An interest in history, a nostalgic curiosity about the past, is often a consequence of present worries. Hence, perhaps, the recent rapid succession of historically focused events: the honouring of Richard III, the celebration of Magna Carta and the publication of the first ever detailed genetic map of a country, produced by the Wellcome Trust’s “People of the British Isles” project. All three look well back into history, to times before the creation of the United Kingdom, precisely at a moment when England’s future and that of the United Kingdom are uncertain.
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?
Go further back: are politicians dimmer today than in the 1930s, when Neville Chamberlain thought he could do a deal with Hitler and the much-loved former Labour leader George Lansbury praised the Führer as “a total abstainer, non-smoker [and] vegetarian” who “liked children and old people”? Are Westminster politicians today more “out of touch” than in the great age of parliament, when hundreds of MPs were local notables who were returned unopposed and Disraeli lamented that they “could not be got to attend to business while the hunting season lasted”; that they “never read” and “learnt nothing useful, and did not understand the ideas of their own time”?
Are politicians less honest today than in the 1880s and 1890s, when dozens of constituencies had to be disfranchised for gross corruption – such as Macclesfield in 1880, where two MPs, both party agents, four magistrates, three aldermen and 31 local councillors were disqualified from office? 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.
Yet a large number of electors feel that “the system” is letting them down; hence they are deserting the main parties and threatening to stir up political chaos, or at least uncertainty. The causes of this undeniable change are not all negative. When the two-party system was most dominant and voters were most engaged – for example, in the 1860s and 1870s and the 1940s and 1950s – our whole society, and not only our politics, was deeply divided by sectarianism or by class. The largest ever turnout in a British general election (86.8 per cent) was in January 1910, the height of the struggle of “the peers against the people”.
For Victorians, voting was determined by religious affiliation more than by anything else. In the mid-20th century, there was an unprecedented and unrepeated identification between class and party. In the 1945 general election, three-quarters of the middle class voted Tory; two-thirds of the working class voted Labour. The waning of two-party dominance and the emergence of other parties reflect a welcome blurring of these old divisions. The popular complaint “My vote makes no difference” is plausibly a part of this phenomenon: many are no longer content as voters to be the foot soldiers of a social or religious bloc. They want to make a difference individually and although in a mass democracy this may lead to inevitable frustration, few would want to return to a time of extreme political polarisation.
Britain’s crisis is not simply home-grown: it is the local variant of changes affecting the whole western world, which has jettisoned the sharp ideological and religious antagonisms, the utopian visions and the fixed social stratifications that once spurred people to vote and showed them whom to vote for. Since the 1990s, a collapse of political participation, cynicism (sometimes justified) about the professional political class and the consequent rise of anti-establishment movements have been phenomena occurring from Norway to New Zealand. The symptoms are the same: denunciations of the system, citizen disengagement from mainstream parties, electoral volatility and/or apathy, the rise of dissenting movements that appeal to large numbers who are, or feel themselves to be, disfranchised or ignored by an establishment dominated by uncontrollable and often faceless forces.
The political scientist Peter Mair has convincingly identified the main cause: the loss or deliberate yielding up of decision-making power by national governments to other organisations, both domestic and international – quangos, the law courts, business corporations, central banks, the EU, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation. Hence the perception that parties and politicians are no longer willing or able to represent their voters, that they are “all the same” and that politics has become an irrelevant smokescreen for the machinations of special interests and lobby groups.
France, Italy and the Scandinavian countries are among those worst affected by political disillusionment, with Britain following the trend. When things are going well – or when relatively few people are losing out – these changes may not seem to matter much. They may even seem desirable: “pooling of sovereignty”, removal of political interference from civil society, increasing checks on the executive by domestic and international courts, subsidiarity in decision-making, encouragement of inward investment, and so on. Not so, of course, when things suddenly go wrong. Radical populist movements have become an increasing presence, notably in France, the US, Holland and Germany. In several countries experiencing a strong sense of crisis or grievance, there has been massive political mobilisation of this kind; the outstanding cases are Spain, Greece and Scotland.
British politics nevertheless retains remarkable elements of stability and the coming election will show how resilient it still is. Most people are not floating voters. The broad UK pattern of voting – usually with the Tories leading in England and their opponents ahead in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – has been noted. The Tory share of the vote in England in 2010 was almost identical to its share in the decade Queen Victoria ascended the throne. In England, regional political patterns have been very consistent: areas of Anglican dominance shown in the 1851 census (the only one to record religious affiliation) are similar to the strongholds of the modern Conservatives. Liberal and later Labour support was similarly linked with Dissent. In 2010, Anglicans were twice as likely to vote Tory as Catholics, despite the latter group’s conservatism on many social and cultural issues; Muslims, even more small-C conservative, were the most Labour-voting religious group in Britain.
This is not a matter of theology but one of identity. Religious affiliation reflects and also strengthens, mobilises and perpetuates socio-economic and cultural differences, helping to create community solidarities. One might think of this as Ambridge v Coronation Street. The difference even has genetic markers, as the Wellcome Trust study reveals. The areas of greater socio-economic and demographic stability (the Ambridges) show genetic as well as political continuities.
London is different but it has always been this way – now, as ever since the advent of democracy, Londoners have voted along individualistic lines, hence the success of Boris Johnson in a mostly Labour-voting city. But community loyalties, however deep-rooted, are not permanent. France, too, had a very long-established pattern of regional loyalties, now almost erased by the Front National’s ability to appeal to the discontented on both right and left. We shall soon find out whether Ukip can do the same.
The wobbly status quo in England is being given a hefty shove by Scotland, with Alex Salmond poised to descend on Westminster like the wolf on the fold. Not since the 1640s, when Scottish armies repeatedly marched south against Charles I, has the English establishment been so politically threatened in its heartland. Then, the Scots demanded a large financial subsidy and seats in government and they insisted that conservative English Anglicans should adopt their sternly progressive Presbyterianism. For much of the civil war period, the Scots acted as power brokers, with decisive results. Their troops played an indispensable part in breaking the royalists at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644.
The Scots’ aim in the 1640s was to transform England. Now, more modestly, it is to break away from it, whether inside or outside the United Kingdom. In both cases, there seems to be a conviction that Scotland is fundamentally different: indeed, ethically superior – a conviction that in its origins (and perhaps even now, subliminally) is religious. The English have never shown the same ambition to interfere in Scotland, which after the 1707 Act of Union was largely left to itself. In the 19th century it was dominated by Scottish Liberalism and in the 20th by Scottish Labour, both offspring of religious difference. This gave Scotland a particular role in British and hence English politics by enabling Liberal and Labour governments to outweigh Tory support in England. As William Gladstone put it, “Our three corps d’armée . . . have been Scotch Presbyterians, English and Welsh Nonconformists and Irish Roman Catholics.”
The Tories, associated with Anglicanism and England, were invariably less popular in Scotland and, in Gladstone’s day as now, usually won even fewer Scottish seats than their share of the vote: in 1885, 34 per cent of the vote but 14 per cent of the seats; in 2010, 17 per cent of the vote but 2 per cent of the seats. It was similar in Wales and Ireland. In England, however, the Tories have usually been the largest party since the Liberals split in 1886. Though they lost spectacularly in 1906, 1945 and during the Blair years, the Tories have won most votes in England in 23 of the 32 general elections over the past 129 years. These differences, real and deep though they are, are magnified, sometimes hugely, by our electoral system.
Scotland’s dynamic nationalism draws not only on modern discontents but also on ancient and deep-seated ideas of identity, rights and differences. This gives the SNP a protean quality that is able to appeal across conventional socio-economic and ideological divisions. Hence, it first absorbed much of the Scottish Conservative vote and most of its seats as an opponent of Labour during the 1990s and now is doing the same to Labour as an opponent of the Tories. The English response to the rise of Scottish nationalism, beginning in the mid-1970s, has been slow and reluctant, rather like Charles I’s hope that if he could pay the Scots off, they would go away.
The social scientist Krishan Kumar has a convincing explanation for the muted self-assertiveness of England: it was not in the interest of England, as the leading element in a multinational state and then in a global empire, to “beat the nationalist drum”. Most English people have long been content to merge their identity with Britishness. The public authorities celebrate “British values” and promote British identity. English voters have acquiesced in devolution to the other British nations and an independence referendum in Scotland without expecting to have a say – impossible in any country with an entrenched constitution – and so far without formulating clear demands in return.
What is unique in our current situation is not, however, the place of Scotland (which has similarities to, Catalonia and Flanders, for instance) but that of England. England has existed as an idea – the gens Anglorum – since the 8th century and as a political community since the 9th, with a recognised land, language and even literature and common political institutions. This makes it, in the view of some historians, the world’s oldest nation. The “Angelcynn” came together largely in its present territory in the course of a long struggle with Scandinavian invaders, under the kings Alfred, Edward and Æthelstan. These testing circumstances developed characteristics that long marked England’s history: strong royal authority, uniform local government and relatively wide popular participation, whether willing or unwilling. The Norman Conquest preserved or enhanced these characteristics and further increased the power of the Crown. This led eventually to the rebellion against King John, to the emergence of parliament as the representative of “the community of the realm” and not least to the rise of one of our proudest and most influential national myths – that sooner or later rulers have to defer to the wishes of the ruled.
England changed profoundly over the centuries. Moreover, it was a leader in some of the great changes in human history: religious reformation, the intellectual Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, global imperialism. Yet many of its ancient institutions adapted to and survived these changes. This was above all because those institutions worked, securing the country from internal chaos, economic meltdown and foreign conquest.
This arguably has both good and bad sides. It is good, evidently, in that it preserved millions of people from extremes of poverty, oppression and premature death – England has always been one of the richest and safest places on the planet. It is bad (at least, so many would think) in that it has had no occasion for a thorough clear-out of its archaic institutions, a forced rethinking of the way we do things and the creation of a conscious sense of what England is all about, which, for many countries, is written into their constitution. Instead, England just is.
Perhaps for this reason, the past affects us in more complex and deep-seated ways than in countries that have experienced violent historic ruptures. We still feel the lingering effects of the civil war, the Acts of Union, the Industrial Revolution, the empire, the two world wars – even as we mark the 8ooth anniversary of Magna Carta.
Four bequests of history are particularly important at the moment. The first two were products of 17th- and 18th-century conflicts with France: the Act of Union 1707 and the City of London, which grew by financing war. The other two were products of the Second World War: centralisation of administration and the NHS.
The partial unravelling of the Act of Union by devolution of power to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast has left England as the largest nation in Europe, without its own political institutions and as one of the largest centralised administrative units in the world. It was the Second World War, in the judgement of the historian Jose Harris, that changed Britain “from one of the most localised and voluntaristic countries in Europe to one of the most centralised and bureaucratic”; for “Britain” now read “England”. The proportion of England’s public spending controlled from the centre is roughly twice that in France, Japan and Italy, and more than three times that in Germany.
This creates a political and administrative burden that Westminster and Whitehall can neither manage nor surrender – a great cause of popular discontent. Particularly difficult to manage are England’s two contrasting and uncontrollably growing monsters: the City of London, now as for three centuries the much-resented goose laying sometimes toxic golden eggs, the only part of the British economy that has consistently been a world leader; and the National Health Service, the embodiment of a cherished ideal of solidarity, a formidable political lobby and the largest non-military public organisation in the world.
This odd combination of capitalism and socialism in a highly centralised system without a national government makes England today a very unusual place. We rarely observe how different this is from the ways most other populous countries manage their affairs: local, regional or state governments, or non-political authorities, have autonomous responsibilities and (in the best cases) democratic accountability. However, centralisation is a 70-year habit we find very hard to break, as public apathy towards elected mayors and police commissioners indicates. Perhaps, with our dislike of “postcode lotteries”, we prefer centralisation. But it has its price.
What to do about England is a new and also an old problem. Its history has echoes today – an excellent case of those who are ignorant of history being condemned to repeat it. The English Question first appeared in embryonic form after Gladstone proposed Irish home rule in 1886. He needed the 86 Irish home rule MPs to have a majority over the larger Conservative Party. He also hoped that devolution would put an end to nationalism. But his Liberal Party split; in the ensuing general election, Scotland, Wales and Ireland all produced majorities favouring home rule but England voted against.
Gladstone’s Liberal successors a generation later faced a similar parliamentary problem: a minority in England, they relied on backing from the Celtic fringe. The chancellor David Lloyd George’s great victory in the 1909-11 battle over the “People’s Budget” required the votes of the Irish nationalists, who had all but wiped out Liberalism in Ireland. In return, they again demanded home rule. In April 1912 a home rule bill was introduced and in May 1914 the Commons passed it.
As in our own time – though to a larger degree – this opened up a constitutional free-for-all. Ulster Protestants demanded autonomy (“home rule within home rule”) and threatened rebellion. Lloyd George, to placate Scotland, Wales and England, proposed House of Commons “grand committees”, through which their MPs would deal with internal matters.
Yet some Scottish and Welsh Liberals wanted full devolution. Other ministers, including the then home secretary, Winston Churchill, who sat for Dundee, suggested “home rule all round”.
The obvious problem, then as now, was that England was so much bigger than the other nations. Churchill suggested breaking it up into ten or 12 “provinces”, each with its own legislative and administrative “assembly”, while Ireland, Scotland and Wales would have parliaments. This idea was briefly resurrected by the Blair government and it still appeals to some worried that a self-governing England would be a Tory stronghold dominating any federal Britain.
What might just have been acceptable in 1912, amid visions of a world imperial federation and in the face of a threat of civil war in Ireland, would be a different matter now. Even then, opponents denounced the idea of England being broken up as it had never been since Anglo-Saxon times. Today, to sugar the pill, such a division is presented as a remedy for over-centralisation and the dysfunctions of “Westminster”, the benefits of devolution extended to England and especially to the north of England. Yet note the fundamental difference. Scottish and Welsh nationalists have demanded – and have been given – not regional, but national government; the principle of a United Kingdom of nations has been conceded. Imagine Alex Salmond’s response if he had been offered as a remedy for the “remoteness” of Westminster a northern British region with its capital in Newcastle or, alternatively, a Highlands region based in Aberdeen and a Lowlands region governed from Dumfries.
National identity, not administrative or economic efficiency, is the core of both devolution and independence – and the rest is window-dressing. Would the people of England, whose torpid sense of national identity has been prodded from a long slumber by Scottish assertiveness, be placated now by a few unloved regional assemblies, too weak to stand up to Westminster, Brussels or Edinburgh? What would be the point if Scotland wants independence anyway? And could an extra layer of politics provide a solution to England’s problems of governance, rather than creating sources of conflict and incoherence, generators of grievance?
Our own recent experiences and those of neighbouring countries amply demonstrate that regionalism is no automatic remedy for poor government and can aggravate it through mediocrity, cronyism, corruption and waste. Those who insist that Britain is “better together” cannot easily argue that England is better in fragments. Moreover, as the political scientist Michael Kenny has asked, “Is it feasible that the English will remain satisfied with a political conversation among their representatives that is still conducted within a British, not English, framework?”
If, after the May election, a Labour government can only be formed by relying on Scottish votes and seats, this will be nothing new; but if those votes and seats belong to a separatist SNP, it will feel very different and it is likely to precipitate, as Alex Salmond seems to want it to do, a far-reaching constitutional reappraisal.
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.
Robert Tombs is a professor of French history at the University of Cambridge. His most recent book, “The English and their History”, will be published in paperback by Penguin on 4 June