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.