Time to address the English Question. Photo: Flickr/Jim Champion
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After the referendum, will it then be time to answer the English Question?

English-wide interests and identities need to be reflected and expressed in a reconstituted UK.

The English Question has suddenly shifted from being one of the enduring Cinderella issues of British politics to becoming the focal point for an increasingly heated  -- if not panic-stricken – set of political debates. But while the Westminster parties scramble to relocate some of the age-old answers it has elicited, the posing of this question now takes place against an entirely novel backdrop. The terrified realisation that the Referendum’s outcome is on knife-edge, together with the speedy cobbling together of a substantial offer of further devolution for Scotland, have brought questions about the governance and representation of England tumbling out of the constitutional closet.

In this situation, the unionist parties and their leaders are going to have to show qualities -- of leadership, vision and constitutional imagination – which have, for the most part, been missing in debates about policy in this area.  It is now time for both Tories and Labour to accept that putting the UK on a more sustainable, democratic and federal footing requires them to set their own partisan self-interests to one side, and to begin designing a bottom-up conversation about constitutional change. But, at the same time, it is also imperative that they revisit some of the main competing options which represent different possible answers to the English Question.

Perhaps the most appealing solution to the conundrum of finding a way of protecting and representing English interests in a reformed UK is an English Parliament. But this idea – which has long had a small and zealous set of advocates -- remains the most difficult to contemplate, given the size of the English population in this most unbalanced of unions.

As yet, this idea does not command overwhelming support among the English: the most recent results of the Future of England Survey, for instance, indicate that this is the preference of 18% of English, when it is offered as an option alongside other possible reforms (though 54 per cent indicated their support for it when it is presented as a stand-alone option. And this may well reflect an appreciation that an English Parliament would be more powerful than the House of Commons itself. A fully federal solution to the reform of the union therefore falls at the hurdle of the fundamental asymmetry of power in the UK. This idea also – importantly – leaves untouched the significant differences of power, culture and identity that prevail within England, and which are endemic to expressions of English national identity. And in a context where increasing numbers of the majority nation feel alienated from London -- a hyper-diverse, global city, where the circuits of political and economic power are ever more detached from the country it governs -- the danger is that an English Parliament would give political expression to the nation-territory of England, but do nothing to address the concentration of power at the centre of government.  

A more diluted version of "English votes for English laws" (EVoEL) has been the stated policy of the Conservative Party at recent points in its history, and was advanced for instance by Ken Clarke and the Democracy Taskforce appointed by David Cameron, which reported on this issue. In these slightly different, but overlapping, proposals, a restriction is envisaged upon the ability of MPs from across the UK to support measures that a majority of English MPs do not approve of. This proposal has long been criticised for creating ‘two classes’ of MP at Westminster – though Clarke’s proposal steers around this problem by ensuring that all MPs can vote on the Third Reading of a Bill. But there is also the considerable technical challenge of dividing Bills easily into territorial jurisdictions. And this is a serious consideration given the number that carry financial implications for all parts of the UK.  

Yet, these challenges are certainly not insuperable. There are already two classes of MP, it might well be argued, and this axiom may well now be trumped by the conviction of many citizens that there are two classes of constituent in the UK. This idea has the strongest resonance with the English (40 per cent indicated support for it in the most recent FOES survey, primarily because it appeals to a deeply felt (but hitherto ignored) sense of national-democratic justice on the part of the largest nation in the UK. While the Conservative party may well shift behind this idea immediately after the Referendum, Labour has refused to consider this issue as a matter of democratic principle, believing that EVoEL is a device intended to secure Tory hegemony over England.

For this reason, it may well be that Labour – which has proved remarkably obdurate in its refusal to engage with these issues since it introduced devolution to Scotland and Wales – chooses instead to align with the more diluted proposals set out in the independent McKay Commission which reported in 2013. Given Labour’s fears and uncertainties in this area, some version of these proposals might provide an appropriate starting point for the post-referendum debate among the parties at Westminster.

While Labour has recently shifted towards embracing the principle of a significant further phase of decentralisation within England -- with its proposals for devolving powers to city-regions and combined authorities in the form of its New Deal of England – it is now vital that the party also signals that English-wide interests and identities need to be reflected and expressed in a reconstituted UK. Embracing and owning this idea would also allow it to become one of the architects of reform, rather than a grudging bystander. A powerful feeling among the diverse peoples of England – especially those who live outside London – that they lack permission to assert their own democratic and national identity, has gathered over the last twenty years. And in response to this mood, the political parties need to step up to the challenge of re-engaging them as agents of their own constitutional and democratic future – just as has happened in Scotland. The democratic energy that has built up north of the border should not be allowed to dissipate. This dynamic needs to be harnessed to deeper projects of democratic renewal, and this means involving citizens, not just politicians.

Michael Kenny is an associate fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Read a longer version of this piece here.

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

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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.