What is our answer to the English question?

Anthony Painter

The stunning success of the Military Wives choir is a wonderful and quintessentially English story. Their story is one of resolve, of finding meaning in our locality and the people with whom we rub shoulders day to day, of combating our fears, and of brilliant amateur hobbyism. What is more English than that? And in Gareth Malone, the inspirational figure who made it all happen, we even see the English eccentric alive and well. ‘Wherever you are’ made Christmas number one and I doubt a single person who watched The Choir kept their eyes dry.

This was the second series of the The Choir. The first took place on a council estate in South Oxhey, Hertfordshire. When the BNP tried to give the choir a cheque for £1000 it was rejected with one committee member saying:

“We’ve worked really hard as a group to be inclusive of everybody and promote an ethnically diverse choir. We don’t feel the BNP shares those values so, as group, we decided to turn the money down.”

One of the tragedies of recent years has been the way in which vile extremists including the BNP, the EDL, and the English Democrats have been able to latch onto anger and alienation and expressed them through a corrupted notion of Englishness. Nothing is more un-English than hate and extremism. The response from mainstream politics has been pathetic- a St George’s flag waved here, a bulldog image there, faux attempts to make St George’s day a real national celebration, mixed with the odd over-enthusiastic expression of support for a national football side filled full of under-achieving prima donnas.

There is something of real England in The Choir. It speaks to an England of communities, civic energy, artistic expression, and giving it a go. Whether it’s the National Trust, a renewed understanding of the military life and contribution, the celebration of the monarchy, or the rising tide of enthusiasm for the Olympics, or even the success of Downton Abbey or the revival of Dickens, in these times of anxiety and austerity we are reaching for an expression of what we have in common and what we share.

We are in a strange position: we have two nationalities. We experience our civic life as Englishmen and women. Yet our institutions and national identity are also British. This creates a confusion and a tension. Even the precise George Orwell blurs over the difference in his writings. This used to enrage the Scots. Now they have their own Parliament it is the English who suffer the bewilderment and frustration.

The simple fact is that most people don’t really see a big difference between being British and being English. The overlap is enormous. To defend the union, it is Britishness which has received the attention. That is the identity that has been crafted as deliberately multicultural and embracing. Englishness, meanwhile, has been left to those who want to exclude and paint in monochrome. This is a disaster and completely irresponsible.

A decision on Scottish independence is now on the near horizon; just two and a half years away. Alongside the positive new expressions of Englishness that we are seeing – embodied by Gareth Malone’s work – an English political question is about to confront us. We are about to rush headlong into defending the union and the status quo.

While independence isn’t the most likely outcome of this process, a significant further devolution of powers – including of fiscal policy – is the favoured outcome of Scots. If Westminster attempts to block this off as an option then they are playing with independence fire. If Labour has any sense, it will not only support a ‘devo max’ question being included in the referendum but would also seriously consider backing it. It’s the option that appeals to most Scots.

What can not get lost in all this is England’s political future. The constitutional and national future of Scotland is for them. England’s civic communities should have the same power of self-determination. A poll published earlier this week for the new charity, British Future, run by former Fabian Society General Secretary, Sunder Katwala, found that 51% of people want an English Parliament. If Scotland goes for further devolution or home rule, this is likely to increase. What’s more, if it does so then the Westminster parliament will be a de facto English Parliament. It is only a matter of time before it will be a case of English MPs for English laws.

This is a political disaster. To simply evolve an English parliamentary model from the British parliamentary model completely ignores the reality of English pluralism. Majoritarian politics has been increasingly inadequate to the task of expressing British democratic opinion. The same goes for England. That is why we need a national dialogue about what form any English parliament will take. We can’t simply allow Conservative majorities centred around the south and south-east to dominate our national life to an even greater extent despite a wider pluralism. A new English political pluralism – with a voting system and institutions to match – is the only sensible and democratic option.

Self-determination matters beyond the national level too. A symmetric British federalism is neat but completely unrealistic. Instead, we need a bottom-up democratic restructuring. If the north-east or Kernow want new powers then they should have them. The north-east and Cumbria, in particular, could lose out from greater Scottish self-rule. If they demand the political tools to respond, they should be given them.

The mistake in the past has been to try to impose a regional system of government on England that is poorly suited to emotional attachments that people have. In some places, regional government may be suitable. In others it will be city or city-region. For some it will be a county or local level. Clusters of political authority may also come together in, as yet, unimagined ways. Once again, the core principle is self-determination. That is itself could provoke an English democratic revival.

England is a nation of contradiction. We are little Englanders and global citizens; north and south; radical and conservative; rural and urban; scientific and humanistic; and modern and traditional. We are a people of complex and overlapping identities. England is starting to celebrate itself and regain a sense of cultural self-awareness. The intersection of community, civic life, national institution, and culture epitomized by the The Choir reminds us of some of what we have lost and need to regain.

England’s relationship with the other nations on these islands and the wider world is changing. The notion that an eighteenth century constitution can cope with this enormous and potential traumatic change doesn’t stack up. We have a choice – as a nation, as communities, and political participants –to wait for the trauma to hit us or to positively reach for an open and embracing Englishness to meet our emotional, material and political needs. Let’s embrace this latter course and not risk our national destiny being seized by the forces of antagonism and division.

Anthony Painter’s essay for Soundings Magazine Time for an optimistic Englishness can be read (with a very short registration) here.

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