Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Speak for England

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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Maurice Glasman

is a Labour peer and senior lecturer in political theory at London Metropolitan University


  • absolutely right.the problem is the present party is’nt labour.they are far right.they treat people with disdain.verbally abuse them.that’s not the labour party,and mp’s i know.when a current woman mp says ‘mp’s are not what they used to be’.yes they treat long time labour voters in the northern heartlands as ‘plebs’ or ill educated.these people are good decent people.who worked hard.and brought their children up to do the same.the ‘baby boomers’ who are now told to get off the ‘gravy train’.you expect this from other parties.not labour.

  • The article starts with a wonderful précis of English and UK history but degenerates into absolute waffle as soon as it moves from explaining the past to proposing the future. Smell the coffee: Labour (and Westminster in general) have lost Scotland. Now Labour speaks for England but with forked tongue: City regions, a sop to the clamour for an English parliament,means only more feeding troughs for developers and business. Focus on England, now. You have lost the rest and if you keep faking it you will lost England as well. By the way, explain, Glasman, what you did to earn your seat in the house of lords.

  • I would welcome an English Labour but the current UK Labour appears hell-bent on undemocratically dividing England against itself – something which will end up hurting both but Labour more than England in the long run.

    Shouldn’t how power is devolved to & within England be decided by the English people as a whole? The same options given to S/W/NI. The English need a say on England.

  • Even if they set up an ‘English’ Labour, it would merely be a branch office, just like ‘Scottish’ Labour and, presumably, ‘Welsh’ Labour. What they need to do is make English, Scottish and Welsh Labour parties that are all separate entities from British Labour, but, as would be expected, with close links to each other. Labour definitely needs to be careful what it wishes for when it plays the imperialist divide-and-rule game in England (aren’t Labour meant to be the party of unity and solidarity?). They thought Holyrood would be their thousand-year Reich, but that hasn’t worked out too well for them, has it?

  • Do you people EVER give up trying to dismember England on behalf of your paymasters in the EU?

    Only an English Parliament can give the English equality of Democratic Representation with the other Home Nations.

    If you can’t face that fact you will be finished in England as well as Scotland and many working class English ex Labour voters like me will be weeping no tears for that.

  • “We have no choice but to rediscover England.” When exactly did Labour discover England in the first place?
    “…Labour must learn once again to speak for England.” When did Labour ever speak for England?
    The fact is that Labour’s attitude to the English people, certainly the white English, is analogous with the Nazi party’s attitude towards Jews, or the Klan’s attitude towards blacks. Yes, it’s true that they haven’t lynched us or put us in ovens, but that’s only because such crimes leave forensic evidence, not because they wouldn’t want to wipe us out. Just find the comments made by bigoted thugs like Straw, Prescott, and the unlamented Cook to see what I mean.
    It’s all very well foisting all these powers on cities and regions without the people’s approval, but what about the nation of England? This article says that regions are not nations, and that it is time to show some love and “rediscover” England. Well, let’s see Labour creating some all-English (as opposed to British) institutions, starting with an English Parliament and First Minister. You never know, but the inaugural First Minister of England might just be from the Labour party.

  • Yet again showing Labour does not “get” England at all. This started well, but once again it is the refusal to accept England as a nation and therefore accept the need for a national Parliament for the nation.
    England has always been the same size geographically. It served the neighbours that way and you cannot now say that once the government is done with Empire, the size of England is now a problem for the neighbours and must be divided up for their sensibilities. No.
    Polls consistently show support for an English Parliament & local powers within the nation. An English Labour Party would be welcome, but Labour ignore an English Parliament at their peril.
    This is not going to go away.

  • Why do articles like this always give us a history lesson? Presumably because the author has little of real interest to say. The big question’who governs England’ is not addressed. City regions are relevent to local not national government.
    England needs her own English Parliament, English Executive and English First Minister elected by PR.
    Why does the article not comment on the government of England?

  • Glasman’s version of history is utterly bizarre. Labour is the most unionist party?? I think he muddles unionism and internationalism. The City is an example of the resistance to tyranny that underpins the labour movement… er…. what? The old style sharing of power between different groups of the elite (universities, law, parliament, church) provided ‘accountability’ and we just need to push that out to ‘city corporations’ governed no doubt by the self-same elite. The most telling point in the above article is that the only mention of class and organised labour/unions in the above article is to dismiss it. The second most telling point is that there is not one mention of minorities or women. Blue Labour is just another reactionary group of rich white men telling us what the terms of debate are, and what’s not up for serious question (increasingly unfettered neoliberal capitalism), even as they tell us this is some kind of ‘localism’ or enhanced democracy.

  • It doesn’t muddle unionism and internationalism. A key part of Labour’s unionism was developing and supporting national institutions. The army, the NHS, etc.

    The article doesn’t dismiss organised unions. Is this the sentence you’re referring to?

    “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.”

    If so, what it does is point out that there has been a decline in the organised working class. TUC research shows that trade union membership has halved since 1980. Further information here:

    Please don’t take this the wrong way but as someone who makes a living as a writer it would be worth remembering that the word ‘most’ means ‘in the greatest quantity, amount, measure, degree, or number’. Therefore it is impossible to have two most telling points.

    So moving on to your ‘second most telling point’ – this is a blog post, it’s necessarily short by nature. It also has a specific focus. It is about the nature of the nation’s political structures and institutions. Are you saying that every article should focus on women and ethnic minorities? Whilst these topics are obviously extremely important I’m not sure such an edict is enforceable, necessary or wanted.

    You also demonstrate that you know very little about Blue Labour itself. It’s completely against unfettered neo-liberal capitalism. It fits into the framework of post-liberalism which, to a large extent, is against the unfettered neo-liberal policies of Thatcher and Blair. This is actually the most important part of the Blue Labour approach. I think you may be getting it mixed up with Blairism.

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