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

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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