England expects …
‘All the English want is a chance to attend to their own affairs’
The pathetic ‘Stay Alert’-’Stay At Home’ scrap between Britain’s prime minister and the first ministers of the devolved Scottish, Welsh and Ulster governments brings to the surface a problem that’s been simmering just off the radar in the increasingly incompatible union we call the United Kingdom. It’s the English question or, looked at from south of the border and east of Offa’s Dyke, the Celtic problem. It’s one that neither of the two main Westminster parties – let’s leave the so-called Liberal (Bollocks to the 17.4 million) Democrats out of it – wants to think about. For the Tories, the union is – inexplicably – “precious”; Labour cannot hope to win a Commons majority without the seats it has lost to the Scottish Nationalists.
The difficulty was outlined in 2018 by John Denham … a Labour MP on the party’s sane wing from 1992 to 2015, a minister in the Blair and Brown administrations, and now Professor of Knowledge Exchange and director of Winchester University’s Centre for English Identity and Politics. In a lecture on the identities, politics and governance of England, he noted:
“England is now the only part of the UK governed permanently on most domestic policy by the UK government, not by its own elected parliament or assembly. It’s the only un-reformed element of the old imperial parliament. Reform that started with the division of Ireland in the 1920s and continued when Scotland and Wales took authority from Westminster at the turn of the 20th century, has not yet touched England. The Commons does not provide a forum and focus for the politics of England … There is no crucible for England’s national debate.”
It’s a question that’s also been raised Cambridge University Professor Robert Tombs, whose 1,000-page The English and Their History has been lauded by even the Guardian as a work of “resounding importance to contemporary debates”.
Blair’s devolution strategy, with new powers for national parliaments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, he says, was a solution to political difficulties outside England. “At first, the problem was ignored by the English public. But as the Scots mysteriously acquired much-trumpeted advantages in health care and university education – with over 20 percent more spent on public services per head – the disadvantages of being a nation without a state began to dawn.”
That growing sense in this state-less England of discontent with the new devolution arrangements fed into a pipeline of bubbling grievances: public spending cuts after the 2008 crash; a realization that Scottish and Welsh nationalists, and Northern Ireland MPs, could be power brokers at Westminster; uncontrolled immigration from the EU; an awareness of the supremacy of EU laws … all of which contributed to the Brexit vote that so appalled those accustomed to governing Britain – and Europe – from a business class cabin at 35,000ft.
“It is the ultimate irony”, says Denham, “that the architects of England’s suppression are now seeing an angry England taking the whole union out of the EU, against the wishes of the majority in the devolved nations. The defenders of the union have triggered unprecedented threats to the continuation of the union itself. Instead of blaming a supposed English nationalism, it is time that they confronted their own responsibility for the current situation.”
The reference to the European Union is not insignificant; it was in England – the nation that has more than 80 percent of UK’s population and produces more than 80 percent of GDP – where the Leave vote was several points higher than the UK-wide margin. A crusading journalist who might have understood what is at play now was W. T. Stead, who exposed among other iniquities the scandal of child prostitution in London. He turned his mind in 1893 to Anglo-Irish relations, writing: “All the Irish want is that the House of Commons shall again affirm its devotion to Home Rule. All the English want is a chance to attend to their own affairs.” If given that chance, if the UK’s lopsided devolved structure isn’t fixed, don’t bank on the English – coming out from under Britannia’s skirts – not taking it, gifting their neighbouring nations with independence they might, if push comes to shove, not want or be able to afford.
Reality checking with the vicar
David Kernek is a West Country-based freelance writer and photographer. A former political correspondent covering Westminster, he has also edited regional newspapers in Yorkshire, County Durham and Somerset.
I was troubled but perhaps not surprised when I read that a Church of England vicar had welcomed the BBC’s decision to broadcast Muslim prayers on some of its local radio stations. This is an extract from our ensuing correspondence:
I was perplexed, since it is clear to anyone who has read the Koran that unreformed Islam is not compatible with the Judeo-Christian values on which our ways of life in the now largely secular West remain based. Would you be willing to explain the reasons for the support you have given to the BBC in this matter?
Subject: Re: BBC/Muslim prayers …
Dear Mr Kernek,
Respectfully, I disagree with your reading of Islam. The vast majority of British Muslims, including those I number amongst my family and friends, are committed to a multicultural Britain in which different faiths and beliefs are honoured and upheld. As with the Qu’ran, there are parts of the Bible that we might deem inimical to our shared values in a rational 21st century society; but there is also much wisdom and beauty in both Scriptures. There is an extreme fringe in Islam, as there is in Christianity – and indeed in almost every religion and ideology …but I see no reason for the BBC not to support British Muslims in their faith because of the actions and beliefs of extremists.
Thanks for your reply, which I’ve thought about very carefully.
May I first look at this statement?: ‘The vast majority of British Muslims, including those I number amongst my family and friends, are committed to a multicultural Britain in which different faiths and beliefs are honoured and upheld.’ That might well be the case, but it raises the question of an Islamic minority that has no such commitment. This would include the approximately 20,000 people – as at June, 2019 – identified by UK’s security services as “closed subjects of concern” who have previously been investigated but who it’s believed could pose a threat in the future.
You point out that ‘there is an extreme fringe in Islam, as there is in Christianity – and indeed in almost every religion and ideology’. It might well be that there are here and there bands of extreme Methodists, Roman Catholics, Reform Jews, and Buddhists. As far as know, however, few if any of those have been responsible for anything like the number of Islamic terrorist attacks across the globe since the 1970s to the present day.
In his final book, Groupthink: A Study in Self-Delusion (published March 19, 2020) the late Christopher Booker updates the work published in 1972 by Professor Irving Janis*, who defined Groupthink as a process resulting in a ‘deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment’. Booker notes: ‘ … no religion has remained more consistently prone to it [Groupthink] through the centuries than Islam. And of course, there is no more extreme example in our world today than the rise of Islamic terrorist movements such as Isis or al-Qaeda, which are possessed by a form of groupthink so extreme that it turns those carried away by it into merciless killers …”
Finally: ‘… parts of the Bible that we might deem inimical to our shared values in a rational 21st century society; but there is also much wisdom and beauty in both Scripture’? This is true, as far as it goes which is not very far. Is there much of consequence in either the Old or New Testaments that can be said to have an equivalence with this?:
Q9:29 – ‘Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.’
The key difficulty is that the majority of peaceful and law-abiding Muslims have been and remain unwilling to acknowledge and repudiate the theological authorizations for intolerance and violence in their religious texts. Islam, unlike Christianity and Judaism, consequently remains unreformed. The inability or unwillingness of Western institutions to accept this fact indicates their failure to test reality.
* Irving Janis (1918 – 1990) research psychologist, Yale University & Professor Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley.
Answer came there none …