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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Leader: Trump's dangerous nation

From North Korea to Virginia, the US increasingly resembles a rogue state.

When Donald Trump was elected as US president, some optimistically suggested that the White House would have a civilising effect on the erratic tycoon. Under the influence of his more experienced colleagues, they argued, he would gradually absorb the norms of international diplomacy.

After seven months, these hopes have been exposed as delusional. On 8 August, he responded to North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities by threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Three days later, he casually floated possible military action against Venezuela. Finally, on 12 August, he responded to a white supremacist rally in Virginia by condemning violence on “many sides” (only criticising the far right specifically after two days of outrage).

Even by Mr Trump’s low standards, it was an embarrassing week. Rather than normalising the president, elected office has merely inflated his self-regard. The consequences for the US and the world could be momentous.

North Korea’s reported acquisition of a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an intercontinental missile (and potentially reach the US) demanded a serious response. Mr Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric was not it. His off-the-cuff remarks implied that the US could launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, leading various officials to “clarify” the US position. Kim Jong-un’s regime is rational enough to avoid a pre-emptive strike that would invite a devastating retaliation. However, there remains a risk that it misreads Mr Trump’s intentions and rushes to action.

Although the US should uphold the principle of nuclear deterrence, it must also, in good faith, pursue a diplomatic solution. The week before Mr Trump’s remarks, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, rightly ruled out “regime change” and held out the possibility of “a dialogue”.

The North Korean regime is typically depicted as crazed, but its pursuit of nuclear weapons rests on rational foundations. The project is designed to guarantee its survival and to strengthen its bargaining hand. As such, it must be given incentives to pursue a different path.

Mr Trump’s bellicose language overshadowed the successful agreement of new UN sanctions against North Korea (targeting a third of its $3bn exports). Should these prove insufficient, the US should resume the six-party talks of the mid-2000s and even consider direct negotiations.

A failure of diplomacy could be fatal. In his recent book Destined for War, the Harvard historian Graham Allison warns that the US and China could fall prey to “Thucydides’s trap”. According to this rule, dating from the clash between Athens and Sparta, war typically results when a dominant power is challenged by an ascendent rival. North Korea, Mr Bew writes, could provide the spark for a new “great power conflict” between the US and China.

Nuclear standoffs require immense patience, resourcefulness and tact – all qualities in which Mr Trump is lacking. Though the thought likely never passed his mind, his threats to North Korea and Venezuela provide those countries with a new justification for internal repression.

Under Mr Trump’s leadership, the US is becoming an ever more fraught, polarised nation. It was no accident that the violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminating in the death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer, took place under his presidency. Mr Trump’s victory empowered every racist, misogynist and bigot in the land. It was doubtless this intimate connection that prevented him from immediately condemning the white supremacists. To denounce them is, in effect, to denounce himself.

The US hardly has an unblemished history. It has been guilty of reckless, immoral interventions in Vietnam, Latin America and Iraq. But never has it been led by a man so heedless of international and domestic norms. Those Republicans who enabled Mr Trump’s rise and preserve him in office must do so no longer. There is a heightened responsibility, too, on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, the president. The Brexiteers have allowed dreams of a future US-UK trade deal to impair their morality.

Under Mr Trump, the US increasingly resembles a breed it once denounced: a rogue state. His former rival Hillary Clinton’s past warning that “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons” now appears alarmingly prescient.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear