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What English Tory activists really think about the UK

The Scots have questioned whether the Union still works for them. And they're not alone. 

In 1909 the Conservatives were re-branded (as we would say today) as the Conservative and Unionist Party. It was a signal of its opposition to Irish Home Rule. To some it still matters. The Prime Minister Theresa May told the Scottish Tories last week that maintaining the Union was her "personal priority".

Even as she spoke, even her own party is questioning the importance of the Union. Leave aside the 60 per cent of party supporters who voted for Brexit, ironically triggering the new Irish border crisis that will unwind as the Unionist parties lose their Stormont majority. Even her English activists are no longer sure that the Union is worth the effort.

A survey of Tory activists, conducted with the website ConservativeHome, showed that three-quarters of English activists believe that devolution has been harmful for England. Most would prefer to maintain the Union, but nearly a third think break up would bring an "end to unreasonable demands" on England to provide ever greater financial and political concessions. That’s slightly more than those who believe the loss of Scotland would actually do serious harm to the rest of the UK.

Should another referendum campaign be launched, these Conservatives don’t want any repeat of the 2014 "vow" promising new powers to the Scottish government. Over two-thirds rule out any further concessions, with only one in a hundred supporting the voice in foreign policy that Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon craves. Tory attitudes may have been hardening since Labour’s Devolution Act. But the 2015 General Election campaign, where Conservatives were urged to exploit English fears of the SNP, will also have shaped activist views.

May’s tough speech - not even promising the devolution of returned agricultural and fisheries powers - reflects her members’ and, probably, her own instincts. It points to a "take it or leave it" campaign, gambling that the huge risks of independence will swing the vote.

At one level, the case for the Union is straight forward. Our histories, families, economies and interests are intertwined. Unpicking the strands will be painful, exhausting and leave us smaller, less able to support each other, or to benefit from our collective talents to deliver common interests.

But unionist parties are struggling to articulate a case for the United Kingdom. The different nations are evolving their own distinct political cultures and sense of their own interests. It is easy to make the unionist case to those who already identify as British; it is much harder to include those who want their Scottish, English or Welsh identities recognised, let alone those who want a united Ireland. It is harder still to argue that the inevitable conflicts of interest between different parts of the Union, where different parties win elections, can be managed within the current constitution.

The Prime Minister’s recent speech didn’t mention England; she assumed that England wants the Union and that it is the Scots who need to be persuaded. A week earlier, London's Labour mayor Sadiq Khan had attacked those who seek to "divide us". But this also assumed that we know who "us" is, and that we agree on what is in "our" best interest. But what if that is not the case? What if a growing number of English people are also questioning whether the Union works for "us"?

National identity and national interest are coming to the fore in England, not just in other parts of the Union. The recent research revealed Tory activists who feel predominantly English are most sceptical about the Union; the "British" are much less so. It is likely that the wider electorate feel the same. English discontent at the Barnett formula and Scottish MP voting rights was been clear for some years, but it may now be expressed more sharply.

For English Unionists, a wholehearted defence of the current Union risks being on the wrong side of "English" voters, just as the Remain campaign was last year. (In the Brexit referendum a huge majority of those who feel "English" voted leave; the "British" voted to remain.) May probably has enough latitude with her voters to run that risk, so long as she is not seen to offer new concessions. Labour is in more difficulty. It needs to regain support from the very voters who are most likely to feel English and most sceptical about whether the current Union is fair to them. Uncritical defence of the current constitution could create another fault line between Labour and that key part of the electorate.

A defence of the Union based on appeals to a greater good overcoming the interests of the member nations is ultimately doomed. If there is a future at all, it will means nations coming together in a reformed Union, recognising the rights and interests of each. But that will mean talking about England, and English rights and interests, as well as those of Scotland.

Prof John Denham is a former Labour MP and Cabinet Minister and is the Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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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