Imposition of Identity, English Parliaments, and “Englishness”

At Alex and Richard’s wedding a little over a week ago, I got into a discussion about devolution, inspired by the recent decision of the North-West Liberal Democrats to declare independence from the English party. This was entirely as moderate and reasoned as you would expect a debate on such an abstruse procedural matter among Liberal Democrats at a formal occasion like a wedding to be, by which I mean it ended with me and Jennie Rigg screaming incoherently at someone who I’d never met before, but who Jennie knows well.

The reason for this is that this person (who I won’t name as I’m probably misrepresenting him) believes that England exists, while Jennie and I (and Mat, who managed to remain calm) do not.

More specifically, he believes that England as a coherent country makes sense. I don’t remember many of his arguments, and I certainly don’t want to straw-man him, so please accept from here on in that I am misrepresenting him horribly, but that I *am* representing arguments I’ve seen elsewhere accurately. I’m talking here about a generic argument, rather than a specific person’s argument.

The argument is that if we have further devolution to Scotland and Wales, there must also be devolution to England. Not because it makes sense from a pragmatic point of view — an English Parliament would have a 90% or thereabouts overlap with the UK Parliament — but because “English identity needs to be represented”.

Now, I have problems with this for a few reasons. The first is that I don’t think decisions on the best way to govern should be based on intangible things like “identity”, but on more pragmatic factors like “do the people here speak the same language, do they have the same economic needs”, that kind of thing. My own view is that the level of devolution should be to areas somewhere in size between the old historic counties and the current European Union regions — “Yorkshire” and “Cornwall” make sense to me as lumps-which-can-be-governed, but “Lancashire” doesn’t, and “the North West” feels like more of a sensible unit in that case. But those sort of sizes, anyway — regions which are, if not homogeneous, at least small enough that people in different parts of them are aware of issues that affect people in the other areas.

But even putting aside the pragmatic factors, the question of identity is one I find quite infuriating. Because yes, there is an “English identity” — but it’s not an identity that actually incorporates huge swathes of England. Rather, when people talk about England and the English identity, nine times out of ten they live in, and are talking about, the Home Counties. In the case of a legislature, this would be poisonous — in fact we know it already is, because we live in a country already where laws are made by and for London with little or no concern for the rest of the country. I suspect that would be replicated in the case of an English Parliament, and I don’t see how Penzance, Newcastle, and Hebden Bridge benefit from having laws and regulations made to benefit London, whether those laws are called “British” or “English” (nor for that matter do I see that laws and regulations that benefit Penzance would necessarily be particularly helpful for Newcastle or Hebden).

But even on its own terms, if identity is what matters, the fact is, a large chunk of English people don’t consider “English” to be a meaningful identity. During the Scottish Independence referendum, the comment I saw more than any other from English people living, roughly, north of the Trent or the Dee was “take us with you!” — and, indeed, most Scottish Yes voters I talked to said “oh, we’re not trying to get away from the North, it’s the English we’re trying to become independent from”.

It may not be the case for all of us — perhaps not even a plurality — but there are *millions* of people in the north, and also in Cornwall, who feel a far greater affinity with Scotland and Wales than with those parts of England that people usually mean when they talk about “the English identity” and “Englishness”. Manchester, Liverpool, and Leeds are closer to Glasgow not only geographically but also culturally and economically. Wales feels far less foreign to me than Oxford does.

There are many, many people who feel this way. I won’t, of course, say that there is no sense of Englishness outside the Home Counties — of course there is — but I know a LOT of people from Yorkshire, for example, who don’t think of themselves as English, as having anything in common with the South.

Any form of devolution based on concepts of “identity” has to take into account the fact that different people have different senses of identity. In the case of Englishness, there is a large group that doesn’t want to be part of that identity — but that identity can only exist by erasing and subsuming those people.

And this is what happens if you build systems based on identity, rather than based on practicalities. Ignore the “English identity” and you’re ignoring one group’s wishes. But the alternative is to impose that identity on people who in many cases already see themselves as being oppressed and ignored by the very people doing the imposition. Quite apart from the sheer futility of it as a legislature, an English Parliament would be seen by many, many people in the North as yet another case of something being done for London’s benefit, and imposed on the rest of us against our will.

The argument for an English Parliament boils down to an emotive one — that people’s feelings about England matter, that they’re not important. But by even making the argument that way, by framing it in those terms, the people making it are also saying that the feelings of those who disagree with them *do not* matter, and *are not* important. And we’ve already heard that rather a lot.

I’m British. I’m a Northerner. I’m an (adoptive) Manc. I’m a European. But I’ll never be English, and you can’t make me.

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11 Responses to Imposition of Identity, English Parliaments, and “Englishness”

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    “My own view is that the level of devolution should be to areas somewhere in size between the old historic counties and the current European Union regions — “Yorkshire” and “Cornwall” make sense to me as lumps-which-can-be-governed, but “Lancashire” doesn’t, and “the North West” feels like more of a sensible unit in that case.”

    Am I reading this right? You think that Yorkshire (population 5.2 million) is big enough to be governed, but Lancashire (population 1.5 million) isn’t, but Cornwall (population 0.5 million) somehow is?

    • andrewducker says:

      Cornwall is…tricky. They consider themselves quite different to their neighbours, but aren’t really big enough to run all of the infrastructure they’d need to be independent.

      If you set 5 million as a cut-off point for “big enough to run your own infrastructure efficiently” then you really need:
      Cornwall (0.5million)
      Devon (0.75million)
      Somerset (0.9million)
      Dorset (0.75million)
      Wiltshire (0.7million)
      Gloucestershire (0.6million)
      Hampshire (1.7million)

      Which brings you up to about 6 million people – and gives you “The South West” as a devolved area.

      If you take 3million as a cut-off point (Wales is that size and runs its own parliament) then Cornwall+Devon+Somerset+Dorset is close enough. And might be a more natural fit (I don’t know enough about the culture to tell you).

      • My mum, who lives in Cornwall, thinks there are sufficient differences of whatever type between Cornwall and the rest of the South West for a South West region to be an uncomfortable fit for Cornwall.

        • J says:

          Asked about his ideas for a region in the South West, [John Prescott] lamented: “It always seemed to me that Cornwall hated Devon, they both hated Bristol and they all hated London”.

          (It is an attitude I encountered on my recent visit to Newlyn in Cornwall. When I suggested to locals at the Red Lion they might like to be governed by a “city-region” based in Plymouth, mouths fell open in shock.)

          Mark Easton:

  2. J says:

    Cornwall is…tricky. They consider themselves quite different to their neighbours

    then Cornwall+Devon+Somerset+Dorset is close enough

    But isn’t one of the ‘neighbours’ that the Cornish consider themselves most different from, Devon?

    This is why devolution within England is a non-starter. With basically one exception (Yorkshire) there are no sensible areas to do it that have anything approaching an identity (nobody has any great sense of identification with ‘East Anglia’), so there’s no clamour for it. It would just be another level of bureaucracy and local government, and goodness knows there are enough of those in England already, with parish, city, district and country councils all spending money like there’s no tomorrow.

    And devolution to all of England is, as mentioned, silly because it’s 90% of the UK so what would be the point?

    The only possible solution is some kind of adjustment to the practices of the House of Commons so that members from constituencies in devolved areas don’t vote on matters which would not affect their areas (and cue lots of wrangling about whether a particular bill doesn’t affect, say, Scotland, as there are all sorts of knock-on effects that mean that something which at first glance seems not to affect Scotland might, down the line, end up having such an effect).

  3. This comment is based on tweets I wrote this morning.

    I strongly disagree. You may not feel like ‘England exists’ but that is not a matter of feeling or identity. It exists. It’s existed for hundreds of years and has taken action as a unified body, for example by invading *my* country 700 years ago.

    I don’t understand what practical difference there is between taking England as a lump-which-can-be-governed, acknowledging that there is massive variation within in and taking “The North West” or even Manchester as a lump-which can be governed. Within any group there are disparities of income/need/resources and there are power concentrations that need to be managed for the good of everyone.

    I agree that power is too concentrated in London but I don’t see how this actually improves the situation or improves the distribution of resources/power out of London. Surely, you will just end up with a London/SE lump-which-can-be-governed which cares even less about the rest of the UK than at present? For example – surely such a system would rule out HS2 because the costs are greater than the benefit for the SE and there is no reason for them to care about the NW.

    I genuinely fear this is a “Constitution Broken, Add More Politicians” proposal and I don’t think that’s any more a good idea than “Relationship Broken, Add More People” (ie trying to fix a broken relationship by having a baby or an affair or becoming polyamorous).

    • Just to say this is a thoughtful response which deserves a thoughtful response in return, but sadly I’ve had to come home from work ill with the flu, and don’t really have the brain to write one (in fact I suspect it wouldn’t need one had I been less unwell when writing last night). Please poke me in a couple of days if I haven’t replied properly.

  4. Nick says:

    In response to a couple of comments above, and others elsewhere, I’m not sure that emotional attachment is necessary to create a successful regional administration. I’m ready to be corrected, but I’m not sure that many Germans would describe themselves as ‘Nordrhein-Westphalians’, but it’s a remarkably successful state. The lack of an existing emotional identity doesn’t, to my mind, exclude the possibility of a successful functional identity that could support a regional government.

    • I absolutely agree. My problem with the stuff I’m arguing against is precisely that it does assume an emotional attachment to be necessary — and then prioritises some people’s attachments over others…

    • J says:

      Some people are detached and logical enough to disassociate questions of identity and emotional attachment from those of governance; to not care, for example, that they find themselves sharing an administrative unit with most of a neighbouring area with which they have no connection, rather than one they regard as their (whether ancestral, born or adopted) home.

      Some people will recognise that the New System is much more efficient and therefore it doesn’t really matter that some notional line on a map divides you from where you think you belong. After all, it’s just a line on a map: it’s not like there’s a wall on the ground.

      Some people think like that.

      Most, however, do not. To most people, emotional attachment is far more important than efficient and logical administration.

      At the extreme, what you get when you try to impose administrative areas without considering issues of identity is Yugoslavia.

      Nobody thinks that will happen to England; but the fact is that if a proposed scheme ends up with people’s emotional attachments being trampled, they will fight it tooth and nail, regardles sof how much logical or administrative sense it might make.

      This looks like a good article on the subject:

  5. dm says:

    I agree with you most of the way. As an Australian ex pat who has travelled all over this island, I see so few cultural similarities between London and Yorkshire, or Cornwall, or, ahem, “Cumbria” that it really does make no sense to me tht our London based political system should govern for all.
    But but but but but but… I live in London. I’ve put down some tentative roots down in London. But I don’t want to feel culturally divorced from people like yourself, or Alan Moore, Mark Chapman or anyone else who has been assigned Englishness but doesn’t come from here. I came here to take part in a cultural heritage that extended far beyond London. If we dismantled this stupid idea of Englishness and set up separate assemblies I probably would move north, because bowie, the kinks and blur probably aren’t enough to keep me in this overpriced, lifeless corporate hellhole.

    Oh, I dunno, having made the trip across the world I just wanna associate myself with an identity bigger than this fairly shitty little city I’ve naively aligned myself with.

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