An opinion by Jolyon Gumbrell
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have so far been successful in getting their message across, when it comes to fighting Covid-19. Each of the three devolved nations of the United Kingdom has its own spokesperson to update the public on measures that need to be followed to stop the spread of the virus, while England the fourth nation of the United Kingdom is left to be told what to do by a spokesperson from the UK Government. This situation illustrates the problem that devolution was never completed by Tony Blair’s government between 1997 and 2007, meaning England was deprived of its own dedicated assembly or parliament and government separate from Westminster and Whitehall.
If the constitutional situation in the United Kingdom is to be tidied up, then the Westminster Parliament in London should become the federal parliament for the whole of the United Kingdom and nothing else, while England should be allowed and required to form its own parliament preferably outside of London in a geographically central city such as Birmingham. Likewise the UK Government would become the federal government of the United Kingdom, while England like the other nations of the Union would have its own government formed by members of its own dedicated parliament. This would alleviate the inbalance and democratic deficit of the English not having their own parliament.
A future historian may one day write that if the English had been allowed their own parliament within the United Kingdom, then Brexit would not have happened. Although such an argument would not explain Welsh support for leaving the European Union in the referendum of 2016, it would help explain the direction English nationalism had taken at the time of the EU referendum.
Fintan O’Toole, the author of ‘Heroic Failure Brexit and the politics of pain’ used the term “sublimation of Englishness into Britishness” to explain how at one time the English dominated the other nations of the British Isles, by the imposition of an English cultural identity on all parts of the Union. This may explain why politicians behind devolution in the late 1990s never planned for England to be devolved from the United Kingdom unlike the other three nations, because England had always been the most powerful nation of the Union. However without English devolution the situation has reversed itself, turning England into a zone more subordinate to Westminster and Whitehall than the other three nations of the United Kingdom. At the time of the referendum many people in England already felt disenfranchised, and this anger was easily directed against the European Union instead of the failed constitutional framework of the United Kingdom.
The United Kingdom left the European Union on 31st January 2020, but the public have been distracted away from Brexit by the consequences of Covid-19. However, once the transition period ends on 31st December 2020 the United Kingdom will no longer have access to European markets unless a trade agreement can be arranged. The UK’s negotiating position would be stronger, if the EU negotiators could be confident that British standards matched those of the EU, in areas such as consumer and environmental protection and workers rights. The problem for the UK is it does not have a written constitution which recognises human rights and the rule of law. A written constitution would also clearly state that all four nations of the United Kingdom are equal and recognise all of the democratically elected parliaments and assemblies. But without an English assembly or parliament separate from Westminster this is not possible.
O’Toole, Fintan; (2019) Heroic Failure Brexit and the politics of pain, Head of Zeus Ltd., London.
Bryant, Chris (ed.) (2007) Towards a new constitutional settlement, The Smith Institute, London.
©Jolyon Gumbrell 2020