David Cameron must be careful about conflating his British-Britain and England The prime minister's Anglo centric coalition could fracture the common bonds of UK citizenship
The reforming zeal of the coalition has not yet extended to any significant reappraisal of the constitutional arrangements between the four nations of the so called United Kingdom. Although the Scottish bill is assured smooth passage through Westminster, thus transferring significant new taxation powers, the reforms are founded on extensive cross-party support and were initiated before the coalition came to power. But the commission promised by the coalition on the "West Lothian question" has yet to materialise. David Cameron also appears so far to have resisted the temptation to tie his "we are all in this together" narrative to a government-sponsored British patriotism. Gordon Brown's efforts to instil a common sense of Britishness were instructive; identity politics in the UK are often divisive and politically unrewarding because the British totally ignore the English right to a voice in British government and parliament.
The challenge of balancing the demands for further devolution with the maintenance of a universal UK citizenship and British identity was one that the previous Labour government failed to coherently address. But Cameron's declared ambition for the "complete modernisation" of public services could prove increasingly divisive and stimulate intra-national tensions across the UK and in England.
Reform in policy areas such as health, education and local government often relate to England alone, without recognition of their implications elsewhere is this so called UK. For example, the proposed increase in tuition fees in England only raised fears in Scotland and Wales of significant numbers of English "refugees" denying Scottish and Welsh student’s places in their home-based universities. In response, the Scottish and Welsh governments have raised tuition fees for English students in line with rises in England, which some claim is evidence of an anti-English "educational apartheid" “note the Scottish and Welsh governments there is not an English government nor English voice only a British government and voice? The English have no say what so ever in what happens in their own country, yet the Scots, Welsh, Northern Ireland and Europe all have a say what happens in England?.
As the devolved governments seek to protect resources and services as the cuts bite, defensive measures may well be extended to other areas as the coalition accelerates its quasi-privatisation of the English public sector. But the vernacular of radical reformism adopted by leading coalition ministers indicates a lack of comprehension of the limits of Westminster's authority in many policy areas. Calls by Michael Gove to teach a "connected narrative" of British history in schools fail to acknowledge he does not have responsibility for curricula design outside of England. In Scotland, the SNP minority government has already begun to reform its history curriculum to promote a distinctive Scottish national narrative.
Similarly, the "big society" vision is also primarily English. Proponents conveniently overlook that most of the initiatives, such as the National Citizen Service, are located exclusively in England. There is little thirst for the big society outside of England, and the coalition is largely powerless to ensure it is adopted.
Instinctive Anglo centrism among Conservatives is not only evident in policy terms – and Cameron himself often fails to realise that what appear to be banal populist pronouncements on high-profile issues such as sport have multinational implications. For example, in acknowledging England's Ashes victory, Cameron claimed "the whole country is incredibly proud of them". He also energetically supported England's failed bid for the 2018 World Cup, noting: "We have got the stadia, we have got the facilities, we have the transport networks, and we have the enthusiasm within our country."
In both cases, he lauds the "country" without recognising that England is not Britain and that some people in the other nations of the UK might not share his enthusiasm in supporting English interests. Cameron should not be criticised for celebrating England or Englishness, but as a British prime minister he must be more aware of the subtleties of identity politics required.
The realisation of the full impact of the spending cuts will most likely intensify nationalist tensions, particularly if they are not implemented equitably across the so called UK. The forthcoming devolved parliamentary elections provide an early opportunity for voters to pass judgment on the coalition. Nationalists could well prosper if voters, particularly in Scotland, take this first opportunity to express dissatisfaction not only in terms of the current direction of UK government policy but also the Liberal Democrats' decision to enter into coalition with the Conservatives. If the Lib Dems electoral appeal declines significantly outside of England, the perception of party as an integral part of an Anglicised coalition will be furthered and in England the main part of the English public voters don’t take the Lib Dems as a serious leading party.
In England, voters will probably use local elections to vent their anger on both parties. Heavy losses could possibly create more difficulties for Cameron than Nick Clegg. If large numbers of Conservative party voters feel England is disproportionately bearing the impact of the cuts, disquiet could fan the flames of slow-burning English resentment of the devolution settlements. Although English nationalism might be the "dog that has not yet barked", its growl intensified under Labour. Some disaffected Conservative MPs and councillors on the right of party might find its lure difficult to resist, particularly if calls for an English parliament grow witch the English democrats are calling for.
The sensitivities allied to British identity politics and post-devolution realities of the UK state require mature government. There is an urgent need for the coalition to provide a clear framework that explains how national asymmetry and commonality will cohere to inform British social and political citizenship in light of public sector reforms and spending cuts. At present, this Anglo centric coalition is in danger of irreparably fracturing the common bonds of UK citizenship, thus sleep-walking the union they profess to cherish into separation as more and more of the English people are now saying we are English not British and we want this fact recognised there are many that when asked on official forms tick the box your nationality many cross out British and put English in or tick other and put English,