The English democratic deficit


by Gerry Hassan

What happens in England matters to us north of the border, from its politics and culture to general state of mind.

England is by far the largest part of the UK in population, size and wealth, and despite devolution, what goes on in England has enormous consequences for Scottish politics and society.

At the same time, England finds itself in the strange position of being the one nation in the UK without a democratic forum in the shape of a parliament or assembly.  It is also the one nation which has not yet had a vote as a nation on its constitutional future, whereas Scotland and Northern Ireland have had two, and the Welsh are away to have a third.

The Cameron Conservatives have a mandate in England winning the most seats and votes.  If England alone was represented in the House of Commons there would be no need for coalition with the Conservatives enjoying a healthy majority of 53 seats over all other parties; conversely the coalition govern the rest of the UK solely based on English votes.

The new government have made haste on a whole host of public sector reforms.  The NHS is being completely reconfigured in another top-down reorganisation which will see large parts of the health service given over to private health care companies.  Then we have Michael Gove’s proposals for ‘free schools’ and ‘academies’.  And now going out to consultation are proposals which many think will lead to the privatisation of the Forestry Commission.  Numerous other proposals are being considered in what amounts to a fire sale of the nation’s assets, such as the road network and canal system.

What ties together all of these proposals alongside the fact that none of them were in the Conservative or Lib Dem manifestos, bar Gove’s education plans, is that these are not UK polices, but England only.

There is a strange, almost surreal juxtaposition here.  On the one hand some of the government’s most ardent supporters are almost messianic about the prospect of remaking the English health service or ‘free schools’.  And at the same time, they are hesitant and nervous about the land they are transforming.  When David Cameron refers to ‘the country’ with ‘European health levels of spending’ which does not have ‘European health outcomes’, the nation he is talking about which dare not speak its name is England.

Once upon a time the Conservatives effortlessly spoke for England.  In fact they went further than that.  They adeptly balanced the interests of ‘England’ and ‘Britain’, and were ultra-sensitive to the other nations of the United Kingdom.  Thus throughout the age of Baldwin and Churchill, Conservatives were deeply aware of the problems of centralisation, sucking up powers from local communities, and the dangers of London rule.

This is a past age long gone.  Conservatives are no longer advocates of ‘the Conservative Nation’ which once informed and inhabited their politics.  Nor are they in one sense strictly Unionists, in that they understand and grasp the union state nature of the UK.  They have instead become arch-unitary state believers.  In this they have become perhaps unwittingly constitutional vandals and ahistorical in how they understand the history, make-up and nature of the UK.

England has become the last plaything of British central government shorn of Empire or overseas expeditions and wars.  The Blairites and Cameroons have inflicted upon England a host of endless directives and initiatives all in the name of freedom, choice and diversity, but in reality, driven by the idea of injecting private sector capital and dynamism into the public sector.

There is in this an absolute link between the way England is governed and the direct rule from Whitehall with which it is inflicted, and the scale and intent of the proposed changes to the public services and realm of the nation.

Devolution has played a part in bringing this to the fore. Much more serious than the West Lothian Question and ‘the subsidy Jocks’ of Barnett formula fame is the manner in which devolution has brought territorial politics to the centrestage of the UK.

Devolution has addressed issues of legitimacy in Scotland and Wales, but it has shifted part of the problem to England and part to the unreformed nature of the British state.  England is still governed by the imperial Parliament, regional democratic government for the moment is dead, and even the limited agenda of New Labour and Regional Development Agencies abolished.

There is a similarity here between how Scotland was treated pre-devolution and England today.  The unintended consequences of Thatcherism, its minority rule, and in particular, partisan actions such as the introduction of the poll tax and abolition of Scottish regional government, made the case for a Scottish Parliament.

The same story is being repeated in England, with intermediate institutions being abolished and Westminster and Whitehall running directly large parts of public life and selling off other assets.

Across large parts of English public life England is not even allowed to exist.  There is a BBC Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, while there is no BBC England – although many Scottish viewers would have trouble being convinced.  Instead, England has a host of regional BBC networks which deny an English national voice.  The British Council similarly has offices in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast; yet where is the one major nation in the entire world without a British Council voice?  That’s England.

This isn’t a sustainable position.  England has to develop institutional voices which speak at a national level.  Not at the regional.  Already one can feel an English imagination, space and voices emerging in arts and culture in a way similar to Scotland post-1979, but at the moment weaker and less connected to politics.

What you can sense is that something is changing and has to change in England, and that this wont be a bad thing for the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish.  Or for our devolved Parliaments and Assemblies.  It might on the other hand be a threat to the minimal politics we have experienced north of the border this last decade; and to the unreformed centre of the British state.

The logical end point of the Cameron public sector reforms is the creation of a marketised fantasyland – a playground for the rich, powerful and corporate interests and kind of City of London extended far and wide in the interests of winners and global elites.

It is a deeply unattractive vision; a dystopia which for all intents and purposes should not exist post-crash.  That it does is a direct result of the undemocratic nature of how England is governed.  It is time for people to rise up and ‘Speak for England’.



This article was first published in The Scotsman, January 29th 2011