Is Britain being rebranded – is it time for an English Government?

At the time that Boris Johnson was talking up post BREXIT Global Britain and assuring the Democratic Unionist Party that there would be no border in the Irish Sea (despite one being included in his “oven ready agreement” which Teresa May had said no British Prime Minister could sign) the Government was requesting that the stickers on cars travelling abroad be changed from GB to UK.

The move was only revealed by the United Nations which said it had received “a notification stating that the United Kingdom is changing the distinguishing sign that it had previously selected for display in international traffic on vehicles registered in the United Kingdom, from ‘GB’ to ‘UK'”.

The rules changed in September 2021 and yet it has not proved possible to find any reference to a debate in, or approval by, Parliament on such a potentially significant change in identity.

The Department for Transport said that it was part of a wider move across Government. One reason was GB – Great Britain – only formally included England, Wales and Scotland, whereas the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) is inclusive of Northern Ireland as well as England, Scotland and Wales, it said.

It is true that Great Britain is the official collective name of England, Scotland and Wales and their associated islands and does not include Northern Ireland.

However, there is no Welsh Dragon or green on the Union Jack which consists of the flags of Saint George (England), Saint Andrew (Scotland) and Saint Patrick (Ireland). This is because when the first Union Flag was created in 1606, the Principality of Wales had been annexed by England and was, at that time, no longer a separate principality. The Union Jack was a Royal Flag.

The Treaty of Union between the Kingdom of England (which at that time included Wales) and the Kingdom of Scotland in 1707 resulted in their unification to become the Kingdom of Great Britain. Its union in 1801 with the Kingdom of Ireland created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. And it is this Union which the Democratic Unionist Party hold so dear.

However, since then Wales has regained its Principality status. In consequence, the Government could, therefore, be accused of embracing Northern Ireland at the expense of Wales which, as a Principality, cannot, by definition, be technically part of the UK.

One of the most common mistakes people make when talking about geography is to confuse the UK with Great Britain or the British Isles – a cardinal sin in the eyes of any true geographer! The terms should never be used inter-changeably.

The Easter uprising in Ireland against British rule in 1916 (half way through the first world war) gave rise to the Irish War of Independence which waged between 1919 and 1921 and which was brought to an end by the Anglo Irish Treaty signed on the 6th December 1921. In June 1922 Ireland was partitioned under British Law by the Government of Ireland Act which led to an eleven-month civil war in Ireland. The South declared independence on 6th December 1921 but this was not ratified by the British Government until the Republic of Ireland Act in 1949. And quite understandably many in Ireland longed for a united Ireland which the invisible border of the EU and freedom of movement, which they have had since 1992, all but gave them.

It was perhaps, therefore, the Customs Union and Freedom of Movement more so than the Good Friday Agreement (signed 10th April 1998) which led to the end of hostilities.

The House of Commons is not representative of the people of Northern Ireland as the 7 Sinn Fein MPs have not taken up their seats as it would mean them taking the oath of allegiance to the then Queen and now King. This makes the Government’s hopes of resolving current issues that much more challenging. However, fortunately, both the British Government and that of the European Union is committed to not reintroducing a hard border between the Republic of Ireland (which remains in the EU) and Northern Ireland which many people cross daily to work or shop.

In the 2016 referendum, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Gibraltar voted to remain in the EU.

During the recent COVID pandemic it was difficult to decipher if the Prime Minister was speaking as the UK Prime Minister, The British Prime Minister or the English Prime Minister? Each carries different authority and jurisdiction. And what applied in England did not necessarily apply in Scotland or Wales.

First BREXIT and then the pandemic have highlighted deficiencies in the Constitution.

Perhaps, there needs to be an English Government to give parity with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with a NEW TREATY linking the four nations with greater clarity in respect of devolution and shared governance?

For better or worse, depending upon your view point, we no longer have European citizenship but, I guess, many of us are still proud to be British.

* Chris Perry is a former Director of Social Services for South Glamorgan County Council, a former Director of Age Concern Hampshire, a former Non-Executive Director of the Winchester and Eastleigh Healthcare NHS Trust and a former presenter of an award-winning public affairs programme on Express FM.

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22 Comments

  • No, no a thousand times no. We have had this debate so so many times (since 1964 to my certain knowledge) and decided time and time again that we don’t want an English Government. An English government would totally overbalance the country and would be no nearer people than the present set up, which to all intents and purposes acts like an English government.
    We want regional government, nearer the people and of proportionate size to the current devolved governments.
    What we really don’t need is to yet again reopen the debate

  • Steve Trevethan 29th Sep '23 - 11:32am

    How is it possible to be proud of being British when the Bank Of England (not of UK or GB) announces that it is set to create a permanent lending facility for non-banking institutions such as insurers which, being translated into “ordinary speak”, means that they can create money for their finance mates when we are told (lied to?) that there is not enough money to feed over 20% of our children?
    For more detail look At “Funding the Future/Richard Murphy” 29/9/23 and “The Guardian » 1/3/23.

  • I think @Mick Taylor has the correct answer: With England making up well over 80% of the population of the UK, an English Government would not be any significantly closer to the people it serves than Westminster, so would end up looking like an extra unnecessary tier. I think there’s a very good constitutional argument for rationalising devolution into regional Governments, similar perhaps to the German Länder, with the Scottish, Welsh and NI Governments being part of that. The barrier unfortunately is the lack of popular support for regional Governments within England.

    @Steve Trevethan: You don’t have to support everything the Government does to be proud of your nationality. Personally, I’m very proud to be British despite seeing our Government as appalling in many ways. Seems a bit odd to me to pick on one single and rather technical piece of financial regulation by the BoE and make out you can’t be proud of your country purely because of that one little thing.

  • Peter Martin 29th Sep '23 - 12:01pm

    @ Steve,

    You’re right that we should have a Bank of the UK rather than a BoE. I’ve made this point myself at various times.

    However, it’s unfair to criticise the BoE in connection with child poverty. The job of a central bank is, or should be, to get on with ‘central banking’ which can legitimately include lending money to insurance companies. Lending money might well be interpreted as ‘creating money’ if we understand exactly what this means. Lending isn’t the same thing as giving though.

    This is what needs to happen to make sure that all children are properly cared for. It’s not realistic to impose a debt on a small child in exchange for a proper education and a decent place to live etc. This is has to be down to Government rather than a central bank. Those of a more right wing persuasion might argue it was solely a parental responsibility.

  • Mick Taylor. It is not a matter of size but National Identity. How can the present system which implies England rules Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland be right? Most of us are used to referring to ourselves as English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish or British. It is the latter collective identification, of British, which I am keen to protect!
    P.S. Regional Government would do nothing for National identity.

  • Chris J Perry 29th Sep '23 - 1:08pm

    Simon R. It is wrong, and potentially offensive, to equate a region of one Country to a whole Country – regardless of size. My article was about identity and sense of belonging which is so essential for humans to flourish.
    Most people born in these islands refer to themselves as English, Scottish, Welsh. Irish or British. It is the latter collective term which I am keen to preserve and which is under threat.
    This would be helped by a NEW treaty between the four nations with agreement on devolution and common shared governance.
    This could never be achieved without an English government. The present system implies that England still rules Scotland, Wales and Northern Island.
    Perhaps someone from Scotland, Wales or Northern Island would like to comment.

  • Kay Kirkham 29th Sep '23 - 1:09pm

    Wrong Chris Perry. Many of us refer to ourselves as Yorkshire for example. The population of Yorkshire is almost exactly the same as Scotland ( 5.5 million) .

  • Chris J Perry 29th Sep '23 - 1:19pm

    Steve Trevethan. Totally agree. Rising “income inequality” and “poverty”, driven by greed, are two of the great social evils of our time.
    This article in no way attempted to distract from that. About which I have also commented.
    The article was an attempt to raise awareness to yet further potential damage to our well being

  • SteveTrevethan 29th Sep '23 - 2:16pm

    Might it be that money lent by a bank have to be first created?

    Might it be the case that, in reality’, despite any presentation to the contrary, the B o E, is subordinate to H M G which has the power to control its decisions?

    Might the deforming chronic hunger of 20% plus our children only a technical matter? Might it be just « wrong »?

    Who controls the creation of money? The unrepresentative B o E or the elected government? Might those who are responsible for the creation of money therefore have a responsibility for our current child hunger/slow starvation?

    Personally I love my country more than I am proud of it.
    Steve It only became a largely effective democracy c.1930, was a significant participant in the slave trade, legalised the theft of the common lands through the enclosures etc. It did some good things to such as opposing fascism through W W II.

    Perhaps I might be 0.5% proud of my country?

    In any case, I love it enough to try to point out some of its current shortcomings in the hope of improvement.

    In short, are H M G and the B o E there to serve the community, or is the community there to serve H M G and the B o E?

  • Chris Perry 29th Sep '23 - 3:04pm

    P.S. Just by way of clarification. It is my belief that although people born in these islands might identify with their place of birth they are likely to describe themselves, when overseas for example, as English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh or British. It is this collective designation of British which is under threat and “from the UK” has implications for Wales.

    Identification and a sense of belonging is essential for human beings to flourish. For good or for bad, depending upon one’s view point, we have recently lost our Eurpean Citizenship and my guess is that most of us are proud to be “British”.

    Recent tensions have suggested that there needs to be a new Treaty between the four nations, free of historical baggage, with clarity and agreement on devolution and collective shared governance.

    In-order to even begin to negotiate this there would need to be an English Government to give parity with Scotland, Wales and Northern Island. The present situation implies that England is in some way different to Scotland, Wales and Northern Island when it comes to governance.

  • Sandy Smith 29th Sep '23 - 4:19pm

    I disagree with contributors who wish to prevent England making its own laws like Scotland can. It is not particularly democratic that laws are made for England by a parliament which also has MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This has resulted in decisions being imposed on England which most English MPs oppose, on matters that are devolved to the other countries of the U.K. I would point to January 2004 when the government won a vote on tuition fees in England by 5 votes thanks to MPs from Scotland and Wales when the majority of MPs from England voted against.
    England should have its own national parliament for its own laws and devolved matters, like Scotland, and the U.K. should restrict itself to macroeconomics, defence and international relations.

  • As befits a political unit lacking a proper written constitution it is all very muddled. For my part I don’t feel a cultural or emotional attachment to a landmass! Were it not for the Northern Ireland dimension, I would feel happier in a British Federation. Along with being a member of the human race, I tend to think of myself as a Geordie Bradfordian – OK English, but drawing upon the rich cultural heritage of two distinctive regions which, along with other regions of England, can offer much to other parts of Europe. There is something gloriously quirky about a brass band belting out Ilkla Moor baht ‘at or a football crowd singing Blaydon Races – two regional anthems with self-mocking themes involving rotten weather. I still think George Orwell is one of the best guides to feeling legitimately positive about being English. In the end I suppose it is the Great in the Great Britain tag which sticks in my craw because politicians have so often gone way beyond using it as a geographical description. The integrity of Spain has been threatened by separatism more than most countries but those problems would not be solved by labelling the country Great Spain – any more than calling something Great British Railways creates a reliable rail network! Our country has been weakened by exaggerated notions of national greatness and we continue to suffer post-imperial delusions.

  • Peter Martin 29th Sep '23 - 4:30pm

    @ Steve,

    It is the lending process by commercial banks that creates what is often referred to as 97% of the money in circulation. It also the spending process by government which creates the other 3%.

    However as previously said spending is not the same as lending. Government spending injects net assets into the economy whereas there are no net assets generated with bank lending.

    I should also point out that the words “in circulation” should not be overlooked. The banks will remove from circulation the net assets generated by government spending by parking them in reserve accounts at the BoE or by buying up government bonds. So the 97:3 ratio can be misleading.

  • “Northern Ireland, Scotland and Gibraltar voted to remain in the EU.”

    You rightly didn’t include the Channel Islands and the Isle on Man in this list because they never were in the EU to begin with.

    It’s a bit of a puzzle why Gibraltar didn’t choose to have the same constitutional relationship too. It could have been like the Vatican City, Monaco, San Marino, Andorra etc which have aren’t and never have been part of the EU and don’t seem likely to join any time soon.

    Does anyone know why? Obviously the PTB in the EU are quite happy to accommodate these tax havens and Gibraltar was as much a tax haven as all the rest. A token gesture to keep Spain from kicking off maybe?

    If so, then should Gibraltar really have had a vote at all?

  • Steve Trevethan 29th Sep '23 - 7:39pm

    Is it then in order to understand that there is enough money for banks to put some of it in reserve accounts but not enough money for all children to be well fed?

  • Chris Perry 29th Sep '23 - 8:34pm

    It would be nice to hear from a few people in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, please?

  • Gwyn Williams 29th Sep '23 - 9:33pm

    “However, since then Wales has regained its Principality status.” I must have missed that. Wales was established as a Principality of the Kingdom of England in 1301 by the Statute of Rhuddlan. The Principality was abolished by the Tudor Laws in Wales between 1535 and 1542. The reasoning was that all subjects of the kingdom were to live under unified English Law. Wales has had a Prince for 700 years but hasn’t been a Principality for nearly 500 years. With the establishment of the Assembly and its subsequent law making powers there is a case for the re-establishment of the Principality of Wales.
    As to Chris’ original premise, the present asymmetric devolution settlement is unsustainable in the long term. If English regional government outside of London does not develop then it is almost inevitable that Great Britain will break up into its constituent countries. In these circumstances anEnglish Government will be a necessity.

  • George Thomas 30th Sep '23 - 10:28am

    “I think @Mick Taylor has the correct answer: With England making up well over 80% of the population of the UK, an English Government would not be any significantly closer to the people it serves than Westminster, so would end up looking like an extra unnecessary tier. ”

    But this highlights the problem that there is too much blur between what is the UK and what is England. If England as a country is represented by the UK government (and dominates this due to being 80%) and nothing else then the UK government too often represents England only. The UK government at the same time fails at representing England usually because it too often feels it can ignore the north of England because it has the excuse that it represents the UK.

    The blurred lines ensure that the people living in England aren’t properly represented while those with power in England are represented too much. An extra tier would move towards better (not the best) representation.

    P.s. What a strange line to finish with Wales becoming a principality. Wales hasn’t been a principality for hundreds of years.

  • The article was prompted by concern at losing our British identity with a re-branding from Great Britain to the UK. The United Nations and UK Government says that the United Kingdom is officially made up of two Countries (England and Scotland), one principality (Wales) and one province (Northern Ireland). However, Wales has not formally been a principality since the 16th century with the Laws in Wales Acts. And the Welsh Government insists Wales is a Country The above debate has highlighted the lack of constitutional clarity which needs resolution

  • It is notable that as part of the Good Friday Agreement Ireland had to accept that N.Ireland was part of the UK, yet also allowed for N.Ireland to become part of a united Ireland.

    I therefore wonder if the Westminster proposed change from GB to UK could contravene the Good Friday agreement, because by officially becoming the UK, Westminster is claiming sovereignty over N.Ireland, preempting any future negotiations concerning sovereignty under the Good Friday Agreement.

  • Peter Hirst 12th Oct '23 - 3:59pm

    Does national identity really matter so much? We are all citizens of the earth with varous combinations of other identities. We should encourage people to choose what they wish to identify with and accept it can change. I identify with those traits of England that I admire and ignore the others. So sometimes I am proud to be english and somtimes not.

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