Home Rule for England?

By Lesley Robinson

With Scotland readying itself for an historic national debate on its constitutional future in 2014, there are growing calls from pressure groups and politicians alike for the English people to engage in a similar debate and campaign for a devolved English parliament. Ostensibly this increasing desire for English devolution is a relatively modern phenomenon, advanced most noticeably by Scotland’s acceleration towards independence. In truth, the issues being raised at present by those campaigning for English devolution had already been broached over a century ago as members of the upper and middle classes began considering England’s constitutional future.

In the early years of the twentieth century the case for English devolution was tied up with wider debates about Irish Home Rule and the future of the British Empire. The 1904 publication Problems of Empire made reference to the enduring argument that too much time was, and some would argue still is, spent in Parliament debating issues of Scottish concern. ‘At present we find that a large proportion of the time of our representatives in Parliament is taken up in dealing with Irish, Scotch, or Welsh business, with matters which only indirectly concern ourselves. If the Irish have a right to manage their own affairs, have not we Englishmen a right to manage ours?’ This question about England’s political future, posed by the work’s author Thomas Allnutt Brassey, a man well-known and respected in imperial circles, was picked up on a number of occasions and by a variety of people.

In 1912, as the Third Home Rule Bill was introduced in Ireland, the question of English Home Rule was prominent in the minds of many and featured in a number of House of Commons debates. The possibility of establishing a scheme of Home Rule for England was mooted by Captain George Sandys; seven years later, and with no real progress having been made, Sir Ryland Adkins pondered: ‘Is it not time that England and the case for its Home Rule was considered?’. The formation of the London-based Scots National League in 1920 and Plaid Cymru in 1925, coupled with the partition of Ireland as a result of the Fourth Home Rule Bill, all contributed to a heightened state of national consciousness in Britain. If ever there was a time for Englishmen to transform their desires into a more solid movement, it was at this point in time.

In the 1920s those who supported English Home Rule could look to the Royal Society of St George (RSStG) for support. The RSStG was an association established in 1894 with the overriding objective to ‘strengthen and encourage the instinctive patriotism of the English people, and to develop the race consciousness all of English birth or origin’. Given the remit of this association it is not surprising that the RSStG was fully alert to the importance of the issue of home rule and identified in its official journal The English Race that ‘Home Rule for England would undoubtedly quicken the race-consciousness of our people’. At this time of growing nationalism in the home nations, the calls for home rule in England looked likely to develop into something of a more robust, political nature with the RSStG at the helm. In 1920 the RSStG published an article entitled ‘Home Rule for England’ in The English Race. The article, written the previous year by Thomas Brassey, proposes that the association should become the centre of a movement concerned with securing English Home Rule and urges the patriotic members of the Society to take up the cause, ‘If the Royal Society of St George believes as I do that Home Rule for England is a necessity, and will be the means of arousing Englishmen in the matter, it will do an invaluable service to the country and to the Empire’. In the same issue the Earl of Selborne declared that devolution in England would ‘give the English people freedom to deal with purely English affairs in a purely English way and would relieve them from the ill-informed influence of Scottish and of Welsh Members of Parliament’. The publication of these commentaries buoyed members of the RSStG who supported Brassey’s position and were quite vocal in their desire to see the vision of Home Rule for England realised.

However, as we know, his vision did not come to fruition. Given the nationalist discourse in Britain at the time it may seem surprising that the sentiments expressed by Brassey, and supported by the Royal Society of St George, did not crystallise into a solid political movement interested in establishing English Home Rule. We do know that the RSStG tended to engage itself in the promotion of cultural Englishness rather than political Englishness and was not often drawn into discussions of a distinctly political nature. Perhaps following the buoyant reception to Brassey’s proposals the association quickly returned to the promotion of Englishness at a more local level. Or, perhaps it was the loss of the movement’s advocate in 1919 owing to Brassey’s untimely death? Had he not been killed at the age of fifty-six would he have gone on to establish a party similar to the Scots and the Welsh? Perhaps he would. Which begs the question: if he had, would England also be counting down to an historic debate on its constitutional future? What do you think? We’d love to hear your views.