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What English Tory activists really think about the UK

The Scots have questioned whether the Union still works for them. And they're not alone. 

In 1909 the Conservatives were re-branded (as we would say today) as the Conservative and Unionist Party. It was a signal of its opposition to Irish Home Rule. To some it still matters. The Prime Minister Theresa May told the Scottish Tories last week that maintaining the Union was her "personal priority".

Even as she spoke, even her own party is questioning the importance of the Union. Leave aside the 60 per cent of party supporters who voted for Brexit, ironically triggering the new Irish border crisis that will unwind as the Unionist parties lose their Stormont majority. Even her English activists are no longer sure that the Union is worth the effort.

A survey of Tory activists, conducted with the website ConservativeHome, showed that three-quarters of English activists believe that devolution has been harmful for England. Most would prefer to maintain the Union, but nearly a third think break up would bring an "end to unreasonable demands" on England to provide ever greater financial and political concessions. That’s slightly more than those who believe the loss of Scotland would actually do serious harm to the rest of the UK.

Should another referendum campaign be launched, these Conservatives don’t want any repeat of the 2014 "vow" promising new powers to the Scottish government. Over two-thirds rule out any further concessions, with only one in a hundred supporting the voice in foreign policy that Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon craves. Tory attitudes may have been hardening since Labour’s Devolution Act. But the 2015 General Election campaign, where Conservatives were urged to exploit English fears of the SNP, will also have shaped activist views.

May’s tough speech - not even promising the devolution of returned agricultural and fisheries powers - reflects her members’ and, probably, her own instincts. It points to a "take it or leave it" campaign, gambling that the huge risks of independence will swing the vote.

At one level, the case for the Union is straight forward. Our histories, families, economies and interests are intertwined. Unpicking the strands will be painful, exhausting and leave us smaller, less able to support each other, or to benefit from our collective talents to deliver common interests.

But unionist parties are struggling to articulate a case for the United Kingdom. The different nations are evolving their own distinct political cultures and sense of their own interests. It is easy to make the unionist case to those who already identify as British; it is much harder to include those who want their Scottish, English or Welsh identities recognised, let alone those who want a united Ireland. It is harder still to argue that the inevitable conflicts of interest between different parts of the Union, where different parties win elections, can be managed within the current constitution.

The Prime Minister’s recent speech didn’t mention England; she assumed that England wants the Union and that it is the Scots who need to be persuaded. A week earlier, London's Labour mayor Sadiq Khan had attacked those who seek to "divide us". But this also assumed that we know who "us" is, and that we agree on what is in "our" best interest. But what if that is not the case? What if a growing number of English people are also questioning whether the Union works for "us"?

National identity and national interest are coming to the fore in England, not just in other parts of the Union. The recent research revealed Tory activists who feel predominantly English are most sceptical about the Union; the "British" are much less so. It is likely that the wider electorate feel the same. English discontent at the Barnett formula and Scottish MP voting rights was been clear for some years, but it may now be expressed more sharply.

For English Unionists, a wholehearted defence of the current Union risks being on the wrong side of "English" voters, just as the Remain campaign was last year. (In the Brexit referendum a huge majority of those who feel "English" voted leave; the "British" voted to remain.) May probably has enough latitude with her voters to run that risk, so long as she is not seen to offer new concessions. Labour is in more difficulty. It needs to regain support from the very voters who are most likely to feel English and most sceptical about whether the current Union is fair to them. Uncritical defence of the current constitution could create another fault line between Labour and that key part of the electorate.

A defence of the Union based on appeals to a greater good overcoming the interests of the member nations is ultimately doomed. If there is a future at all, it will means nations coming together in a reformed Union, recognising the rights and interests of each. But that will mean talking about England, and English rights and interests, as well as those of Scotland.

Prof John Denham is a former Labour MP and Cabinet Minister and is the Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.