About three years ago I was asked by a senior politician ‘what was the biggest issue that politics would face?’ Sure, there's the economy but there is also the matter of the political expression of Englishness. The politician spontaneously guffawed (though I note that they have since changed their tune). Well, if Scotland votes for independence next week then get ready for the political rebirth of England. And very few in politics are ready for it.
Already there is panicked talk of constitutional conventions, regional parliaments, English Parliaments and English votes for English laws. A devo-max process for Scotland has suddenly appeared like a rabbit out of the hat. Why not a new English constitution? This is a grotesquely incompetent way to go about institutional building. Essentially, our current crop of political leaders, the same ones who have taken us to the precipice of the break-up of the union that few south of the border seem to want, are presenting themselves to us as alchemists. Yet, it is an alchemy born out of desperation- very dangerous in other words.
If only we had an example of political nation building close to hand. Wait, we do: Scotland. The devolution process that is showing signs of becoming an independence process has been emerging for decades. It has been driven by a disparate movement of civic, cultural and political activism. Following a failed devolution referendum in 1979, it evolved and grew over time. Two decades later, a second referendum was confirmation of the energy of this movement. One of the big errors that Labour has made in recent tiems is in trying to claim sole ownership of Scottish devolution. The role of a John Smith and Donald Dewar should never be under-estimated but they were not operating in a vacuum.
Scottish nationalism, which has evolved from chippy chauvinism and 'tartan Toryism' into civic pluralism (though 'cybernats' et al have their backward looking moments!) continued where the devolution movement left off. Other political players left the field at this point considering it job done. Quietly, relentlessly the new nationalists carried on and slowly but surely the independence movement grew beyond them. Even if 'no' wins next week, and that is still the most likely outcome, it is not clear how this movement will be stopped.
And this is the lesson for England. Constitutional change can't take place in a vacuum. That is why votes for mayors, regional government, and before it, the first Scottish referendum, all fell. There was no context, no wider civic movement. So I would urge England's political elites to pause and take stock if it's a 'yes'. If a new set of constitutional arrangements are to be introduced, they should not come about as a result of who happens to be in power at the time and they most definitely should not be bounced into the law by the very same political leaders whose credibility will be shot through follow an independence vote.
Good constitutions are works of art. They are workable but more importantly they give expression to the plural range of forces in any nation (or beyond the nation). They are culturally embedded and they are distinguished by a sense of common ownership and procedural justice. They command respect as they rise above the every day. The elegance of the American constitution is that it safeguarded freedom without collapsing into fragmentation. In a nation of greater cultural consensus than today, it was a monument to some brilliant men, one of whom was a member of the RSA, and they, in turn, became part of the sustaining mythology. It was a bedrock of civilisation. American society has been through two revolutions since in the 1860s and 1960s (they seem to come every hundred years or so) but the constitution has flexed and withstood the change. American society is once again bitterly divided and the constitution is straining at the leash. Yet it endures.
England will need time. It is possible that some pretty angry and scary forces could be unleashed that make the anger over MP’s expenses seem like a storm in a teacup. Let’s pray not. However, a quick fix done as the result of a snap deal would likely provoke this sort of reaction. It is quite clear that our political system is not open enough. The work done by the City Growth Commission here and many others is building an ever more robust body of evidence behind how power and resources can be devolved. As long as the devolution comes to fruition that could act as some form of pressure valve. The bigger constitutional questions will need time.
There will be many competing visions of Englishness. Some will be antagonistic, some pluralistic. There will be those who crave isolation and others who favour international co-operation. My own preference is for a plural, internationalist, England that is grounded in social justice. Others favour a different path. What we must all find a way of agreeing on is the rules of the game. This matters for us all and most definitely cannot be left to a political cadre who have shown themselves pretty incapable of looking very far beyond their own noses.
This is deadly serious stuff. Whatever Scotland decides, it matters. Senior political leaders are no longer laughing at the notion of a political expression of Englishness. It could be about to become a reality; it probably will do even if it’s ‘no’ next week. We can’t resolve what institutional form this expression may take unless a national dialogue is allowed to grow and evolve. It is to civil society that we must turn – communities, churches, artists and writers, unions, civic networks – just as Scotland did. It is the English themselves who must own their future – not a closed political cadre or those who want to sow division and distrust. The English political moment is not far away.
Anthony Painter is the RSA’s Director of Institutional Reform