The Strange Death of Liberal England

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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.


12 thoughts on “The Strange Death of Liberal England

  1. So yet another convert to English nationalism and an English parliament? Fine if the people of England want greater self-determination then they should have it but this must mean a choice. 1) An English Parliament 2) Various forms of regional devolution or 3) No change an all UK parliament – dominated by English MP’s as it is – being the price to pay for the Union England forced on the rest of the Isles.

    As a Cornishman seeing another parliament in London for the population of England sitting next to the parliament for the UK doesn’t seem fair, very cost effective or democratic. Give me devolution to a Cornish assembly any day: Cornish Constitutional Convention:

    1. In the event of an English Parliament being graciously granted by the British. It could sit in the House of Commons. Zero build costs.
      The Welsh, Scottish and N.Irish MP’s currently in the (dis)UK parliament would become redundant. Reduction of MP’s by 120 (from memory) Significant saving.
      As all countries would then have their own Unitary Parliament, no House of Lords would be required. 850 lords made redundant. Massive savings.
      A new Federal body would need to be created to deal with reserved matters. It could move into the second chamber. No build costs. It would need only approx 100 (i’ll call them) Senators, representing the four countries equally. Small additional cost.
      As for Cornwall. I respectfully suggest, Cornwall would be better off supporting the creation of an English Parliament. It could then seek it’s own degree of Devolution from England.

    2. A Cornish Assembly with full fiscal autonomy ie. Cornish devo max. Is that what you are looking for Fulub?

      1. It would be a good start. Alternatively, and perhaps less likely, the government could enforce the actual de jure constitutional status of Cornwall as a Duchy and invest the constitutional rights and powers of the Duchy in an elected Cornish parliament. I say unlikely as this would put Cornwall in a far more autonomous position than Scotland or Wales. We’d be more akin to the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands.

    3. Reply to Fulub.
      Because whether you like it or not. The rest of the (dis)UK outside of Cornwall believes Cornwall is a part of England.

    4. As the author – I’d be very happy to see Cornish devolution of some form, after a referendum in Cornwall. I think the Cornish people do deserve a say, as, from what I can tell there is quite a strong Cornish identity which is on the up.

    1. A constitutional convention for England followed by a public debate and referendum. Perhaps the Icelandic model would serve as a path to follow. Ideally I’d like to see Wales, Scotland and Cornwall independent and Ireland reunified. This I think would solve the English question don’t you? Following this all the newly independent nations regrouped in side some form of federal structure would seem reasonable. There are some many decisions that need to be taken today that have to pass at a supranational level and rather than unelected groupings of government ministers from the various nations taking decisions behind closed doors why not elected federal structures?

  2. You’re quite right to say it’s time for England to be considered. Some of us out here have been saying so since 1998.
    Sadly you perpetrate the myth that England is thought of as “Football hooligans, racists and thugs” .
    What! just like all Scots are English hating tightwads who live entirely on haggis?
    And all Welshman say ‘boyo’ to everyone and have carnal relations with sheep?
    Naturally you denigrate The Cross of St George, when in fact the chosen flag of racists has always been the Union Flag
    What is needed is what should have been given in 1998. Equality for England with a Parliament for England. Then we can have a truly federal UK.
    It will come, even the British in Westminster are waking up to the democratic defecit heaped upon England. i just wish they’d get on with it.

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