The English question can no longer be ignored. Photo: Getty
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William Hague's plans could be highly contentious, but it's time to address the English question

There is an increasingly compelling, precautionary case for constitutional reform, but William Hague's "hard" plans aren't positive or carefully calibrated enough.

The publication of four different proposals for English votes for English Laws (EVEL) by the Cabinet Committee chaired by William Hague will come to be seen as the moment when the English Question moved out of the shadows and into the limelight of British politics. Labour’s recent shift of tone and position on EVEL means that all of the main parties at Westminster are now, in principle, willing to debate reforms to the Commons over legislation that affects England alone.

But, as constitutional experts have long argued, answering the West Lothian question without inflaming territorial differences is a far harder enterprise than it looks – essentially because it is still very hard to disentangle UK-wide legislation and administration from that affecting England. And, while the passing of a suite of new powers to Scotland has created a much stronger political imperative to "do something" about England – especially among English MPs anxiously watching Ukip’s embrace of English nationalism – giving more domestic and tax powers to Scotland does not end its significant dependency upon Treasury funding. This funding will still be allocated according to the Barnett formula – which grants the Scottish population more funding per head than the peoples of England and Wales. Equally, the Scots will still be subject to a significant number of UK-wide taxes.

Moreover, when it comes to considering EVEL, a huge amount turns on the vital question buried beneath the Hague proposals: how will English-only legislation be defined? The vast majority of Bills that are passed in parliament have a range of direct and indirect implications for different parts of the UK, and so are unlikely to fall under the remit of an English-only procedure.

There is then a good chance that EVEL, especially in the "hard" forms that Hague sets out – which might involve restricting non-English MPs from voting on clauses of Bills, or preventing Scots from voting on the UK budget – may turn into a highly contentious sledgehammer designed to crack only the occasional nut.

Nevertheless, the Westminster orthodoxy which has long stipulated that the English question is one that should be neither posed nor answered, is no longer a safe haven for defenders of the Union. West Lothian has become a proxy for the question of English devolution, and now carries immense symbolic resonance. Left unaddressed, there is every chance that it will become a source of nationalist disaffection and grievance. And there is – as some constitutional conservatives have long argued – an increasingly compelling, precautionary case for reform.

Labour’s particular fears about the consequences of its introduction are greatly exaggerated. Were it to form, or be part of, a government made up of different parties in the next parliament, it is possible that Labour might, on some occasions, have to refine its legislative programme in the face of English opinion in the Commons. But what exactly is the democratic argument against it – or any other, UK government – having to do exactly that?

And yet, lost beneath the partisan war of words on EVEL, there is a more positive, pro-democratic and pro-Union case too which needs to be aired.

One of the fundamental constitutional challenges facing the UK arises from the asymmetric manner in which its nations are governed, and both the devolution reforms introduced by Labour in 1999, and, latterly, the fall-out from the Scottish referendum, have accentuated this lack of balance. There is a growing need for reforms to shape the way in which the UK is governed, which re-establish equilibrium – between the nations, territories and regions – and which also, crucially, express the double identity that the majority of the UK’s citizens now feel – to their own growing sense of national community, on the one hand, and to the institutions, laws and burden-sharing associated with the wider polity on the other.

Just like the Scots, and increasingly the Welsh, the English are also developing a stronger sense of collective consciousness, and are becoming drawn towards the idea of greater self-government.

This shifting mood points towards a consideration of procedural protections for English interests in parliament and greater decentralisation within England. EVEL is certainly not, on its own, going to unlock and express these energies and trends. But, in its more carefully calibrated forms, it would represent an important, symbolic change – offering the English a small, but valuable, sense of recognition within the Westminster system, and potentially ushering in a much broader process of constitutional reconfiguration across the UK.

Professor Michael Kenny is the Director of the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London, and an Associate Fellow of the Institute for Public Policy Research

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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