Sunday, October 21, 2018

The English Question

by Peter Townsend (writer), London, UK, September 24, 2014

Can the United Kingdom survive as a single entity? What can be done to satisfy the demands of the Scottish and English people for more control over their future?

The UK will never be the same again. That at least is beyond dispute. The broadcaster Richard Weight writing on the BBC website charts the rise of Scottish nationalism and the gradual erosion of Britishness within the UK. He highlights the threat that Scottish nationalism poses to the future of the Union. He does not however consider fully the impact on the English of Scottish devolution, preferring instead to emphasise the growth of the SNP.

No-one can deny that nationalism is on the rise in the UK, with forty-five percent of voters in the recent Scottish referendum voting to leave the UK the situation is clear to anyone who cares to look. It seems likely that it was only promises of even more concessions to Scotland that prevented the disintegration of Union. If these promises are not acted upon by the UK government then as Alex Salmond has already said the people of Scotland will be justified in feeling cheated, and demands for a fresh referendum will start to gain traction.
The real difficulty for the UK political leaders is that they have made promises to the Scottish people without thinking through the implications for other countries in the Union. Offering any additional money, or devolved powers to Scotland affects not only the Scottish people but everyone else who lives in these islands.

The History

The relationship between England and Scotland is long and complicated. In the past it was characterised by border skirmishes and at other times by one country mounting a full-scale invasion of the other. The relationship has improved since those days, a process which began in March 1603 with the death of Elizabeth I queen of England and the accession to the English Throne of James VI, King of Scotland. Since then the two nations have shared a monarch, although it would take more than 100 years for the Act of Union to be put in place which united the two countries, and brought the British parliament into being.
Since that time there have always been times of disagreements between Scotland and England, but it is only with the dawn of the 20th century and the rise in anti-English sentiment which saw the birth of the SNP that there has been any serious attempt to break-up the union.
Richard Weight may be right that in Scotland:

“The Treaty of 1707 is no longer remembered as the voluntary union of two proud people each with their own distinctive cultural characteristics and traditions but rather as the absorption of Scotland by England.”

In England it is viewed as the creation of a new British identity rather than the absorption of a Scottish identity into a English one.
Irvine Welsh has said that:

“one cause of Scottish discontent has been the arrogant tendency for the English to see Britain as virtually synonymous with their own country.”

The reason for the English taking this view this will be obvious to anyone who stops to consider the present political system in Britain. For English people the British parliament IS their parliament. There is no English parliament for them to look to as the guardian of their national interests. The only place they can look for leadership is the British parliament. There are no English political institutions, therefore even through the majority of English people consider themselves as English first, and British second they have no choice but to look to the British parliament for leadership.

The English Problem
Under the present constitutional settlement in the United Kingdom there is a parliament in Scotland, and assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland, each of these bodies has varying degrees of power. England which is by far the most populous country in the Union is entirely without a parliament. This means that while in Scotland decisions regarding health, or education etc., are devolved to the national parliament and voted on by Scottish MSPs. In the case of England these matters are decided in the UK parliament and voted on by members of the UK parliament, which consists of elected representatives from across the United Kingdom.
The situation can arise that a majority of English MPs vote against a policy which affects only England, but the policy is passed into law because the government has a majority which includes MPs from Scotland and Wales, all of whom are happy to vote for increases in taxation for England as they are aware it will not be their constituents who have to suffer the consequences. Any further devolution to Scotland can only make this situation worse as it will leave even more areas of policy on which the English can be out voted.

Scottish MPs and English Votes

David Camerons suggestion immediately post-referendum that non-English MP's should be banned from voting on issues that do not affect them does provide welcome recognition that a problem exists but will undoubtedly create more problems than it solves. It appears unlikely to be accepted by the leaders of other political parties, and since Mr Cameron does not command a majority in the House of Commons he would need other parties support for it to become law. Even if it does end up reaching the statute book the result may be be a future government unable to effectively govern England. Unless the UK government also had a majority of English MP's it could never successfully pass any laws relating to England. The majority of English MP's would be from opposition parties but because they did not form a majority in the UK parliament they would not be able to propose legislation, only block everything the government tried to do.
The only sensible solution to this problem is a separate English parliament with comparable powers to the Scottish parliament. The assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland should be upgraded at the same time, it makes no sense to allow different parts of the UK different levels of devolution.

Regional Assemblies
The Labour party in particular has in recent years attempted to to approach the English problem another way. Many senior Labour politicians appear to dislike the concept of Englishness, and would much prefer that England as a country ceased to exist. Jack Straw the former Home secretary was candidly prepared to say on BBC radio that the English used their "propensity to violence" to "subjugate" the other home nations. And at another time that “The English are not worth saving as a race”.
Almost certainly as a result of this type of thinking the Labour policy when in power in the UK was prepared to offer devolution to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but in England they proposed setting up regional assemblies, or directly elected mayors of major English cities. This was a clear attempt to divide England, and to play-off different parts of the country against each other, making them fight for available funds. This does not stop regional assemblies being suggested as a solution for England, most recently by Mark D'Arcy Parliamentary correspondent for the BBC.
These regional assemblies were rejected by the people of England every time they were offered to them. There is no appetite among English people to have their country carved up in this way.

The Barnett Formula
Another of the bribes that was offered to the people of Scotland was the retention of the Barnett formula. This formula which was established in the 1970's determines how much money each part of the UK receives from central government. Any fair system would say that every person living the UK would be treated equally, but that is not what the Barnett formula does. The Scottish population receives 20% more money per person than the English population. For 2013 the figures show that public spending per head in Scotland was £10,152. In Wales the figure was £9,709, while England came last with only £8,529 of public money being spent per head of population. David Cameron has in the past said that the Barnett formula is reaching the end of it's useful life, however in a desperate effort to keep Scotland in the Union he has now committed himself to retaining a funding formula that discriminates against the English. There can be no justification for this behaviour.

The Scottish Advantages
Let's look at two of the most obvious examples of discrimination, that demonstrate where this extra funding Scotland gets is being spent.

NHS Prescription charges
In England an NHS prescription will cost you more than £8 per prescription item. In Scotland there is no charge. In the case of someone with a long-term illness, or where more than one type of medication is needed it is obvious that these charges must soon mount up.

University tuition fees
In England university tuition fees can be as much as £9,000 per year per student while in Scotland there are no charges for Scottish students, although they continue to charge English students to attend Scottish universities.

English Nationalism
In these circumstances it is no surprise that there has been an increase in English nationalism is recent times. In many ways this is something that should be encouraged not stifled. If Britain is to be a country that treats all of the nations of these islands equally then the English voice needs to be heard alongside that of the Scots and the Welsh.

Richard Weight is wrong when he talks of the SNPs espousal of "civic nationalism" as something that sets it apart from other nationalist parties in the UK. His statement that the appeal of UKIP “rests partly on white English antipathy to multiculturalism” is incorrect. Anyone who studies UKIP policy documents will quickly understand that UKIP are a civic nationalist party in the same way that the SNP are, although their starting point is very different to the SNP. Richard Weight also forgets to mention any of the English nationalist parties. The English Democrats, the largest English party, are another civic nationalist party and one that can be considered the English version of the SNP, although their policies are very different to those of the SNP.

The Solution
Only with equal devolution to all parts of the UK can there be any long-term hope that the United Kingdom will survive. The question now is whether the Scots are prepared to wait for the English problem to be resolved. Any attempt to devolve more powers to Scotland without resolving the case of England first will result in greater anti-Scottish from the English which can only do the Union further harm. One of the features of the recent referendum campaign as viewed from the perspective of the English was the complete apathy that was evident on the question of whether Scotland should stay or go. No English voices were raised in support of the union, and with increasing English money being pumped into Scotland, and continued Scottish interference in English laws it cannot be long before the question of English independence from Scotland comes to the fore of political life in England.

About the Writer

I was born in London, England and have travelled extensively in both Africa and Asia. I met my wife in Philippines where we married in 2005. We are now resident in south east London where I am working full time online as a social media manager and freelance blogger.
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