Paris Gourtsoyannis: Risks in England's Quiet Revolution

There's an unmet need at the heart of the political awakening south of the border, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis

Research links Brexit voters with concerns in England over missing out on devolution benefits in Scotland
Research links Brexit voters with concerns in England over missing out on devolution benefits in Scotland

Listening to Theresa May’s closing speech to the Tory conference last week, there was one line that made this citizen of the world’s ears prick up.

Unpacking what she thought the EU referendum meant for Britain, the Prime Minister promised to put herself at the head of a “quiet revolution ... a revolution in which millions of our fellow citizens stood up and said they were not prepared to be ignored anymore.”

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Given the way it has shaken the political establishment, no one can argue with the description of Brexit as a revolution. But for Franco-Canadians, the term ‘Quiet Revolution’ has a very specific meaning, and one that may have more relevance than a piece of rhetoric.

As the 1960s heralded a period of accelerating social change across the western world, the province of Quebec seemed as if it was going to be left behind. Dominated by the twin arch-conservative institutions of the Catholic church and Union Nationale party of Premier Maurice Duplessis, who had governed unchallenged for 24 years, its Francophone working class felt patronised by their own political leaders and demeaned by a wealthy Anglophone elite - much of it descended from Scottish immigrants - who ran Quebec’s economy from the most affluent suburbs of Montreal.

The election of a Liberal government in 1960 ushered in a wave of social reforms that swept away old power structures. However, as with many revolutions, its leaders lost control: the Quiet Revolution spurred an awakening of Quebec nationalism that nearly led to the breakup of Canada.

Politics is dominated by one question - what does Brexit mean? Mrs May clearly believes Brexit voters want a country where British jobs are for British workers, built around a strong, traditional sense of community that stands as a rebuke to global elites.

And so we’ve had suggestions that foreign doctors could eventually be replaced by home-grown ones, and companies forced to report what proportion of their workforce comes from overseas.

That is no surprise: long before Brexit, Mrs May exhibited a personal zeal in cutting immigration, even when dealing with international students, who pay more into the system, take less out, make a bigger contribution to the economy in the long run, and have majority support among the public. “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere,” she told Tory delegates, driving home a pitch that called upon British - which in terms of Brexit predominantly means English - national identity.

There was a warning about that approach on the fringes of her own conference, however, from Professor Ailsa Henderson of the University of Edinburgh and colleagues at Cardiff University. Their analysis of figures from the Future of England surveys, the most detailed piece research into English political attitudes, suggests a deeper meaning of Brexit that has so far barely featured in the post referendum debate.

They found a clear relationship between the strength of English identity, dissatisfaction felt towards EU, and a belief that England has been disadvantaged relative to Scotland thanks to devolution, as Holyrood has gained more powers while retaining a funding settlement seen as overly generous - 48 per cent want Scotland’s budget cut.

That sentiment was nicknamed ‘devo anxiety’, and while the hard liquor of the Brexit victory coupled with Mrs May’s immigration rhetoric might take the edge off it, there’s little reason to believe the self-medication can last.

The UK Government faces an impossible task in cutting net migration to anything close to the “tens of thousands” target set by David Cameron - one of his greatest mistakes and one of the few policies of his that Mrs May is clinging to.

After the UK’s capitulation on the fiscal framework, for the next five years at least Scottish Government spending will be fuel for the English nationalism of Ukip and anti-devolution Tories.

And most of all, with the focus on Brexit, genuine measures to treat devo-anxiety are going to be low down on the list of priorities. Prof Henderson and colleagues sampled opinion on a suite of measures to boost the political clout of England. The only one with majority support among voters from all major parties was English Votes for English Laws, a labyrinth of parliamentary procedure that was supposed to answer the West Lothian Question but couldn’t stop the SNP from blocking English-only legislation, as seen with Sunday trading.

The only other proposed reform going ahead is the piecemeal devolution to English city-regions like Greater Manchester and South Yorkshire, which is being further mangled by fights between government and Labour local authorities. One of the last government’s pet projects, it seems to have only lukewarm support of the new Prime Minister. It is also tragically unloved by the people it is intended to benefit: only around third of English voters want their new ‘metro mayors’.

Mrs May is probably right to see Brexit as a revolutionary moment in the political awakening of England, but she could struggle to deliver on the ambitions of the voters that triggered it.

In Quebec, the impact of the Quiet Revolution is still felt. Two independence referendums led to an exodus of the old, monied Anglophone families from Montreal. The province’s two nationalist parties now fight for leadership of a campaign to create a ‘Charter of Values’ protecting national identity. This despite the deep slumber of the independence dream; the new leader of the Parti Quebecois pledged this week not to hold another referendum on sovereignty, even if he wins the next election.

It was Pierre Trudeau, the father of the current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who corralled energy of the Quiet Revolution and defeated the first Quebec independence referendum. His role in that period of history is captured in one of the best works of political biography around, but the brilliant first volume of John English’s life of Mr Trudeau is unlikely to be found on Mrs May’s shelf.

It’s called ‘Citizen of the World’.