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
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The Independent Culture
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."