Beware: English bulldog stirring

The Nations of Britain
March 9, 2007

In 1969, in Alan Bennett's play Forty Years On , the headmaster of a minor public school posts the following notice: "To let. A valuable site at the cross-roads of the world. At present on offer to European clients. Outlying portions of the estate already disposed of to sitting clients. Of some historical and period interest. Some alterations and improvements necessary."

Devolution has now begun to bring about some of these "alterations and improvements". As a result, the four component parts of the UK are now governed in four different ways. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have devolved bodies, but England - the largest component of the UK, with nearly 85 per cent of the population - does not. Moreover, the devolved bodies are of very different types. The outcome is, in the words of Douglas Hurd, "a system of amazing untidiness - a kingdom of four parts, three Secretaries of State, each with different powers, of two Assemblies and one Parliament, each different in composition and powers from the others". The jury is still out on whether asymmetrical devolution will succeed in cementing the union, or whether it will instead tear it apart.

What cannot be in doubt is that Britain has become both more complex and more difficult to govern. Christopher Bryant, a professor of sociology at Salford University, seeks to bring clarity to these new arrangements. The Nations of Britain is perhaps the best guide that has so far been written to the problems raised by asymmetrical devolution. It succeeds in synthesising not only the sociological but also the vast historical and political science literature on national relationships within the UK. It will prove of value not only to the student but to anyone seeking to understand how we are now governed. It is an outstanding work.

Bryant is particularly good at what has come to be called "The English Question". It is not, admittedly, always clear what the "English Question"

is. A cynic might say that, as soon as the social scientists claim to have answered it, the English change the question.

It is, nevertheless, apparent that devolution has begun to make the English do something to which they have hitherto been unaccustomed, namely to consider the nature of Englishness and how it differs from Britishness.

Until now, the two have generally been merged together so that they appear indistinguishable. Indeed, when, in 1993, John Major, who was then Prime Minister, insisted that Britishness would not be affected by the Maastricht Treaty, he used symbols of Englishness such as county cricket and the Anglican Communion to make his point.

The difficulty, however, is that the devolution settlement rests upon English self-restraint. If the English start to beat the patriotic drum, the equilibrium of the settlement will be under threat. As yet, there has been no English backlash, but, as Bryant notes, "the dog is stirring slowly; it has pricked one ear, (and) growls a bit". It is when it begins to bark that the unity of the kingdom will be at risk.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government, Oxford University.

The Nations of Britain

Author - Christopher G. A. Bryant
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 298
Price - £21.99
ISBN - 0 19 874287 8

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