As I put pen to paper on what the former Labour MP and Cabinet Minister Professor John Denham calls the '21st St George's Day since devolution left England as the only part of the Kingdom with no national democracy', I am reminded of a conversation that the broadcaster and writer Ben Fogle once had with a Yorkshire branch of the Women's Institute. At a small hall in Harrogate, the former Royal Navy midshipman asked the 50-odd women in attendance what 'Englishness' meant to them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, answers included the weather, queuing, apologising, rose gardens, baking, the Queen (who, coincidentally, has been a paid-up member of the WI since 1943) and, of course, a hearty cup of 'Jennie' Lee.
Whilst Fogle's conversation did not break new and fertile academic ground, it echoes George Orwell's assertion in The Lion and the Unicorn
80 years ago that 'there is something distinctive and recognisable in English civilisation', bound up with 'solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar boxes'. As Bill Bryson once wrote, 'what other country could possibly have come up with place names like Tooting Bec and Farleigh Wallop, or a game of cricket that goes on for three days and never seems to start?'
More revealing, perhaps, is his interlocutors' assertion that they would never fly the St George's Cross, believing it had been 'hijacked by the extreme right' and represented 'racism and xenophobia'. It suggests that, despite recent evidence signifying the growth of a more inclusive, civic national identity, 'Englishness' remains inherently problematic, signifying – to both the English and their neighbours – decency and genteel civility as well as far-right, 'football hooligan' xenophobia.
In a sense, England is best understood as a nation of contrasts. It possesses a deep and sincere – if not always particularly well-informed – sense of its own history and a love of William Shakespeare, which is matched, as Jeremy Paxman once observed, only by its 'appetite for cheap historical romance' and its 'deep-rooted scepticism about the political leaders of the rest of Europe'. Likewise, England is said to be an aggressive nation, which longs for the days of cutting a dash around the world and riding roughshod over its colonial possessions, even though it has barely raised an eyebrow as successive Conservative governments have devalued Britain's influence abroad and reduced the British Army to its smallest size in two centuries.
Moreover, as Sadiq Khan noted last Friday, whilst the Green and Pleasant Land has gained a reputation for being unwelcoming and intolerant in recent years, it remains a 'dynamic, caring, inclusive and outward-looking country that stands tall in the world as a beacon to others'.
In part, this national schizophrenia is the product of its curious constitutional circumstances. Whilst its 55 million citizens means that England continues to be the dominant nation within the Union, advocates of devolved English government argue that this is to the country's detriment. In a blog post this St George's Day, Professor John Denham argues that the subsuming of England's domestic politics within the political structures of the Union has left the country with 'no government, no national democracy, no fair distribution of funding and no serious devolution of power'. The UK Government's handling of England's response to COVID-19 and the suspension of the controversial 'English Votes for English Laws' procedure during the pandemic, which has permitted Scottish MPs to vote on Covid regulations which only affect those living south of the border, reinforces Denham's assertion that the current settlement may 'deliver for some in England' but 'doesn't deliver for England as a whole'.
England remains overrepresented in the UK Parliament, with the Boundary Commission recommending that 533 English members in the House of Commons be reduced to 501. The creation of a distinctly English national forum is one possible solution to what might loosely be called 'the English problem'. As I opined in a previous entry for Scottish Review (6 May 2020
), such an institution could repair the 'fraying ties between all four of the UK's component nations' and allow England the opportunity for the kind of self-evaluation that devolution has allowed Scotland since 1979.
The pre-1707 Parliament of England met at the old medieval Palace of Westminster – with other meetings in the 13th to 15th centuries taking place in Oxford, Carlisle, Salisbury and Winchester amongst others – but it is less evident where an English Parliament would meet in the 21st century. Given that the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and the Northern Irish Assembly meet in Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast respectively, London would be the obvious choice, although surveys by the Constitution Unit in March 2018 found that Manchester and York were the most popular proposed locations outside of the capital.
Were the English to reject a 'dual mandate' legislature (whose members would also serve in the UK House of Commons), an English Parliament would require a permanent home away from the Palace of Westminster, adapting an existing (and preferably vacant) building or embarking on a new construction. In addition to a sizeable debating chamber which could accommodate between 300 and 400 legislators, an English Parliament would require committee rooms, a library, catering facilities, not to mention masses of office space for its members and their staff.
Whilst such an extensive campus would command a hefty price tag in Central London (making, for example, the Royal Exchange at Bank Junction in the City, the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster and the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich, simply too expensive), many of the suggested alternatives – including the Manchester Town Hall, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Palace of Westminster and would accommodate just 96 members – are no more suitable to house a national legislature.
In addition to the question of where an English Parliament would meet, the specifics of what it would be responsible for and how it would operate has scuppered similar proposals in the past, keeping dozens of policy wonks busy for years to come. For many in Scottish Labour, the answer lies in breaking up the country into individual regions as well as replacing the House of Lords with a 'Senate of the Nations and Regions' to allow for the creation of a more federal Union. This accords with Orwell's assertion that the 'vastness' of England can result in the loss of one's sense that 'the whole nation has a single identifiable character' – particularly, as it was once said, its inhabitants' accents change every 25 miles – but it suggests that England's nationhood and its right to set its priorities as a whole nation within the Union is of less consequence than that of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
The complexities of devolving power to a nation of over 50 million people and more than 50,000 square miles remain unresolved. I suspect that there are vast riches awaiting the party which grasps the Rose in the years to come, particularly given that the kind of 'British' politics of less than two decades ago, where a single party reigned supreme at Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff Bay, has now passed. The increasing number of those who identify as English first and British second – perhaps, as Simon Heffer posited in The Spectator
on 10 April 2021, because of the more forthright 'assertion of the Scottish identity' – offers a sizeable mass of voters who may be more receptive to a change in the country's governance.
Above all else, a restructuring of England's governance seven centuries on from George's adoption as the country's patron would allow for the creation of an updated but equally compelling national story. It would allow England the chance to foster a new shared vision about its priorities as a nation, the values it holds dear and put itself on a more even keel in the years to come.
As Scots go the polls in arguably the most exciting and frustrating round of elections in recent years, why should our neighbours down south be denied the opportunity to renew the sacred quest of building a 'New Jerusalem' in their Green and Pleasant Land?
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh. He is currently writing a history of the 1979 referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly