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.