Three Steps to Create Britain 2.0 | Miles Bassett
Let’s conduct a thought experiment. What if we vanished the British state out of existence and imagined four individual nations across the British Isles. In this world, could we make an argument that a single nation-state of some kind, makes sense across these islands? Together, they all benefit from seamless trade, defence, monetary and fiscal union-all of these are the ingredients to a nation-state. There is a natural, internal cultural Union; all four nations speak the same language. Television programmes made in England-Coronation Street, Eastenders, Britain’s Got Talent, The Voice, are enjoyed in all four nations. The Daily Record reported that Line of Duty– a crime drama set somewhere in Middle England, was Scotland’s most-watched television programme of 2019. Whether Nicola Sturgeon likes it or not, the bonds of a British nation exist. Despite this, the emotional bonds are clearly weakening as separatists’ movements across the United Kingdom gather momentum. The UK is ripe for urgent constitutional reform, but the question that is asked too often is “Will the UK unravel?”. When we should be asking, “How should the UK be governed?”
I do not believe more devolution is the answer, which would essentially create an “ever looser union” and further weaken the bonds between Westminster and the home nations. Instead, we need to marry the home nations with Westminster’s decision-making processes, instead of Westminster and a devolved parliament being two separate and competing institutions. We must consider ourselves, perhaps not “British”-an identity that has struggled for meaning for decades, but “Brittonic” -a collection of different peoples united by geography and the economical and socio-political benefits of one state. This would diversify the UK’s national identity and reduce its reliance on “Englishness”, especially if new states with other breakaway movements, such as Cornwall and Shetland, could be accommodated as new constituent nations. This Britain 2.0, if you will, could be created in three steps; establishing a separate London state within the UK, granting an English Parliament and then using the devolved parliaments as separate upper houses.
Firstly, separating London from England would be a crucial constitutional step. This would remedy the historic grievance in the other UK nations-Scotland in particular of “English rule” and create a European equivalent to Washington DC, so no one nation of the UK has greater constitutional importance over the rest. Furthermore, divorcing London from England would slim down the size of England, in order to progress to the second stage and grant England her own Parliament. Without London’s roughly 9,000,000 strong population, England’s size of the UK will fall from 84% to 71%. Whilst, a referendum advocating London separation, would likely be supported in the city, victory should not be taken for granted. YouGov polling for the BBC in 2018 stated that London is the least likely region of England to feel an affinity with feeling English. Only 63% of people in London feel strongly or very strongly with being English. However, the data does not reveal that London’s outer suburbs hold a much stronger affinity with the English identity compared to London’s inner boroughs. Boroughs such as Wandsworth, Lambeth, Southwark and Hackney all gave the lowest responses-below 40%, of being proud to be English. Compared to 60% of respondents in Barking and Dagenham, Redbridge, Havering, Bexley and Bromley. This is hardly surprising. These areas are relatively “new” to London, joining to create ‘Greater London’ in the 1960s. Such a referendum could potentially lead to intra-London social tensions if a referendum on London independence was won on the back of inner London voters.
The second stage will be another critical, but perilous step: holding a referendum to establish an English Parliament. The idea of a full English Parliament has been received coolly by the leadership of the main political parties. Nevertheless, an English Parliament would carry a key emotional role by providing somewhere to “park” the English identity, allowing it to flourish outside of the British identity. By creating an “English nation”, the UK will become a true union-state rather than a centralised unitary English state with Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish appendages. The constitutional crisis that was caused by the initial response to the COVID pandemic has shown just how much an English Parliament is needed. If the Prime Minister only has complete authority over England, this will iron in the feeling of isolation and nationalism in the devolved nations. However, had England been devolved, all four nations would be equal partners. With Westminster acting as a much needed “nerve centre” to coordinate lockdowns and vaccine rollouts. In short, an English Parliament will stop the ridiculous position of the Prime Minister, being thwarted by a First Minister over governance of part of the country from happening again.
Granted, current polling on English constitutional changes suggests a lack of sustained support amongst the public. The 2011-2014 Future of England survey suggests that support for an English Parliament fell from 20% in 2011 to 16% in 2014. With the most popular solution being ‘English votes for English laws’. The most recent YouGov polling, however, suggests that support for an English Parliament has held steady at 20%, although 45% of people reported being unsure of the creation. This suggests that while support is weak, opposition is weak enough to allow an argument for an English Parliament to be convincing. Especially since recent polling by The Sunday Times, stated that England would be the nation most upset to see Scottish independence. Therefore, if the emotional case for an English Parliament could be presented as crucial to constitutional integrity, it may gain higher support than devolution for devolution’s sake.
Of course, the location of an English Parliament would be a huge issue. Especially as it would require significant upheaval of jobs and infrastructure to a new location. However, with London ruled out as the English capital, some vision and foresight could see a regional English city turned into a new base of local power. The two obvious contenders are the former ancient capital of England-Winchester, or York, another ancient English city. Although these places are possibly too far on the opposite ends of England. Birmingham, being the centre of England and its relative proximity to London, Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh seems the most appropriate place.
The third and final step, with all five nations of the UK now with their own Parliament, would be to strip the House of Lords of its role as the UK legislature’s upper house. Instead, the five Parliaments would act as separate upper houses. Scrutinising the effects of UK legislation on behalf of their home nation. Each Parliament would have to pass legislation by a simple majority for an Act to become national law. This would have two advantages; one, it would qualm the folklore that the House of Lords is undemocratic and secondly, would allow home nations to possess greater control over legislation passed by a massive majority in the Commons-creating true equality and partnership across the UK’s constituent nations. This may be anathema to militant Unionists, but the idea of Union would be stronger if the imbalance of representation of nations such as Wales and Scotland compared to England could be remedied without drastically culling English constituencies to create an equal number of MPs. The idea of Scotland ‘being at the mercy of Tory governments’ has been woven into the emotional argument for independence and must be addressed if we are to subdue nationalism.
Of course, there are numerous flaws to this plan-what if nationalist MSPs in Holyrood continue to block UK legislation deliberately to bring down the UK Parliament? What if a Labour minority government failed to pass legislation through a Tory dominated English Parliament? These problems do not come without solutions.
One solution would be to force a General Election, that would, in turn, trigger elections for devolved Parliaments. The advantage of this would be that national and devolved politics would be of equal measure. Thus, the local affairs of Scotland would be of strategic importance to Westminster, which should lead to a better quality of local and regional policy. Much more resources would need to be spent regionally in order to assure a sufficient majority in devolved parliaments and could be a boon to UK parties seeking to reconnect with their regional electorate.
Furthermore, the functions of the House of Lords could change to an arbitration chamber in case of a deadlock between the House of Commons and one or more of the devolved governments. The Lords could be non-party affiliated regional representatives, who could try to establish a resolution between the Commons and a devolved parliament, in order to have a piece of legislation passed. Not only would this reduce the friction between the Prime Minister and a First Minister, but it would also act as a weapon against nationalist discontent. Should, say, nationalists in the Scottish Parliament block UK legislation simply to undermine the UK government, presenting a case for the blocking to the Lords would expose any facile reasoning masking malicious nationalist objectives.
In conclusion, these three steps will create a new Britain-more democratic, flexible and pragmatic. I do not believe the British state is in its closing years. Instead, we should see ourselves as on the cusp of an evolution. Ten years ago, Conservatives cawed at the predicament of the Eurozone-a crisis caused by a monetary union with no fiscal union. Without fiscal union, monetary union cannot exist, but without political union, fiscal union cannot and by extension, monetary union cannot exist. The European Union is currently in a twilight zone between unravelling and federalism. The UK must now realise, in order to survive, that devolution has put the UK in the very same twilight zone alongside the EU. The UK now has the choice of progressing forward to a true union-or no union at all.