As Britain's credit rating has been downgraded so has its role on the world stage. As well as presenting an immediate challenge to living conditions and trade across the UK it also amplifies questions about the long term health and vitality of 'brand Britain' and the responsiveness of our political framework. To this shaky backdrop our constitutional future has never looked less certain, with Scots holding an independence referendum in 2014 and the potential for EU withdrawal only three years later.
With the idea of Britishness coming under ever-closer scrutiny, now is the time for the English to follow the other home-nations in asking what future they want for the Union. Unlike Scottish or Welsh nationalism, both of which have been historically underpinned by a strong strand of progressive radicalism, we tend to view English nationalism as a right wing phenomenon. Despite some recent changes there is still an uneasy and lingering relationship between the St George's cross and its reactionary connotations. One recent report found that almost a quarter consider the St George's cross to be a racist symbol. How can it be that so many are so ashamed of their own flag when the same poll found that the proportion of English people who prioritises their English identity (40%) is now twice as large as that which prioritises their British one (16%)?
The report also found that 60% feel they have become more aware of Englishness in recent years. One reason for this upsurge is the growing sense that England is getting a raw deal from the Union. This has become more pertinent over recent years, with 50% saying that Scotland receives 'more than its fair share of UK public spending' compared to the rest of the UK. Thus far it hasn't resulted in any significant support for either Scotland's departure from the UK or an English parliament. But that may be about to change. If Scots vote for independence in 2014 it will spell the breakup of Britain as we know it. Could Westminster sustain its archaic system of Lords and peers if Scotland opted to depart, or would it need a complete overhaul? Could the historical British narrative continue in any meaningful sense if such a major strand were severed?
Even if Scots do vote to stay in the Union then it's likely to lead to a very different settlement. It would almost certainly result in a more federal UK, with the devolved parliaments only increasing their autonomy, it could almost be characterised as a post-British union. Could federalism be a long-term solution? It could definitely work in the short term, but I suspect the inevitable ties between domestic and foreign policy agendas would make a permanent arrangement very difficult. Despite any political differences there will always be a strong case for a continued, and mutually beneficial, monetary and social union, but would the defence needs and foreign policy of Scotland be the same as that of England?
What would England's military role be after Britain? The UK has already found itself sharing air craft carriers with France, and there are growing questions about the cost and practicality of the ego-enhancing nuclear deterrent. An independent Scotland would almost certainly disarm its trident fleet, but could it really be re-homed south of the border when the MoD is suggesting otherwise? There is an element of false reality about the debate though, and Labour is already talking about joining the Tories in going into the next election calling for trident to be renewed. In reality it's hard to believe that England would choose to maintain the fourth largest military budget in the world when its power was so stumped and the process of decolonisation has seen the empire scaled down to a collection of far away outposts and rocks. However, at the same time as Britain's national story is collapsing under its own bloated sense of prestige, the English one can be redrawn and redefined.
Despite the gloomy economic circumstances, England has a lot to celebrate; it is a beautiful and tolerant multicultural society that has contributed a great deal to the world socially, politically and culturally. Yet the 'English question' has only been prodded and poked by the political classes rather than substantially addressed. The right wing narratives tend to be vague, triumphalist and tied up in feelings of nostalgia and premonitions of ongoing Union, and the progressive responses have yet to comfortably address the changing constitutional landscape. Without the moral and psychological baggage of Empire and the costs and responsibilities of maintaining such a vast arsenal, a new focus can be put on domestic policy.
The truth is that England is divided. There is a real and perceived political inequality in the country's governance. In 2011 the IPPR found that 72% believe UK government looks after some parts of England more than others, with 79% saying London and the South East are favoured over the rest of the country. There needs to be a serious discussion about the ways in which the regions that many feel are being neglected can be politically and economically empowered. There have been attempts to introduce mayoral structures to the cities, but these have either been rejected outright or met with apathy. Polling suggests that 70% feel that a central UK parliament is the best place to make legislation for England, and this means that Westminster needs to adapt. The first step should be a ban on Scottish MPs voting on issues that don't affect their constituents. This is not a new idea and is supported by a clear majority of English people, but it is one which was unlikely to progress when Gordon Brown was in Downing Street.
As things stand, the polling suggests 2017 may usher in a new era of post-British isolationism. If that should happen then the regressive cycle would be complete. Progressives need to work together in shaping an exciting and engaging vision for Englishness in a post-British union. Ed Miliband's 'One Nation' mantra wasn't a bad start from a party political perspective, but beyond that it felt dated and southern-centric.
Over time Scottish nationalism has started to be seen as a pragmatic force that can preserve the welfare state and great British institutions like the NHS. Both the Scottish and Welsh parliaments have chosen to prioritise indirect re-distribution with policies such as free presecriptions to minimise the impact of Westminster's cuts. Unfortunately some of these ideas have barely entered the political lexicon in England. There is no doubt that there are tough times ahead, but if we are to conclude that Britain as we know it is in a state of political and military decline then surely one of the positives to emerge from the ashes can be a more confident, progressive and representative vision for modern England.
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