We are the people of England and we have not spoken yet
I didn’t watch it and I’m glad I didn’t. The TV coverage of Tony Blair’s final Commons appearance and his handover to Gordon Brown was by all accounts nauseating. Boris Johnson’s amusing piece in the Telegraph summed it up, concentrating mainly on the scenes in the House, (full of de mortuis nil rubbishem or whatever it is) but it was the BBC’s report on its website that convinced me I was right to have been mending the phone line to the study instead. It had links like ‘Blair goes to Palace’, ‘Blair with the Queen’, ‘Blair off to Sedgefield’, ‘Brown goes to Palace’, ‘Brown meets Queen’ – you get the drift. A multi-episode sycophantic memorial edition to someone most people were glad to see gone, including many of his own party, as Boris pointed out.
But should we be so glad? Boris himself confessed to a dawning unease, born in his case out of fear that Brown will be dull and will regulate and curtail freedom and debate even more than Blair did. I agreed but was nevertheless left thinking that after ten years of having the answer to everything, of matey familiarity with the voters, of consorting with celebrities and of follies like the millennium dome and the olympics a little dullness in our prime minister might be welcome. It’s a fairly serious job after all.
I think the reason Blair jumped in first at that famous Granita meeting was that, like the boy who sticks his hand up before the teacher has finished the question, he was afraid that Brown knew the answer better than he did and he might never get his chance. He suspected that in the long run Brown would be the more acceptable to the Labour party, who could be relied on to pick Brown after the Blair years but not the other way around. If Brown went first and chose his own ministers and policies, then either Blair’s cover would be blown by the time his turn came or the electoral mood would have swung back to the Tories and it would be too late.
As for renewed new Labour under Brown, he has been upstaged so far by the terrorist plots and arrests of several immigrant doctors in connection with them – and he thought the NHS just needed more money. So far he has appointed a home secretary from England (good move) whose response to the failed bombs - in marked contrast to recent predecessors - has been an almost Thatcher-like message of business as usual (good move again). It seems he also proposes to remove the prime minister’s right to choose Church of England bishops (quite right, now remove them from the House of Lords), to move elections to weekends (fine, but unlikely to improve turnout I suspect), to hold hearings on big public appointments (what – adopt something the Americans do?), perhaps lower the voting age to 16 (why not 12 – or 10?), and to have parliamentary committees for each English region. And here I sense a Blair moment, the promise to make a change only to later enact a mess.
It is distinctly probable that a majority of English people are unaware of the existence of English regions. They were set up sneakily, at dead of night, without publicity and are unelected bodies. They are staffed by people appointed from the various councils of each region, a bit like a mini EU in our midst. Now they will get a formal link with central government, presumably to give them a pseudo legitimacy and as an attempt to answer the West Lothian question, for he has already rejected the idea of allowing only MPs with seats in England to vote on English matters. One can see why, of course, with his own seat (and those of three others in his cabinet) being in Scotland, but it is no answer. Indeed we should welcome this proposal for it will inevitably bring forward the day when the question has to be answered properly and the English have to be given their right to their own say in their own affairs.