’t really get too excited about these issues (and less so since the expenses scandal – where they’d sooner have no politicians at all!)

English Votes on English Laws would undoubtedly lead to a “legislative hokey-cokey”, but I’m sure that it’s not beyond the wit of ministers and the parliamentary draftsmen to minimise that inconvenience, especially if Wales votes for its own parliament with primary legislative powers and a certain symmetry begins to emerge around the centre. The real problem, I put it to you, is the further diminishing of the role of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs, and the psychological effect that their partial exclusion from the business of the UK Parliament – and by logic certain Departments of State – has on a Briton’s sense of Britishness and an Englander’s sense of Englishness. Vernon Bogdanor has said that, “to be British is to wish to be represented at Westminster”. The dual nature of Westminster as both a parliament for England and a parliament for Britain, may lead to a situation in which the English have greater representation at Westminster, increasingly focused on England-only business, leading the rest to view Westminster as the English parliament (even more than they do now).

Andrew: I just think a federal UK fits more neatly than botching it at Westminster. English votes is far more difficult than people appreciate given Westminster’s current reserved powers mean even some of the most English legislation often has clauses referring to other parts of the UK.

What does England gain from the Union?

Andrew: I would hope you would recognise that over the 300-years since the first Act of Union, we have had peace (notwithstanding the Troubles in Northern Ireland), security, economic stability and an enhanced international status…

Whether those attributes would have happened anyway is a matter for academic debate really. I have no doubt that were all four nations to go their separate ways amicably, England as the dominant part of the UK would survive without many problems. Really it boils down to is whether we want to work together or on our own in the future. I support the continuation of the union, but I think given the devolution settlement, it has to be on new terms. I would prefer a written constitution codifying the responsibilities at each level within a federal UK.

The Union has undoubtedly been of economic and military benefit to England. The question that Alex Salmond is keen for the English to ask themselves now is: At what continued price? Or to put it in Alex Salmond’s words, “only Scottish independence can solve the English Question”. Do you think that English nationalism poses as great a threat to the Union as Scottish nationalism?

Andrew: Alex Salmond would say that though, he wants a separate Scotland. I’m a Unionist so I want to see the UK continue. I accept that post-devolution that means we need to finish the constitutional changes. Of course English nationalism (as a separatist movement) is as damaging to the Union as Scottish separatists. I do not accept though that English nationalism and separatism are necessarily the same thing. You can want fairness for England within the UK surely?

Has the lack of a democratic, political and institutional identity for England, along with England’s apparent lack of cultural self-confidence and clarity of identity, allowed Englishness to be appropriated by the far-right, making the politics of Englishness an uncomfortable political arena for today’s Left?

Andrew: Without a doubt the perceived influence of the various fringe far-right groups wrapping themselves in both the St George’s flag and the Union flag, does make many people on the left wary of talking and debating these kinds of issues. I think that’s the wrong approach. It is only by embracing national identity and culture (as well as accepting the differences in our society) that we can defeat prejudice, racism and bigotry.

I think that by neglecting English national identity and by failing to address the West Lothian Question, Labour have unwittingly acted as a recruiting sergeant for the far-right. But might there be other benefits for the Left, other than the racial decoding of Englishness, to be had from championing a more inclusive English national identity? David Goodhart has suggested that as affluence, mobility and individualism weaken the other collective identities of class, ethnicity and religion, feelings of national identity may be the last resting place for the communal commitments that the Left holds dear. Given the policy divergence thrown up by devolution, and soon – possibly – fiscal federalism, might Labour have to start appealing to our collective sense of Englishness in order to sustain the mutual obligations behind a good society and the welfare state?

Andrew: Yes

In his Politics of Identity speech to the IPPR, Michael Wills said that “Our British identity is different from our English identity…because it is quintessentially plural. And therefore inherently inclusive”, despite the fact that the Ministry of Justice’s own data had found that both whites and black & minority ethnic (BMEs) English people had a greater sense of belonging to England than they did to Britain. Wills went on to describe how the pluralist nature of our British identity was important as a source of belonging and that we should define and celebrate the shared values and bonds that bind the British together. Do you think that English national identity is equally important, and if so should the government do more to celebrate Englishness and strengthen English national identity as an inclusive national identity? Another way of asking this would be to ask, should the Government invest as much time and money on ‘Englishness’ as it spends on ‘Britishness’?

Andrew: I think for many people in England, the terms ‘English’ and ‘British’ are interchangeable and mean pretty much the same thing in their minds – that’s not saying they are correct, as clearly (to me as a unionist anyway) being British is my nationality, but I am English also, and they are two different things altogether; I was born in England, I live in England, England is my home. I am however legally a citizen (and a subject of the Crown) of the United Kingdom.

On celebrating English identity – I think it is crucial, because it’s who we are. See below. I also think it’s nice to celebrate what binds us too. That’s why I have no problem with people also celebrating St Pat’s, David’s and Andrew’s day too – in fact, any excuse to party!!!

Tom Nairn argued that modern national identity means one thing: ‘Populism is of its essence, while parliamentarianism is decidedly not’. Do you agree with John Denham’s analysis that a modern progressive English national identity should be fostered through cultural means (such as greater recognition of St George’s Day) rather than democratic means (an English parliament)? [See http://www.smith-institute.org.uk/19-John-Denham.php%5D

Andrew: I think it helps as a first step. In Tameside, where I live, we fly the St. George’s flag from all public buildings on St George’s Day; all the school children get St. George’s Day badges; red roses are handed out by Council staff to the public in the main town centres in the borough and there’s street entertainment and other activities over the nearest weekend too. It’s all important to raise awareness of our culture and traditions. It doesn’t deal with the missing piece of the constitutional jigsaw and nor is it intended to, but it is important nonetheless.

On St George’s Day 2008, Gordon Brown told the House that “As far as St. George’s day is concerned, it is a matter for public debate on whether this is going to be a holiday”. John Denham aside the Labour Party don’t appear to be involved in that debate, instead the Party focuses its attention on creating a British national holiday. Why doesn’t Labour give the creation of an English national holiday equal priority?

Andrew: I don’t accept that Labour doesn’t give priority to it. I have Labour Party leaflets currently being delivered in my constituency with a petition form calling for St. George’s Day to be made a national public holiday in England… And it was not at my instigation, but that of the local councillors, who also feel very strongly about it. The real problem if we’re honest, is the fact there’s a cluster of bank holidays in the spring and industry ‘claims’ to not want an additional one for this reason. Personally, I think it would be easiest to replace an existing holiday for 23rd April if that’s the problem.

Fantastic local initiatives aside, there is absolutely no way that you can convince me that the Labour Party Executive, or the Government, pay as much attention to English national identity as they do to Britishness. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that a significant number of people in England think that the Government and the Labour Party treat the non-English parts of the UK preferably. Much of this has to with funding, but at least some of the grievance is due to a feeling that English national identity itself has been neglected, both because of a lack of specifically English governance and – in the absence of English government – because there has been a general lack of recognition of English identity and English interests by the UK Government.

True, there is holiday congestion around the 23rd April. Before you were elected to Parliament Andrew Rosindell introduced a bill to make St George’s Day a public holiday in England in place of the May Day public holiday. Naturally Labour MPs lined up to vote it down, many of them Scottish and Welsh MPs, even though the bill did not apply to Scotland or Wales.

Lastly, can I ask you what prospect you think there is of an English parliament. What scenario is most likely to bring about an English parliament and what timescale do you think we’re looking at?

Andrew: I think it will come – whether in a federal system (as I would prefer) or because of separation (which I personally wouldn’t want to see)… I think we have to build up the case for a constitutional convention in England to thrash out a common position so that can be campaigned for within all mainstream political parties.

Thank you to Andrew Gwynne MP (click link for original blog by Andrew)  for being honest in his answers, and to Toque for writing the questions. They were very good and to the point.

Please join the CEP. and help gain a fairer England.

Photo copyright, Andrew Gwynne 2010

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About englishwarrior

I am and Englishman who is fed up with the way the Government and others treats the people of England

Posted on April 18, 2010, in Andrew Gwynne, CEP, English, for a change, government, honesty, Labour, parliament, scotland, The English Question, Toque and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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