On Thursday Gordon Brown called for the Brexit settlement to deliver greater powers for UK nations and the English regions, rather than to Whitehall. The speech has strong points but at its heart is a fatal weakness that cannot deliver for Britain or England but could undermine Labour and feed its enemies. Not for the first time, he conjured up an imaginary England that has little reflection in the real nation. His description of left behind England accurately reflects some statistical facts but shows little grasp of the extent of the Brexit revolt or of the cultural and political turmoil in the country.
The speech, as reported, made some good sense. The United Kingdom is more united in name than in reality. A move to a federal structure now looks the only viable alternative to slow (or faster) disintegration. A constitutional convention will need explore the very different ways in which federalism could develop. And the idea that different parts of the UK might want to use powers repatriated from Brussels to meet different policy challenges and priorities also has a lot to commend it.
By implication, such radical changes would challenge some of the constitutional verities that Labour has clung to in recent years. A federal UK cannot have a unitary House of Commons. In resisting English Votes for English Laws, Labour has recently made that a red line for constitutional change. Any recognition of the democratic inequities of a Commons in which Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs vote on English issues that have been devolved in their own nations has to be welcome.
The problem is that Gordon also seems to have decided what the outcome of the constitutional assembly should look like. And that does not include any acknowledgement of the existence of England as a nation or as a political identity. By extension, it excludes all of that large majority of English residents who describe their national identity as English, or English and British. It is odd that a man who has fought all his political life for the right of the people of Scotland to determine their own future should be so resistant to allowing the English to do the same.
In an analysis of the Scottish devolution published before the Scottish referendum, Gordon showed the same myopia. Amid numerous references to Scotland, he had 104 to a non-existent ‘rest of the UK (rUK)’ and just four to England or the English. The fact that the English were exclusively referred to either as taxpayers or as pensioners betrays a narrow view of English interest. This marginalisation of England has long been the view of celtic Labour: England should not want a political voice and, in any case, cannot be allowed to have one. This is no longer tenable.
The English regions imagined by Brown and his supporters do not exist as economic, political or cultural entities; or to be more accurate some do (like London) , some don’t (like the vast area called the South East) and most have boundaries that are very different to those imagined by the Whitehall bureaucrats who drew them up. Places of real vibrant identity and passion – like Merseyside, Manchester or Birmingham – have to be submerged into a technocrat’s idealised region that fits the demands of central planning. Plenty of people identify with Yorkshire, but that’s not a government region. Few people leap to call themselves East Midlanders.
Brown’s vision of a devolved Brexit rests on the creation of regional structures that would have to be imposed and would enjoy no legitimacy. Even the current devolution process in England has plenty of critics who say that the public is being excluded from deals being struck between council leaders and government ministers. But most people would at least recognise an emerging geography of city-regions and counties that reflect natural economic and historic communities. It may be a bit messy and have a long way to go, but is infinitely preferable to an imposed and artificial solution.
But the most fundamental obstacle to Brown’s solution is that it sweeps aside any idea that England might have a political voice of its own, or that Englishness and English interests are of any concern to the people of England. Yet the evidence is clear that these are sentiments of growing importance. And the divisions that mar Britain are most marked in England.
England voted Leave – only London of the government’s English regions voted Remain. Brexit was not a simple vote of the angry and left-behind. While the largest concentrations of leave votes may have been in deprived communities, the greatest number of them live in the south. According the geographer Danny Dorling, over half of leave voters were middle class and only a quarter of leave voters were from social classes D and E. The Brexit vote was not a regional problem to be solved by regional solutions but a fundamental demand for representation and power that was expressed across the country.
Those who felt most intensely English were the most likely to vote Leave – up to 80% in some polls. English voters increasingly assert English issues – fear of SNP influence on a Labour government may have swung enough voters to deliver today’s Tory majority. Very few English voters were enthused by Gordon’s Brown’s ‘vow’ in the Scottish referendum and many were angered by it. The divisions in England will not be healed by breaking England into artificial regions but by allowing England to have a voice. And by allowing England – rather than Scottish politicians – to settle the balance of power between the centre and the localities. Devolution in England is essential but it has to be decided in England, and must be a central issue of any constitutional convention. Labour in England should be able to expect the same respect in determining what is best for England that it has always shown to colleagues in Wales and Scotland.
Constitutional reform in England is not yet a burning issue but may yet become so – and certainly would if there was a constitutional convention. Popular support lies behind EVEL or an English Parliament, and strong local government, not regional assemblies. With UKIP gearing up to offer English voters an English Parliament, Brown’s recommendations have the danger of offering a solution that neither England nor its localities want, and of ignoring the very voters Labour is struggling to win back.
John Denham is a former Labour Minister and is now Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University. He is the co-editor with Mike Kenny of Who speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, published by the Fabian Society in October.