The parties must stop dithering and address the English question

The challenge for mainstream parties is to express and ground alternative ideas of the English nation and to connect these to a renewed case for the Union.

The development of a more compelling, contemporary case for Britain’s Union requires not just a fine-grained understanding of Scottish sensibilities and arguments, but also a proper consideration of the nature and implications of developing forms of English identity. A growing body of social science research points to a gradual reassertion of English nationhood in the current period, a trend that is more deeply rooted and politically significant than is generally appreciated. Several different, contending versions of what it means to be English are quietly and inexorably leaving their imprint upon the agendas and assumptions of politics at Westminster.

All of the main parties have obvious, short-term incentives for averting their eyes from these issues, or for playing them tactically, given their own internal differences on Europe and the Union, and the difficulties they have in engaging with the public on such matters. And yet each is likely to find an evasive or purely tactical stance increasingly difficult to sustain. In part, this is a result of the dramatic coincidence of loud questions about Britain’s role in Europe, the referendum on Scottish independence and the attendant debate about the Union, and the likelihood of further devolutionary developments in Scotland and Wales, even if Scottish independence does not come to pass.

More generally, national questions are necessarily difficult for politicians who are schooled in the dominant narrative in the UK of centralised and functional, rather than territorial, governance. And yet the blood has been seeping away from the Westminster model for some time, primarily because long-established ideas about what was special and unique about Britain and its evolving system of parliamentary government began to lose their appeal as the last century drew to a close.

The three main parties appear either uncomfortable or uncertain as they grapple with these national questions. For the Conservative party, David Cameron’s deployment of familiar Unionist arguments in the debate over Scottish independence sits awkwardly with the reality that the Tories look increasingly like the party that represents the most affluent parts of southern and central England. Many voters within their electoral core are increasingly impatient with the Union and Scottish demands upon it.

In Labour’s case, Ed Miliband’s "one nation" rhetoric is vulnerable to a pretty obvious rejoinder – "which nation?" Perhaps best known as a Tory phrase, it is heard in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as a decidedly English trope. Engaging with contemporary English sensibilities raises another pressing question for the Labour party: how can its rediscovery of an authentic, radical lineage of progressive patriotism – as proposed by figures such as the chair of its policy review, Jon Cruddas – be reconciled with the widespread perception that the party clings to the established order because of its heavy reliance upon the votes of Scottish MPs? If Labour does succeed in winning a majority in the general election of 2015 but lacks representatives in large swathes of southern, eastern and western England and the midlands, it could well find itself facing a crisis of territorial legitimacy, at the mercy of a potent English-focused backlash. (Indeed, one advantage of coalition with the Liberal Democrats is that this might help offset Labour’s position in England, as it has done in relation to the Tories’ situation in Scotland.)

At present, the one political party that appears to be in tune with some strands of the new English zeitgeist is the UK Independence Party (Ukip) (despite the anachronistic name with which it is saddled). Recent polling suggests a strong correlation between sympathy for Ukip and identification with English, rather than British, national identity. Yet transforming its retro-British nationalist outlook into an English nationalism presents a challenge for Ukip, as is clear from its significant internal divisions on such questions as whether to support an English parliament. And, more fundamentally still, the extent to which Englishness signals the kind of pessimistic, insular and conservative outlook that Ukip promotes is often exaggerated. My own research suggests that most people who are increasingly inclined to identify as "English" first and foremost are broadly liberal and/or conservative in disposition, and still feel a strong sense of affiliation for the Union, even if many are increasingly sceptical about the EU.

In the end, the most effective response to increasingly prominent populist-nationalist sentiments is not to disengage from the terrain of "the national-popular" in the name of universal liberal values, nor to try to recycle or appropriate the simplicities of nationalist-populist rhetoric on issues like immigration. The better, more enduring alternative is to work much harder and more imaginatively – in intellectual, cultural and policy terms – to express and ground alternative ideas of the English nation, and to connect these to a renewed case for Union. This is the major challenge linking the various national questions of British politics. It is time that the parties stopped dithering and embraced it. 

The full version of this article will appear in the forthcoming essay collection Democracy in Britain, Essays in honour of James Cornford to be published by IPPR in February.’ Michael Kenny's book, "The Politics of English Nationhood" is published by Oxford University Press in February.

The English flag is seen flying above 10 Downing St on St George's Day. Photograph: Getty Images.

Michael Kenny is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary,  University of London, and an associate fellow at IPPR

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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital