Since we English, unlike our Scottish neighbours, have not been asked the important question about the United Kingdom’s future, we deserve answers about the reality of a future England.
Standing sentinel at a local War Memorial on Remembrance Sunday, watching the flags of the Armed Forces in which, and the nation for which men and women willingly gave their lives slowly droop in the dazzling November sunshine, I was acutely aware of a sense of profound diminishment. A sense that my countrymen about me seemed unaware that the flags that were being lowered might be folded neatly in the dusty cupboard of history – along with much else of our sense of ourselves which already lingers there – before the next solemn meeting; one which, fittingly, would mark a hundred years since the beginning of the end of our civilisation. And that we would have absolutely no say in the matter whatsoever.
Amidst the jarring frivolity that awkwardly greets the fading notes of the Last Post at such occasions, it seemed that the gravitas of the occasion hadn’t even spread to Westminster. The Union Flag fluttered nonchalantly; its onlookers were largely not those who, like our Canadian cousins and former fellow subjects in Hong Kong, awoke one morning to see a strange and alien flag at the top of familiar mastheads.
Even if, as recent YouGov polls suggest, Scotland is set against leaving the United Kingdom, the future relationship between Scotland and England is uncertain. Further, and crucially for the majority of the population of the ‘United’ Kingdom, there is no mention of what will happen to England in the event of Scotland’s departure or its retention.
The powerful Scotland Act of 2012, a document which slipped past most peoples’ notice, even allows Scottish Parliamentarians to set the legal drink-drive limit and only sets into greater and starker relief the gulf between England and Scotland. This is compounded by wealth divides, social divides, unaffordable housing, limited economic growth, and a London which is looking increasingly like a republic which happens to have a Queen living in it, whether or not it is ‘driving away‘ or ‘draining life‘ from or simply creating a ‘gulf‘ between itself and the rest of England and the UK. The future of England as a political entity is decidedly uncertain.
The Unionist response has been unbearably tame. The formerly conservative Conservative Party (and before that the Conservative and Unionist Party) seem to be approaching the reality of a diminished United Kingdom (both now and moreso in future) by half-heartedly attempting to use the few remaining symbols of a ‘United’ Kingdom to paradoxically create one. Emasculated by the European Union’s border demands, such as the Immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations 2006 (one of many such acts passed in the dying days of ‘Tony’ Blair’s premiership), all the UK Government can do is pass Bills such as the United Kingdom Borders Act 2013, an odd piece of legislation which apparently orders
All points of entry to the United Kingdom… to be provided with and display prominently a portrait of H.M. Queen Elizabeth II as Head of State, along with the Union Flag and other recognised national symbols.
An odd requirement, certainly; but a telling one, also. In a post-Olympic Opening Ceremony Britain, are these the last meaningful vestiges of a British national identity? If so, what are the ‘other recognised national symbols’ and why are they not mentioned specifically? As is often the case with the ‘United Kingdom’ of the new millennium, the objective becomes subjective.
The Union is clearly unravelling. Allan Massie is right to suggest that in the aftermath of the Scottish Referendum in September of this year, ‘further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament – and also to the Welsh Assembly, possibly to the Northern Irish one, too – would materially alter the structure of the United Kingdom’. He goes on to state that
‘There would be matters in the devolved parts of the UK over which Westminster and the UK government had no control. Those same matters, notably health and education, would in England remain the responsibility of a Parliament and government drawn from all parts of the UK. They might be affected by the votes of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs. Moreover, the UK government itself – especially if it was led by Labour – might have no majority on purely English matters. But the Westminster Parliament and the government drawn from its members would be England’s only political authority.’
Such a situation is farcical, undemocratic, unprecedented, illogical… but worst of all, entirely possible and perfectly plausible. And yet, no-one quite knows what should happen next.
The mainstream media is not a place for the debate. Jason Cowley of the New Statesman can only echo Jeremy Paxman in mentioning England as being backward-looking, without providing any suggestion of where to move next. Further to British Future’s polling on ‘English identity‘ – the usual trotting out of cliché about about St. George’s Day and Basil Fawlty – the organisation’s own Sunder Katwala can only make passing reference to the fact that England’s football team ‘will be the only one of 32 footballing nations to take the field in Brazil which does not have a state to its name’ and that the upcoming Scottish referendum ‘could prove one of the most significant events in 300 years of British political history’. Even Simon Jenkins – agitating, oddly, for the present majority party in Government moving to favour Scottish independence, despite its leader’s vanity precluding this – who realises the ‘historically momentous’ significance of the Scottish vote, has no legitimate suggestion about what would follow. He speculates with palpable resignation about the fact that Wales could secede, noting in telling future tense about the prospect that ‘England will have contrived in a century to lose not one empire, but two.’
England must brace itself; its future is almost totally out of its hands. Hamstrung by a two-and-a-half party system which represents almost no-one, and subject to the whims and determination of an electorate outside its bounds and by a supra-national legislature and executive which sees any motion for national determinance, such as that in Catalonia, as treachery, England is left without any of the apparatus of a meaningful state and without the ability to obtain it.
We deserve a more meaningful answer to the shadowy questions which loom over our future. We deserve more well-informed decision-making than that which fluctuates with football results and external events. We deserve a more democratic way to determine our future.
England needs answers.