The Independent View: England Left Forward – the reason for its foundation

One of the major successes of the past 13 years, depending on your point of view, has been devolution. The establishment of Parliaments and Assemblies has transformed the governance and the culture of three of the four nations within the Union. However, this has left a big question at the heart of government, which ash also had a knock-on effect culturally:

How should England be governed?

This is often referred to in the media as “The English Question”. It is a question that the major political parties have, so far, avoided answering in a satisfactory manner. In fact, the major parties seemed to avoid any mention of England and Englishness altogether.  They have either pushed the British agenda or wished to impose the regionalisation of England against the will of the people.

There has also been a current of thought, especially on the Left, that to debate England and Englishness is inherently racist. This has acted as a marvellous recruiting sergeant for parties and organisations such as the British National Party, with their promises of an English “Folk” Parliament, and the English Defence League.

This is why I have established the England Left Forward network. The aims are two-fold. The first is to provide a space for those of us on the Left, whether progressives, socialists, social democrats, liberals or greens, to articulate, debate and resolve the various aspects of the English Question; in particular with respect to providing England with a legitimate political voice.

The second is to identify a vision for the various aspects of England and Englishness that is not nationalistic in nature, but draws on the experience and contributions of all who engage in the debate. A vision that also incorporates the values of individual freedom, equality of opportunity, and a fair and just society based on the rule of law. For England is a country; it is not a colour, a race or a religion.

Where there’s disagreement on the aims, we hope to come to an acceptable consensus. Where there’s agreement, we intend to articulate the most appropriate way of taking things forward.

Currently the Left seem to be playing a game of catch-up over the English Question. If we can offer a collective, forward-looking, dynamic and all-inclusive vision of England and Englishness that the people of England can sign up to, we have a good opportunity to counter the arguments of the Right.

Dave Dyke is Founder and Facilitator, England Left Forward

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

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36 Comments

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Mar '10 - 4:10pm

    The problem is that over three-quarters of the UK in terms of population is England. Neither a separate English and UK Parliament, nor English MPs in the UK Parliament doubling as an English Parliament seem ideal. Roughly Scotland-sized regions of England in terms of population were not, as you seem to suggest, some evil desire of politicians for malicious reasons but simply what seemed to be a workable solution to avoid the awkwardness of a subdivision which is over three quarters of the whole. But, as you say, there seems to be no strong popular desire for this, and some of the arguments that used to be put forward for it no longer apply: regional English parliaments can no longer administer regional energy boards on account of energy supply no longer being government business (sold off to Sid who sold it on to the French or whatever).

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Mar '10 - 4:12pm

    Jock

    “Anarchism is not a romantic fable but the hardheaded realization, based on five thousand years of experience, that we cannot entrust the management of our lives to kings, priests, politicians, generals, and county commissioners.”

    So, as I said, we entrusted it to Sid, who sold it to the French.

  • While I object to being labelled as ‘Left’ I support the debate

    I have always argued England is too big compared with the other nations to be governed by a single English parliament which would rule over 80% of the UK population. Instead I have always supported regional parliaments (with real powers, such as Wales is trying to achieve)

    Above that would be a true UK parliament with representation form all of the UK including the Channel Islands, Isle of Man, Gibraltar etc. because these smaller semi-independent entities have to live with the result of our foreign, defence and economic policies but have no say in the process that creates them.

  • paul barker 24th Mar '10 - 4:35pm

    I cant see any objection in principle to an English Parliament, the problem is purely practical – will voters turn out to elect both that & Westminster ? Right now there seems very little demand for English Devolution of any sort, this is an obsession for southern Tories, no-one else seems to care very much.

  • I’m with Jock. The devolved governments in Scotland and Wales have proved petty minded, officious and largely useless, creating another layer of political space wasters. We don’t need it in England.

  • Chris – I’m pretty sure that your description of the devolved governments could be applied to any level of government anywhere in the world at any time – all governments are inevitably “petty minded” because they look after what (they believe) matters to the people of their country.

    It’s important that England debates this – and equally as important that the debate isn’t interfered with by Scots like me trying to dictate to England how they should be governed (we had enough of that in the 1980s!) What shouldn’t be up for debate, though, is a return to pre-1998 centralisation – that would simply be a gift to the nationalists, and where my intervention would be appropriate.

  • Simon Titley 24th Mar '10 - 8:02pm

    It is right to consider the cultural aspects of the ‘English Question’ and not simply descend into a wonkish debate about regional boundaries.

    To be English implies an awkwardness that is the fault of the left. Throughout most of nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Englishness was subsumed under Britishness; indeed, we used to use ‘England’ as a synonym for ‘Britain’ in much the same was as foreigners (particularly Americans) continue to do. Look at archive footage of the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley and you’ll see the England fans waving Union Jacks, not the flag of St George. The English flag was not brought out of the closet until the 1996 European Championships (“Three Lions” and all that).

    But in the 1980s, ‘identity politics’ took hold. For some reason (probably over-compensation for past colonial sins), the left decided that identity politics legitimised Scottish and Welsh identities but delegitimised English identity. This problem was captured by rock musician Morrissey, in his 2004 song ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’, in which he sings, “I’ve been dreaming of a time when to be English is not to be baneful, to be standing by the flag not feeling shameful, racist or partial.” Until that time comes, the field will be left clear for ‘white van man’ and the BNP to appropriate English symbols.

    Meanwhile, a healthy way of expressing English cultural pride was expressed by Devon folk band Show of Hands, in the song ‘Roots’ (video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5h4PFBuzvw; lyrics: http://www.allthelyrics.com/lyrics/show_of_hands/roots-lyrics-1259096.html). It was notable that Show of Hands recently had to resort to legal action to prevent this song from being used as a running soundtrack on the BNP’s website.

    As long as the English left celebrates every ethnicity bar its own because it thinks that being English is not ‘right-on’, we have a problem that the far right can continue to exploit.

  • I was a live long Liberal Democrat supporter until this year. The General Elections this year will be the first time in 22 years that I have not voted Lib Dem in any election (national or local).

    I cannot see how England can be ignored any more, seeing politicians embarrassed to even mention England by name whilst spouting the virtues of Scottish and Welsh devolution. I finally wish for the first time for a hung parliament, where Conservatives win a vast majority of England and find themselves under a labour government with Scottish and Welsh MPs giving them power.

    I do not agree with the regionalism of England into assemblies. Once England is split into 9 regions competing for money and jobs it is finished.

  • Lagersocialist 25th Mar '10 - 9:09am

    Jock said “… why should I feel any better, living in Oxfordshire as I do, about having a Home Secretary from Hull than about having a Prime Monster from Dunfermline?”

    Because the MP from Hull is accountable to his constituents on such essential matters as Health, Education, Crime, Social policy and Housing.

    The PM from Dunfermline not accountable to any single voter anywhere (Scottish or English) on such essential matters, but gets to steer, exercise executive powers and vote on such legislation for England. This is the WLQ and that’s the reason why I’ll not vote Labour in May

  • This is such a non issue.

    I don’t find the notion of Englishness inherently racist – what next, telling us no party will discuss immigration?
    or anyone who does is dismissed as racist – what a cliche.

    I do find the notion of English used by the BNP as racist. I do find the idea I have some of shared sense of English identity with Nick Griffin faintly absurd.

    The Lib Dem have addressed the issue – it’s called devolution. Whether that was by regional government and or by more power to local councils is a matter of circumstances. In thought the Tories have said only english mps will be allowed to vote on english matters – so when you say the parties are ignoring it, you mean they aren’t agreeing with you.

    God heavens, I can almost agree with Jock, things must be bad. The point about a Scottish parliament or Welsh assembly is that even in the limited way they work now, they bring decision making closer to the people.
    An English Parliament really wouldn’t.

    So Scottish MPs, can vote on matters that only effect England – get over it. They can use their brains. What really si the big issue.

    Given that 2/3 of the population don’t vote in local elections or euro elections and nearly 40% don’t vote at general elections, who are these people demanding an English parliament ? people like children wanting one cos someone else has got one,

  • Lagersocialist 25th Mar '10 - 2:57pm

    “So Scottish MPs, can vote on matters that only effect England – get over it. They can use their brains.”

    But they can’t use their mandates, because they haven’t got one.

    For the record…
    Labour’s answer to the West Lothian Question, is “don’t ask it” (Lord Irving)
    Tories’ answer is English Votes for Englsih Legislation, except that they’ve dropped it
    Liberals’ answer is regionalism, which has been soundly rejected by the only referendum (in the area where it was perceived to be most likely to say ‘yes’) to the tune of a 78% ‘No’ vote.

    BTW, do you consider the suffragettes wanted the vote because someone else had one?

  • “So Scottish MPs, can vote on matters that only effect England – get over it. They can use their brains. What really si the big issue.”

    English MPs voted against tuition fees for English students, they were defeated because Scottish MPs voted with the government . So Scottish students leave Uni with fewer debts, and need to find less money to attend Uni in the first place. English students need to find more money, and leave Uni in a worse situation that people in Scotland (not because of the will of English MPs accountable to English constituencies – but because unaccountable Scottish MPs voting on English only policy) so “Get over it” does not really cut the muster.

    A English Parliament would be easy to implement, would give English MPs more accountability. If in the future they give more power to RDA’s then fine, but at least it will be a English decision and not voted or foisted on us by Scot and Welsh MPs as currently – how Scottish and Welsh MPs can vote to balkanise England in any way is seen as Democratic in your eyes is strange to say the least.

  • Lagersocialist 25th Mar '10 - 3:35pm

    Dave

    All opposition parties were against the University Tax, including SNP and PC, see here http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2004/jan/27/publicservices.uk5

  • Lagersocialist 25th Mar '10 - 4:23pm

    Jock, you’re right. Lager is a bloody awful drink, but one that I’m rather attached to I’m afraid. Better that than a champage socialist, we all know where they led us.

    I’ve also lived in Hull; great place. That’s one phone system that wasn’t flogged off to Sid or whoever.

    The Hull MP will have to answer to his constituents on Health Education etc, when he votes on legislation that will effect you. The PM from Dunfirmline won’t give a stuff about anything anyone thinks, because he’s not accountable to anybody. That is why Scottish and Welsh rebels are unheard of when it comes to voting on English only matters. (Do you think some might have objected to a University Tax if it applied for the kids (and their parents) who voted them in?)

    Under this system, they have power without accountability. It stinks and it needs fixing.

  • Liberal_England 25th Mar '10 - 7:11pm

    Interesting conversation and good to see the Lib Dems getting involved.
    I’m going to be voting Lib Dem this year, my first time giving you folks a chance at the ballot paper.

    I do support devolution and would like to see an English parliament. I’d much prefer to see England and the other devolved nations as EU member states (if the populace voted for it of course) rather then the current British state as a member of the EU with it’s hodge podge of governing models.

    England would easily fit within the current EU model, some nations would be larger then us, others smaller. We could still vote for MEPs the same way.
    However whilst I support an English parliament, I believe it should devolve much of it’s power to the county and city level, so democracy is closer to the people. I’d also like to see the PR model introduced (another reason for my Lib Dem vote).

    With counties and cities really having control over their own operations and their MPs meeting occasionally in the English parliament to discuss bigger issues, this would seem far more efficient then having 6 regional parliaments as well as being cheaper in the long run I believe.

  • “The first is to provide a space for those of us on the Left, whether progressives, socialists, social democrats, liberals or greens, ”

    I’m not on the left, and I don’t think other Liberals would classify themselves as such.

  • Dave Dyke – to my mind that’s an American usage of the term Liberal.

  • Whilst many have argued that England is too big compared with the other nations to be governed by a single English parliament which would rule over 80% of the UK population, and thereby support regional parliaments, is already in the take over scheme for the UK by the European Union. As of January 1st 2009 when the sixth treaty was signed by Gordon Brown and our Queen, it gave the EU the power to control our Parliament as indeed it has been doing for many years through its many Parliamentary servants. It is expected that the European Union will divide England into 9 Regions, and in fact this operation is already under way, with each Region under the control of a Regional Director, who in turn will report only to Brussels. Unless England can extricate itself from the full integration within the EU, it will have to abide by the rules of EU and accept the breaking up of its 48 individual counties into 9 Regions- how sad. The people of England have been truly shafted by those it thought would protect and support it, not turn and chuck 2000 years of history into the control of a few people it did not vote for or have any understanding of,. For the present however we shall all have to bow to the controlling power now in charge. Any words written here can have no strength to alter what is happening to this nation. The EU have the power to close Westminster down anytime they see fit.

  • Lagersocialist – let’s get a couple of things straight here about Brown’s responsibility.

    Firstly, you’re right – he’s not directly accountable to any voter in Dunfermline. But that’s because, as most people on this site will point out, he’s not the MP for Dunfermline – that’s Willie Rennie. He’s the MP for Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath.

    Secondly, he is directly accountable to people in his constituency – i.e. me. And part of his record on which he will no doubt be attacked locally as much as nationally is the inconsistency of policy across the country. Taking student funding as an example – what’s Labour’s real policy on this? Is it the one they follow at Westminster, or the one they follow at Holyrood? What does he really think – should a student from Kirkcaldy have to pay tuition fees to go to Edinburgh?

    Finally, on imposition of the fees using Scottish MPs, let me take you back to 1988 and the introduction of the Poll Tax in Scotland a year before England. The majority of Scottish MPs voted against the tax – but with the votes of English MPs, it was pushed through. There is an element of “what goes around comes around” here, but neither vote was really acceptable. The only real alternative is a proper devolution of power – Scotland already has it, so it’s up to England to decide what it wants to do next.

  • Lagersocialist 26th Mar '10 - 1:41pm

    KL, I didn’t actually say Brown was the MP for Dunfermaline, although I confusingly referred to “a PM from Dunfermline”. It was a response to Jock who illustrated his point by talking about “a PM from Dunfermline” and “an MP from Hull”.

    Brown isn’t anymore accountable to you on Education (and Health, Policing, Housing, Social Policy etc) as he is to me or tooth fairy.

    You are right however when it comes to Labour’s policy on taxing students. It changes from Holyrood to Westminster (probably becaue the MSPs are accountable and the MPs are not). Labour MSPs voted against it for their constituents and Labour MPs from non-English seats voted for English students to be discouraged from a tertiary education. They weren’t accountable to anyone, so none of them rebelled. Their votes were crucial and as a result working class kids in England are discouraged from getting a higher education… a pox on all their houses.

    With regard to the Poll Tax, it was to be introduced UK-wide, but it couldn’t be introduced in England immediately. Scottish Secretary George Younger fought for the introduction of the Poll Tax in Scotland in 1989 because he didn’t see “why Scotland should have to wait for the English”.

    Finally, polls consistently show a majority in favour of an English Parliament and a huge majority against regionalisation. Unfortunately we’ve never been offered a referendum and none of the major parties plan on doing so in the near future.

  • Lagersocialist 26th Mar '10 - 1:55pm

    KL, to emphasise the democratic deficit in England, what do you think about the following hyperthetical situation?

    > Create 30 additional seats in the SP
    > Elect these additional MSPs from English constituencies
    > The First Minister will be from one of the English seats
    > The First Minister will swear a solemn oath to hold England’s interests “paramount” (as Brown has done for Scotland)
    > The Finance Minister will also be English and he’ll sign the same oath (as Darling has done for Scotland)
    > The First Minister would not be validated by an election: he would be there because he thinks it’s “his turn”
    > The Finance Minister would hold that position because he is the First Minister’s best mate.

    These two powerful people will then be sure that every measure they proposed for the Scottish people would have an automatic 20-odd% of votes in their favour, courtesy of the 30 non-Scottish MSPs. (Remember, they never rebel)

    Can you see a problem with this situation? Do you think there might be few voices of protest?

    Now, imagine that these additional MSPs were crucial to the introduction of a University Tax and Foundation Hospitals: plus a host of other measures introduced via Executive Powers (Nuclear Power, 4Bn NHS cuts, Sunday Trading etc).

    Do you think the people of Scotland would feel a tad annoyed?

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