The English question can no longer be ignored. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Show Hide image

Meet the hot, funny, carefree Cool Mums – the maternal version of the Cool Girl

As new film Bad Moms reveals, what the cool girl is to the diet-obsessed prom queen, the cool mum is to the PTA harpy.

I suppose we should all be thankful. Time was when “mum’s night off” came in the form of a KFC value bucket. Now, with the advent of films such as Bad Moms – “from the gratefully married writers of The Hangover” – it looks as though mums are finally getting permission to cut loose and party hard.

This revelation could not come a moment too soon. Fellow mums, you know all those stupid rules we’ve been following? The ones where we think “god, I must do this, or it will ruin my precious child’s life”? Turns out we can say “sod it” and get pissed instead. Jon Lucas and Scott Moore said so.

I saw the trailer for Bad Moms in the cinema with my sons, waiting for Ghostbusters to start. Much as I appreciate a female-led comedy, particularly one that suggests there is virtue in shirking one’s maternal responsibilities, I have to say there was something about it that instantly made me uneasy. It seems the media is still set on making the Mommy Wars happen, pitching what one male reviewer describes as “the condescending harpies that run the PTA” against the nice, sexy mummies who just want to have fun (while also happening to look like Mila Kunis). It’s a set up we’ve seen before and will no doubt see again, and while I’m happy some attention is being paid to the pressures modern mothers are under, I sense that another is being created: the pressure to be a cool mum.

When I say “cool mum” I’m thinking of a maternal version of the cool girl, so brilliantly described in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl:

“Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot.”

The cool girl isn’t like all the others. She isn’t weighed down by the pressures of femininity. She isn’t bothered about the rules because she knows how stupid they are (or at least, how stupid men think they are). She does what she likes, or at least gives the impression of doing so. No one has to feel guilty around the cool girl. She puts all other women, those uptight little princesses, to shame.

What the cool girl is to the diet-obsessed prom queen, the cool mum is to the PTA harpy. The cool mum doesn’t bore everyone by banging on about organic food, sleeping habits or potty training. Neither hyper-controlling nor obsessively off-grid, she’s managed to combine reproducing with remaining a well-balanced person, with interests extending far beyond CBeebies and vaccination pros and cons. She laughs in the face of those anxious mummies ferrying their kids to and from a multitude of different clubs, in between making  cupcakes for the latest bake sale and sitting on the school board. The cool mum doesn’t give a damn about dirty clothes or additives. After all, isn’t the key to happy children a happy mum? Perfection is for narcissists.

It’s great spending time with the cool mum. She doesn’t make you feel guilty about all the unpaid drudgery about which other mothers complain. She’s not one to indulge in passive aggression, expecting gratitude for all those sacrifices that no one even asked her to make. She’s entertaining and funny. Instead of fretting about getting up in time to do the school run, she’ll stay up all night, drinking you under the table. Unlike the molly-coddled offspring of the helicopter mum or the stressed-out kids of the tiger mother, her children are perfectly content and well behaved, precisely because they’ve learned that the world doesn’t revolve around them. Mummy’s a person, too.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, just how well this works out. Just as the cool girl manages to meet all the standards for patriarchal fuckability without ever getting neurotic about diets, the cool mum raises healthy, happy children without ever appearing to be doing any actual motherwork. Because motherwork, like dieting, is dull. The only reason any woman would bother with either of them is out of some misplaced sense of having to compete with other women. But what women don’t realise – despite the best efforts of men such as the Bad Moms writers to educate us on this score – is that the kind of woman who openly obsesses over her children or her looks isn’t worth emulating. On the contrary, she’s a selfish bitch.

For what could be more selfish than revealing to the world that the performance of femininity doesn’t come for free? That our female bodies are not naturally hairless, odourless, fat-free playgrounds? That the love and devotion we give our children – the very care work that keeps them alive – is not something that just happens regardless of whether or not we’ve had to reimagine our entire selves to meet their needs? No one wants to know about the efforts women make to perform the roles which men have decided come naturally to us. It’s not that we’re not still expected to be perfect partners and mothers. It’s not as though someone else is on hand to pick up the slack if we go on strike. It’s just that we’re also required to pretend that our ideals of physical and maternal perfection are not imposed on us by our position in a social hierarchy. On the contrary, they’re meant to be things we’ve dreamed up amongst ourselves, wilfully, if only because each of us is a hyper-competitive, self-centred mean girl at heart.

Don’t get me wrong. It would be great if the biggest pressures mothers faced really did come from other mothers. Alas, this really isn’t true. Let’s look, for instance, at the situation in the US, where Bad Moms is set. I have to say, if I were living in a place where a woman could be locked up for drinking alcohol while pregnant, where she could be sentenced to decades behind bars for failing to prevent an abusive partner from harming her child, where she could be penalised in a custody case on account of being a working mother – if I were living there, I’d be more than a little paranoid about fucking up, too. It’s all very well to say “give yourself a break, it’s not as though the motherhood police are out to get you”. Actually, you might find that they are, especially if, unlike Kunis’s character in Bad Moms, you happen to be poor and/or a woman of colour.

Even when the stakes are not so high, there is another reason why mothers are stressed that has nothing to do with pressures of our own making. We are not in need of mindfulness, bubble baths nor even booze (although the latter would be gratefully received). We are stressed because we are raising children in a culture which strictly compartmentalises work, home and leisure. When one “infects” the other – when we miss work due to a child’s illness, or have to absent ourselves to express breastmilk at social gatherings, or end up bringing a toddler along to work events – this is seen as a failure on our part. We have taken on too much. Work is work and life is life, and the two should never meet.

No one ever says “the separation between these different spheres – indeed, the whole notion of work/life balance – is an arbitrary construct. It shouldn’t be down to mothers to maintain these boundaries on behalf of everyone else.” Throughout human history different cultures have combined work and childcare. Yet ours has decreed that when women do so they are foolishly trying to “have it all”, ignoring the fact that no one is offering mothers any other way of raising children while maintaining some degree of financial autonomy. These different spheres ought to be bleeding into one another.  If we are genuinely interested in destroying hierarchies by making boundaries more fluid, these are the kind of boundaries we should be looking at. The problem lies not with identities – good mother, bad mother, yummy mummy, MILF – but with the way in which we understand and carry out our day-to-day tasks.

But work is boring. Far easier to think that nice mothers are held back, not by actual exploitation, but by meanie alpha mummies making up arbitrary, pointless rules. And yes, I’d love to be a bad mummy, one who stands up and says no to all that. Wouldn’t we all? I’d be all for smashing the matriarchy, if that were the actual problem here, but it’s not.

It’s not that mummies aren’t allowing each other to get down and party. God knows, we need it. It’s just that it’s a lot less fun when you know the world will still be counting on you to clear up afterwards.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.