Reluctant England takes first step towards independence from Britain

by Robert Taylor Robert Taylor is a London-based writer, consultant and media trainer. He has provided training and consultancy for organisations throughout the world, including assignments in the US, Brazil, China, India, South Africa and Russia. 25.09.2014

“No taxation without representation”, cried Americans on their way to independence from Britain two and a half centuries ago. A similar cry is now heard throughout England’s green and pleasant land: “English votes for English laws”. 

In the wake of Scotland voting No to independence last week, the English are finally realising how badly the British constitution discriminates against England. And they are demanding fair democratic representation.

It’s 16 years since Tony Blair’s government denied England the democratic rights it gave to the UK’s other countries. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were given their own national parliaments or assemblies, through which they govern themselves on a range of matters, but the English continued to be governed by the British Parliament, to which the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish elected members. So, since 1998, England has been the only country within the UK, indeed the only major Western country, to have no government of its own.

Did this extraordinary constitutional unfairness trouble the British establishment? Not at all. Although England was, and remains, a mighty big elephant in a small room, it could safely be ignored – because the English seemed not to care. The English elephant was fast asleep. 

But all this has now changed. Two weeks ago, the elephant woke up with a violent start – at the sight of Britain’s political establishment, panicking that Scotland might vote Yes, placating the Scottish voters with yet more devolved powers over taxation, spending and welfare.  Now that the Scots have accepted the bribe, and voted No, those promises must be kept. The effect will be to make Scotland an even greater master over its own destiny while unashamedly still sending representatives to the British parliament to vote on all matters affecting England.

If it was unfair on England before, it is now intolerable. 

The fact that England is reacting only now to 16 years of constitutional victimisation is not difficult to fathom. Englishness has always been regarded as something disgraceful, particularly on the vocal left of British politics. As George Orwell wrote, ''England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality.’’

An exaggeration? Hardly. The Labour Party’s Jack Straw, a former Foreign Secretary, famously wrote off his fellow Englishman as “potentially very aggressive, very violent. We have used this propensity to violence.” Just last week, Tony Blair’s former spin doctor, the English-born, English-raised and English-educated Alastair Campbell (albeit of Scottish parents), wrote “I feel British first, Scottish second, Yorkshire – where I was born – third and English a long way behind.” And the Guardian newspaper columnist, Simon Hattenstone, wrote this week: “England had become a nation of penalty-missers, contract-outers, public-school twits and twats, bigots and Bullingdon club bullies, snarling bulldogs and rapacious bankers.” 

With so many leaders and opinion-formers telling them how shameful their nationality is, it’s no wonder the English have perfected the art of subservient anti-nationalism. They have seen it as a virtue to plod along uncomplainingly, even as nearly two thousand pounds more per head of population goes in public funding to Scotland than to England – mainly funded by English tax-payers. Nor have the English objected to their country having few of the national symbols and institutions that others take for granted, such as a national broadcaster (there is a BBC Scotland, a BBC Wales and a BBC Northern Ireland, but no BBC England) and a national anthem (before international rugby and soccer matches, the English have to make do with the British anthem, God Save the Queen.) 

Only now that the unfairness has become so acute are millions of English people waking up to it. They are making their case in a typically polite, undemonstrative way. But the volume is being turned up, and across the land they are beginning to insist on something that should have been theirs for the last 16 years – an English parliament, based well away from London, granted the same powers as the Scottish Parliament, and the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies. 

And they are in no mood to be conned by the self-serving proposal from the Labour Party that England should be divided into regions, each with its own assembly and devolved powers – a thinly veiled plan to Balkanise England, setting off one region against another, while seeking to discourage any sense of English national identity.

Nor should they trust Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who now professes his concern about the democratic imbalance. Yet it’s only a few years since he told me at a public meeting that he considered English nationalists campaigning for an English parliament to be “nutty” (failing to explain why he would never say such a thing about Welsh and Scottish nationalists). 

And even Prime Minister David Cameron, who is suddenly championing the cause of English devolution, is not above suspicion. If English democracy is so close to his heart, why he didn’t act on it more forcibly when entering Downing Street in May 2010, and make it part of the coalition agreement?

English voices must now be heard, or something far more dramatic could be in store. Until recently, a belief in English independence from Britain was regarded as eccentric, unthinkable – even nutty. Now, according to the latest surveys, 31% of the English support it. 

Britain had been warned. Correct the anti-English unfairness. Give England a parliament within a federal UK. Or sow the seeds of an eventual constitutional tsunami: England walking out on Britain.

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Earlier articles by Robert Taylor on Facts & Arts:

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