David Cameron, welfare and constitutional literacy

In his widely-trailed Hugo Young lecture on Tuesday (available here), David Cameron discussed at some length the Conservative’s vision for welfare, a more active role for civil society and what the state should do to help build that sort of civil society.  For the most part he was wearing his best liberal-conservative clothes, though he revealed the iron fist cached in his glove at times.  The speech will surely be widely discussed, and debate will no doubt focus on such issues as whether these ambitions are achievable, and whether this is an attempt to disguise a Thatcherite retrenchment of the welfare state or marks a genuinely new approach from the Conservatives.  It’s an impressively argued, wide-ranging speech, and deserves careful consideration.

One striking feature of the speech, though, was what it didn’t consider.  Cameron talked of ‘the state’; he had concrete suggestions about how volunteering and social entrepreneurs should become more prominent, and supported; he wants to reshape how welfare benefits are paid and to whom, and the role of education and social services.  But, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, many (though not all) of these are devolved matters.  So what are the Tories saying about that?  Are these firm policy commitments, reflecting what will happen in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland too?  Are they willing to try to set aside devolution to do so?  Or was this just a statement of aspiration for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and a declaration of intent of what the Tories plan to do in England only?  It was far from clear.  Cameron’s language doesn’t clarify matters; he used ‘Britain’, ‘British’ or ‘Briton’ five times in the speech, but never mentioned ‘England’ at all.

This shows two things.  One is that the tendency to confuse ‘Britain’, ‘UK’ and ‘England’ is alive and well in the Conservative Party, even in very thoughtful and carefully-crafted speeches.  (They’re no exception in this, and the London-based media don’t help, but they are probably worse at it than the other British parties.)  The other is that this failure to think in constitutional terms creates, and reinforces, a belief that devolution doesn’t matter.  Increasingly it does, in ways that all politicians will have to take into account.  If they want to make their government a success, the Tories will need to start thinking constitutionally and making sure it shapes both the substance and the presentation of their policy ideas.

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10 Comments

Filed under Conservatives, Policy issues

10 responses to “David Cameron, welfare and constitutional literacy

  1. Alan, This is par for the course with the Tories, they never say England.

    Exhibit 1.

    Exhibit 2.

    Exhibit 3.

    Exhibit 4.

    Having complained at length to the Tories about this, I have come to the conclusion that their failure to use the word England is politically motivated (rather than just lazy – which was my initial suspicion).

  2. Unfortunately it’s only very rarely that the media pick politicians up on the great England=Britain conflation/deception.

  3. Sorry to leave three comments in a row, but you might be interested in this petition response from Gordon Brown

  4. David

    This is spot on, Alan. Your statement, “They’re no exception in this, and the London-based media don’t help”, is something of an under-statement! All the mainstream parties and the London-based media systemically elide the complicated overlaps between UK-wide and England- (or England and Wales-) specific policies. The Tories are clearly not proposing to implement their social-services and civil-society agenda across the whole of the UK, which would involve putting devolution into reverse, as you say. But, like the other parties (and I would say the Labour Party is by far the worst offender), they do not want to make it explicit to the public which bits of their agenda relate to England only, seeking instead to maintain the pretence that their policies (and their pitch at the next general election) is directed at the whole of the UK.

    There are many reasons for this strategy, the two main ones being that they do not want English people to make unfavourable comparisons between the different policies on public services across the UK’s nations (preferring to mendaciously imply that only a single UK-wide option is available); and they want to studiously avoid the development of any English-national political agenda and consciousness, as they’re terrified that this will fuel demands for an English parliament and will ultimately cause the whole shaky Union to unravel. Another reason is sheer constitutional illiteracy, as you suggest, in which they are far from alone.

  5. Terry

    The Labour Party are the worst at confusing England/UK/Britain/this country.

    The worst offender is Gordon Brown, who absolutely refuses to say the word “England”. People used to say England when they meant Britain, but Labour say Britain when they mean England. I assume this is to obfuscate the fact that he is not accountable to any electorate (English or Scottish) for most of the legislation he steers through the House (Health, Education, Policing, Social Policy to name a few).

    This seems to be Government policy because it has permeated the BBC and supermarkets. Tescos sell English products as “British” but are happy to label Scottish products with a Saltire. This is because they believe the Scots are such a bunch of hate filled xenophobes, they won’t buy carrots grown in English soil. I’m not sure who should be more insulted, us or the Scots.

  6. Since the Devolution Acts of 1998 the Labour and Conservative parties have issued three manifestos, one for Wales, one for Scotland and another one either for the UK or Britain. Clearly these so-called unionist parties do so because they are offering different incentives for voting for them in Scotland and Wales. Meanwhile the man on the Clapham omnibus (in England) in receipt of the UK/Britain manifesto is beguiled into thinking that the domestic policies therein apply to the whole of Britain.

    This is a sinister deception

  7. Ian Campbell

    We should not be surprised by this confusion of England with Britain as it is also present in the Conservatives’ scribbled tree logo which has a ‘Scottish Conservatives’ version and a ‘Welsh Conservatives’ version but no English one. Labour party policies for ‘this country’ are also announced as if England is Britain. All parties should be compelled by the Electoral Commission to spell out which policies are for England only.
    Nor is it surprising that Cameron ‘never mentioned England at all’. Few of the party leaders ever do. Cameron has mentioned England once or twice on other occasions. He once said he did not want to be PM ‘just of England’. He also made a reference to ‘sour little Englanders’. It wasn’t quite clear whom he meant by this but by implication it referred to anyone who thought that England should not be submerged in Britain.
    Clearly they all afraid that if the English hear themslves mentioned they might wake up and realise that they have been entirely left out of the devolution arrangements. All the English have been offered was what they did not want – regional assemblies. Mr Brown has now introduced ‘regional committees’ of MPs which are meeting inquorate, unsupported and unreported because the English don’t want them either.
    Sooner or later the ‘English Question’ has to answered.

  8. Francis Barker

    Cameron is exactly like Brown. He grants us (the English) a football team, flies the Saint Georges Flag on his bike when we’re in a major tournament etc.. but cows will jump over the moon before he recognises England for what it is – the elephant in the room which everyone in the major parties is blind too. He has in the past described being proud to be English but, of course, this is totally superceded by his Scottish blood, especially when he’s in Scotland and after a few more seatsnext time.
    We are sick, sick, sick up to here with MPs from other parts of the so-called UK saying that England is not a nation but a collection of regions (former foreign secretary and leader of LibDems.
    It is time, my friends – my English friends – to turn the argument around 180 degrees. Ask not what ‘Britain’ can do with England, but how well England would do without ‘Britain’. Actually, very well. Let’s grow up and leave!!!

  9. Pingback: Campaign for an English Parliament » Blog Archive » Denial of England

  10. Pingback: Devolution and the Queen’s Speech « Devolution Matters

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