A high court judge has ruled that the abortion ban in Northern Ireland is incompatible with the rights of women. This ruling tells you a lot about the region and its history in the UK. Under the leadership of Roy Jenkins, the UK legalised abortion in 1967 around the same time that the government also decriminalised homosexual relations and abolished the death penalty.
But all laws come with stipulations. The death penalty is still, technically, enforceable in cases of treason. Abortion remains, technically, illegal outside of a medical context and inside the Six Counties.
The British government has long neglected social issues in Northern Ireland. This was as true of national rights, as it was of abortion rights. Even with the Good Friday agreement, the move towards formal legal equality has not delivered the right to choose. The recent judgement may lead to the legalisation of abortion under precise circumstances: rape, incest and complications such as ectopic pregnancies. There’s always a danger that the province will be left to fester, as it was in the last century. And this goes to the core of the problems of the United Kingdom.
The UK is one of the few states without a written constitution. It ranks alongside Saudi Arabia and Israel in this regard. In the place of an entrenched constitution, Britain relies on a bedrock of traditions, but much of the unwritten constitution is rotten. This is why the state remains caught between a modern capitalist nation and the realm of lords and barons. Note the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is not the name of a country, but a reference to a historic compromise.
Although not quite a nation or a state, Great Britain remains heavily centralised, even as power has been devolved in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Yet there has not been sufficient decentralisation within England. This makes sense to the extent that the English hold most of the power and wealth. The success of the Union has been to provide a framework, which allows the four peoples of the islands to think only of themselves. But the uneven structure of this framework cannot be denied.
One of the major causes of the English nationalists is a separate English Parliament. However, this would not necessarily bring about serious devolution. It would likely preserve the democratic deficit across the UK. The trilateral consensus would be strengthened, not weakened by it. In the words of Alistair Stephens, England would remain “the most hyper-centralized country in the Western world”. The state would remain unitary and local authority would either be evacuated to government departments or private companies.
A radical alternative would be to devolve power at the regional level. Allow the North and the Midlands to elect their own representatives to challenge the policies drawn up in London. You would see great splits across the country. It would increase the chance for stalemates over policy, as well as for compromise and reform. Under neoliberal conditions, devolution would arguably open up greater public space for corporate penetration. But it could also allow people to fight back at the local level.
On the other hand, the Blair government did propose regional assemblies and organised referenda on the plan. It was rejected in the North East and elsewhere, while devolution was taken up with a passion by the Welsh and the Scottish. The problem was that the plans were associated with national questions (not just Scotland, but Northern Ireland) and the North East very much identifies with the rest of England. So New Labour could take working-class support for granted as it implemented a right-wing programme.
What might change this is the push for London to receive special powers. Right-wing forces in London demand that the city be exempt from the same taxes and regulations as the rest of the country. In this view, the vast concentration of capital in London deserves privileged status (even more so than it already has) and the rest of the country should be weaned off of the public teat. If this push succeeds, it may well mobilise support for decentralisation elsewhere. It’s not just the Scots who resent the sons of Eton ruling from afar.
The English obsession with class takes many cultural, and not just economic manifestations. The North understands itself as economically disenfranchised by the Thatcher years. Once the industrial powerhouse of the country, the South is not seen as a ‘foreign’ or ‘colonial occupier’ but as a concentration of wealth. This factor can take an array of political forms. It doesn’t necessarily equate to support for the Labour Party. This is why Nick Griffin became the MEP for the North West.
It’s not a coincidence that Griffin ran a campaign against the bank bailouts and condemned Tony Blair as a ‘traitor’ merging nationalism and anti-war politics. As much as Blairism is associated with the Iraq War, it is also equated with multiculturalism and immigration. Cutting across this spectrum, Griffin would often appear in public with a supposed war veteran by his side. He argued for ‘tough measures’ against the Muslim community, while eschewing intervention in the Middle East. Fortunately, Griffin’s attempt to normalise fascism has been lost.
Those who claim England is a fundamentally conservative place ignore vital questions. Conservatism is by its nature ambiguous, as it fetishes social relations which cannot be maintained. As Allan Ryan has pointed out, the Left is conservative in the sense that it looks back at a world lost to capitalism. Unlike conservatives, radicals push towards the future as the only chance for the system to be overturned, and the dead generations to be redeemed. This is true of all socialists, communists and anarchists.
Much like France, there are two Englands. There may be the England of reaction, but there is also a long radical tradition: from the time of the Peasants’ Revolt to the words of Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers. Indeed, the English civil war led to the first regicide, the Commonwealth and a whole wave of radical non-conformists. The most reactionary historians, such as David Starkey, would wish to blanket out the revolutionary upheaval of the seventeenth century. The fact that the discord helped produce the capitalist state which they cherish is lost on them.
However, the Left has not prioritised constitutional questions in recent years. Instead the ground has been surrendered to the neoliberals. So far this has led to the advent of devolution under New Labour. It has gone as far as a referendum on Scottish independence. It may yet go further. David Cameron has given a voice to the calls for ‘English votes on English issues’. Despite the fact that the Right will want to shape England to entrench its own position, the Left will have to take up the cause of English devolution to make future gains.
As Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson forecast, the forces of reaction will move to answer the constitutional questions if the progressives take on a defensive pose. Should the Left become the opponent of right-wing constitutional reform, it may become the defender of the status quo. Perhaps this is the time to subvert the demands for ‘English votes on English issues’. After all, the Parliament in London is almost as far away from Newcastle as it is from Edinburgh and Belfast. Even if the rightists seek to overhaul the ancien regime, they may create the conditions for their own defeat.