The future of the left since 1884

The Dis-United Kingdom

We need a version of Britishness which includes progressive and liberals in Scotland and Wales, explains Christabel Cooper.



The rise of Scottish nationalism has been well charted over the last decade, but the rise of Englishness as political phenomenon has received less attention even though it is an equally destabilising force for the current British union.

This is starting to change, for example Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones have recently published a highly informative book on the subject. They find that Englishness, unlike Welshness or Scottishness, is usually bound up with Britishness. Although there are a significant minority of people who feel primarily or exclusively English, most people who feel strongly English also feel strongly British. This has led to an attitude which John Denham, director of the English Labour Network, has called ‘Anglo-centric Britishness’ and is usually characterised by an assumption that England’s interests are automatically the same as Britain’s.

New Labour’s devolution settlement challenged this exclusively English version of Britishness. Yet as a result, those who feel strongly English have become what Henderson and Wyn Jones call ‘devo-anxious’ – believing, for example, that Wales and particularly Scotland get more than their fair share of the United Kingdom’s resources.

Devolution has left England as the only one of the four nations without its own parliament or assembly. Westminster effectively acts as the English parliament, but with the anomaly that in the original settlement, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs were allowed to vote on matters that affect only England, while MPs from England are unable to vote on matters that have been devolved to those nations.

To deal with this problem David Cameron introduced English votes for English laws (EVEL) in 2015. This followed an election in which the Tories deliberately exploited English devo-anxiety, conjuring up the fear that a Labour government without a majority in England would be at the mercy of the SNP. Under a Conservative government which holds a majority of English seats anyway, EVEL makes little difference; the government can get England-related legislation through with or without votes from its MPs in Scotland and Wales. Yet it would be problematic for any incoming Labour government which did not have a majority of English MPs and which therefore might not be able to enact English legislation in key areas such as health and education.

The Conservative government’s handling of the Brexit process represented the epitome of Anglo-centric Britishness. There was no attempt to find a compromise with most Scots who had voted remain, nor take into account the long and bloody history of Northern Ireland. The only constituency that mattered were the majority who voted leave in England and supported a hard Brexit. But the consequences of this tilt towards the English have been to further destabilise the union. The majority of Scots who either did not vote for Brexit or did not vote for a Conservative government are understandably unhappy that a party who does not appear to share their values or interests is kept in power by an English majority.

As a consequence, we face the breakdown of the idea of the British as a proper ‘demos’, that is, a group of people who feel sufficiently connected to each other to engage in joint decision-making processes. Without a sense of common identity with fellow voters, it is hard to accept the legitimacy of decisions made by the group as a whole, particularly those which go against your personal interests. There are parts of England (Liverpool being an obvious example) which habitually vote against the Tories yet accept the legitimacy of an all-UK vote for the Conservatives even if they profoundly dislike it. But it is clear that many Scots do not feel they have enough in common with other Britons to be willing to accept the right of Britain as a whole to take decisions.

The Conservative government’s solution to reconstructing a common British identity is ‘muscular unionism’  – investing British Treasury cash in Scotland and drawing a lot of attention to it. But this can come across as reminding the Scots that they are financially dependent on Britain. The original ‘project fear’ (which equally highlighted economic concerns) in the 2014 independence referendum worked to the extent that ‘no’ won, but hardly created the conditions for a long-term harmonious relationship.

This makes Gordon Brown’s Constitutional Commission all the more important. The majority of Scots who support independence are left-leaning, and Labour is clearly better placed than the Tories to promote an idea of Britishness that is compatible with these liberal and progressive values. Although in Scotland and Wales those who have a strong British identity are more likely to be Leavers and have socially conservative attitudes (eg towards immigration), in England those who identify as being more British than English are more likely to be Remainers and to hold liberal attitudes. This suggests that the work of promoting a more inclusive idea of British identity is far from hopeless given that many people in England already subscribe to it. But we need to better understand current perceptions of Britishness across the UK and how they fit in with other beliefs, values and desired outcomes, to make sure that this more progressive and inclusive vision is grounded in reality rather than a top-down, unrealistic imposition.

Yet for the union to be sustainable and stable, the ‘devo-anxiety’ of the English also needs to be addressed. A separate English identity, expressed through its own English institutions is problematic – the overwhelming size of England’s population in relation to the other constituent parts of the UK makes it difficult to fold into a federal structure. Alternative proposals have focused on breaking England into regions each of which would have equal status with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But the failure of Labour’s proposal to create a regional assembly in the North East in 2004 exemplified the unpopularity of an approach which carves England into artificial areas.

Yet this does not mean that devolution within England is a dead end. People in England often do have identities at a more local level – inhabitants of cities are often strongly attached to those cities (hence the success of the metro mayors), but with exceptions such as Yorkshire and Cornwall, there seem to be few other moderately sized units with which people in England strongly identify. This makes it important to understand how the English actually identify at a local level, rather than trying to shoe-horn them into convenient regions. This means any successful settlement is likely to be complex. We have an over-centralised state and devolution of power to more locally based government is the right thing to do regardless of issues relating to the Union. It may be that some powers currently concentrated at Westminster can be devolved to existing local government bodies, but others may need to be constructed.

Creating a United Kingdom which feels at ease with itself requires understanding how powers can be de-centralised from Westminster within England, in a way that is meaningful for English people and addresses the sense that other parts of the UK are getting more than their fair share.  But it also requires investing in a more inclusive version of Britishness which progressive and liberals in Scotland and Wales can be comfortable with. Neither are easy, but both are necessary.

Image credit: Mike Credit

Christabel Cooper

Christabel Cooper is a Labour councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham.


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