Identity, nationalism and Union: a solution in devolution, according to the Archbishop of York


In a piece for the Daily Telegraph, the Archbishop of York, The Most Rev Stephen Cottrell, attacked the metropolitan elite in London for looking down on those who are “proud to be English” and called for an “expansive view” on the meaning of English identity. His concerns raise prickly questions for identity, nationalism, and Union within the UK.

In a way, the Archbishop’s comments are unnoteworthy. The lazy caricaturing of “metropolitan elites” takes us back to the heady days of the referendum’s culture wars. Language such as “patronising London elites” has been so rinsed by politicians that it has largely become meaningless to the electorate. His prognosis to solving what ails the British polity can be somewhat discredited at face value.

The idea that greater devolution to England’s regions would solve all the issues of imbalance within the wider Union is misleading. The argument currently runs that devolution has allowed Scotland and Wales to rediscover a strong sense of national identity, while London prospers, because it always does, leaving English regions largely overlooked and disempowered. The Archbishop’s solution is to devolve more from Westminster and see England then become more at ease with itself, and less overlooked.

The observation from some that another English identity has emerged from being ignored in the current constitutional settlement (appearing nostalgic, inward-looking, and strongly patriotic) has then been criticised by the Archbishop. But tempting as it might be, English devolution is not the solution. His prognosis is flawed in two ways: practically and constitutionally.

If the current desire for independence is high, the formation of a powerful English government would only exacerbate this problem

Take the first, the practical nature of breaking up England into its nine constituent parts, with nine new first ministers. This seems unnecessary and wasteful. Why add another layer of government? History does not bode well for the Archbishop’s recommendations: the North East devolution referendum in 2004 was resoundingly rejected by three-quarters of the electorate. England is already well-served by Westminster, and it does not need another stream of representation.

Take the second: the question of where this leaves the Westminster government constitutionally. Assuming devolution leads to the creation of an English parliament, it raises the uncomfortable prospect of appearing to supersede Westminster, leaving England run by two competing institutions. It would also involve the practical problem of essentially relegating the other devolved nations to obscurity should an English government be formed; if the current desire for independence is high, the formation of a powerful English government would only exacerbate this problem. Constitutionally, where would an English first minister sit alongside a UK prime minister? Greater devolution seems like a Pandora’s Box best left closed. So the Archbishop’s suggestion can be heartily repudiated. But his article was deeply insightful in other ways.

The Archbishop’s diagnosis that “national unity [is] more fractured than I have known in my lifetime” is pertinent and timely

The Archbishop is incisive in his diagnosis of the issue which, alongside the rise of China and a warming climate, will dog this country for decades to come: the question of how four nations can meaningfully split power and decision-making authority in a legitimate and equitable way. For too many, the current constitutional settlement is unsatisfactory. The existence of independence parties signals this very clearly; should they succeed the UK risks becoming a failed state. The Archbishop’s diagnosis that “national unity [is] more fractured than I have known it in my lifetime” is pertinent and timely.

Not only this, his comments concerning the evolution of the English identity are thoughtful, thought-provoking, and deserve greater thought. In a way, this is a reminder that the Union is nascent in its existence compared to the historical kingdoms which were before. Of particular note is the argument that a “loss of identity” is driving political change in the UK. “No longer British, temperamentally never really European, and definitely outside the wealth of opportunities of London …”, the Archbishop succinctly characterises a loss of identity felt by too many people. Addressing this problem is perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing policymakers today.

By one measure Boris Johnson’s government is exceeding and failing simultaneously in answering this question. To his credit, Mr Johnson leads an administration which is the first in decades committed to meaningfully tackling regional inequality. Establishing a ‘Union unit’ in No. 10 has meant ‘joined up’ policy-making on constitutional matters can be addressed. There is a concerted effort to spend political capital on the Union and addressing regional differences.

The will is most certainly there, but it has been too heavy-handed at times. Mr Johnson’s ‘muscular unionism’ is driving support for independence and turning off too many swing voters in Scotland. His ‘levelling-up’ agenda is currently nothing more than a media catchphrase. The UK is also unique among other industrialised countries and the continent for presiding over spectacular regional inequities: measured by purchasing power, the UK has six of the ten poorest regions in Europe. It also has the most wealthy, in London. It will be interesting to see whether the Archbishop’s recommendations ring across Whitehall or fall flat.

The Archbishop of York is wrong to suggest the solution to the questions of identity, nationalism and Union is more government and more patriotism – but his diagnosis of the problems facing the UK’s national identity could not be more pertinent.

Image: fourthandfifteen via Wikimedia Commons

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