Sunday, June 26, 2005

Identity, and a good idea

John B. has an interesting post up about British and English identity. His premise is that, in effect, England doesn't exist. Or at least, there are parts of the geographical entity of that name that do represent the stereotype "England", but they should not obscure the parts of England that don't. Now, I've been known to say this too, usually after drinking too much beer and feeling the need to say something provocative. But, more soberly, I think he's right.

You often hear of (usually rightwing) people who argue that, if there is Welsh and Scottish devolution, "why won't Blair give us an English parliament?" (yes, I know this sentence is in bad style, but the original phrasing is worth keeping.) This fits with a particular strain of Euroscepticism which enjoys conspiracy theories about the Labour Party "hating the UK" and wanting to "break up England" (note the conflation of England and Britain), one which is usually found in what I call hard-core Euroscepticism, Liam Fox as opposed to Michael Howard.

Now, there's an obvious argument that with devolution, the House of Commons and parts of Whitehall have a strange position where they have at once a central role, a federal role in US terms, and an English-only role. But countering this with "devolution for England" is not a good idea, for the simple reason that England as a single unit in a federal UK would be destabilisingly dominant. Not just that, it's quite possible that "England" isn't a sensible political unit in itself (in fact, the current territorial boundaries are hardly aligned with any of the pre-Union Englands). Many of the problems of a diverse state with centralised Whitehall rule would remain - and what then? Devolution within devolution?

My further argument is that England, as opposed to Britain, doesn't exist. Being English to me is being British, but not Scottish, Welsh or Irish. Most of the things that might be given as common features of an English identity from the Solway Firth to Dover are equally common with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (and New Zealand, for that matter), so pubs, old maids biking etc etc, sailing ships and Protestantism don't help very much. This is where the problems kick in: as you narrow it down, it's like zooming in on a bitmap graphic. It breaks up into dots. A lot of the high-Tory stuff about fox-hunting, Kentish lanes and cricket sounds pretty alien in Bradford. But white roses, dark satanic mills, Rugby League, dry stone walls and real ale look just as foreign in Guildford. I grew up in the Yorkshire Dales, and although there were plenty of sheep and a certain amount of cricket I wouldn't have known where to find a hunt. (But if you go up beyond Skipton towards the Lancashire border, you'll see plenty of Countryside Alliance favours - probably a result of the foot and mouth epidemic, which was especially bad around there.) And the current layout would assume Yorkshire was exactly the same as Oxfordshire, and Birmingham interchangeable with St. Ives - because administrative England includes Cornwall.

Further, the centre of "England" is without doubt London, a vast multinational city inimical to the English-parliament people with their rants about the "metropolitan elite". And which happens to be the seat of central government, and also itself devolved from administrative England. Where else, then? Birmingham? But isn't the second city rather too unlike the rural-conservative territory that English identity is supposedly built on? Bristol? The city of Tony Benn, Tricky, and Airbus's aerodynamic design department, for fuck's sake? Newbury, perhaps..oops, that's already the capital of Vodafone.

John attempts to answer this conundrum in the best, and I think the only way: disaggregate the fucker. If there really is a constituency for the whole bunch of Victorian tosh, it's (as he says) the rural South outside London. Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, across the gap between London and Birmingham, over to Bristol and down to the coast. Mind you, there's a good few outliers in there: Portsmouth/Southampton, Brighton, Reading, Bristol aren't necessarily a good fit. But then, who says politics is easy?

There's one way to gauge the realities of such a plan, which is to look at the electoral map. Yes, there is the great Lab/Lib concentration of London, with the marginal suburban belt. Yes, there is the similar urban block of the West Midlands. Across the Pennines you have the big concentration of Labour urban and semi-urban seats, with a varying fringe of (in the hills) alt.conservatives like David Curry and the odd Liberal Democrat or (in the Fylde and the Vale of York) big-farm, standard issue Tories. Across Cumbria you get a lot of slightly unusual Tories with red spots up the industrial west coast, and the north-east has its own balance between solid Labour in Newcastle and Durham Tories.

And, sweeping over from the Wash, there is indeed a southern Tory belt that squeezes between the red Midlands and London, dropping down to the south coast and going as far west as a curious line somewhere west of Poole where people start voting Liberal. Such a scheme would, I think, work rather well. UKIP and co. would likely act as a sort of Southern League, passing resolutions to leave the EU in the security of Norwich or whereever. (Note: I would probably find myself in Thatcherstan, so rest assured I'm willing to take responsibility.)

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