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  1. Politics
7 June 2012

Miliband tackles the English question

Labour was "too reluctant" to talk about England, Miliband admits.

By George Eaton

One consequence of the debate over Scottish independence is a new focus on the politics of Englishness (a subject the New Statesman explored in a special issue last year) . English voters are increasingly resentful of a settlement that allows Scottish and Welsh MPs from the three main parties (SNP and Plaid Cymru members abstain) to vote on English-only laws. The historic failure of senior politicians to address the issue of English identity has left the country’s voters increasingly uncertain of their place in the Union. As a recent poll by British Future revealed, only a slim majority, six out of ten, of the English associate their national flag with pride and patriotism, compared with 84 per cent in Scotland and 86 per cent in Wales. Worse, 24 per cent, including one in three of the under 40s, think of racism and extremism when they see the St George’s Cross.

Jon Cruddas, the man now leading Labour’s policy review, and David Miliband have both written thoughtfully about “the English question” in the New Statesman. I recently argued that “if Ed Miliband wants to steal a march on David Cameron, he should make a speech on this subject sooner rather than later.” Today he will do just that. In an address this morning at the South Bank Centre, entitled “Defending the Union in England”, the Labour leader will concede that his party has been “too reluctant” to talk about England in the past as it has focused on crafting a new constitutional settlement for Scotland and Wales.

He will say:

We in the Labour Party have been too reluctant to talk about England in recent years. We’ve concentrated on shaping a new politics for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. But some people in England felt Labour’s attention had turned away. That something was holding us back from celebrating England too. That we were too nervous to talk of English pride and English character. Connecting it to the kind of nationalism that left us ill at ease.

There may be a temptation on the part of others to conjure a view of Englishness which does not represent our nation, a mirror image of the worst aspects of Scottish nationalism – hostile to outsiders, anti-Scottish, England somehow cut off from the rest of Britain, cut off from the outside world, fearful what is beyond our borders, our best days behind us.

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One key issue will be whether Miliband indicates any willingness to support “English votes on English laws”, a reform that would amount to the creation of an English parliament within Westminster. For political reasons, his party has been traditionally resistant to English devolution. Deprived of the votes of Scottish and Welsh MPs, a future Labour government could struggle to pass contentious legislation. Alternatively, a future Labour opposition could face a Tory supermajority. Were non-English MPs excluded from voting on devolved issues, the Tories would currently have a majority of 63. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Labour has previously denounced the coalition’s West Loathian commission as “partisan tinkering with our constitutional fabric”. For now, the party is content to leave the federalist road open to Cameron.

Update: In his speech, Miliband restated his opposition to an English parliament (“I don’t detect a longing for more politicians,” he said) and argued that the priority was to reverse the “centralisation of power in London” through further devolution to local authorities.

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