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Union could be in jeopardy if the left doesn’t get it right

One thing this peculiar election has shown up clearly is the pitiful, abject failure of the English left.

For too long the left in England has been relying on Scots and, to a lesser extent, Welsh politicians to sustain left of centre politics in the Union.

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The real mid-term question in UK politics is this: can the English left find some way of reinventing itself, and soon? Otherwise the Union will break up, and England will be condemned to a more or less permanent Tory oligarchy, while Scotland and Wales will move forward as states of the soft left.

It is not just in this General Election that the Tories in England find themselves a majority in their own country, only to be denied the prize by the anti-Tory voting of other parts of the Union. The process has been going on, with a few interruptions, for a very long time.

I did not hear it myself, but I gather the other morning the BBC carried a radio broadcast from Henley in which baying English voices were beginning to articulate serious indignation at this democratic deficit. Obviously I have an aversion to baying English voices articulating anti-Scottish sentiments but even so I have every sympathy with the millions upon millions of English voters who are starting to believe themselves to be seriously, and possibly permanently, disenfranchised.

Of course there is an obvious and sensible answer to this conundrum: break up the Union. If the English had England to themselves, they could vote Tory to their hearts’ content. Problem over.

There are two difficulties with that. These Tory-tending English voters have a potent, if utterly irrational, regard for the Union. Their current leader and spokesman, David Cameron, typifies this.

It makes political sense for him to get rid of Scotland and its cussedly anti-Tory voters, yet he cannot bring himself to try to do so because of some atavistic and inexplicable veneration for the Union.

You could almost admire him for his loyal attachment to a chimera which prevents him and his party from ruling England, but you have to wonder at his political sense, or lack of it.

Beyond this, there is a further problem. I do not wish to condes­cend to the English, but it would do them no good whatsoever to find themselves ruled by a right-wing party forever, without any intermissions or challenges. I write that as someone who positions himself on the soft right. I am adamant that the soft right cannot survive as a civilised force without constant meaningful and credible challenges from the left.

But in England meaningful challenges from the left have persistently come not from within England but from elsewhere. I’m not just talking about the way the Scots and, to a lesser extent, the Welsh are able to impose on the colossal cadres of English Tories governments they do not want and certainly haven’t voted for. I’m talking about political leadership.

Take the history of the Labour Party. Who are Labour’s really towering, iconic figures? I’d say: Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald (yes, I’m serious), Clement Attlee, Nye Bevan and Michael Foot. Just two Englishmen there, and Foot, Labour’s only prophetic figure of recent times, the very embodiment of charismatic radicalism, was by any standards an adoptive Welshman. He was elected MP for Ebbw Vale, Nye Bevan’s old constituency, in 1960 and for the next 50 years Wales was to be the spiritual as well as the political home of this passionate crusader of the left.

Of course Foot was an ineffective leader. He had no answer to the sheer electoral popularity of Thatcherism in England (and remember that Margaret Thatcher, unlike Tony Blair, won far more votes in her third General Election victory than in her first).

When Foot failed, the English left turned to a real Welshman, Neil Kinnock, a man who had been brought up in Bevan’s home town, Tredegar, to fight Thatcher. Was no-one in England available?

Whether we like it or not, and most Scots don’t, England fell in love with Thatcher. After she was discarded not by the English electorate, who almost certainly would have voted for her for a fourth time, but by a myopic mini-mob within her own party, the Tories lost their appetite for power, though John Major scrambled to an unlikely victory in 1992.

As the Tories became corrupt and rotten, a slick trio of political opportunists (Blair, Brown and Mandelson) worked out how to appeal specifically to England and the English. They decided to take on the Tories at their own game. In other words, hijack the Labour Party, so popular in Scotland and Wales, so comparatively unpopular in England, and reinvent it as the true successor to Thatcherism.

Thus the phoney construct of New Labour was invented, and it worked – for a time. But, of course, this was not about giving the left power in England: almost the opposite, in fact.

England was briefly persuaded by the cunning manoeuvre, and was prepared to give New Labour the benefit of the doubt in a couple of elections. But by the 2005 General Election, the English had seen through the trick, and reverted to type, voting Tory.

New Labour could survive for another five years because the Old Labour battalions in Scotland and Wales came, as so often, marching to the rescue.

It will be ironic if the Union eventually breaks up not because of anything the Scots or Welsh achieve but rather because the English at long last decide they have had their fill of outsiders spoiling their Tory party.

But who speaks for the lost, the dispossessed, the powerless, the outcast, the weak, the exploited and the marginalised in England? There are millions of people in England who need a genuine party of the left to speak up and stand up for them. Currently, that party does not exist.

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