Sunday Review on Monday: The dog that finally barked by Richard Wyn Jones, Guy Lodge, Ailsa Henderson, Daniel Wincott
by Anthony Painter
Is England the new Catalonia? It’s a serious question. We’ve up until this point associated regional pride with secessionist regions in the north of Spain. FC Barcelona, anti-Francoism, pride and fierce independence is how we think of one of Europe’s most vibrant and vivacious regions. It’s easy to see Scotland in the same sort of independent light. But England? Well, a new report into Englishness suggests that we might be entering that territory.
The Dog That Finally Barked published today, by the IPPR, assembles a stack of evidence that suggests that after many years of a predicted rise of Englishness, it is now actually happening. Not only that, but this rising Englishness has a political expression that may become irresistible. This has profound implications for the future of the centre-left. And yet we bury our heads in the sand even more firmly the more difficult questions of identity and nationhood become.
In a selection of European “regions” (or “nation”, cross-national definitions are tricky but bear with it), 45% of Catalans feel more Catalan than Spanish. Scotland is top of the “regional” pride league with 60% saying they are more Scottish than British (only 11% say they are more British than Scottish). Independence is still very much a live possibility.
Yet, it is the English results that are most interesting. 40% feel more English than British with only 16% the other way round. As it happens we are midway down the “attached to our region” chart. But we are third in the “region” over “nation” chart behind Scotland and Catalonia. That’s more “national” pride than the select group of 15 Austrian, Spanish, French, German, and UK regions included in the report other than Scotland and Catalonia.
This rising Englishness has political ramifications. The worst possible outcome for Labour would be for Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs to be barred from voting on “English” laws. This least favourable outcome is favoured by the greatest number – 34% over 24% in favour of the status quo.
Assuming that laws could be defined in this way, it would mean that there was no proper constitutional debate about a more pluralistic form of politics as the Scottish and Welsh had when power was devolved to them. Westminster’s majoritarian logic would simply be transferred to an English committee sitting alongside the full Parliament and that would shift parliamentary arithmetic in the Conservatives’ favour.
Labour’s traditional favoured solution to asymmetric federalism is for regional parliaments to be introduced. Forget it. It’s a complete non-starter. Even in the north it is the favoured constitutional solution for only 10%. A new English Parliament is favoured by 20% – despite the desire of the majority to locate greater power in English political institutions. However, there is a general desire for more devolution: 17% want the greatest influence for local councils, 12% for regional assemblies, and 36% for an English Parliament (when English vote for English laws is not included as an option).
In other words, only a quarter of the English want to keep things pretty much as they are now. Moreover, they think that the Scottish get far more than their fair share, and are happy to see it head in a more independent direction. Almost 80% agree or strongly agree that Scotland should have more “fiscal autonomy”. The Conservatives have established the West Lothian question commission. The English people themselves are already way ahead of that game.
So what should Labour do? Well, this week, as fears over that the Falklands have started to bubble to the surface, the word “self-determination” has re-entered the political conversation. This should be the core principle of our constitutional future. It should apply to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Kernow, Birmingham and Cumbria alike. If communities want certain powers, and the basic human rights of particular groups do not suffer as a result, then they should be granted them. It won’t be neat, but it will be democratic.
What this means for Labour is that they have to stop allowing Scottish Labour alone to drive its approach to our national and constitutional futures. The non-Scottish elements of the movement have to begin to engage in this dialogue too. Nick Pearce of the IPPR has called for Labour to grasp a “Disraeli moment“. In other words, it must do something counter-intuitive here as Disraeli did with the extension of suffrage.
A response to the asymmetry of power in the UK will come, and perhaps sooner than we think. William Hague’s campaign for an English Parliament bombed, but attitudes have shifted since then and something less ambitious – English votes for English laws – may have more success. And the impact will be pretty much the same as the creation of an English Parliament. Labour’s national leadership is falling in behind the Tories in its refusal to budge from a no retreat status quoism in Scotland.
Meanwhile, the Tories are preparing to shift the status quo in England. Have we learned nothing from Nick Clegg’s experience with the AV referendum? Labour is gearing up to diminish itself in Scotland and disempower itself in Westminster. There is a need for some serious thought about its response to both.
This report demonstrates convincingly that the English dog is now barking. In its stand on English constitutional reform, and its fierce defence of the status quo in Scotland, Labour is letting the tail wag the very same dog.