Podium: A challenge for St George's Day

Tony Wright From a speech by the Labour MP to a Fabian Society conference at Ruskin College, Oxford

IDENTITY POLITICS are dynamite. We should not need the horror of the Balkans to remind us of that. Unless we tread carefully, it is only too easy to get blown up by them. No doubt this is why so many sensible people prefer to give the whole issue the widest of wide berths.

But this is no longer possible. There is a battle on for Britain, and for England, and we must make sure that we win it. Defeat would not bring us Balkan-style war, but it would make life on our small island much more unpleasant. The battle lines are becoming daily more clear. It is time to engage.

Above all it is time for England to engage, for we are Chesterton's "people of England that never have spoken yet". The English have been the silent and uninvited guests at the devolutionary feast. Scotland has a parliament, Wales an assembly, while England gets only some regional quangos. A striking feature of the devolution legislation has been its total neglect of the union (and English) dimension.

Scottish over-representation at Westminster is to be reduced, but Scotland retains a secretary of state as well as acquiring a parliament, while England has neither; the West Lothian question (why should Scottish MPs vote on English matters when English MPs can't vote on Scottish ones?) remains unanswered; and the public-spending formula continues to be over- generous to Scotland. Whatever the devolution settlement was, it was clearly not a settlement. And it leaves the English Question unresolved.

This is the question of where England fits into the new union that is now being created, and what kind of England will make its distinctive contribution to this union. If it's a surly English nationalism, then the new union state will be in trouble from the start. The chances of creating what Gladstone a century ago called "a partnership of four nations" will be bleak. Instead it will soon become a bad-tempered failure.

But if England puts its inevitable dominance (with 85 per cent of the UK population and 529 out of 659 MPs) to imaginative use in the service of the new union, then the prospects are transformed.

We have to admit that the English never really got the hang of the old union. They thought that Britain was just England by another name. On his best-selling travels, the American writer Bill Bryson came upon the grave of Asquith in an Oxfordshire churchyard and was surprised that the headstone described this British figure at the height of empire as Prime Minister of England. Bagehot's famous book of the 1860s was called The English Constitution. Britain has been a contrivance; England an identity.

But what kind of identity? It's difficult not to be confessional here. I am irredeemably English. There is nothing I can do about it. In Orwell's words, suet puddings and red pillarboxes have entered my soul. But I am also aware that I like one kind of Englishness as much as I dislike another kind. My England is about quiet patriotism and undemonstrative decency. It's the sort that says "still, mustn't grumble", trades in gentle irony, knows that it takes all sorts, believes in fair play, distrusts fundamentalists and tries to make things work. This is the kind of Englishness that makes living in England so agreeable.

There is another kind, however, much less appealing. This Englishness always believes somebody (usually foreign) is diddling them. It's smug, arrogant and excluding. Its language is that of the "home counties" and the "provinces".

Why does this matter now? Because devolution has given this kind of unlovely Englishness a new lease of life. English nationalism joins hands with the separatists in wanting the new union to fail. Their demand for the chimera of an English parliament is the refusal of a certain kind of (southern) Englishness to recognise the democratic claims of what Orwell called "the England that is only just beneath the surface".

It is this other England that now has to speak. When it does, it will attend sensibly to the need to represent England in the new union. This may mean procedural changes at Westminster; it will certainly mean radical decentralisation within England. But there need be no uniformity. The evolving union is messy and lopsided - and all the better for it.

Living with anomalies and preferring common sense to logical abstractions is said to be what the political genius of the English is all about. In the words of Burke, the Irish father of English conservatism, "it is in the nature of all greatness not to be exact."

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all