The long struggle of the English Democrat
- 4 July 2014
- From the section UK Politics
It looks like a thankless task trying to build a new force in UK politics. It is, says English Democrats chairman Robin Tilbrook, but he still thinks it's worth the bother.
For more than a decade his party has campaigned for English devolution without ever coming close to making a breakthrough at Westminster.
That's dozens of annual conferences and election meetings, thousands of miles of pavement pounded, gallons of tea (or something stronger) drunk, 35 million leaflets distributed and hundreds of letters written.
And what has been the result? At the last general election the English Democrats got 64,826 votes, 0.2% of the total. That could be seen as disappointing, but on the other hand it was the best performing party without an MP or Euro MP.
What about the European elections in May? The party was again "best of the rest", with 126,024 votes. The only downside was that it had almost twice as many votes five years earlier. Like many of the smaller parties it saw votes being Hoovered up by the UK Independence Party.
So, I ask father-of-three Tilbrook, after more than 12 years is it worth the effort?
"Yes," he replies, "Obviously we haven't been crowned with successes yet, but I think we have moved the debate in the direction that we are interested in."
In British politics, as the Electoral Commission's mammoth list of registered political parties shows, small parties come and not long afterwards small parties tend to go.
English Democrats over the years
2005: The BBC went campaigning with Garry Bushell
2007: Tony Blair opposed an English parliament - they disagreed
2008: A dragon being slayed featured at their London mayoral launch
2009: After the Euro elections they hoped for a "break through"
2009: English Democrat elected mayor of Doncaster
2010: Launching the party's General Election campaign
2011: Campaign launched for more mayors
2013: Doncaster mayor quits party 'over BNP'
2013: Tilbrook says one in 10 English Democrats 'are ex-BNP'
2014: English Democrat goal is English independence
So how come the English Democrats have stuck around?
Tilbrook, 56, says: "The thing is we have a coherent strand of thought. It hasn't reached that point where it's overwhelmingly successful of course, but at the same time, even with very little coverage and a lot of emphasis on UKIP we still got 126,000 votes in the recent European elections."
He also points out that it is still a young party - noting that it took the Scottish National Party more than eight decades to get to the point of an independence referendum.
It is also true to say that their core policy - English independence - could be about to come a huge leap closer, if Scotland votes for independence in its September 2014.
That prospect has led the English Democrats to register with Electoral Commission as an active participant in campaigning in Scotland.
How welcome they are in Scotland is another matter. Tilbrook says they have a "constructive relationship" with the SNP, but they have yet to decide what to do "because we are conscious that we don't want to do anything which treads on the Yes campaign's toes".
He says that in England the debate tends to be about whether people feel English or British, but the Scottish referendum debate is less about whether people feel Scottish or British and more (on both sides he says) "in terms of being hostile to England and Englishness".
"We've had some noises of welcome and we've had one or two people saying 'you're English, keep your noses out of Scottish affairs'."
He says that it is not just people who think "like us that the United Kingdom is past its sell-by date" who should care about the Scottish referendum in England, and he produces a leaflet outlining the constitutional history of the UK and what it says are the consequences of Scottish independence.
It all looks a bit high-brow, and Tilbrook, a former politics teacher, is happy to talk at length on the subject.
Focus on the Scottish Referendum
* A referendum on whether Scotland should become independent is to take place on 18 September, 2014
* People resident in Scotland will be able to take part in the vote, answering the "yes/no" question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"
But we get back to the question of whether or not it is possible for a small, new party to break through in the British political system.
The former Conservative council candidate - who once did an internship for Tory MP Tim Yeo in Parliament - says they have just had to "keep at it" despite a system "designed to try and prevent small parties from standing if at all possible".
"You meet total obstructionism from much of the bureaucracy," he says.
"The way the system operates is pretty unfair, quite frankly. It gives the superficial appearance of being fair, but when you come down to it there are so many obstructions, hassles and niggles and costs - it is very much designed to keep out other parties, he says, "and I think it is getting worse".
"They pay lip service to democracy, but it is not very democratic," he says.
In politics, money talks - the English Democrats reckon they spent about £30,000 on their recent EU elections campaign, compared with the millions spent by some of the bigger parties. So, and this might be perhaps clutching at straws, it is possible to claim they got more votes per pound spent than their rivals.
"We were only able to make two million leaflets - there's twenty five million leaflets which could have been distributed but that would have cost £125,000," and that could not have been done "without selling up houses and so on and families getting extremely upset".
So, why England and why go into politics?
Tilbrook says he did not become interested in politics until he went to university, after a six month stint in the army. Educated at Wellington College alongside the recent Lords leader Lord Strathclyde, he says his politics were conventionally Conservative.
Afterwards he spent some years as a politics teacher - his pupils at Stowe included Guardian journalist and environmental campaigner George Monbiot, he says - before becoming a solicitor with his own firm.
He also did some canvassing and stood for the Conservatives in council elections in Essex but the key moment came after the Scottish and Welsh devolution referendums in 1998. He started to question why the Conservatives were not proposing to do something for England, adding: "I am a patriot and that's what got me involved."
Tilbrook says he put as much effort into lobbying within the party as he could - including with his local MP, Eric Pickles, but "what I basically got overall was that the Conservatives were hostile to saying anything about England - basically I reached a point where I thought I had to do something about it or shut up".
He ruled out joining the UK Independence Party - then political minnows - because, as their name suggests, they were all about the UK rather than England.
Starting a new party involved arranging a series of meetings, putting up a website and registering the party with the Electoral Commission and recruiting members.
Anyone who's ever been involved in choosing the name for a band or a pub quiz team can probably sympathise with the lengthy process of settling on a name for the new English nationalist party.
The first name was a conscious echo of the SNP - The English National Party. But that was ditched when people thought they were "something to do with the British National Party". The initials ENP didn't work either, he says, because people heard it as the BNP.
"We were sufficiently savvy," he says, to realise the name was going to be vital. So their next attempt was the English Democratic Party. But that was rejected by the Electoral Commission because there was already a Democratic Party registered. So they settled instead on what he describes as the slightly less grammatical English Democrats.
They set off on their long journey with about 100 members (he says they have about 3,500 now). At the time the idea was to bring "a sharp edge to the campaign for an English parliament".
"It seemed to me quite unlikely that our politicians would react to a serious, slightly intellectual but well thought-out series of arguments about the logical case.
"The only thing that was probably going to make a difference to them was anything which was going to impact on their careers.
"It may be unduly cynical but, taken in the main, it is what is needed. And we've seen that with the reaction to UKIP. No-one would be considering an EU referendum if it wasn't for UKIP making some progress.
"We thought that by standing in elections we would get a certain amount of publicity and that would help to spread the message to people."
He says that over the years they have become a fully-fledged political party and last year their key goal changed from getting an English Parliament, to getting independence for England.
"The way political decisions are made, everybody who is around the table gets a bit of the cake and the amount of cake that they get depends on their level of leverage. They don't actually focus on the problem they are there to address.
"And England isn't represented - that's why we get treated unfairly."
The party's most notable election success was Peter Davies being elected mayor of Doncaster in 2009 - but that ended with him quitting the party in February last year over claims of an influx of members joining from the British National Party.
Tilbrook does not dispute gaining members from the BNP - up to one in ten could be ex-BNP, he has said - but says that all parties have been joined by people who have left the BNP during its "meltdown".
'Times have changed'
"They are mainly people who are actually interested in the sort of things we are saying, so I feel they are converts to the cause. We are a small party... if we started off on the basis we were going to be difficult to everyone who came to us, without giving them a chance to show they are a genuine convert to what we are trying to achieve then we couldn't hope to make any progress."
The English Democrats say they want to put an end to mass immigration by using a points-based system along the lines of those in Canada and Australia. Tilbrook says that, as a result of media reporting of racist comments, UKIP was widely believed to have a similar policy at the European elections, but was, he says, actually "in favour of mass immigration" from outside the EU.
When people become aware of this "quite a lot of their support evaporates", he says.
As the son of a military man, born in Malaya during the days of the British Empire, he admits to not really seeing a difference between being English or British for many years. But times have changed - the census shows that a growing proportion of people see themselves as English now, he says.
"We are 20 years behind Scotland and Wales where they moved from people saying they were British. In England, until relatively recently people have tended to say they were British. I think the English have now woken up to this."
There is the question of how to define English. Tilbrook says that from a democratic point of view the people of England are people who are settled in England.
"We have quite deliberately not been trying to make any racial point, but at the same time we are not going to deny that some people do consider themselves to be, and do have, a family history of being ethnically English as well.
"There are a number of different classifications. Somebody who is of West Indian origin - if you asked them, I don't think they would claim they were ethnically English, but that doesn't stop them saying or thinking of themselves in national identity terms as English.
"The thing we are saying about national identity is it's in your heart, and your loyalty to that community."
As to being a Little Englander? "I'm quite happy with that term. It originally came from those who did not want to get involved in the Boer War and wanted to mind their own business - I think we ought to be minding our own business."
That sounds a bit at odds with the effort taken to set up a party. So back to the original question. Has it been worth it?
"Yes. There is a need to have a political party to force the hand of the established politicians - we'll go on," he says.
And what advice would he give someone thinking of setting up their own political party? "Don't!" he laughs.