Gordon Brown’s English problem

John Denham

On Thursday Gordon Brown called for the Brexit settlement to deliver greater powers for UK nations and the English regions, rather than to Whitehall. The speech has strong points but at its heart is a fatal weakness that cannot deliver for Britain or England but could undermine Labour and feed its enemies. Not for the first time, he conjured up an imaginary England that has little reflection in the real nation. His description of left behind England accurately reflects some statistical facts but shows little grasp of the extent of the Brexit revolt or of the cultural and political turmoil in the country.

The speech, as reported, made some good sense. The United Kingdom is more united in name than in reality. A move to a federal structure now looks the only viable alternative to slow (or faster) disintegration. A constitutional convention will need explore the very different ways in which federalism could develop. And the idea that different parts of the UK might want to use powers repatriated from Brussels to meet different policy challenges and priorities also has a lot to commend it.

By implication, such radical changes would challenge some of the constitutional verities that Labour has clung to in recent years. A federal UK cannot have a unitary House of Commons. In resisting English Votes for English Laws, Labour has recently made that a red line for constitutional change. Any recognition of the democratic inequities of a Commons in which Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs vote on English issues that have been devolved in their own nations has to be welcome.

The problem is that Gordon also seems to have decided what the outcome of the constitutional assembly should look like. And that does not include any acknowledgement of the existence of England as a nation or as a political identity. By extension, it excludes all of that large majority of English residents who describe their national identity as English, or English and British. It is odd that a man who has fought all his political life for the right of the people of Scotland to determine their own future should be so resistant to allowing the English to do the same.

In an analysis of the Scottish devolution published before the Scottish referendum, Gordon showed the same myopia. Amid numerous references to Scotland, he had 104 to a non-existent ‘rest of the UK (rUK)’ and just four to England or the English. The fact that the English were exclusively referred to either as taxpayers or as pensioners betrays a narrow view of English interest. This marginalisation of England has long been the view of celtic Labour: England should not want a political voice and, in any case, cannot be allowed to have one. This is no longer tenable.

The English regions imagined by Brown and his supporters do not exist as economic, political or cultural entities; or to be more accurate some do (like London) , some don’t (like the vast area called the South East) and most have boundaries that are very different to those imagined by the Whitehall bureaucrats who drew them up. Places of real vibrant identity and passion – like Merseyside, Manchester or Birmingham – have to be submerged into a technocrat’s idealised region that fits the demands of central planning. Plenty of people identify with Yorkshire, but that’s not a government region. Few people leap to call themselves East Midlanders.

Brown’s vision of a devolved Brexit rests on the creation of regional structures that would have to be imposed and would enjoy no legitimacy. Even the current devolution process in England has plenty of critics who say that the public is being excluded from deals being struck between council leaders and government ministers. But most people would at least recognise an emerging geography of city-regions and counties that reflect natural economic and historic communities. It may be a bit messy and have a long way to go, but is infinitely preferable to an imposed and artificial solution.

But the most fundamental obstacle to Brown’s solution is that it sweeps aside any idea that England might have a political voice of its own, or that Englishness and English interests are of any concern to the people of England. Yet the evidence is clear that these are sentiments of growing importance. And the divisions that mar Britain are most marked in England.

England voted Leave – only London of the government’s English regions voted Remain. Brexit was not a simple vote of the angry and left-behind. While the largest concentrations of leave votes may have been in deprived communities, the greatest number of them live in the south. According the geographer Danny Dorling, over half of leave voters were middle class and only a quarter of leave voters were from social classes D and E. The Brexit vote was not a regional problem to be solved by regional solutions but a fundamental demand for representation and power that was expressed across the country.

Those who felt most intensely English were the most likely to vote Leave – up to 80% in some polls. English voters increasingly assert English issues – fear of SNP influence on a Labour government may have swung enough voters to deliver today’s Tory majority. Very few English voters were enthused by Gordon’s Brown’s ‘vow’ in the Scottish referendum and many were angered by it. The divisions in England will not be healed by breaking England into artificial regions but by allowing England to have a voice. And by allowing England – rather than Scottish politicians – to settle the balance of power between the centre and the localities. Devolution in England is essential but it has to be decided in England, and must be a central issue of any constitutional convention. Labour in England should be able to expect the same respect in determining what is best for England that it has always shown to colleagues in Wales and Scotland.

Constitutional reform in England is not yet a burning issue but may yet become so – and certainly would if there was a constitutional convention. Popular support lies behind EVEL or an English Parliament, and strong local government, not regional assemblies. With UKIP gearing up to offer English voters an English Parliament, Brown’s recommendations have the danger of offering a solution that neither England nor its localities want, and of ignoring the very voters Labour is struggling to win back.

John Denham is a former Labour Minister and is now Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University. He is the co-editor with Mike Kenny of Who speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, published by the Fabian Society in October.



  1. Alun Palmer

    Whilst I am in favour of an English assembly, I think a case could be made for regions instead, as long as the regions were large enough and followed the real ethnic divides that exist. For example, the largest number of regions that would make any sense to me would be four, say Wessex, Mercia, Cumbria and Cornwall/Devon. Perhaps London could be a fifth? Labour planned to have artificial smaller regions, whose chief raison d’etre was to limit how much power the English could exert on rUK, not to reflect in any meaningful way the identity of those who live there. A seperate assembly for Mercia, in the largest version of it’s existence, would enable the Midlands and the North to be uncoupled from the South, whilst Cumbria and Cornwall/Devon would reflect the English parts of the celtic fringe.

  2. Adam

    I accept your position on regions to an extent. Only that I’m not so sure that regional identities on the scale needed couldn’t be woven. West and East Midlands might not stir feelings of identity but “Mercia” might. Similarly with Liverpool, Manchester, Cumbria and Lancashire – In that I’m not sure I’d name it after it but the regional news certainly left me, growing up, with a sense of identity of being from the North West. History and current culture could provide threads that would form messy but less awkwardly sized regions.

    • Mark Holland

      The fact that the regional news left you with a feeling being from the North West (of England) shows that the Establishment’s brainwashing was successful from their point of view. The last thing they want is a feeling of Englishness to spread. The very thought scares them rigid. That’s why they have BBC Scotland, BBC Cymru/Wales, BBC Northern Ireland, but not BBC England. It’s all divide and rule. I used to consider myself English (first) and British (second), but since my eyes were opened to the fact that we in England pay far more of the ‘U’K's bills than we ought to, while getting nowt in return, has turned me against Britishness in every way possible. I’ve taught myself to hate and despise everything about the British state. You would almost certainly feel a lot better if you lost the British baggage, and simply thought of yourself as English.

      • Adam

        I’m more annoyed at the amount London gets compared to Northumberland than how much Scotland gets compared to England. So I’m fine being a British Lancastrian thanks

  3. Alfred the OK

    Gordon Brown has always disliked all things English. So much so, when Chancellor of the Exchequer, he flew his heavily pregnant wife up to Edinburgh so that all his kids would be born in Scotland – what’s the matter, Gordon, are there no maternity wards in London then? And years ago, he was a signatory to the Scottish Claim of Right. It is down to him & Blair that we have such anger in England. The grossly ill thought out 1998 Devolution Act, where everyone, apart from the English, got national empowerment, lit the fuse. 50 million plus people with absolutely no national champion to fight our corner; no English First Minister, no English Parliament – we’re not even allowed a national anthem of our own! In spite of successive opinion polls consistently showing majority support for an English Parliament (latest shows 62% in favour), Westminster politicians have routinely ignored that groundswell. At every opportunity, the Establishment has sought to bury any expression of Englishness. The menu bar above on this very website illustrates this perfectly. There are tabs for; ‘Fabian Women’, ‘Young Fabians’, ‘Scottish Fabians’, ‘Welsh Fabians’ and ‘Local Fabians’…. Doesn’t the Fabian Society have any English members then? Or do those left leaning Fabians so hate to aphilliate to the country of their birth?

    National political recognition of England needs to be addressed – and as quickly as possible; because if it isn’t, rising English anger will know no bounds.

  4. Gareth Young

    Well said Mr Denham. Gordon Brown cannot conceive of England as a source of political identity and citizenship in its own right because his idea of Britain is Anglo-centric. Unless we have a federal-type union (a union of nations) in which each nation has equal recognition then, frankly, I’d prefer independence for England.

    • Ethel Maud

      Yes, lets push for an English Parliament – it is outrageous to deny the English representation – and this may keep the UK together

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