The Campaign for an English Parliament would like to point out to you before you read the article that they believe ‘It’s not so much that the English have an identity crisis as the title claims but of course that the British establishment has a crisis in trying to face up to the English Question.
The Scottish referendum has left the English with an identity crisis it is struggling to solve
As parliament considers English Votes for English Laws, Bernard Cornwell’s Warrior Chronicles offers an understanding of the country’s past which could help determine its future role in the United Kingdom
6:59PM BST 19 Oct 2015
I have a confession to make. Despite the encouragement of friends and family I have never watched Game of Thrones, missing out, I am reliably informed, on a spectacular tale of war, rivalry and treachery set in a world that straddles fantasy and reality. But I have not felt bereft, because I have instead been immersed in the gore-soaked saga of Uhtred of Bebbanburg (known to us today as Bamburgh Castle), the hero of Bernard Cornwell’s Warrior Chronicles, which are about to be dramatised on BBC2, starting on Thursday under the title of the first book, The Last Kingdom.
To the delight of his devotees, Cornwell has just published the ninth novel in the series, which unlike Game of Thrones has the merit of being rooted in history. While Uhtred himself is a fictional character (though the author claims descent from a Northumbrian Saxon kinsman of the same name) his exploits are a vehicle for telling a great story: the birth of England as a nation. As with the best historical literature (think of Cornwell’s other great creation, Sharpe) the adventures of a single individual are set against the backdrop of momentous events in order that we should better understand them.
I suspect that, like me, most people are monumentally ignorant of this period in our history.
Cornwell’s books are meticulously researched. This is the tale of how the Anglo-Saxons under Alfred the Great fought off the Danish invasion of the various fiefdoms that occupied what is now England and thereby established a single kingdom under his grandson Athelstan. The stone on which he stood, in accordance with custom, to take possession of the throne of England, can still be seen next to the Guildhall in Kingston-upon-Thames.
I don’t wish to presume too much but I suspect that, like me, most people are monumentally ignorant of this period in our history. Alfred is known for burning the cakes while hiding from the invaders in the Somerset Levels and not much else. The names that tumble from the books – Athelflaed, Alfred’s daughter; his son Edward of Wessex; Aethelred, Lord of the Mercians; Guthrum, king of the Danes; Wulfhere of York – are all characters from a time when the concept of Englishness was forged. Athelflaed, known as the Lady of the Mercians, is one of the greatest figures of this or any other historical era and yet many of us would be hard-pressed to identify who she was or what she did.
Indeed, it was this sense of a country unaware of its own heroes, heroines and foundations that persuaded Cornwell to start along this road in the first place. He told one interviewer: “For some reason the history of the Anglo-Saxons isn’t much taught in Britain and it struck me as weird that the English really had no idea where their country came from. Americans know, they even have a starting date; but the English just seemed to assume that England had always been there.”
Oddly enough it has taken the Scots to remind the English that they have an identity to preserve. The fallout from last year’s independence referendum has finally begun to uncouple Englishness from Britishness. It may not yet have permeated much into popular culture; but it is influencing proceedings in that most prosaic of forums, namely the legislature. The question of how to fit England into the constitutional dispensation brought about by devolution has festered for nearly 40 years ever since Tam Dalyell formulated his West Lothian Question. Derry Irvine, the former Lord Chancellor, once said that the best way to address this conundrum was to stop asking it; but that is no longer an option now that Scotland has been given what approximates to Home Rule short of independence.
The fallout from last year’s independence referendum has finally begun to uncouple Englishness from Britishness.
Ministers, though, are anxious that this should not be matched in England lest the United Kingdom crack under the strain. After all, parity with Scotland would be an English parliament and that is not something the politicians are prepared to countenance because of its disproportionate size. Their alternative, English Votes for English laws (Evel), will finally be put to a vote in the Commons on Thursday after the Government postponed a decision from July. There were complaints then that the new rule was being introduced by way of a change to Commons standing orders rather than by legislation, though this seems eminently sensible as it might otherwise involve the courts in the procedures of MPs.
Critics also felt too little time was given to debate the issue (even though it has been discussed ad nauseam for the past four decades) and that the proposals were liable to create two classes of MP – those who can vote on English (and Welsh) laws and those who can’t. In fact, the plan means everyone can vote on a measure that only applies to England but English MPs will have the final say. The distinction is between having a voice, that can always be overridden, and having a veto, which can’t be.
This seems a reasonable approach and yet it has had constitutionalists and the SNP in a lather of indignation. The Commons Procedure Committee has recommended that the new formula should only be applied to three Bills to begin with, to see how well, or badly, it works. Since the Government has planned a review after a year everyone now seems to be singing a similar tune, though Labour and the Nationalists will oppose the measure.
Labour – if it is at all possible to divine what the Opposition thinks about anything – agrees with Evel but thinks this is the wrong way to go about it and wants a convention to discuss bigger matters arising from the shake-up of the constitutional kaleidoscope. These could include the idea of a federal UK as proposed by the Marquess of Salisbury, who considers the Evel proposals to be “ill-conceived and hurried”.
Some Conservative MPs share these concerns; others feel the changes do not go far enough. For now, though, the prospect of a Tory rebellion over what seems like an innocuous rule change appears to have dissipated and English votes for English laws will at last become a reality. How long this state of affairs will last, however, is anyone’s guess. Eventually, the Government will need to erect a shield wall to fend off its assailants on the issue; and anyone unsure of how one of those works should watch the Last Kingdom. Believe me, it’s bloody.