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.
Elif Shafak remembers the Armenian Genocide, 100 years on.
Phillip Blond on Blue Labour.
Suzanne Moore: I couldn’t say no when Greville Janner asked me to tea.
Kate Mossman speaks to Bruce Hornsby.
Will Self: Orkney – where the coastguard run amok in the cathedral and the Stinking Rich are reburied outside.