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23 April 2015

Leader: Forget Scotland – why is the English political identity so confused?

With too much power in Westminster and Whitehall - and no-one quite sure how to manage devolving it - it's hard to tell what England wants.

By New Statesman

England has long been one of the richest and most stable countries in the world, a model of benign liberal democracy. For the historian Robert Tombs, writing on page 22, this has meant that England 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.

For many, a sense of Englishness has long been interchangeable or coterminous with that of Britishness, with all its old associations of empire and great-power status. The Cambridge historian David Reynolds has called the United Kingdom a mini-English empire. If it is, or was, an empire, it is one that is inexorably unravelling. First, Ireland gained independence after much suffering and violence in 1921; now, Scotland and England are growing ever further apart.

English national identity lacks assertiveness, especially compared with its Scottish equivalent. And English political identity is confused. Devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland left England as the largest nation in Europe without its own political institutions. Too much power is centralised in Westminster and Whitehall. Devolution, although it was necessary, has been unsatisfactory in its implementation, not least because it has left the Scottish National Party in a position in which it can claim any successes as its own and blame any failures on Westminster. Rather than killing Scottish nationalism “stone dead”, as the former Labour MP George Robertson predicted, devolution turbocharged it. The ambiguities and anomalies of devolution have been exploited skilfully first by Alex Salmond and now by Nicola Sturgeon. The SNP leader has been the dominant figure in this election campaign and she has delighted in all the attention, offering the hand of friendship to Labour in England while systematically helping to destroy it in Scotland.

The decline of Labour in Scotland has been a long time in the making but if the latest polls are correct, the final collapse has been astounding in its completeness and rapidity. Labour is bracing itself to lose most of its 40 Scottish seats, including those held by two of its most senior politicians – Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, and Jim Murphy, the leader of Scottish Labour.

Because of its Scottish woes, Labour has no chance of winning a majority on 7 May, though Ed Miliband could still become prime minister as the head of a minority administration dependent on the support of the SNP, which has said it would form an alliance with Labour at Westminster in order to “lock” the Tories out of power. “Whoever holds the balance, holds the power,” Alex Salmond has said.

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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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