Why York should be the capital of England

Published: 12/01/2000   by: Article by Billy, The Guardian newspaper (UK), 12 January, 2000

Jack Straw's comments on the potentially violent nature of English nationalism may come to be seen as a defining moment in the search for a modern sense of English identity. Speaking in a Radio 4 documentary about what it means to be British in the aftermath of devolution, the home secretary shied away from the subject of a separate English identity by suggesting that there is something dark and dangerous lurking in the heart of England.

This instinctive reaction, that Englishness is a stone best left unturned, is not uncommon among liberal-minded people, woolly or otherwise. Sadly it is our squeamishness on this subject that has allowed it to become the preserve of the bigots and bootboys. Until the fair-minded majority of the English, who like to think of tolerance and a sense of fair play as national traits, can begin to evoke an inclusive identity for everyone who belongs to England, then it will be left to the Powellite right to declare who does and does not belong here.

But as we peep through our fingers, fearful of seeing Jack Straw's scary monster, how do we begin to define this new England? This is where Straw's comments take on their importance. The Daily Telegraph pounced on his words, pointing out that the world came to know England through the martial feats of the British (never English) empire and that he was guilty of confusing the two. The newspaper's reaction suggests that it is no longer permissible to speak in an ambiguous manner about England when you mean Britain: from this seemingly cosmetic distinction, a new sense of who we are may yet emerge.

One of the difficulties in getting the English to discuss their own distinctiveness is that the agenda has been set and is driven by events outside of our own country. All of the awkward questions that we are now having to address have been forced on us partly by Wales, but mostly by Scotland. Our Scottish neighbours have redefined themselves over the past 20 years and, by voting for their own parliament in the recent referendum, seem to have opted out of being British.

As we experience it now, Britishness is fundamentally a 19th-century concept based on an imperial world view. The British among us are a people who believe that there is only one culture in our society, a sense of tradition which can be summed up in the phrase Queen and Country. When I think of Britishness, I think of Jonathan Aitken and his trusty sword of truth. Perhaps, by beginning to create some clear blue water between the British and the English, we can start to evoke an inclusive identity that all our citizens can feel comfortable with.

Another effect of Jack Straw's comments was to raise once again the hoary old West Lothian Question. This is a game of charades that our parliamentarians play in the hope of undermining the devolution of power away from Westminster. Now that there is a Scottish parliament, the argument goes, English MPs no longer have a vote over a number of Scottish issues; so why should Scottish MPs retain their voting rights on matters pertaining to England?

Although this is presented as the main argument against devolution, it is in fact an argument that calls for a greater devolving of power away from Westminster, which may explain why MPs find it so unpalatable. Our cousins in the United States would see it as a simple problem of states' rights. Britain is a unitary state which has its own union parliament at Westminster. Scotland is a nation which has its national parliament in Edinburgh. The union parliament has representation from all of the nations that make up the UK and exercises power on that level. The national parliament in Edinburgh has members only from Scotland and debates Scottish issues. The answer to the West Lothian Question is simple: England must have its own national parliament.

That so many people are underwhelmed by that prospect may be partly due to the fact that we in England already feel we have a parliament in our capital city, London. But London isn't just the capital of our nation, it is also the capital of the unitary British state. While the organisers of the millennium celebrations in Cardiff and Edinburgh felt free to use the symbols of Welsh and Scots identity, there was no singing of Blake's Jerusalem in the Millennium Dome because that was the venue not for England's national celebration, but for Britain's.

A devolved England cannot flourish in the hothouse atmosphere of Westminster. Everyone agrees that too much power is already centralised in London and the south. If we are serious about devolution, then a new city will have to be chosen to be the capital of England, where the old traditions and the new diversities can find common ground. As a Londoner and a southerner, I would like to nominate York, a city outside the major metropolitan centres yet with a strong multi-cultural tradition.

While we strive to be British, to include our neighbours in the scheme of things, so we English seem to be losing out. The reality is that we are comfortable with being both British and English, it suits our cosmopolitan nature. However, the dark forces that Jack Straw hinted at are out there, determined to make Englishness a matter of ethnicity rather than personal identity. Would devolution make the bigots go away? Of course not, but an English national parliament would offer the people of England a forum in which to debate these issues and to find out whether or not we are as tolerant and fair-minded as we like to think we are.

Millennium Song
by Billy Bragg

Take down the Union Jack, it clashes with the sunset
And put it in the attic with the emperor's old clothes.

Britain isn't cool you know, it's really not that great,
It's not a proper country, it doesn't even have a patron saint,
It's just an economic union that's past its sell-by date.

Take down the Union Jack, it clashes with the sunset
And ask our Scottish neighbours if independence looks any good.

They might just understand how to take Nan abstract notion
Of personal identity and turn it into nationhood.

Is this the 19th century that I'm watching on TV?
The dear old Queen of England handing out those MBEs?
Member of the British Empire? That doesn't sound so good to me.

Gilbert and George are taking the piss aren't they?
Gilbert and George are taking the piss.
What could be more British than "Here's a picture of my bum"?

Gilbert and George are taking the piss.

Take down the Union Jack, it clashes with the sunset

And pile up all those history books but don't throw them away,
For they might just hold a clue about what it really means
To be Anglo Hyphen Saxon in England.co.uk

Billy Bragg, January 12, 2000

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