Since any of my fellow contributors last put pen to paper for Scottish Review
in mid-June, it is evident that, 25 years on from New Labour's first landslide, things can only get worse. After a disastrous three years in Number 10, in which he promised to end 'unfounded self-doubt' and re-establish Britain as an enterprising, outward-looking nation – 'generous in temper and engaged with the world' – Boris Johnson's chaotic, back-of-the-envelope premiership is finally coming to an end.
Recent experience (and the latest opinion polls which put the Conservatives between 10 and 20 points behind Labour) suggests that Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak should not be preparing for a prolonged stay behind the black door in SW1A, with the next Prime Minister having to address worsening inflation (9.4% at the last count), a crisis of our political institutions and overwhelmed public services.
As Dr Robert Saunders wrote in a letter to The Times
just days before a record number of government resignations forced Johnson to resign, Britain will not get better leadership until we address our 'pipeline problem
, reforming and rebuilding the mechanisms by which leaders are trained, appointed, and held to account'.
Although it has barely featured in the televised debates so far, whoever the Conservative Party's 200,000 or so members select will also have to grapple with the ongoing collapse of our constitutional settlement. Notwithstanding Boris Johnson's personal conduct, the United Kingdom increasingly feels like a nation in free fall, without a productive national conversation or the prospect of a British Joe Biden whose governing nous can steady the ship of state.
A quick Google search for 'constitutional crisis' shows that the one thing that is not in short supply in the UK in 2022 is Doomsday prophecies, with commentators forecasting that 'constant appeals for secession from Scotland', ministers seeming unafraid to push the boundaries of the law and their sidelining the House of Commons have all contributed to terminal decline.
In the aftermath of the Covid pandemic and with Scotland's 'independence movement on a permanent election footing', my fellow Essex man (and perhaps more significantly, The New Statesman's
editor-in-chief), Jason Cowley's latest book, Who Are We Now?
(published by Picador in March), charts England's social identity and its place within the United Kingdom in 2022. Beginning with George Orwell's maxim that it is of the 'deepest importance to try and determine what England is, before guessing what part England can play in the huge events that are happening', Cowley explores the 'human stories' of urban conurbations like his hometown of Harlow – the post-war 'Never Again' spirit in concrete – the war service of Royal Wootton Bassett as well as England's 'Summer of Southgate' and Gillian Duffy's notorious encounter with Gordon Brown in spring 2010.
It should be said that Who Are We Now?
is not the first book to attempt to grasp this particularly thorny rose, with tomes as varied as Ben Fogle's English: A Story of Marmite, Queuing and Weather
and the academic Englishness
by Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones sharing the same mission. Indeed, there's a burgeoning market for works seeking to revise opinion of the green and pleasant land, with my neck of the woods seeing Gillian Darley write in praise of Essex ('England's most misunderstood county') and Chris Ross, the 'East End Poet', telling the story of East London in rhyme.
As regular readers of The New Statesman
will attest, Who Are We Now?
is proof of its author's political acumen and gentle compassion. As Julian Coman noted in The Guardian
in March, it is 'refreshingly unpolemical and reflective', with its true hero being the author's nonagenarian aunt, Connie, who made national news in 2018 protesting the American Centene Corporation's decision to close Harlow's Osler House doctors' surgery without local consultation.
The book's focus on disparate communities could lead one to conclude that its subject does not possess a distinct national consciousness, but Cowley argues that England remains 'as chronically, if not complacently, divided as it was' but observes – as Peter Hennessy did in A Duty of Care
earlier this year – that the lockdowns brought about 'renewed [albeit fleeting] sense of social solidarity'. A quarter of a century after devolution and with Scotland now possessing what he describes as a 'restlessness for alternatives [and] a transformative political settlement', Cowley suggests that a similar social and political reimagining is due south of the border.
Last year – in a blog post to mark what he called the '21st St George's Day since devolution left England as the only part of the Kingdom with no national democracy' – Professor John Denham (the former Labour MP and Cabinet minister) argued that the subsuming of England's domestic politics within the structures of the Union has left it 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 (which allowed Scottish MPs to vote on Covid regulations only affecting those who live south of the border) as well as uncertainty about the future of 'Levelling Up' reinforces Denham's assertion that the current settlement may 'deliver for some in England' but 'doesn't deliver for England as a whole'.
For all the heat that the Conservative Party's third leadership contest in six years has generated, both candidates seem destined to repeat their predecessor's failure to address our constitution's flaws, the limitations of their office and tackle what might be called the English's democratic deficit. Lamentably, in Alan Finlayson's words, both seem set to reinforce the Conservative Party's belief that they should be able to do 'whatever they want, whenever they want (to whoever they want), and the rest of us should not just accept this but facilitate and celebrate them'.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh