England does mean something – and it’s in Labour’s interests to define it

English politicians can learn something from the Scottish example of devolution, writes Richard Carr.

English politicians can learn something from the Scottish example of devolution, writes Richard Carr

St George’s Day is a slightly odd moment for the English. Not so much a festival of Englishness, more a reminder – outside of bi-annual major international football tournaments or American TV confusing the terms – that England as an entity remains distinct from the UK.

Despite containing both an eponymous central bank and a Church, England rarely stands alone in either rhetoric or policy. Arguing over what England means, in this context, can seem purely academic.

And it could even be viewed as worse. There is of course a danger, in this of all years, that Englishness oversteps the mark and becomes a ‘little Englander’ attitude that Alex Salmond can use to his advantage in September. Accordingly, with the Scottish referendum in mind, the prime minister has today set out his claim that “we can [both] be proud of our individual nations and be committed to our union of nations”.

At first glance, a fair enough comment.

But here Cameron is being too timid. He could and should go further. English politicians should not only be making negative arguments about the alleged economic meltdown an independent Scotland would undergo, or appealing merely to a united ‘Britishness’. They should also be making clear that England can learn from the positive Scottish example of devolution.

Devolving powers over tax raising, its retention, and spending and borrowing to English local authorities should be grounded in the Scottish story over the past fifteen years. Specific powers accorded to Holyrood – including but not limited to local stamp duty – should be devolved to English councils, as I have recently argued.

The Scots have indeed shown the way, and should be praised as such.

By contrast, at present the north of England can get the rawest of raw deals. As IPPR showed last year, transport spending plans under this government have ranged from just £5 per person in the north-east to over £2,700 a head in London and the South East.

The Northern Hub of improved railway links between the major Northern Cities has been an absolute slam dunk of infrastructure investment that should have been started much earlier (i.e. under Labour) than the coalition’s recent piecemeal moves in that direction. The north has been undercapitalised for generations.

With such inequality of outcomes, no wonder then that views on Englishness are so contradictory. English identity is at once perceived as something attractive and yet, moulded in the wrong hands, abhorrent.

Almost one in four English people polled by British Future in 2013 considered the St George’s Cross to be a racist symbol, over double the amount of Scots expressing similar views on the Saltire, and three times the number of Welsh who object to the Red Dragon on this basis.

And yet, in a 2012 IPPR poll, the proportion of people prioritising their English identity over their British one was twice as large as the other way around – 40 per cent to 16 per cent.

This says a few things.

Firstly, yes, that any appropriation of Englishness cannot be purely negative or it will be perceived as ‘indecent’ and, paradoxically, ‘un-English’ in tone. But, secondly, that there is a positive potential platform on which to build. England does mean something – and crucially, it is entirely in Labour’s interests to enter this space.

At present the Conservatives have over 100 more English MPs than Labour. Their advantage in England is fairly ingrained – since 1945 Labour has gained the most number of English MPs on just six occasions (i.e. one election in three). In 1992 – a pertinent election given the likely closeness of 2015 – the Tories secured an overall parliamentary majority of just 21. Yet in that same election they won 319 English constituencies compared to Labour’s 195.

To paraphrase the historian John Ramsden on Britain, England is a Conservative country which occasionally votes Labour.

The most visibly English current politician – albeit in an obviously affected manner – is Nigel Farage. The other parties, to varying degrees, are seen as catering to affluent, metropolitan London plus whichever subset of the greater south or north of England they need to pull themselves over the electoral finishing lines.

Farage is the product of a vacuum – he get away with bluff and bluster because the more mainstream parties are perceived as doing precisely similar, but in more clipped and precise tones. He speaks to a vision of England that has gone if it ever existed, but he gets to the English gut in a way others sometimes don’t.

It is quite right that Jon Cruddas has dusted off his George Lansbury and is putting some hard-thinking into what Englishness means today. More of this would be welcome from Labour.

It’s perfectly understandable why, to the majority of English people, the ‘Westminster bubble’ is viewed so negatively. Greater London comprises only about a sixth of the population of England, yet spending power and fiscal autonomy is concentrated in a sliver of departmental buildings all within a mile of each other in Central London.

Two thirds of English people live outside London and its commuter belt environs yet, to give one example, London’s economy grew by five times that of the East Midlands between 2007 and 2011 (despite much publicised problems for the City).

England resembles the nominally free-market which is, in reality, a de-facto monopoly. If the English football team were drawn entirely from London clubs, not only would its spine be decimated (good luck Rob Green in goal) it would lose a significant part of its appeal.

In short, of course One Nation Labour has to be about preserving the Union with Scotland (and indeed Wales). But it must also be about addressing intra-English inequalities and, ultimately, addressing where power lies. Over the past century, as London has relinquished its control over Halifax, Nova Scotia it has tightened its hold over Halifax, West Yorkshire. One empire has been replaced with another.

Ed Miliband’s Birmingham speech shows he gets the need to reverse this trend. Devolving powers to the English regions, as with the German lander, would be a meaningful way to reconnect people with politics and imbue a new generation of English politicians with a distinct identity.

It is to be hoped, on this of all days, the next Labour government gets on and does it.

Richard Carr is a lecturer at the Labour History Research Unit at Anglia Ruskin University

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