Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Welcome to England Left Forward

Reviewing the late Patrick Hannan's book A Useful Fiction: Adventures in British Democracy for Liberal Democrat News last summer, I wrote:

What to do about England in the new devolved United Kingdom is a question that will not go away. A Useful Fiction quotes Anthony King’s description of the country under the current settlement as “a huge whale in a small bathtub”, and without the counterbalance that the new parliaments offer in Scotland and Wales, it is England that has suffered most from the demise of local democracy.

The traditional Liberal answer is to call for assemblies to be set up in the English regions, but I do not find this attractive. There are problems on agreeing where the boundaries should be drawn and the inconvenient fact that on the only occasion when plans for an assembly were put to the public (in the North East in 2004), they were voted down decisively.

More than that, the regional system Labour has set up acts like a shadow, unelected variety of local government that makes it easier for Whitehall to force new infrastructure projects through in the force of popular opposition.

Perhaps the real problem is that English regional government appeals to those who do not feel comfortable with Englishness at all. Many on the liberal-left who are indulgent to Celtic nationalism still fear that England is too big and too irredeemably Tory to be allowed a modern constitutional form. They would rather see English identity hobbled by a collection of smaller assemblies.

So I was pleased to see a guest post on Lib Dem Voice today by Dave Dyke of the England Left Forward network.

Dyke writes that he has set up the network for two reasons:

The first is to provide a space for those of us on the Left, whether progressives, socialists, social democrats, liberals or greens, to articulate, debate and resolve the various aspects of the English Question; in particular with respect to providing England with a legitimate political voice.

The second is to identify a vision for the various aspects of England and Englishness that is not nationalistic in nature, but draws on the experience and contributions of all who engage in the debate. A vision that also incorporates the values of individual freedom, equality of opportunity, and a fair and just society based on the rule of law. For England is a country; it is not a colour, a race or a religion.

You can read more about England Left Forward on its own website.

9 comments:

Lavengro in Spain said...

That picture looks more like St Georgina. Are you sure it isn't a pantomime?

Jonathan said...

Oh no it isn't!

Dave Dyke said...

Jonathan,

Thanks for the thumbs up.

The network has only been up and running for just over a week, and we are still small in number, but that does not detract from the debate that needs to take place.

I myself am not a meber of any party, and am hoping to retain that impartiality once there is a critical mas sand the debate really takes off.

I would encourage all liberals to engage with the debate, even those who object to being called 'Left'.

Our failure to address the issue will only allow the BNP and the EDL to exploit the issue even more than it has already.

Dave Dyke said...

Pardon my spelling and typos, it been a long day!

Simon said...

I never could understand what was so great about the regions. They are artificial and appear to be a convenient way of bypassing local communities, not reinforcing them.

England is, or was, or maybe just should be (the boundaries between liberal myth and historical reality are so hard to define) a rather decentralized place. We didn't have to be created by romantics, like the Italians or Germans, but we had a much stronger system of local government than the French, and the networks that supported it, our counties and parishes, are all still there.

So why not devolve each county separately. I see no reason why it is really less feasible to have 50 counties all managing their own affairs than 9 regions, and it would allow for the fact that some of our English problems can be very localized in nature and could easily be overlooked just as easily by a huge region, such as the South East, then by a national government.

But mostly the things just feels a lot more English, and that is surely a good thing!

PS: Of course counties here would include some unitary authorities, like Rutland, just in-case any fictional peers are reading.

Lavengro in Spain said...

Simon,

Garibaldi may have been a Romantic but it's a word I find rather hard to apply to Bismarck. England was created by the very hard-headed Tudors, Henry VII in particular after the chaos of the Wars of the Roses.

Phil said...

Simon: "I never could understand what was so great about the regions."

Were the regions ever intended to be "great"? Practical perhaps, but New Labour missed the point. Assemblies need to connect people with a shared background rather than to be instruments of administrative convenience.

With a few exceptions -- historical Lancashire and Yorkshire -- regions are difficult to identify, and I can't see much cultural coherence in all modern counties. The proposed North East assembly could have been based on the kingdom of Northumbria, linking the east and west coasts, rather than sticking to awkward modern divisions. I would therefore accept that some regions will be very big and others (eg Cornwall) will be much smaller.

The other thing that New Labour missed was that regional assemblies (or county ones, if you prefer) should be a replacement for quangos. Given that we have so many regional quangos, regional or county governance is effectively "no extra cost". We are already paying to be governed by people who we cannot elect. As a liberal, I find that hard to swallow and am open to ideas about how to spread power within England.

Phil said...

Jonathan: "Perhaps the real problem is that English regional government appeals to those who do not feel comfortable with Englishness at all. Many on the liberal-left who are indulgent to Celtic nationalism still fear that England is too big and too irredeemably Tory to be allowed a modern constitutional form. They would rather see English identity hobbled by a collection of smaller assemblies."

I think that there are three concerns there.

1. Legal and cultural hegemony by the English. The three assemblies are essentially talking shops with limited powers. The argument for an English assembly would be stronger if the other three were further empowered. If there is no change, we need more English regional talking shops that allow us to kick out the non-elected. And also to demonstrate that talking shops are relevant.

2. Political composition and regional conservatism. If we are liberals, we should not be afraid.

3. Identity discomfort. Liberal English people possibly feel more angst about imperialism or the slave trade than others from these islands whose ancestors are equally culpable. The English generally are guilty for allowing the image of St George to be hijacked by the far right. 30 odd years ago, St George was used as a liberation metaphor in Catalonia and Lisbon.

(The captcha on this post is fosseson, btw.)

Engdem 97 said...

In recent polls seven out of ten people have said that they wish for an English Parliament. The only Party calling for such an event is The English Democrats Party. With over 100 candidates in the General Elections it will be interesting to see how they fare.
Meanwhile they have my vote