After a lengthy break due to the Local Elections in May and the General Election in June we are back to regular weekly by-elections (for now!) with results from 5 by-elections.
With this evening’s news there has been much speculation about who members would like to stand and to speak for them as leader of the party. There were numerous suggestions of combinations for leader and deputy but invariably your name recurred as leader.
We need a strong leader, and from what I and others have seen of you we think you would be a great candidate.
I have heard on the grapevine that you would be reluctant to put yourself forward for any potential leadership race whilst Tim was still leader but I write to urge you to reconsider in the now changed circumstances.
We know it is a huge thing to ask you given you have only recently been re-elected as an MP in East Dunbartonshire. Nevertheless, please do us the honour of standing to be the party leader.
The undersigned individuals.
Lib Dem Newbies admins: Becky Forrest, Kirk Taylor, Andy Cliff, Annabel Mullin, Elaine Bagshaw, Alex Hegenbarth, Erika Baker, Sam Al-Hamdani, Sam Collins, Alice Thomas, John Berkeley Grout, Jo Maitland.
Bolton: Scott Turner-Preece, Andrew Martin and David Walsh
Medway: John Castle
Additional names of individuals supporting should be added in the comments below.
I do love a tour. I also love free stuff. So, when my good friend Kirk Taylor promised me not only a whistle stop tour of the mayoral campaign for Rod Cantrill in Cambridgeshire plus the county council election campaign plus a much-coveted “Rod for Mayor” mug (as seen recently at the York Lib Dem Pint) I was very much in!
After a reasonable journey through the English countryside (via the M25 and M11) I arrived in a village called Sawston to meet Kirk. After a cup of coffee and a catch-up we wrestled what has to be the largest orange diamond in existence into the back of his Fiat 500 (no mean feat I can tell you) and off we went.
First stop was a bit of canvassing just up the road in Great Shelford. We were canvassing on behalf of Peter Fane and Brian “bar chart” Milnes as the other candidate in Sawston and Shelford, as well as Rod Cantrill as the mayoral candidate for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. We were knocking on the doors of postal voters and possible supporters, so the canvassing was very targeted. Finding people in was a challenge (but then it was the Bank Holiday weekend) however the response overall was good. I also was lucky enough to meet Peter as well as Alex, another member of the team. They carried on where we left off, proving that teamwork really does make the dream work.
The next stop was actually Waitrose for a spot of lunch! Then on to another village called Over for more lunch (well, a superb chocolate cake) and to catch up with Sarah Cheung-Johnson. She is a newbie who is standing in the county council by-elections for Longstanton and is one of the most inspiring candidates I have met in a long time. Inspired to join after the EU referendum last June; she is hard working, motivated and definitely one to watch for the future! Also, the large diamond we had shoehorned into the car was for her and it was good to pass it on.
The action day here (and they seemed to be happening all over Cambridgeshire that day) was a slick and organised operation. It was being hosted by another newbie called Anne. It is great to see so many new members getting stuck in and with such enthusiasm! We also bumped into former MP for Cambridge (and future MP with any luck) Dr Julian Huppert who was more than happy to pitch in and help with the campaign. The combination of new members and more experienced ones is great; it means that everyone learns something new and those of us who have been doing this for a while receive inspiration from the newbies who are always fired-up and ready to go!
After the obligatory campaign photos, we hit the village with Tom, a former councillor. Response here was a lot more positive; not only because people were in their homes which always helps, but those we were speaking to planned to vote for both Sarah and Rod! Local people here are unhappy with the way the Conservatives are running things and are certainly not happy with the prospect of a hard Brexit looming, therefore will not vote Conservative again on any level. Going out with someone who is well-known to local people is also a good boost; he was a face that everyone not only knew but were very happy to talk to. Tom is clearly still held in high regard which is heart-warming to see.
I left South Cambridgeshire filled with positivity and motivation. Everyone here wants to do well; they work well together as a team and are all in constant communication with each other. It is always great to visit a team that is organised, knows what they want to achieve and are willing to work across the division to achieve it. I was only sad not to catch up with John Berkeley-Grout who is another friend of mine working hard on the campaign team. I also did not get to meet the man himself; Rod Cantrill, however I suspect he was a bit busy elsewhere.
If you are at a loose end and fancy a day out in beautiful countryside twinned with some positive canvassing, then this would be a good place to be. From what I saw in Longstanton and Sawston we can easily win this one back from the Tories, but of course the team always need help. Especially as this was an area that only lost by 1% in the 2015 General Election, meaning that nothing should be taken for granted. Looking at recent polls in the local press, it would appear that Rod is the only alternative to the Conservatives in this area. I can promise a warm welcome, lots of positivity, beautiful countryside and maybe cake. I can’t promise a free mug though.
I must be mad. On Saturday 8th April, all my friends were getting ready to enjoy the unexpected beautiful weather; group chats filled with beach days out, park trips, barbeques or even just the promise of a lay-in and a trip to the pub garden. Not for me; I had decided that the good weather was a great opportunity for a campaigning trip!
This week’s destination was Newhaven to help the team down in Lewes. In typical fashion I was running late (those that know me know I am always running late) but thankfully I could put my foot down on the motorway. I made it to Newhaven just a bit before 11am.
Sadly, my tardiness meant that I had just missed the morning rush. That was ok. This meant I had time to meet some of the team and chat about the campaign over a nice cup of coffee (essential) and some envelopes that needed addressing.
It was clear that this was a much larger operation than I am used to, certainly at council by-election level. I’ve planned and run Action Days in the past and they have been smaller affairs than this and I’ve attended quite a few in my (short) time too. So, it was comforting and motivating to know that around forty-five people had signed in so far and more were expected in the afternoon!
I think it is worth pointing out just how much work goes into planning and organising an Action Day. For starters, a hall had been hired and decorated. This made the perfect base for activists to swing by, update the team, get a cup of tea (and of course more leaflets), rest their legs for half an hour and get back out there! Banners and balloons adorned the outside; what better way to make your presence known in the town. Also, kids love balloons! Promoting the Lib Dems with a bright yellow helium balloon which can be tied to a pushchair or carried round all day is a great idea.
Inside was a hive of activity. Holding things down were Kelly-Marie Blundell as the Parliamentary Candidate for Lewes and George Taylor who was keeping an eye on all the available areas for leafleting and canvassing, ensuring everyone signed the sheet and taking plenty of all important pictures. There were other people also present to oversee indoor activities such as feeding and watering the troops (very important) and the addressing and stuffing of envelopes. The latter task is a great way to get involved if you don’t feel confident or able to get out on the streets. Anyone who has done it will tell you what a vital task this is as it frees up other people to get out and perform other tasks. Every contribution matters.
After a hearty lunch of soup and cake I hit the streets. I was with Newhaven candidate Sarah Osborne. She spoke passionately of neglect in Newhaven by the Conservative councillors and how cuts to the local budget had affected schools and roads in the area. Reception on the doorstep was mixed, however it was a great boost having a local councillor on the team as he was well-known in the area and able to drum up support where possible. I suppose this is where the excellent weather was counter-productive; the majority of residents were out enjoying the sunshine so we were unable to talk to them! However, quite a few that I had spoken to had genuinely not made up their minds yet and were receptive to Sarah’s message. I’m positive she will get a good result.
There are lots of great campaigns up and down the country right now. From mayoral campaigns to county campaigns to the parliamentary by-election up in Manchester Gorton; there is plenty for activists to get their teeth into. I am a bit nomadic by nature; I like getting out, meeting new people and doing something different. Believe me, campaigning outside of your local areas is different! I guarantee you will always learn something; a new skill or a new way of doing things you hadn’t thought of before for example. I can’t emphasise enough how great it also is to meet new people and make new friends. In addition, it’s extremely motivating for those on the campaign to see people who have come from miles away just to help out. I remember this from my own campaigns and this was confirmed by a few of the members upon hearing how far I had come.
My message to newbies and fellow activists is this; it pays to get out of your comfort zone and go somewhere new. You don’t have to travel as far as I do, there’s so much going on at present that there’s probably an active campaign going on in your next-door town (if you aren’t working on one already of course). To more established members: promote your action days wherever you can as you never know who may be able to help you out.
Overall this was a very positive day. The team down here are clearly extremely organised and very motivated. I suspect they will do very well come 4th May, however if you fancy coming down I’m sure they will be very grateful for the help. All that’s left to say is good luck, thanks for having me and thank you for making me feel so welcome!
In this post, we will briefly examine the history of the Conservative Party; next week, we will do the same for the Labour Party. Through this, we will be able to see how the UK’s two current main parties have evolved over time – a history that informs their current view of the country and the wider world. By doing so, it is hoped we can reach a richer understanding of how British politics operates more widely, as well as of these two parties in particular.
Since the party was founded in 1834, half of the individuals who have served as Prime Minister in the UK were from the Conservative Party. During the 20th Century, the party was in government for 57 years in total. It is also, for a political party, extremely old – either the oldest or second-oldest party in the world (the US Democrats compete for the title). As we will see shortly, this is because there was not a clear point at which the Conservative Party appeared; it emerged over centuries, and the conventional foundation date noted above is not an uncontested concept.
From the first emergence of the labels “Tory” and “Whig” in the 17th Century until the early 19th century, British party labels were very loosely worn. The House of Commons was divided into factions often more loyal to individuals than overarching ideals. Members would flow into and out of government based on a variety of factors; party loyalty, as we understand it today, did not figure. It was in the latter part of the 18th Century, and on into the early 19th century, that the system began to crystallise. Divisions over reform – with Tories generally opposed, Whigs generally in favour – drove a coalescing of the two factions into firmer forms.
The end result of this process might be dated to 1834 for the Conservative Party, with the issuing of a document called the “Tamworth Manifesto”, issued by Tory Prime Minister Robert Peel. This document set out the broad principles of conservatism in the UK – that is, not to resist all change, but to embrace enough change to cope with the demands of the age, and to resist change for its own sake. It was, in Norman Gash’s description, a manifesto that stated the Conservatives would “reform to survive”. It was around this time that the party began to be referred to more and more as “Conservatives”, rather than “Tories”, and stood for election as such.
Peel remained Prime Minister until 1846, when the party was split over the issue of tariffs on the importation of corn – the “Corn Laws”. The reformist, free trade wing would eventually join the Liberals, whilst those who had supported keeping the Corn Laws (and were ultimately defeated) remained in the Conservative Party. But they had to endure many years of being either in opposition, or in insecure governments without a Commons majority, until the 1870s. Even then, their position was precarious – whilst Benjamin Disraeli was able to win a majority in the 1874 election, he lost it again in 1880. What ultimately made their rise to the dominant position they enjoyed in the 20th Century more certain was the crisis that overtook the Liberal Party in the 1880s.
The Liberal Party split in the 1880s over the issue of Ireland – how to govern it, whether it should be party of the UK or have some other status – with those Liberals in favour of retaining Ireland within the UK (the Liberal Unionists) joining up with the Conservatives. Between the Liberal split in 1886 and 1905, the Conservative Party was in power for 14 years, predominantly under Lord Salisbury. It was only in 1905 that they lost office again – after another divisive split over trade, with a faction led by Joseph Chamberlain demanding the imposition of tariffs on goods from outside the British Empire.
The most important figures for the Conservative Party in this period were Robert Peel – who, as we’ve seen, shaped the outline of conservatism as well as laying the foundations of the Conservative Party itself, Benjamin Disraeli, and Lord Salisbury. Disraeli and Salisbury are between them credited with the creation and embedding of a philosophy known as “One Nation” conservatism. This, briefly, is a paternalistic creed – one that identifies the values and interests of the working class with that of the Conservative Party, and paints the party as the one best able to act to help them, because it best shares their values. This was particularly important because, after 1867, the electorate had been widened to include more members of the working class.
The Twentieth Century
This creed of One Nation Conservatism came under strain, however, during the early 20th Century. In 1906, the party lost to the Liberals in a landslide, and faced a difficult immediate future. Yet, by 1910, they were almost level with the Liberals in terms of Parliamentary seats again, and seemed to be gaining ground. Events now overtook the UK party system, and drove significant changes – principally, the First World War. The war would ultimately be the primary force that broke the Liberal Party, splitting it irreparably and leaving it as the UK’s third party by the end of the 1920s.
For their party, the Conservatives entered government during the war as part of a coalition, which they went on to dominate after the 1918 election. During the 1920s, they faced minority Labour governments, but broadly held on to the levers of power alone – headed first by Andrew Bonar Law (the UK’s shortest serving Prime Minister) and then by Stanley Baldwin. As before, the party adapted to changing circumstances; in this case, by working to attract women voters after they had been enfranchised. Baldwin proved to be an adept manager of the party – mixing social reforms and stability in a way that seemed in short supply during the interwar period.
Baldwin eventually resigned in 1937, and was replaced by Neville Chamberlain (son of Joseph Chamberlain, mentioned earlier). Chamberlain inherited from Baldwin a country that was facing the rising challenge of fascism in Europe, whilst still reluctant to commit to large-scale rearmament. He is now best remembered for his failed efforts to contain fascism through a policy called “appeasement”, but domestically he was a continuation of the One Nation Conservative trend. He had to resign in 1940, after the invasion of France, with his government under attack from within the Conservative Party and outside for its handling of the war. He was replaced by Winston Churchill.
Churchill went on to lead the country to victory in Europe over fascism, and called a general election for the summer of 1945. Before victory over Japan was secured, and to considerable shock, he was replaced as Prime Minister by Labour’s Clement Attlee, with the first majority Labour government. Churchill remained on as party leader, and eventually came back as Prime Minister in the 1951 general election. However, his health began to fail him soon after, and in 1955 he resigned, to be replaced by Anthony Eden. Eden, in turn, made a colossal error of judgement in attempting to use armed force to seize control of the Suez Canal in Egypt (the Suez Crisis) and had to resign within little over a year; he was replaced as Conservative leader by Harold Macmillan.
Macmillan is perhaps the best embodiment of the One Nation Conservative philosophy ever to serve as Prime Minister. He mixed an appearance of steadiness and reliability with incremental reforms – he was, for example, the man who introduced Premium Bonds. During the 1930s, he had strongly endorsed more government spending on the economy, and during his time as Prime Minister he faced down ministers who called for spending cuts to deal with inflation. Ultimately, he was laid low by a combination of personal health issues and a rising tide of scandal within his party. He was replaced as Prime Minister in 1963 by the Earl of Home (pronounced ‘hume’), who sought election in the Commons shortly afterwards as Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Home was only Prime Minister for a little over a year, before narrowly losing to Labour in 1964.
Home was, however, responsible for a considerable change in the Conservative Party after losing that election. Until then, Conservative leaders had “emerged” from an informal internal process – Home now put in place a proper system for electing Conservative Party leaders, and this was implemented in 1965, when he resigned. Edward Heath was elected to replace him; and in 1970, would go on to be elected as Prime Minister. Whilst Heath’s government promised considerable change when first elected, it essentially reverted to One Nation policies throughout – and was defeated in two elections in 1974, as industrial action, inflation, and trouble in Northern Ireland flared. Despite having lost 3 of the four general elections he contested as leader (the exception being 1970), Heath only agreed to a leadership election in 1975 in an effort to renew his mandate – he finished behind former Secretary of State for Education Margaret Thatcher on the first ballot, and had to resign.
Thatcher’s period as leader of the opposition was not an especially radical departure from what had gone before; in many ways, her positioning echoed that of the newly elected Heath government of 1970. When the Conservatives won the 1979 general election, Thatcher became the UK’s first female Prime Minister – she would go on to win two more elections in 1983, and 1987, before being forced out by the party in 1990 over the issues of Europe, and her style of leadership, to be replaced by John Major. Major would win more votes than any other UK party leader before or since – over 14 million – in 1992, but then go down to a crushing defeat to the Labour Party in 1997. None of three successors – William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard – would serve as Prime Minister, a record breaking streak for the party. Indeed, Hague was the first leader of the party (since the position was formally established in the 1920s) to never be elected as Prime Minister. It was only under David Cameron’s self-consciously modernising leadership of the party that they would return to office in 2010 – in coalition with the Liberal Democrats – and finally alone in the 2015 general election.
During this later period, the party also changed ideological direction. Mrs Thatcher’s three governments drove forward a radical set of changes in Britain that totally departed from the previous One Nation perspective. They were founded on a notion that might best be summed up as “free economy and the strong state”; that is, cutting both spending and taxes, whilst being tough on issues such as defence, crime and immigration. Unlike Macmillan, Thatcher was prepared to sell off state-run businesses, radically reduce levels of taxation, and engage in other dramatic economic and social policies. She was also, by the end of her term in office, willing to take an increasingly strident tone towards Europe.
In many ways, the modern Conservative Party is the product of Mrs Thatcher’s terms in government, and her world view. There are still One Nation Conservatives left; there are still pro-European Conservatives left; but they are both comparatively small minorities within the party compared to Thatcherites of various intensities. It is not unreasonable to argue that Thatcherism’s radical position means the Conservative Party is no longer merely “reforming to survive”; that is has abandoned fundamental conservative values in some sense; though the present author would note that this is not a settled argument. Whether Thatcherism is “right” or “wrong” is another matter – what is absolutely clear is that every Conservative leader since then has been defined in terms of Thatcherism. Whether Theresa May will – or wants – to change that, will be a matter of great interest to historians.
As we have seen, the Conservative Party has a long history – often in government, but also often tumultuous. The party has split several times, changed its ideological view point – in recent years quite radically – but has survived and indeed thrived in spite of that. The direction of the country has often been significantly influenced by internal Conservative Party politics – Europe being the most recent, but by no means the only, policy area where this is true.
The Liberal Democrats have taken an early Easter break in by-elections this week with there being no candidate in either of the two principle council by-elections taking place on the 13th April 2017.
After a week off last week with no by-elections we are back this week with four principle council by-elections and the Liberal Democrats are back to winning ways.
The institutions and challenges we have identified in previous weeks’ editions of Westminster Wednesday do not exist in a vacuum. They sit within and among us, and therefore our understanding of them – what they are, what they should do, where they came from – and so on, informs the way they operate, and how we respond to that. The concept of ‘political culture’ is one worth introducing here. Philip Norton defines it as “denoting the emotional and attitudinal environment within which a political system operates.” All of us exist within the UK’s political culture, and have been influenced by it – consciously and unconsciously. Here, we will look at two things – first of all, some of the influences on the process by which we acquire our political culture (this is called political socialisation) and secondly, some of the ways in which our political culture shapes our view of politics.
There are many places from which we, as humans, draw our understanding of how the world both is and should be. From our families, to teachers, friends, work colleagues, and beyond, we are all informed by the environment in which we live. In terms of how we understand politics, those listed above are important, but not exclusively so. Here, we will consider three key factors in the UK’s political socialisation process; class, location, and history.
The UK is a deeply class conscious society; as anthropologist Kate Fox noted “class pervades all aspects of English life and culture.” Class is, as Fox, Norton and others have observed, more than merely a function of how much you (or your family) earns; it is also a social statues, and has measurable impacts on our behaviour in everything from how we speak and dress, to what we do with our front gardens. Naturally, therefore, it shapes our view of politics. Traditionally, those of a working class background voted for the Labour Party, and those of a higher class background voted Conservative. But the class distinction also operates in terms of interest in politics – surveys have indicated that people of a lower social class report less interest in, and less optimism about, politics, than those of a higher class.
Secondly, our location plays a critical role in shaping our culture. On the grandest scale, there is a sheer geographic fact which shapes British political culture – that the country is an island (or series of islands), dwelling close enough to a major landmass to be unable to ignore it, but far enough away that it is able to rely on the sea as a means to be permanently distinct. Below that, we are confronted with an array of nations, regions and localities, each with their own identity. These identities are informed in part by their location within these islands – rural areas and urban areas have developed different value sets, different views on the importance of aspects of politics, based on their geography.
Finally, there is history. The history of the UK, and the countries that would form it, is told to us through a host of mechanisms – schools, the media, politicians, our families. We are told about the UK’s relationship with Europe over time, our relationship with monarchs and powerful leaders, our attitudes towards values such as liberty, justice, and peace. We are told about what we have fought for, built for, lived for – and so carried on in ourselves, and the world. Sometimes, we are told things that we are ashamed of now, as a warning to keep away from repeating past mistakes – more often, we are told things we should be proud of, things that are worth preserving. This is not just a lesson about old buildings or pieces of paper – it informs what we believe are politics are for, what makes them valuable, and how we can impact them.
We can measure the impact of political culture in a host of ways; for now, we will focus on three key areas – its impact on problem solving, political systems, and co-operation. Each of these is a distinct area, with clear impacts on the way we, as the British, think about and “do” politics.
The UK’s approach to problem solving can be characterised as focused on the empirical, as opposed to the rational. Whilst this division was theorised by the Italian thinker Giovanni Satori, other writers such as George Orwell have identified this distinction that marks the UK out from its continental neighbours. What this means in practice is that the UK tends to justify things in pragmatic terms – that is, they’re good because they work, rather than they’re good because the theory is sound – and to look to policy issues when something goes wrong, rather than an overarching theme of the state, or democracy, or similar, to understand these issues. The UK is perhaps the clearest example of an empirical political culture anywhere in the world.
The British political culture towards its own political systems exists in a strange state of semi-deference, and semi-approval. Individually, the British often disapprove of the actions of their governments, or the way that the system is seen to respond to their expectations and demands. But, on the other hand, there is no significant effort to overturn the fundamental basis of the constitution, nor has one seriously been threatened in the UK since the end of the 17th Century. There have been changes, but the process is seen as incremental – and that is understood to be a good thing. Whilst the British political culture does not entail whole-hearted deference to, and approval of, its political system, it would be wrong to state that the British reject these systems.
Finally, the British conceive of their politics in terms of individual liberties. Here we see the history coming through strongly – a story about the UK’s attachment to individual freedom often begins with the Magna Carta of 1215, and may include such events as the Civil War and the Great Reform Act. British political culture places great emphasis on the right of individuals to go about their lives without what is seen as undue interference from the state, and this manifests itself in frequent angry resistance to government efforts to invade the privacy of citizens.
There is a caveat to all of this. Some of you will have read this, and immediately produced a red pen to correct my history or evidence here and there. But that in some sense is wrong – because political culture, like a nation, relies not on evidence to function, but on a common story. These stories aren’t necessarily true in an objective sense – Magna Carta was, for example, mostly concerned with restating existing land rights for nobles, rather than any kind of effort to establish some sort of widely held rights for the citizenry – but they are held to be one thing or another, and so become a part of the story.
This, here, is a truth that has been forgotten and uncovered again in recent months – politics, political culture, the very essence of a community – rely as much on stories and narratives as they do on objective, recoverable facts. We tell ourselves stories to give our communities a sense of higher, wider, nobler purpose than the cold light of day would seem to allow for. It might be comforting to some of you to image these fairy tales will blow away on the wind; but they remain critical to our lives, giving meaning and texture to the world around us. Without understanding them, the institutions that run our lives can seem arid and strange. Put them back into the picture, and context draws them into full life.
This week, we will be considering the issue of federalism in the UK. In previous weeks, we’ve discussed both local and devolved government in Britain – how they came to be and what powers they have. Here, we will look at the tensions that exist within the current set up, particularly in regards to the two largest nations in the UK; Scotland, and England. Of course, the devolution settlements for Wales and Northern Ireland both face significant challenges, and many would argue there are other nations within the UK that should be considered, such as Cornwall. But for reasons of space, and in an effort to draw out some of the bigger themes more clearly, we’ll be focusing on these two examples first and foremost.
Naturally, we need to define our key terms – here, the concept of federalism. Federal states divide their power between two key levels of organisation on an equal basis – devolution, the concept that the UK has adopted, implies an unequal power relationship between the centre (the stronger) and the regions (the weaker). Outside the UK, many states have adopted federal systems – two key examples being the United States, and Germany. This post uses federalism as the theme both to be distinct from the post on devolution, and to give indication of one possible future direction – one that has been endorsed by the Liberal Democrats themselves.
During the 1990s, the Labour MP George Robertson declared that the plan to devolve power to Scotland would “kill Nationalism stone dead”. This quote has become something of an embarrassment for Labour since; not only has the primary vehicle for Scottish nationalism, the Scottish National Party (SNP) thrived, but the Scottish Labour Party has imploded – whereas once it dominated Scotland, it now has a single MP, and is reduced to the third largest party in the Scottish Parliament.
The Scottish Parliament was created as a stronger body than either the Welsh or Northern Irish Assemblies; with a stronger mandate in the referendum that led to its creation, with the power to modify income tax to raise additional revenue. Since 1999, two further acts of Parliament have transferred additional powers to Scotland – the 2012 and 2016 Scotland Acts. These have granted the Scottish Parliament an array of new powers over areas such as its finances, elections, and criminal law. But this is a reactive process; the UK government is constrained in some sense by the result of elections in Scotland. In 2007, the Scottish people returned a Scottish Parliament where the SNP was (just) the largest party, and they proceeded to form a government. In 2011, despite the electoral system, the SNP won a majority – and negotiations began within months on granting them the power to hold a referendum on Scottish independence. The result of these negotiations was the Edinburgh Agreement, which granted the Scottish Parliament the power to hold a referendum on the matter by the end of 2014 (it was eventually held in September 2014) that would be “fair, legal, and decisive”. The result was a lengthy two-year campaign on the matter of whether Scotland should become an independent country, with supporters arguing for a “Yes” vote, and opponents arguing for a “No”. The result, in the end, was that independence was defeated by 55% to 45%, in a referendum where over 80% of Scottish voters turned out.
Of course, as we are all now aware – that was not the end of the matter. In May 2016, despite losing their majority, the SNP were re-elected as the government of Scotland, and with the support of the Greens, had a majority in the Scottish Parliament to vote through a motion for another independence referendum. Since the EU referendum in June 2016, the Scottish government has been building an argument for a second referendum in the near future, preferably before the UK leaves the EU, to decide if Scotland should leave the UK. Opponents of this have been seeking to build a case against this; in some cases, by arguing that more powers should be devolved to Scotland.
The two principle reasons for the referendum, identified by supporters of Scottish independence, are the UK’s exit from the European Union and the election of a majority Conservative government in Westminster. On the first matter, it is argued that, as Scotland voted to Remain in the EU, it should have the right to a different Brexit to the rest of the UK – at the very least. The second matter focuses on the collapse of the Labour Party, which makes the likelihood of a length period in power for the Conservatives extremely high – a government which currently only includes 1 of Scotland’s 59 MPs. The first one poses a considerable difficulty for the UK government – it is very unlikely that the UK could negotiate a deal where part of the country leaves the EU less than other parts of the country. So either the government would need to disappoint its own supporters, or risk alienating Scottish opinion further. On the second point, it is worth noting that it is by no means a fixed situation that the Conservative Party will only have 1 MP in Scotland come 2020. The Scottish Conservative Party is now the main opposition to the SNP in the Scottish Parliament, and are consistently polling higher than the Scottish Labour Party. The possibility that the Westminster Parliament elected in 2020 might contain more than a single Scottish Conservative MP should not be understated.
In summary, the issue here is that Scotland’s government is positioning itself to try and remove Scotland entirely from the UK; causing a considerable domestic issue for Westminster to face. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the cause, the issue here is how much the UK – traditionally a unitary state – can accommodate such a movement well enough to relieve these strains on the whole.
The ‘gap’ in devolution is England. Outside of London, the devolution process has been fitful – a series of “metro mayors”, which will first be elected this May, representing further devolution of power to local regions. But, unlike in the other nations of the UK, there is no consistent pattern of devolution across the whole nation. In 2004, the Labour government held a referendum on the creation of a devolved assembly for the North East of England – a proposal that was defeated by 77%-23%. After that, the matter went quiet for a while, but it has since re-emerged, partly due to the process of devolution elsewhere.
The key issue was succinctly posed by former Labour MP Tam Dalyell, who termed it the “West Lothian Question”. This asked how it could be right that Scottish MPs could vote on legislation affecting only England, but English MPs could not do the same for Scotland. There were some efforts to try and take the edge off this question – by reducing the number of Scottish MPs in particular – but the fact remained that the question was without a satisfactory answer in Westminster. In 2015, the newly elected majority Conservative government introduced a rule called “English Votes for English Laws” (EVEL). Under this procedure, the Speaker of the House of Commons decides if a bill contains provisions that only apply to England (or England and Wales). During the passage of the bill through the House of Commons, a new stage has been introduced, where only English (and perhaps Welsh MPs) may sit and consider a “motion of consent” to the legislation, and then vote on whether to grant it or not.
EVEL is, however, at best a temporary measure. As academics like John Curtice have noted, there is an emerging English identity – it is much less intense than that of Scotland or Wales, and it is often overlapped with Britishness – but there is an emerging identity within England, and an emerging discourse within that identity about England’s place in the UK, particularly with regards to devolution. As Englishness continues to grow within the UK – even if it is conflated with Britishness – the question over what to do about England will become more pressing.
What compounds this issue is that England is very unlike any other state in any federal country in the world. In none of the current federal democratic states does one state control such a large share of the landmass, or share of the population, or share of the wealth, as England does within the UK. Giving England as a whole a devolved Parliament would present considerable challenges to do with the relative power of that Parliament against the other devolved assemblies; and against Westminster itself. But breaking England into smaller units poses questions of identity and effectiveness – whilst some regions have clear identities (Yorkshire being a key example) others, like the South East, have a variety of much smaller identities and other challenges, such as a lack of a clear urban centre to take on the role of ‘capital’ of that region.
What is clear, however, is that England and the English are not going to go away. Like any nation, England is an imagined community – the English are people who imagine a story about themselves. This story covers their history, language, culture, relationship with the divine, values, and more. Nations like to have institutions that can represent and embody their story to the world; to defend their values, cherish their history, and so on. Just because these communities are imagined, however, does not make them less powerful or indeed less real to the people who live within them. If the English nation continues to expand, then the pressure for a settlement for the whole of the UK will grow. The UK government will then face a similar situation to Scotland – mounting pressures for change, and limited tools to relieve that pressure.