“I could do so much more as a locally-elected mayor than a member of parliament, wobbling up and down on the West Coast Mainline.”
This was the Tory MP for Penrith and the Border Rory Stewart’s lament at a fringe event held by the IPPR during Conservative party conference this afternoon.
He was speaking on the subject of the post-Scottish referendum Union, calling for England to have a broader conversation about its identity and people having a sense of place, and more power to localities.
Stewart, chair of the defence select committee, was damning of the anti-independence campaign in Scotland, saying “the depressing thing about No voters was that they were voting for the narrowest material reasons; their hearts were saying Yes, but their heads were saying No.”
He went on to criticise the PM’s immediate concern of “EVEL” – English Votes for English Laws. Though not disagreeing with having a closer look at this constitutional change, Stewart said the bigger issue was to “start a serious conversation” about broader English identity, for which we would need to “build a constitution again”. He admitted, “I know this is not a comfortable thing for a Conservative audience to hear.”
However, it wasn’t just a message for the Conservative party. Stewart was joined by the Labour peer, Blue Labour architect, and former adviser to Ed Miliband, Maurice Glasman, who made a very similar argument.
He said: “In the referendum debate, there was a complete confusion as to who we were… It was an empty, self-interested, rationalist debate.”
Glasman attacked British politics as a whole for neglecting to look at the intricacies and reforms of English institutions, calling the Commons “full of people who have never worked. They’re constantly dealing with PR situations – not thinking about institutions.”
And his condemnation certainly didn’t soften when he spoke about the Labour party. He said there was “not enough conservatism” in the Conservative party but also that there’s “a lack of conservatism in the Labour party. Everything’s thought through in terms of the media interest and PR.”
Both politicians’ key lament was that our narrow-thinking political leadership, on both sides of the House, means that England has not been allowed a proper conversation about Englishness and being empowered on a local level. This debate has emerged because of the shift in power required by the Scottish referendum result, and also because Ukip are offering voters a vision of Englishness – something the main parties have not been addressing.
Glasman warned against “heritage patriotism”, or “theme park patriotism”, with people dressing up as St George and riding on horses and such like, saying that the “English nation and tradition needs to be recovered”. “You don’t just give people a couple of festivals,” he warned, about paying lip-service to patriotism, “England is a very complicated composite – it’s a civic category; it’s never been an ethnic category.”
For both politicians, the lack of local empowerment in England was one of the reasons there has been a loss of English identity. They had different solutions for this, with Glasman being particularly emphatic about the “nightmare” of trying to impose administrative “regions” upon the country: “Nobody says they live in a region… There’s no allegiance, no loyalty, it’s a nightmare… Why would people support regional devolution?”
Stewart was more enthusiastic than Glasman about taking the McKay Commission as a starting point for solving the West Lothian Question, but was still sceptical about David Cameron’s hasty promise of more powers to Scots. He admitted, “I do have an anxiety about opening up the Pandora’s Box of constitutional change”, cautioning that such reforms could snowball into scenarios such as the adoption of proportional representation and the break-up of the House of Lords.
What both men were united on, however, was that the politicians in their respective parties’ leadership have failed so far in having an increasingly vital conversation about Englishness.