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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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad