By Michael Kenny
Ed Miliband’s adoption of the ‘one nation’ mantle offered a timely claim upon the political centre-ground at a point when the Conservative leadership is facing a strong magnetic pull rightwards. But, as it starts to put some policy flesh on the bones of this slogan, Labour needs to do some hard thinking about its future offer to the one nation in the UK that was really being addressed in his speech.
England is the sole national territory to which Labour’s ambitious first-term devolution programme did not apply. And, London aside, it did not, during its years in power, settle upon an answer to the question of how to devolve powers to sub-national levels within England – its own standard response to the often posed ‘English Question’.
Labour needs now to reconsider what kind of democratic order, as well as rebalanced regional economic model, it wishes to propose to the English. For the suspicion remains that its fulsome talk of decentralising power within England is too often a way of evading, not grasping, the representative and cultural dimensions of the English question. Yet, if Labour is credibly to present itself as a party that really does want to engage more authentically with the questions of identity, belonging and security that concern ordinary people, such a response is no longer adequate: Englishness has become a much more salient identity for many people within England and provides a vehicle for the expressions of a variety of political ideas and social frustrations at a time when the language of politics has tended to become unduly tepid. Those on the left who argue that Ed Miliband should stick to talking about class and forget nationhood fail to grasp this fundamental point.
Yet, Labour has a major reputational problem in this area. Various studies produced towards the end of its time in office confirm that a growing section of the English public became more resentful at the idea of a government which had a number of prominent Scottish Ministers and appeared more favourable to the non-English nations of the UK.
The party has generally been united in its wariness towards Englishness (with the noble exception of a handful of figures like Jon Cruddas, John Denham and David Blunkett) which it has written off as inherently regressive and chauvinist in character. And it has long assumed that any move to grant England recognition within the current political system would harm Labour’s electoral prospects.
But a reconsideration of both of these assumptions is overdue. First, a number of distinct, competing ideas about the political and cultural character of the English have emerged in this period, and while a sub-set of these frame Englishness in chauvinist ways, the majority of those who identify primarily as English are, in broad terms, politically moderate, socially liberal and culturally conservative. Many are actual or potential Labour voters.
And, second, the widely held assumption on the left that Labour cannot win in England and therefore needs Scotland to secure a parliamentary majority is greatly exaggerated. Labour has won elections for the most part when it has secured a majority of seats in England. Elections in which Scottish MPs have been decisive are in fact relatively rare. There have been none since 1945 in which Scottish MPs have turned a Conservative majority into a Labour government or vice versa. Moreover, Labour would have won, if with a reduced majority, in 1945, 1966, 1997, 2001 and 2005, without its Scottish MPs. An exaggerated fear of the Conservative inclination of the largest country in the Union has become a damaging mental habit in Labour circles.
The intellectual and policy conservatism associated with this abiding fear of Englishness needs now to be replaced by an appreciation of the longer-range forces that are reshaping the UK and the national identities within it.
This means facing up to the implications of devolution, and reconsidering the arcane, but increasingly pressing, West Lothian question. As it becomes ever clearer that devolution is more like a slowly turning ratchet than a stable settlement, the Westminster Parliament is evolving into an English one, at least when it comes to domestic matters. Should Scotland vote against independence, but be granted additional powers including a greater degree of fiscal autonomy, it is hard to see how, in terms of procedural justice, Scottish MPs can be returned to Westminster on the same basis as their English counterparts.
Given the growing likelihood of hung parliaments and coalitions, it is of course possible that Scottish MPs might still be crucial to the parliamentary balance in the future. The outrage expressed when the legislation that introduced Foundation Hospitals and Tuition Fees in England was passed because Scottish MPs were whipped through the Commons is a foretaste of the controversies that such a situation would engender.
And so, while the idea of English-votes-on-English-laws in Parliament has long been seen as a Tory-inspired attempt to constrain a future Labour government, it is time to take a closer look at the different versions of this idea. The various technical and procedural disadvantages of such a proposal are now potentially outweighed by the need for an insurance policy against the legitimacy crisis that West Lothian issues could potentially generate. The party’s response to the report which the McKay Commission is due to produce will provide an early test of its thinking on this issue.
Both for its own political fortunes, and the longer-run future and survival of the United Kingdom itself, Labour is going to need to re-position itself as a force that speaks more directly and credibly to the ‘one nation’ that has experienced some important shifts in national self-awareness in the last twenty years, and which currently includes a growing number of citizens who are disenchanted with the political system and devolution.
But, contrary to its darkest fears, there is every reason to think that Labour can adapt to a Union which incorporates a new English settlement, including greater powers for its leading cities, city-regions and local authorities, and a greater sense of cultural recognition for the English. The most pressing English question in British politics today is whether Labour has the confidence and capacity to address these issues in a forward-looking and democratic, rather than fearful and short-termist, manner.
Michael Kenny is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, University of London and is the author of “The Politics of English Nationhood” which will be published next year by Oxford University Press.
This piece forms part of Jon Cruddas’s Guest Edit of LabourList