The little bit of the UK we tend to forget

April 26, 2002

Many people think of England and Britain as one and the same, but devolution may drive England to take on a separate identity. Huw Richards reports

Call a conference on devolution and you can hardly be surprised when the participants have a strongly Celtic flavour. So it proved for one of the first major public outings of the Economic and Social Research Council's devolution project, the "Devolution and Britishness" conference, held a few weeks ago in Westminster's Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre.

Of 210 participants with a clear institutional affiliation, 93 came from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Yet at the same time, the event was suffused with awareness of the implications of change for what John Curtice of Strathclyde University called "the bit we all tend to forget - England".

Conflating England with Britain is a long-established practice at home and abroad. John Beath of St Andrews University sent an empathetic shudder around the hall with his recitation of an all-too common conversation with Americans: "I say 'I'm British', to which the invariable response is, 'Oh, so you're English'." Robert Hazell, director of the constitutional unit at University College, London, regaled a workshop session on "England, Britishness and the Union" with a list of such manifestations, including the Bank of England, Walter Bagehot's The English Constitution and H. H. Asquith's tombstone proclaiming him "Prime Minister of England".

This is perhaps the inevitable outcome of a centralised, unionist polity in which England accounts for 85 per cent of the whole. But both Hazell and John Tomaney, senior lecturer at the Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, pointed to the development of a specifically English consciousness, subtly differentiated from a sense of being British, as a logical outcome of devolution in other parts of the UK.

Tomaney noted that the nearby Politico's Bookstore had a new section: "A shelf of books on English identity - something you wouldn't have seen recently." Popular culture's counterpart to the musings of Daily Mail columnist Simon Heffer and Newsnight anchorman Jeremy Paxman is seen in the followers of England sports teams adopting the Cross of St George in place of the Union Jack - a phenomenon first widely noted during the 1996 European Football Championships and likely to be repeated during this summer's World Cup in Korea and Japan.

Some analysts warn of an English backlash against the apparently privileged position of Wales and Scotland, which enjoy dual political representation and the financial benefits of the Barnett formula on public expenditure.

Curtice was sceptical about this, pointing to polls showing considerable cross-border consensus on potential flashpoints: "Even people in Scotland agree that Scottish MPs should not vote on English matters, so there's no problem there. And the majority in England do not believe that Scotland gets more than its fair share of finance." Indeed, the Scots have been complaining about getting a poor deal out of last week's budget.

One possibility is that England will react to elected bodies for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland by demanding one of its own. Hazell is sceptical: "It would change the nature of the British constitution, turning us into a federation. And you can't have a viable federation where one component accounts for 85 per cent of the population. Prussia had nothing like that predominance in prewar Germany, but it still made German federalism unworkable; and when they drew up their postwar constitution, Prussia was broken into several parts. Ontario, about a third of Canada's population, is the largest single component I can think of in a successful federation."

Hazell adds that the campaign for an English Parliament has not penetrated the political mainstream. "William Hague flirted with the idea, but he changed his position - and only about half a dozen Conservative backbenchers ever backed it. The only political party that supports it is the UK Independence Party."

Tomaney suggested that a renewed sense of identity was more likely to find effective expression in regionalism. A football fan himself, he recalled the BBC report on the proliferation of Crosses of St George during Euro '96: "I couldn't find any in Gateshead, so I rang my brother in middle-class Hampshire and he said they were springing up everywhere."

Citing the geographer Peter Taylor's description of the North as "England's foreign country within", Tomaney argued that the extreme concentration of power and institutions in London had created a perception that Englishness was exclusive, marginalising those outside London and its hinterland:

"Regional institutions are weak, and we lack a forum for debate on these issues. But devolution in Scotland has inevitably brought them into focus - not least because Edinburgh is much nearer (to us in Newcastle) than London."

Growing regional consciousness has taken cultural forms: "There's a greater interest in the history of the region, and a very popular campaign to restore the Lindisfarne Gospels, which were taken from Durham Cathedral by Henry VIII, to the Northeast."

There is also a political dimension to regionalism. The government may have a strong northeastern influence - Tony Blair, Alan Milburn, Steve Byers and Nick Brown all represent the region as do significant former ministers such as Mo Mowlam and Peter Mandelson - but, as Tomaney says: "There is no obvious answer to the Northeast's problems in a highly centralised polity that has delivered such poor regional outcomes up to now."

There is even talk of a regionalist political party. Tomaney says much of this is still "closing-time chat", although he adds: "I've also heard of this from people who would be taken extremely seriously."

And there is rather more than talk about a regional assembly, with the government unveiling its plans for possible English assemblies in a white paper expected once next month's local elections are safely out of the way. Most expect the government to offer assemblies to regions that can summon enough signatures to a petition for a referendum, then win the vote. Austin Mitchell, Labour MP for Grimsby and a long-time enthusiast for regional devolution, told the session he was pessimistic about securing the necessary signatures in Yorkshire but said the Northeast might stand a better chance.

Tomaney cites evidence from a recent BBC poll showing that most of England would welcome a regional tier of government - with the West Midlands (73 per cent) and the Northwest and Yorkshire and Humberside (both 72 per cent) as enthusiastic as the Northeast (72 per cent). Support was weakest closest to London, but even in the Southeast (49 per cent) supporters outnumbered opponents. The poll also found that local or regional loyalties (36 per cent) outweighed English ( per cent) or British (22 per cent) loyalties as the primary allegiance.

Tomaney acknowledges that not all the findings will encourage campaigners for assemblies. Support for assemblies co-exists with the belief of 62 per cent that they would increase red tape and bureaucracy, while a plurality - 47 per cent against 39 per cent - opposed giving them tax-raising powers.

Few English regions have strong self-conscious identities, but, as Hazell points out, successful regional structures do not necessarily need this. "Polls in the early 1950s showed that the German Länder were highly unpopular, but within two generations they were accepted as the building blocks of the nation."

The campaigns for referendums once the white paper is issued will show the strength of the drive towards a devolved, regionalised version of Englishness. Tomaney is hopeful for the Northeast, but Mitchell is pessimistic about Yorkshire and Humberside's prospects, suggesting that it might take another Conservative government to give his region's devolutionist impulses the force Margaret Thatcher - widely perceived in Wales and Scotland as an English Nationalist - gave to similar forces in Wales and Scotland.

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