England is back. It never really went away – nations with histories as deep and rich as that never do – but now she’s starting to rear her head up and ask difficult questions about where she stands in the world, and the Union. With Scotland fixing a date for a decision on whether to remain in the Union, I would contend that England’s time is coming; the morning of the 19th September 2014, to be precise, when we wake to find whether the people of Scotland wish to be independent or remain in the Union. Then we must turn to the largest nation in the Union and ask what we do with her.
The Blairite constitutional settlement essentially ignored England; the North East Assembly referendum was a bland, dismal sop to try to deflect the issue. Gordon Brown spoke often of Britishness, but as a Scotsman from a Scottish seat and a Scottish background, he could never fully speak to Englishness. Football hooligans, racists and thugs have been left to pick over English identity, shrouding themselves in the St George’s flag and using the idea of England as a cover for some very un-English ideas. Politicians have scuttled sideways from the issue; England is seen, I would contend, as the negative other, the font of all bad things in the country; bad history, bad ideas and bad traditions.
The Liberal Democrats must face up to the problems that now surround the question of England’s position within the Union. The meek shufflings of the constitutional reform consultation document on the question of England betray the lack of energy in addressing this question. As a federal party, we’ve completely failed to recognise England – the Federal Conference is the English conference, for instance. We’ve blanked out the largest part of the Union in our minds, subsuming England and Britain together, and so left ourselves ill-prepared for questions around England. To be fair, no-one in the centre of British politics has really dealt with the question of England; but our overtly federal nature and long calls for devolution and constitutional reform leaves us especially vulnerable to this problem.
This is about more than a dry technocratic solution, as was attempted with the North East Assembly under the last government. It is about imagining what a Liberal England should look like, and reclaiming that name – England – and all her history and identity from the fringes. England is the home of Locke, Mill, Cobden, Keynes, Beveridge and Hobhouse; in short, it is the cradle and nursery of Liberalism of many stripes; from Cobdenite classical liberalism to the energetic New Liberalism of Hobhouse [editorial note – Mill’s father was Scottish and Beveridge was born in India, but they remain in the article as they are largely considered ‘English’.]. There is much for Liberals to identify with in English history; and much for them to fight for in reclaiming England from the hands of those who smear her name with racism. It is about bringing together practical constitutional solutions i.e. how to respond to the sheer size of England without contriving to wipe her off the map, and ideological narrative.
I’ve long felt that the end of ideology has helped make our politics weak and hollow. Hopping deftly from technocratic solution to technocratic solution may well play well in the Westminster bubble, but voters can feel the lack of a binding narrative; the golden thread that brings together policies into a vision of Britain. Voters may not know what ideology is, or much care, but they surely can tell when we float from one policy to another without seeming to try to connect them altogether. The party has now thankfully started to make noises in that direction with the slogan of A Stronger Economy in a Fairer Society.
I’d say that that theme has to include a vision for an English economy and an English society. We must be in the vanguard of those who seek to reclaim England and Englishness and we must embrace her and seek to find a constitutional settlement that elevates her onto the same level as her peers in this Union. Otherwise, we will find that, on the morning of the 19th September 2014, when we rush for answers to the problems now emerging, the flag will be too tightly wound around the face of a hooligan for us to pry it free in time. Then we really will face a crisis of England; raw, angry and difficult to unpick.
Tim Oliver is a Liberal Democrat member and PhD student at the University of Hull, writing on Britain as a Great Power under the Coalition.
Note: The title is taken from a book by George Dangerfield from 1935, discussing the pre-war decline of the Liberal Party. More here.
This article is solely the views of the author, and should not be taken to represent the views of the Liberal Democrat party, Liberal Youth, nor the editorship of the Libertine.