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In this week’s New Statesman | What does England want?

What does England want?
24-30 April 2015



Robert Tombs on how England's past moulds its future.

Simon Heffer: Tory MPs remain very confident. Are they seeing things that are hidden from the pollsters?

The Economics Essay: Robert Skidelsky on George Osborne's cunning plan.

The Diary: Sylvie Bermann on her phantom chat with Nicola Sturgeon.

George Eaton: Even if Miliband is a second-placed prime minister, it would still be a victory for Labour to savour.

Leader: The status quo cannot hold.


Cover story: The English Question

As the UK seems to be disintegrating, the renowned Cambridge historian Robert Tombs asks if history is repeating itself:

We are, or so it is generally agreed, in the midst of a deep political crisis that has undermined "the Westminster establishment": self-serving, dishonest, out of touch and aptly symbolised by the crumbling of its great Victorian-Gothic palace. This crisis appears widely to be perceived as a breakdown of a previously functioning system, causing a disillusioned electorate to turn away in disgust.

Much of this myth draws on some unspecified vision of a golden age from which we have declined. But when was it? For some on the left, it seems to have been the 1970s. For the right, it is said - by its opponents, anyway - to have been the 1950s. Can it seriously be suggested that we are worse governed now than when Anthony Eden conspired with the French and the Israelis to attack Egypt? Or when Harold Wilson proclaimed, "A week is a long time in politics"? When sterling periodically collapsed? When a former Labour minister faked his own suicide? When the leader of the Liberal Party was implicated in a shooting? When billions were squandered on lame-duck industries?

Looking further back to the 19th century, Tombs suggests that, in fact:

We have a political class today that, warts and all, is harder-working, more professional and more accountable than at any time in the past. On the whole, it might even be more honest - and it is undoubtedly more so than in most neighbouring countries. Its vices, now constantly exposed to the public gaze, are the obverse of these virtues: it is arguably too cosily professional, too careerist, too slick and too hyperactive, but we can hardly blame it for being what most of us insist it should be.

Tracing the "wobbly status quo in England" and the place of Scotland back to the early 1600s, through the Act of Union of 1707 and the English Question of the late 1800s and past the Second World War, Tombs concludes:

The rise of Scottish nationalism is a challenge. It may even be a crisis. Independence would undeniably cause political, economic and strategic upheavals in Britain and Europe and it would need the resolution of difficult and potentially divisive issues concerning oil, debt and the nuclear deterrent. But it would undoubtedly be less traumatic than the independence of Ireland in 1921, something that most people in England have probably forgotten.

Moreover, the future of Scotland is a plain and simple question: a relatively small part of the UK (8 per cent of its population) may stay or may go - in either case, one hopes, on fairly amicable terms. Whatever happens, there will remain the question of how to govern a big, growing, diverse, crowded and increasingly self-conscious England. This is a more complex problem. In the long run, it may also be more important. It is high time we tackled it.


Simon Heffer: Cameron's Netanyahu plan

In the face of polls swinging in Labour's favour, Simon Heffer searches for the reasons why the Tories remain optimistic:

Candidates know the campaign must be "turbocharged", not least because of its length, with punters bored and the players exhausted. "There was a calculation that Miliband would bog it," one observed. "He hasn't - yet - so we must think again." And despite the obstacles to a pro-Tory majority, a minister invited comparison not with 1992, but with the recent Netanyahu victory in Israel, which polls had discounted.

That victory happened only by Netanyahu warning of Arabs taking over Israel. Will Cameron warn of the Scots doing the same to England?


The Economics Essay: George Osborne's cunning plan

Robert Skidelsky explains how Conservative rhetoric on the economy harmed the recovery and left Labour floundering:

Over their five years in power, the Conservatives have claimed their austerity policy saved the country from disaster. This purported economic competence sits at the heart of their election campaign. It needs critical scrutiny.

Skidelsky explores the "myth of Labour profligacy" and notes that:

Labour did what any sane and civilised government would have done in the circumstances (and which all other governments did): continue to support the economy as best it could to limit the damage caused by the collapse in private spending.

He also considers the "Greek excuse", asserting that Britain "was not like Greece or any other country in the eurozone" and that George Osborne's "alarmist anti-Labour rhetoric talked influential commentators who should have known better into believing that Britain was on the road to deficit-fuelled ruin". Skidelsky concludes:

Little of this common sense of the matter has emerged so far in the general election. The Conservatives have spun their familiar yarn of rescuing Britain from "Labour's Great Recession", restoring "confidence" by borrowing less, pledging to start "paying down debt". Labour has mostly tried to be plus royaliste que le roi: it will "cut the deficit" every year; it will impose a "Budget Responsibility Lock" to stop governments fiddling the accounts. More promisingly, it will set up a "British Investment Bank" but has said nothing about its funding or powers. Perhaps the voters will see through Labour's disordered head to its humane heart. But with so little to choose between the big parties on the main issue of the day, it is not surprising that the election remains too close to call.


The Diary: Sylvie Bermann on her phantom chat with Nicola Sturgeon

The Diary this week comes from the French ambassador, Sylvie Bermann, who writes about her "erroneous" leaked conversation with Nicola Sturgeon:

That was my second visit to Scotland since taking up my post in London in September, and I had fond memories of it . . . until I learned over Easter that an erroneous report about the conversation I'd had with the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, had been leaked to the press. It kept me busy through the night, as the article had been published online without anyone asking me for confirmation of its content beforehand (I suppose my denial would have diminished the intended media impact of the story).

I guess these kinds of things happen in a tight election campaign but as an impartial diplomat I have found myself in quite an uncomfortable position!


The Politics Column: Even if Miliband is a second-placed prime minister, it would still be a victory for Labour to savour

The NS political editor, George Eaton, writes that despite Labour's success in the opinion polls, there is fear creeping through the party's ranks:

Shadow cabinet members concede that even they have been surprised by how well they have fared to date. The party has proved resilient against the Conservative onslaught on Miliband and its economic credibility. The Labour leader, who a year ago lost his fight with a bacon sandwich, has been mobbed by a hen party on the campaign trail. Barring a significant shift in the polls, he will become prime minister after 7 May. It is this that explains Labour's creeping nervousness. Despite the Conservatives' deeper coffers and media firepower, the prize is "ours to lose", in the words of one shadow cabinet minister.

Eaton explains that though winning "in second place" has its disadvantages, it could be excellent for the party in the long term:

Though politically treacherous, there is no constitutional obstacle to Labour taking power in these circumstances. An administration would have to be formed eventually and the party could point to European examples (such as Willy Brandt in Germany and Fredrik Reinfeldt in Sweden) of second-placed leaders assuming office. The resultant government would be denounced as "un-British" and "unfair" - but so was the coalition, by some. It would be up to Miliband to earn political legitimacy swiftly by introducing popular policies and radiating competence. After the painful birth, the fate of his government would ultimately rest, as all do, on the performance of the economy and the success of its reforms.

There is fear among some Labour MPs that the 2015 election could be a victory (or non-victory) from which they never recover. They envisage a later election in which Ukip erodes the party's working-class base, the Greens capture its middle-class redoubts and the resurgent Conservatives (led by Boris Johnson or Theresa May) eat into both. But for Miliband to become prime minister, having repeatedly been told by so many that he could not, would still be a victory for Labour to savour. He would have entered office despite the overwhelming opposition of the media and the corporate sector, the forces regarded since the Thatcher era as exercising a de facto veto over British elections. Whether Miliband finishes first or second, parliamentary democracy will have won.


Leader: The English Question

The NS Leader this week considers Robert Tombs's statements about English identity and the rise of Scottish nationalism:

Scottish nationalism cannot be simply wished away. If, after 7 May, Labour is able to govern only with the support of the separatist SNP, this will precipitate a far-reaching constitutional reappraisal, something that in our view is long overdue. Yet if the Conservatives find a way of holding on to power, if only in the short term, this would surely bring full independence for Scotland that much closer. Whatever the outcome, some kind of constitutional reckoning is upon us. The status quo cannot hold.

A constitutional convention will be a first step towards a fundamental reconfiguration of the British state. But what do the English want? Regional assemblies or more layers of local government? As Robert Tombs writes, "Those who insist that Britain is 'better together' cannot easily argue that England is better in fragments."

In truth, we do not know what the English want. Even the English themselves don't seem to know. But Scottish nationalism, the rise of Ukip and the decline of the Tories and Labour as national parties capable of winning majorities are signifiers of the change to come.

So far, there is no groundswell of opinion agitating for fundamental constitutional reform in England but this could change very quickly. Certainly English national identity is beginning to awaken and this election campaign, with its likely inconclusive result and focus on Scotland and the SNP's demands, will quicken that awakening.



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Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.