There are good reasons Labour has been reluctant to talk about England. More than any other party it has been unionist and has support throughout the kingdom. The generosity of the settlement, in which Scotland has greater representation and money, was not something that Labour wished to draw attention to.
England is 10 times the size of Scotland. This was true in 1603 with the union of the crowns and in 1707 with the union of parliaments. All of the population of Scotland could fit into north London but the idea of a domineering England imposing its will on the Celtic periphery was offensive to Labour ideology as well as strategy. Although there have only been two occasions where Labour governments were dependent on Scottish members of parliament for their majority it has been assumed that it was necessary to avoid the West Lothian question for fear of imperilling our majority.
With the irony of the Conservative and Unionist party ceasing to represent the union and becoming an entirely English party, Labour became by default the only British party and thus had less interest in engaging with the specificity of the English tradition, particularly in the south of the country. Thatcherism abandoned the concerns of workers in Scotland and allowed a space for a social democratic nationalism to articulate an opposition to neoliberalism in national cultural and institutional terms, rather than in the exclusively political and economic categories preferred by Labour. The decline in the organised working class meant that a specific Labour unionism, built on class solidarity, had increasingly less purchase in the lives of Labour voters. Labour has ignored England for far too long.
The logic of this changed with the asymmetry of the establishment of the Scottish parliament, and to some extent the Welsh assembly, when there was no body to represent England. Questions of excessive subsidy and representation were no longer easily subsumed as the price to pay for the preservation of civic peace and order but became anomalous aspects of an incoherent system in which Scots governed themselves but England did not. Regions are not nations and Labour was reluctant to recognise this. The smothering of England, and the particularity of the English tradition, has been going on for a long time.
The consequence of the Scottish referendum, when a vote was granted without cabinet discussion and commitments made at the end of the campaign with no parliamentary approval – and perhaps with no discussion with English MPs – raises important constitutional issues but, for Labour, it raises fundamental and existential political concerns. We have no choice but to rediscover England.
Whether or not it is the case that Scottish MPs will be allowed to vote on English laws when there is no reciprocity in the relationship, it is likely that, partly through his own commitments, Gordon Brown will be the last Scottish prime minister and Alistair Darling the final Scottish chancellor. The legitimacy of a government will be founded on England. Labour cannot rely on piecing together a coalition around the edges of the kingdom; it must win in England.
A first step is to establish an English Labour party, just as there is a Scottish Labour party and Welsh Labour party. They have their own manifestos, and this will require a recognition that there are particular issues that affect England more than other parts of the union, immigration being much higher, for example, in England than in Scotland and Wales. Like Arthur Greenwood, deputy leader of the Labour party in 1939, Labour must learn once again to speak for England.
The second step is to recognise the distinctiveness of the English tradition and that it formed the political and institutional polity that Scotland joined in order to create Great Britain in 1707. The starting point for this is that Scotland did not experience the two great invasions that dominated the English imagination, those of Rome and the Normans. England developed a common law, a parliament based upon a balance of interests with a House of Commons, a constitutional monarchy, and briefly a commonwealth when Charles I, a Scottish king who claimed to rule by divine right and without parliament, was executed. The resistance to the domination of the crown through the establishment of parliament and self-governing cities, not least the City of London, defines the English story as one of resistance to arbitrary tyrannical power. This formed the basis of the Labour movement.
The maritime system of international trade, that goes back to Roman London, was already in place by the Act of Union. The Hudson Bay Company, which established New York under the authority of the City of London as well as Virginia and the other American colonies, was part of the English polity that defeated the Armada, broke the subordination to Rome and established the first effective nation-state system built around the civil service, navy and the Treasury. This was the imperial system that Scotland joined, but it was also a national system.
The first feature of this system was the balance of power within parliament, rather than the separation of powers that characterised the French and American revolutions. The Ancient Constitution, which we still work within, was based upon the balance between the monarchy as the executive and parliament as the legislature with the House of Commons as locational democracy and the House of Lords as vocational, including the church, law and universities, the church as the soul of the nation and the City of London as representing business. It was a system of accountability. One of the major issues, revealed in vivid terms during the Scottish referendum, is that, with the displacement of the monarchy as the executive by parliament and the emergence of the party and whipping system, there is a greater need for accountability within parliament that goes beyond the select committees. The balance of interests needs to be restored.
England is particularly difficult for social democrats and progressives to come to terms with because it is a very paradoxical nation and does not admit to rational principles. As a tradition it is both radical and conservative, democratic and traditional, open and closed, monarchical and free-born. The task before Labour is to bring justice and honour to this patriotic tradition.
The good news is that significant, if unnoticed, work has been done on this by Jon Cruddas in the policy review. One of the main features of the contemporary problem is a remorseless centralisation in both the state and the market. The Scottish parliament offers nothing more than a mini-London in Scotland. What is required is the retrieval of a genuinely federal system of self-government for cities and counties within England, as well as a renewal of a revitalised centre based on a national vocational and financial system. The starting points for this have already been established by the policy review.
Cruddas has concentrated on the economic as well as the political decentralisation of power to cities, exploring the possibilities of a regional banking system and a renewed vocational system. We also need to look at locally controlled energy systems based upon the particular ecology of the country so that a patriotic narrative can be told which reflects the balance of interests and city corporations that gives honour to work and the workforce in the balance of interests within public and private institutions. A vocational House of Lords that represents the working life of the nation is consistent with such an approach. City parliaments that embody the diversity of cities and provide a form of meaningful belonging and participation. A democratic monarchy that is both modern and traditional.
It appears sometimes that Labour is afraid of England, afraid that it is a nasty, racist, reactionary country that dislikes it. The opposite is true. Many people in England feel that the Labour party dislikes them, their traditions and values. It is time to show some love and rediscover England.
Maurice Glasman is a member of the House of Lords and founder of ‘blue Labour’
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