Who are we? And what identity do we want our institutions to express? The question has woven in and out of both sport and politics all week, as it often does. The questions are endlessly absorbing; the answers invariably complex. In the real world, multiple, sometimes conflicted, and often changing identities are the only kind.
Over the last weekend, “we” — or a lot of us — celebrated the British and Irish Lions victory in Australia. The Lions were the British team. But who is this “we”? The team is made up of English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish rugby players — the Irish from north and south of the border, all playing as one. A day later, “we” — whoever exactly “we” are — basked in Andy Murray’s hoodoo-breaking Wimbledon triumph. However, is Murray a Scot or British, or both? Is he ours? Do the Irish, whose tries were cheered last Saturday, get a slice of the Murray reflected glory too? The debate has been predictably untidy, as it should be.
On Wednesday, cricket’s Ashes gave a third spin to the identity wheel. The nation is hoping for an England win. But which nation? And which England is playing? The team largely consists of white South Africans and northern Englishmen, with gratifyingly few of the public school set you see at Lord’s in the team. But in cricket, much of the time, England is effectively Britain too. England already play home games in Cardiff and will probably play them in Edinburgh too if the price was right. Sky TV are running an ad in which Irish members of the Lions urge England on. In a British Isles sporting and broadcasting framework, it all makes sense. But does Alex Salmond root for England? Or Gerry Adams?
Any claim that a person’s identity is defined by one quality to the exclusion of all others is tosh — race, gender, religion all included, as well as nationality. The person who tells you otherwise is deceiving themselves and trying to deceive you. I am with the French — arguably Gascon — writer Montaigne when he said that his identity at any given time depends on which of his many faces he is presenting to the world. “Every sort of contradiction can be found in me,” Montaigne wrote. “Timid, insolent; chaste, lecherous; talkative, taciturn; tough, sickly; clever, dull; brooding, affable; lying, truthful; learned, ignorant; generous, miserly and then prodigal. There is nothing I can say about myself as a whole, simply and completely, without intermingling and admixture.”
It is exactly the same with national and political identities. Nothing is simply and completely labelled in politics. Class is a potent case in point. When Len McCluskey says he wants more working-class MPs, he is not really saying that class is the only thing that matters. He really wants more left-wing MPs. He will happily welcome public school socialists into his fold if they toe his political line. And he is not interested in working-class Tory or Liberal Democrat MPs one single bit.
So, when we read last week that the coalition was now planning to give major new legislative powers to English MPs at Westminster, it was worth pausing and unpicking what was being discussed. I’m told that few hard decisions have in fact been taken on the package of new measures, but ministers are certainly discussing giving English MPs a final say on Westminster legislation that does not affect other parts of the union, like bills on education or the health service, for example. But is this really about empowering England? And which England? Or is it also or instead about weakening Labour and at the same time reconfiguring the nature of UK government?
The answer is clearly a bit of all three things. However, it is a reminder that the English question is forcing its way on to the political agenda for all parties. There is a particular warning there for the Labour party, which is in many respects now the only party with a credible presence in all parts of mainland UK and which cannot go on postponing serious engagement with the English issue much longer.
There is an increasing sense in UK politics that the old West Lothian question — why can Scottish or Welsh MPs vote on issues only affecting England, while English MPs cannot vote on devolved matters affecting Scotland or Wales — is a chicken finally coming home to roost. The West Lothian question has always been there ever since the launch of devolution in the 1970s. In practice, however, it has not been essential to answer it. The system has got by without doing so. That may still be true, even now.
However, if the coalition now gives English MPs at Westminster a special status — the right to a separate parliamentary fourth reading for bills only affecting England, for example — the West Lothian question will have been answered in a way which would not merely add to the UK’s identity muddle, but could also create a new constitutional muddle too. It could institutionalise the castration of any UK government which could not command a majority of English MPs. Since this would in practice only apply to a Labour government with a narrow majority or governing in coalition — the kind of government which Ed Miliband may lead after 2015 — this is clearly now a pressing issue.
Which brings us back to identity. England has long been the missing part of the UK debate on both identity and the constitution. That cannot go on much longer. There has to be some way of giving the people who live in England a political voice of their own. But English feeling is much more complex and potentially much more progressive than the anti-devolution, anti-European Union saloon-bar Farageism revealed in the IPPR’s report on English discontents last week. At the moment, the fight for English sympathies is often presented as an argument between the Conservatives and Ukip, with the Lib Dems on the margins. However, there has always been a Labour England too, not just in the cities and the north, but in the country. One of the most pressing reasons why Miliband needs to win his battle about Labour’s future is to win a hearing in that English debate. Everything connects.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd