Church of England

What role for the Church of England in English devolution?

“Sanity transcends political differences”, tweeted the Bishop of Willesden when it appeared there was some cross-party agreement on the pressing need for English devolution following the Prime Minister’s ‘vow‘ of further devolved powers to the Scottish Parliament. Certainly, it would be a lopsided constitutional settlement which permitted Scottish MPs to vote on legislation which pertained only to England. Until, that is, it dawns upon left-leaning bishops (not to mention one or two vicars) that without the votes of those 40 Scottish Labour MPs (out of a total of 59) it is unlikely that Labour could ever again legislate for England, except in those areas which encompass the United Kingdom as a whole, like defence, national security or foreign affairs. We well remember New Labour establishing foundation hospitals in England, and then imposing tuition fees on English and Welsh students – both with the ready compliance of Scottish MPs whose own constituents would remain immune from the effects of the legislation. This is the crux of the ‘West Lothian Question’, which, hitherto, has been regularly asked but never answered. Indeed, it was once observed that the best answer to the question is to stop asking it.

The curious thing is that the Scottish Parliament already has devolved powers which it has never used – namely, the ability to raise or cut income tax by 3p in the £. Quite why Alex Salmond rails so much against “Tory austerity” whilst possessing the means to usher in greater equality by increasing taxation on the wealthy is unknown. Unless, of course, “Tory bashing” in Scotland is politically preferable to an enhanced conception of social justice which will expose the SNP’s philosophical void.

But if the Scots can already legislate for themselves on health, education, law and order, the environment, social services, housing, local government, tourism, agriculture, forestry, fisheries and some areas of transport (all within the parameters set by the EU), why shouldn’t England?

Or does this question constitute the “ugly baying of little Englanders”? Or is it it only “ugly baying” when it is asked by Ukip? Is it just “ugly” when raised by a Tory?

And what of the thorny question of the Barnett formula? Is it an injustice for the Scots to be subsidised at the expense of the English? Or is the asking of such a question “ugly baying” which ignores Scottish oil and gas revenues? How does one divide the North Sea equitably?

The case for the Union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland isn’t simply economic: it is cultural, historic, philosophical and religious. It is for that reason that most Christian conservatives and Conservative Christians will be unionist in their politics. Not all, of course, for the church is broad in its politics and theology, and it is made up of individuals whose inner lives are composed of multifaceted notions of self, responsibility, freedom, dignity and commitment. We are concerned with matters of identity, and these are fluid and difficult to define. But Bishop Pete’s plea is for a devolution settlement that will work, and that cannot include the inherent injustice of Scottish MPs voting on matters that do not affect their own constituents. And that necessitates a de facto English Parliament or ‘Grand Committee’, or some other sort of legislative mechanism to ensure democratic justice and constitutional parity for the English.

The Church of England is a national church. Occasionally, bishops and archbishops speak out about “Britishness”, but they tend to be immigrant bishops (one thinks of Nazir-Ali of Rochester and Sentamu of York), whose ephemeral cries of patriotism make a good headline in the Daily Mail, but rarely resonate with their English episcopal brothers. The Archbishop of York often lauds St George’s Day and makes a potent English case. He reminds us perhaps that no other national body is better placed to make the case for democratic justice for England.

For some MPs, Englishness amounts to the working-class solidarity of industry and the values of Old Labour which are disturbed by those who did not abide by socialist rules. For others, Englishness is a vision of a picture postcard village of Tudor cottages surrounded by green-belt land which is forever threatened by city expansion and high levels of immigration. Although few MPs dare mention it, the idea of Englishness is inseparable from a history in which Christianity and the church have played a central role. How this vision of Englishness relates to the contemporary multi-faith and multicultural setting is far from clear.

There is, of course, a whole range of policy issues that emerge from the co-existence of different faiths living close by one another. In the fusion of politics with public religion, two strands are particularly important: first is the practical issue of ensuring that the different groups live together in relative harmony – the problem of what has been called “community cohesion”; second is the related issue of how multiculturalism is connected to the shared identity implied in any concept of Englishness. In both of these strands the question of faith is of paramount importance: for many communities, faith will be the principal focus of identity and will be one of the major factors through which people are identified by others. At the same time, it is important to discern the extent to which Christian virtues are perceived to be central to English identity, and, if so, precisely how they might be constituted.

The issues that emerge from these two strands lead to a number of policy questions: to what extent do all residents, from whatever background, need to subscribe to a minimum set of values? How far, and in what ways, should such values be determined by the Government? Should such values be maximised around a universally imposed system of citizenship to which all have to subscribe? Or should the values required for people to live together in relative tranquillity be reduced to the absolute minimum?

The Church of England does some very fine work on community cohesion, helping disparate peoples to dwell together in peace and harmony. Perhaps we do it best when discussing babies over tea and biscuits, or cricket over warm beer, or, in the case of Bishop Pete, Spurs over lager. We are, in large part, balanced, open-minded and fair. But we do tend to belittle ourselves and our national history, and too readily plead guilty for ancient infractions and ancestral evil over which we have no mastery or direct responsibility. We have indeed been oppressors, but we have been much greater liberators.

Having once honed our own independence from European Christendom, England’s Church is well placed through experience to counsel and guide toward a measured and incremental devolved political settlement for England in the United Kingdom. But let us remember that one person’s “little Englander” is another person’s English patriot; and one person’s “baying” is another person’s fervent passion.