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Nationalism, Unionism and Englishness

David Miliband’s article on England and English identity in this week’s New Statesman was unremarkable in its content, but was worth noting because of the rarity of a senior Labour politician addressing the so-called English question at all, the last occasion being a speech by Frank Field in 2008.

The paradox is that Labour’s devolution of power to the Scottish parliament and Welsh Assembly, and the settlement brought about by the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland, have created profound changes to the constitution, but the party has not come to grips with the forces that inspired those changes.

The results of the general election revealed a gulf in attitude between how SNP and Plaid supporters saw the possibility of a rainbow coalition, and the disdain that many Labour members felt for any deal that included the nationalists, that came from both left and right of the Labour Party.

Plaid MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, Jonathan Edwards, was scathing that Labour had seemingly rejected a potential coalition that would have protected working class communities from the Tories. Of course any such coalition would have needed the Lib Dems, and it looks like they were always going to prefer the Tories, but the charge that the Labour Party simply doesn’t understand the mindset of the Plaid and SNP has some weight.

There is a subsidiary point that many Labour Party supporters in Britain assume that the various Unionist Parties of Northern Ireland are natural allies for the Tories, while the opposite is probably true.

Support for, or opposition to Unionism dominates the political landscape in Northern Ireland, and increasingly so in Scotland and Wales. Northern Ireland is perhaps a special case, but the primordial unionism that dominates there, (the belief that the institutions and unity of the United Kingdom is a positive good in its own right), is important to understand in its own right, but also because during the pre-modern era this form of unionism was dominant in Britain as well. Bonar Law was the last British Prime Minister to be such a primordial unionist, and this was bound up with the high Imperialism which bound the nations of Britain together in a tryst of blood.

With the decline of Empire, a more instrumental Unionism has developed, which has regarded the marriage of Scotland, Wales and England, and sometimes Northern Ireland, not as a positive virtue to be celebrated for its own sake, but as a fortunate circumstance which allows wider goals of social justice to be achieved. Aneurin Bevan was a great instrumental unionist, who saw the union as an opportunity for a socialist government sitting in Westminster to extend the scope of its progressive reforms to more people.

However, by the 1960s a more defensive instrumental unionism grew, expounded by Harold Wilson and his secretary of State for Scotland, Willie Ross, who believed that the reservoirs of Labour support in Wales and Scotland were a necessary precondition to any progressive British government; consequently they were great supporters of maintaining a disproportionate number of parliamentary seats from Scotland.

It is worth pointing out that in fact Labour received more votes than the Conservatives in English parliamentary constituencies in 1945, 1950, 1951, 1964, 1966, Oct 1974, 1997 and 2001, and only received 0.25% less than the Tories in England in 2005. So the myth of a naturally and permanently Tory England is false. When Labour has inspired English voters, then Labour has won in England.

The constitutional reforms towards devolution were pragmatic responses to the rising threat to Labour in Wales and Scotland. In 1966 Plaid Cymru won a by-election in Carmarthen, and in 1967 the SNP won Hamilton, losing it at the next election but gaining the Western Isles. The instinctive instrumental unionism of Labour gave way to an instrumental approach to constitutional reform. Devolution was supported because it was thought it would be just enough to conserve the Union. As government minister, Douglas Alexander, who ran Labour’s campaign for the 2007 Scottish Parliament said:

The great outcome of devolution is it allows people to demonstrate their identity within the United Kingdom and, at the same time, not break up the United Kingdom.”

Mainstream opinion in the Labour Party has never been able to understand what motivates the Plaid and SNP. Former Labour minister, Ron Davies, who has now joined Plaid Cyrmu, explains:

they believe … that the solutions to the problems of Wales [and Scotland] are to be found in exactly the same mechanism as the problems of the North of England or wherever. The answer is a strong Labour government in Westminster who will legislate all these problems away.”

In fact, the nationalist parties are broadly social democratic, and their successes have been based upon two combined strengths. One has been using devolved power to limit the scope of regressive legislation from Westminster; the second has been using popular national traditions of Welsh and Scottish culture to reinforce progressive politics.

Michael Keating, Professor of Scottish Politics at the University of Aberdeen, has examined the growing policy differences between England, Scotland and Wales:

The Labour Party may be the dominant political force in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff. But Scotland and Wales have stuck more to the traditional social democratic model of public service delivery. This has led them to stress non-selectivity, professionalism and uniformity, while rejecting foundation hospitals, star-rated hospitals, school league tables, beacon councils, elite universities and selective schools. Scotland also scrapped up-front university tuition fees and rejected top-up fees. At the same time, free care for the elderly has been introduced north of the border.”

In Wales, there are no NHS prescription charges. The One Wales agreement between the Welsh Labour Party and Plaid Cymru, which underpins their coalition government, is designed in the words of former First Minister Rhodri Morgan, to put “thick red water” between Cardiff and London, and it includes a commitment that:

We firmly reject the privatisation of NHS services or the organisation of such services on market models. We will guarantee public ownership, public funding and public control of this vital public service.”

The Scottish labour historian Gregor Gall writes that the existence of a Scottish national consciousness reinforces a culture of greater militancy – the Scottish working class believes it is more radical than the English, and may therefore act more radically. To this degree Gregor sees Scottish national consciousness as progressive, as an ideological reservoir for retaining the memory of past struggles, even in periods when collective class consciousness is weak. “Red Clydeside and John Maclean have become part of the heroic iconography on the left in Scotland, not only in terms of image … but also as history. [During] the Tories years of office (1979-1997) … – the most sustained offensive by the ruling class since the 1920s – those on the left looked back to the past to help inform their present.”

The common sense belief that Scotland is more egalitarian than England played an important role in strengthening the resolve to resist Thatcherism in the 1980s, which was seen as essentially English and alien. The vehicle of Scottish national identity expressed the ideological rejection of the Poll Tax. Of course it was also a class based rebellion, but that class consciousness was mediated through ideological expression in terms of national identity.

The dynamic of devolution in Wales is weaker, but still potent bound up with issues of language and regional identity, as Ron Davies explains

In Wales that sense of national identity was never that strong, we had never had our own parliament, and there were many people n the Labour party, and there still are, who find it very hard to reconcile their patriotism, their love for Wales, with their commitment to socialism, or to the Labour party I should say. It doesn’t understand that there are issues about patriotism, of identity, of wanting to do things differently in Wales, of nation building if you like. To free up the initiatives we have in Wales, because our scale is different, because we do have different values, there is a greater sense of community, we do have distinctive policy issues of our own we do have issues about language and so on. And there is a large part of the Labour Party that is entirely uncomfortable with that agenda.”

There is no going back on the constitutional reforms that gave Scotland a parliament and Wales an Assembly, and the dynamic of Empire and Monarchy which originally glued the nations of Britain together are today spent or weakened forces. The pragmatic and instrumental approach of the Labour Party to devolution has actually been relatively successful, but it has inevitably reinforced the structural foundations of Plaid Cymru and the SNP: having a Tory government in Westminster can only strengthen further the sense of difference between Cardiff, Edinburgh and Westminster.

The Labour Party will continue to be the largest progressive party in British politics, but in Scotland and Wales  at least, it can no longer assume that it is the sole, mainstream pole of attraction for social democratic voters. Consequently, it is necessary to understand the degree of overlap and shared aspiration, as well as differences, between the Labour Party and its rivals in the SNP and Plaid.

David Miliband’s article on England and English identity in this week’s New Statesman was unremarkable in its content, but was worth noting because of the rarity of a senior Labour politician addressing the so-called English question at all, the last occasion being a speech by Frank Field in 2008.

The paradox is that Labour’s devolution of power to the Scottish parliament and Welsh Assembly, and the settlement brought about by the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland, have created profound changes to the constitution, but the party has not come to grips with the forces that inspired those changes.

The results of the general election revealed a gulf in attitude between how SNP and Plaid supporters saw the possibility of a rainbow coalition, and the disdain that many Labour members felt for any deal that included the nationalists, that came from both left and right of the Labour Party.

Plaid MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, Jonathan Edwards, was scathing that Labour had seemingly rejected a potential coalition that would have protected working class communities from the Tories. Of course any such coalition would have needed the Lib Dems, and it looks like they were always going to prefer the Tories, but the charge that the Labour Party simply doesn’t understand the mindset of the Plaid and SNP has some weight.

There is a subsidiary point that many Labour Party supporters in Britain assume that the various Unionist Parties of Northern Ireland are natural allies for the Tories, while the opposite is probably true.

Support for, or opposition to Unionism dominates the political landscape in Northern Ireland, and increasingly so in Scotland and Wales. Northern Ireland is perhaps a special case, but the primordial unionism that dominates there, (the belief that the institutions and unity of the United Kingdom is a positive good in its own right), is important to understand in its own right, but also because during the pre-modern era this form of unionism was dominant in Britain as well. Bonar Law was the last British Prime Minister to be such a primordial unionist, and this was bound up with the high Imperialism which bound the nations of Britain together in a tryst of blood.

With the decline of Empire, a more instrumental Unionism has developed, which has regarded the marriage of Scotland, Wales and England, and sometimes Northern Ireland, not as a positive virtue to be celebrated for its own sake, but as a fortunate circumstance which allows wider goals of social justice to be achieved. Aneurin Bevan was a great instrumental unionist, who saw the union as an opportunity for a socialist government sitting in Westminster to extend the scope of its progressive reforms to more people.

However, by the 1960s a more defensive instrumental unionism grew, expounded by Harold Wilson and his secretary of State for Scotland, Willie Ross, who believed that the reservoirs of Labour support in Wales and Scotland were a necessary precondition to any progressive British government; consequently they were great supporters of maintaining a disproportionate number of parliamentary seats from Scotland.

It is worth pointing out that in fact Labour received more votes than the Conservatives in English parliamentary constituencies in 1945, 1950, 1951, 1964, 1966, Oct 1974, 1997 and 2001, and only received 0.25% less than the Tories in England in 2005. So the myth of a naturally and permanently Tory England is false. When Labour has inspired English voters, then Labour has won in England.

The constitutional reforms towards devolution were pragmatic responses to the rising threat to Labour in Wales and Scotland. In 1966 Plaid Cymru won a by-election in Carmarthen, and in 1967 the SNP won Hamilton, losing it at the next election but gaining the Western Isles. The instinctive instrumental unionism of Labour gave way to an instrumental approach to constitutional reform. Devolution was supported because it was thought it would be just enough to conserve the Union. As government minister, Douglas Alexander, who ran Labour’s campaign for the 2007 Scottish Parliament said:

“The great outcome of devolution is it allows people to demonstrate their identity within the United Kingdom and, at the same time, not break up the United Kingdom.”

Mainstream opinion in the Labour Party has never been able to understand what motivates the Plaid and SNP. Former Labour minister, Ron Davies, who has now joined Plaid Cyrmu, explains:

“they believe … that the solutions to the problems of Wales [and Scotland] are to be found in exactly the same mechanism as the problems of the North of England or wherever. The answer is a strong Labour government in Westminster who will legislate all these problems away.”

In fact, the nationalist parties are broadly social democratic, and their successes have been based upon two combined strengths. One has been using devolved power to limit the scope of regressive legislation from Westminster; the second has been using popular national traditions of Welsh and Scottish culture to reinforce progressive politics.

Michael Keating, Professor of Scottish Politics at the University of Aberdeen, has examined the growing policy differences between England, Scotland and Wales: “The Labour Party may be the dominant political force in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff. But Scotland and Wales have stuck more to the traditional social democratic model of public service delivery. This has led them to stress non-selectivity, professionalism and uniformity, while rejecting foundation hospitals, star-rated hospitals, school league tables, beacon councils, elite universities and selective schools. Scotland also scrapped up-front university tuition fees and rejected top-up fees. At the same time, free care for the elderly has been introduced north of the border.”

In Wales, there are no NHS prescription charges. The One Wales agreement between the Welsh Labour Party and Plaid Cymru, which underpins their coalition government, is designed in the words of former First Minister Rhodri Morgan, to put “thick red water” between Cardiff and London, and it includes a commitment that:

“We firmly reject the privatisation of NHS services or the organisation of such services on market models. We will guarantee public ownership, public funding and public control of this vital public service.”

The Scottish labour historian Gregor Gall writes that the existence of a Scottish national consciousness reinforces a culture of greater militancy – the Scottish working class believes it is more radical than the English, and may therefore act more radically. To this degree Gregor sees Scottish national consciousness as progressive, as an ideological reservoir for retaining the memory of past struggles, even in periods when collective class consciousness is weak. “Red Clydeside and John Maclean have become part of the heroic iconography on the left in Scotland, not only in terms of image … but also as history. [During] the Tories years of office (1979-1997) … – the most sustained offensive by the ruling class since the 1920s – those on the left looked back to the past to help inform their present.”

The common sense belief that Scotland is more egalitarian than England played an important role in strengthening the resolve to resist Thatcherism in the 1980s, which was seen as essentially English and alien. The vehicle of Scottish national identity expressed the ideological rejection of the Poll Tax. Of course it was also a class based rebellion, but that class consciousness was mediated through ideological expression in terms of national identity.

The dynamic of devolution in Wales is weaker, but still potent bound up with issues of language and regional identity, as Ron Davies explains

“In Wales that sense of national identity was never that strong, we had never had our own parliament, and there were many people n the Labour party, and there still are, who find it very hard to reconcile their patriotism, their love for Wales, with their commitment to socialism, or to the Labour party I should say. It doesn’t understand that there are issues about patriotism, of identity, of wanting to do things differently in Wales, of nation building if you like. To free up the initiatives we have in Wales, because our scale is different, because we do have different values, there is a greater sense of community, we do have distinctive policy issues of our own we do have issues about language and so on. And there is a large part of the Labour Party that is entirely uncomfortable with that agenda.”

There is no going back on the constitutional reforms that gave Scotland a parliament and Wales an Assembly, and the dynamic of Empire and Monarchy which originally glued the nations of Britain together are today spent or weakened forces. The pragmatic and instrumental approach of the Labour Party to devolution has actually been relatively successful, but it has inevitably reinforced the structural foundations of Plaid Cymru and the SNP: having a Tory government in Westminster can only strengthen further the sense of difference between Cardiff, Edinburgh and Westminster.

The Labour Party will continue to be the largest progressive party in British politics, but in Scotland and Wales at least, it can no longer assume that it is the sole, mainstream pole of attraction for social democratic voters. Consequently, it is necessary to understand the degree of overlap and shared aspiration, as well as differences, between the Labour Party and its rivals in the SNP and Plaid.

8 Comments

  1. Byrnsweord says:

    Fascinating. Another left-wing writer who has little or nothing to say on any of the terms he heads the blog with, and everything to say on how Labour can continue to use England as a political pawn to take power away from… yep, that’s right… England.

    Ergo, Frank Field remains the only Labourite to have the common sense and common courtesy to trust English people with discussion about their own issues.

  2. Michele says:

    I too read through the article wondering what on earth it had to do with the title.

    No further comment, Byrnsweord has said it all.

  3. Terry says:

    There was a great need for devolution. Power was far too London-centric. The country has been “a country” for nearly three hundred years, although there are easily identifiable regions that have their own unique problems.

    A region for the Highlands and Islands should have been created, as should the Scottish Lowlands, North East, North West, North Wales, West Midlands, South Wales etc.

    It would have worked, except that Blair and co pushed for the nation of Scotland, the nation of Wales and the nation(?) of NI to be created.

    Couldn’t they see that the only remaining nation would want parity with its neighbours? Did they really think they could balkanise England and we’d all be ok about it?

    Labour completed the outrage by allowing a non-England MP to become Prime Minister. They gave us a PM who was accountable to on one on such crucial matters as Health, Education, Policing and Social Policy.

    Milliband now wants to re-engage with England by digging up a discredited, hugely unpopular policy; regionalism

  4. Ahhhh yes… Wee Duggie’s memorable statement…
    ….”The great outcome of devolution is it allows people to demonstrate their identity within the United Kingdom and, at the same time, not break up the United Kingdom.”….

    But not English identity, obviously.
    I mean, national democracy for the English, whatever next? We’ll be demanding our own national anthem next….

    Personally, as a former lifelong Labour voter of over 30 years standing (I gave up voting for them when I realised national democracy wasn’t to be given to England in 1998), I think (hope) that Labour are finished forever. I trust their influence will diminish, whither and die – and good riddance.

    And although Dave Miliband discusses English identity – he obviously declares that ‘an English Parliament is not the answer’…. Welll sorry Dave, our national democratic birthright is not actually within the gift of anal politicians who have never had a proper job in their oh-so-brilliant lives. 50 million people in England will not put up with being the soggy lettuce in the devolution sarnie. In this amazingly fair and equitable ‘union of equals’ (yeah, right), if national democracy is good enough for Scotland, Wales and NI then it sure as hell is good enough for us….

    National democracy: I just we in England actually had some.

  5. John says:

    On the continent they might call it particularism but that doesn’t quite capture the nature of the United Kingdom. The phrase encompasses three nations and a province plus some islands and yet Labour have never displayed much comprehension of all this while being happy to play it for its electoral advantage( overrepresentation of Scotland and Wales) and often also happy to engage in anti English sniping eg “leafy suburbs and “shire counties” are always code words for anti Englishness. Many of Labour’s activists display little love for the English but are often congenial to Scotland and Wales.The language of class war is generally a proxy for anti Englishness.

    They have displayed a profound underestimation of the basic racial and national divisions within the UK and consistently sought to take advantage of English forebearance. The “bite the hand that feeds you” mentality runs deep.
    Devolution, which was really only about Scotland- Wales was only included to fill out the picture, far from closing divisions, has opened them up. That Labour did not appreciate what would happen derives from Labour’s complicity in the picture that immediately preceded it. England and Scotland are farther apart now than at any time since 1707 and likely get more remote from each other. Disdain for history other than Labour’s cherished folk-bits of it plays a big part here. The UK was banged or contrived together in the first place so fecklessly prising open the links was irresponsible in the extreme. Part of that fecklessness was Labour’s anti Englishness. They could have offered England a parliament at the same time in 1998 and gained the credit. The did not but sought to impose the insulting poison of regionalism.

    To date Labour don’t seem to realise any of this. Its getting very late in the day.

  6. Geoff, England says:

    Labour ‘progressive’? You must be joking.
    I don’t call spending beyond the taxpayer’s means ‘progressive’. And what about the bigotry that is rife in the Labour party? Anglophobia? Check.
    Misandry? Check. Heterophobia (if there is such a word)? Check. Those are some of the groups that Labour hate pathologically. Please don’t ever talk to me of Labour’s ‘inclusiveness’, ‘diversity’ or ‘equality’ until it includes people like me (working class, white, English, heterosexual, male, reasonably healthy, no criminal record, and willing to do a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay rather than waiting for government handouts). Progressive? Labour’s about as progressive as the BNP.

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