Miliband tackles the English question

Labour was "too reluctant" to talk about England, Miliband admits.

One consequence of the debate over Scottish independence is a new focus on the politics of Englishness (a subject the New Statesman explored in a special issue last year) . English voters are increasingly resentful of a settlement that allows Scottish and Welsh MPs from the three main parties (SNP and Plaid Cymru members abstain) to vote on English-only laws. The historic failure of senior politicians to address the issue of English identity has left the country's voters increasingly uncertain of their place in the Union. As a recent poll by British Future revealed, only a slim majority, six out of ten, of the English associate their national flag with pride and patriotism, compared with 84 per cent in Scotland and 86 per cent in Wales. Worse, 24 per cent, including one in three of the under 40s, think of racism and extremism when they see the St George's Cross.

Jon Cruddas, the man now leading Labour's policy review, and David Miliband have both written thoughtfully about "the English question" in the New Statesman. I recently argued that "if Ed Miliband wants to steal a march on David Cameron, he should make a speech on this subject sooner rather than later." Today he will do just that. In an address this morning at the South Bank Centre, entitled "Defending the Union in England", the Labour leader will concede that his party has been "too reluctant" to talk about England in the past as it has focused on crafting a new constitutional settlement for Scotland and Wales. 

He will say: 

We in the Labour Party have been too reluctant to talk about England in recent years. We've concentrated on shaping a new politics for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. But some people in England felt Labour's attention had turned away. That something was holding us back from celebrating England too. That we were too nervous to talk of English pride and English character. Connecting it to the kind of nationalism that left us ill at ease.

There may be a temptation on the part of others to conjure a view of Englishness which does not represent our nation, a mirror image of the worst aspects of Scottish nationalism - hostile to outsiders, anti-Scottish, England somehow cut off from the rest of Britain, cut off from the outside world, fearful what is beyond our borders, our best days behind us.

One key issue will be whether Miliband indicates any willingness to support "English votes on English laws", a reform that would amount to the creation of an English parliament within Westminster. For political reasons, his party has been traditionally resistant to English devolution. Deprived of the votes of Scottish and Welsh MPs, a future Labour government could struggle to pass contentious legislation. Alternatively, a future Labour opposition could face a Tory supermajority. Were non-English MPs excluded from voting on devolved issues, the Tories would currently have a majority of 63. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Labour has previously denounced the coalition's West Loathian commission as "partisan tinkering with our constitutional fabric". For now, the party is content to leave the federalist road open to Cameron.

Update: In his speech, Miliband restated his opposition to an English parliament ("I don’t detect a longing for more politicians," he said) and argued that the priority was to reverse the "centralisation of power in London" through further devolution to local authorities.

Ed Miliband said "some people in England felt Labour's attention had turned away".

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.