As devolution gathers pace, what do English voters want?
In Winchester there are conflicting views on national identity and how to respond to changeThe red and white cross of St George, patron saint of England since the late middle ages, flies over Winchester's even older cathedral, as it has for centuries. On a sunny October Sunday few passing residents spare it a glance. Nor do American tourists heading for the cathedral's north aisle to pay tribute at the gravestone of that quintessential English writer, Jane Austen.It used to be taken for granted that the English, long the dominant tribe on the British archipelago, were comfortable with their national identity, casually regarding it as virtually synonymous and inter-changeable with "British", along with the assumption was it Kipling's remark or Cecil Rhodes? that "to be born an Englishman is to win first prize in the lottery of life".All that has gone, leaving behind a mixture of nostalgia and bewilderment, anger and embarrassment, that barely a century ago the British empire was still the foremost economic and political power on earth, its might projected by a vast navy whose warships still fly the white ensign, St George's cross with the union flag first designed in 1606 in the top corner. Even more uncomfortable for the English, the smaller nations with which they share their islands, the Welsh, Scots and Irish even the truculent Cornish with their white-on-black flags have reasserted themselves in countless post-imperial ways. The SNP government in Edinburgh's demand to reverse the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England is only the latest challenge.Polls in England confirm that awareness of the challenge is growing: an increasing number of people say they are "English", not "British" and support for an English parliament to mirror the devolved ones has grown a little. It does not yet seem as urgent as it might become if Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond, manages to stage his promised independence referendum on his own terms: perhaps around the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn, Scotland's myth-encrusted victory over the old enemy outside Stirling on 24 June 1314.Yet initial reluctance among Sunday strollers in Winchester's Cathedral Close to describe their national identity quickly gives way to interesting answers. Jean Mitchell, walking with her family, says she regards herself as British. Daughter Helen says: "I work in sports administration so I think of myself as English." One of their menfolk, who lives in France, and does not wish to give his name says: " I'm European."That's rare, but a reminder that the threat to England's British identity forged, historians now say, by 18th century Protestantism, patriotism and burgeoning empire comes from Brussels as well as from Holyrood and multicultural globalisation. "I'm British because my mother's Scottish and my father's family is from Germany," says student Alex Sommel, 17. His friend, George McQuire Irish on his father's side, says the same. Plenty do."I'm a reserved, English sort of person, whereas British is more about the mixing of different cultures, races and religions," says a visitor from King's Lynn whose family there resents immigrants on their patch. Jean and Irish-born Frank Mahon are tourists from Arizona, inspecting Jane Austen's modest gravestone. They see "England as the countryside, Britain as the country, the military and the empire". It is a neat distinction, widely echoed: Britain is the institutional bit, male and elitist. England, as the political scientist, Richard Rose, once put it "is a state of mind, not a state".The English as a mongrel, liberty-loving race defying the "Norman yoke" and foreigners, is part of the national myth, easily detected in the still prosperous but less so southern city of Winchester. Settled before the Romans came, its first pre-Norman cathedral built by Saxon invaders, it is the original burial place of Alfred the Great 871-899 who held the Vikings at bay rather than expelled them entirely and whose Wessex capital it was. Edward the Confessor, last Anglo-Saxon king of England, was crowned here 1043, but not William of Normandy 1066 whose choice of Westminster survives today. St Swithan, the national rainmaker, was buried here too.But what of Scotland? "They get more than their share" is a common response in Winchester, reflecting the opinion polls. "It causes a lot of resentment because we have to pay for it all," says Geraldine Knight, a Norfolk widow of Ulster Protestant stock. If Scots want independence they must have it and good luck "they have a completely separate identity", but many think both sides of Hadrian's imperial wall would lose. "If it's just a matter of pride, it's irrational, but it's their choice. Economically, it doesn't seem the right time," says one.That is the dual challenge to pro-union politicians at Westminster and beyond: how to address English aspirations while saving the cherished union from Salmond. "There is an asymmetry in this. When Alex Salmond wakes up every morning his first political priority is to break up the UK. When David Cameron and Nick Clegg wake up it is not their first priority to save it," says a Tory cabinet minister.But save it they intend to do. On all sides there is a subtle stiffening of resolve at Westminster where 528 MPs out of 654 represent English seats though not all of those are English. Ed Miliband's latest frontbench reshuffle installed tough Margaret Curran, a former MSP and Holyrood minister, as shadow Scottish secretary, and ensured a Scots MP shadows every ministry where sensitive powers defence, social security and the like are reserved to London.Lacking sheer numbers in Wales and Scotland Northern Ireland is always different the coalition cannot match that. But Cameron, his father born in Aberdeenshire, has conceded that it must take the fight for the union into SNP territory. He must do more to make the positive case for the union in Scotland as well as force the wily Salmond his populist political skills widely feared to explain more precisely how an independent Scotland would actually work. "We must not treat Scotland like a foreign country where they happen to speak English," says the Tory cabinet member.A national sense of grievance is one thing, Labour critics agree. But on the monarchy, the currency, the EU, defence, renewable energy grants and a huge hole in the social security budget which Holyrood would inherit, some of the SNP's current explanations are laughable. How best to respond is less easily agreed.Within Cameron's inner governing "quad" of four, George Osborne is said to regard the referendum as a win/win for the Tories who would be entrenched in power in England if Scotland left. The prime minister is less complacent, anxious not to be remembered as the man who lost the union, prepared for drastic action if needs be. As for Nick Clegg, he looks to Danny Alexander, Treasury no2 and the coalition's senior Scot. Alexander is for playing Salmond long and hoping he runs out of steam.It does not help that his May 6 election triumph an outright SNP majority forced all rival leaders to resign. Murdo Fraser, tipped to become Tory leader in Scotland, wants to ditch the tainted Thatcherised brand entirely and like parties in other decentralised states, including Bavaria and Canada create a new regional centre-right identity. Desperate stuff or the new reality? In Wales battered Tories recovered better because they started picking Welsh-speaking candidates who do not sound like a branch office of London. That is how Scots Labour "its stars dominating Westminster, not Holyrood, in the Blair-Brown years still sounds to many.Some Cameron allies share Alexander's caution, fearing that imposing their own terms and timetable for an early and simple In/Out referendum would look like English bullying. Yet former Thatcher Scottish secretary, Lord Michael Forsyth, is poised to try and force an early vote via an amendment to the Scotland Bill. Communities secretary, Eric Pickles, a 2011 version of that stock English character, bluff John Bull, agrees. "Do it as quickly and expeditiously as possible," he says.The truth is that there has never been a Westminster consensus on how best to develop and devolve power away from post-imperial Whitehall into Celtic Britain, let alone the English regions. Stop MPs in Portcullis House and their answers are as diverse as voters in Winchester. Few claim to understand "devolution-max", Salmond's fallback position if independence is rejected as most polls say it would be 2-1. They have other worries and in politics the urgent often takes priority over the important."My voters never mention the constitution. They like the status quo," MPs say. Tory support for an English-only parliament has flared and faded. The English Defence League and other manifestation of assertive nationalism Ukip and the BNP remain primarily vehicles for disgruntled protest votes, not serious aspirants for power, even in deep recession. Shared memories of D-Day and the Blitz, the widely-cherished National Health Service and the British Broadcasting Corporation their mid-century architects, Nye Bevan and John Reith were Welsh and Scots, are both fragmented by market forces and less potent among the sceptical young who need to be persuaded that the ancient Union matters if it does.But what do English voters "febrile and fearful in recession" as one recent constitutional study put it actually want? Faced with anomalies such as the West Lothian question Celtic MPs voting on English affairs at Westminster, but not vice versa Tory ministers shrug and dismiss it as a minor "quirk" that England can live with. Yet diverging policies on tuition fees and elderly care "we pay for it," Fleet Street editorialists remind readers make a once-theoretical quirk real to hard-pressed taxpayers.A federal British solution as part of a wider constitutional settlement including Lords, Commons and the voting system? That gets some Lib Dem support. But England's dominance 52 million out of 62 million makes it tricky. So does fear of unfair public service distribution, the "postcode lottery" which, incidentally, makes the mayor of borderland Berwick want to take the town into Scotland.Elected regional government? John Prescott's pilot referendum was roundly rejected in the north-east, but Labour's Newcastle East MP, Nick Brown, says a better model, focused less on elections and more on economic development, would work there though not in the south-east. Like Spain, England needs asymmetrical devolution, he says. London Britain's wealthy city state moored in the Thames and also widely resented already has it. Localism, another fashionable cause, can only thrive in a wider settlement.Whatever the English instinct for a no-fuss quiet life, change is inescapable. The devolved government and assembly in Cardiff Bay has recently acquired new legislative powers. Ministers this week promised it a commission into wider tax powers to match Scotland's blueprint for greater fiscal autonomy, currently passing through the Lords and monitored suspiciously from Holyrood. Stormont wants low corporation tax rates like Dublin's.Some conservative commentators like to portray the English, not as newly-retired masters of the universe, but as innocents, much slower to catch on than their more sophisticated Celtic fellow-countrymen.Either way, they may soon be forced to stop complaining "how UnEnglish is that?" asks an immigrant blogger and choose between becoming even more of a quaint tourist theme park or finding fresh inspiration. Making St George's Day a bank holiday will not do.British identity and societyMichael Whiteguardian.co.uk © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions More Feeds