The “English not British” split will help decide the next election – we must talk about it

Evolving English identity has already made its mark on the Brexit referendum.

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English taxpayers may only now be realising that they will foot the estimated £1.5bn dowry for Theresa May’s civil partnership with the DUP, while England’s austerity will continue largely unchanged. They could be forgiven for asking “who elected the DUP to decide England’s future?” 

A similar question hung over the 2015 election, when giant posters of Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket aimed to bring voters frightened of SNP influence behind a Conservative majority.

Two successive elections have cast the spotlight on the influence of parties from non-English parts of the union. This arises from the political dynamics in each nation: elections are fought largely by different parties, are about different issues, and each nation has a different winner. Both Labour and the Conservatives have regained some ground in Scotland, but the Scottish contest was distinct and can hardly be taken as a return to “normal British” politics. Brexit hung over the whole election, but some of the most controversial Conservative policies on social care and school funding were English-only issues.

Most English residents don’t spend their lives bridling at England’s governance and place within the union. But when asked, they are not happy. Over a decade ago they reached a settled view that the Barnett formula for distributing UK resources was unfair, and that Scottish MPs should not vote on English legislation.

The political system is slowly absorbing the gentle insistence that England has issues distinct from those of Britain. The Conservative government introduced a mild form of English Votes for English Laws (EVEL). For the first time, Labour’s 2017 manifesto recognised a political identity for England, promising a ‘Minister for England’ and a constitutional convention that would deliver a “relationship of equals” between England and the devolved nations. The immediate prospect of a second Scottish referendum may have disappeared, but England’s case for recognition is acquiring some momentum of its own.

But within England, the most recent (of several) attempts to shift power and resources from Whitehall to local areas seems to be losing momentum. Although the official line is that devolution to mayoral combined authorities is going ahead, the crucial personal engagement and drive of ministers is less apparent, and key legislation to devolve business rates was missing from the Queen’s Speech. There is little public support for reviving Labour’s abandoned elected regional assemblies. There is much more support for local decisions to be taken closer to home and for stronger local councils, although people also don’t want different standards of public service in different places. Real public support for devolution may depend on decentralisers showing that local control can reduce, not increase, postcode lotteries.

It’s hard to argue that England faces a constitutional crisis, but it’s equally difficult to believe that England’s relationship with the rest of the union will remain unchanged or that London’s dominance of England will simply continue as it is. This is the background to the British Academy conference whch will examine the successes and failures of devolution to the regions, cities and counties, and the evolution of English political identities. 

Following the recent election of metro-mayors in six English city-regions, the conference will also investigate the impact of devolution on Whitehall, the future of the political parties in England and the changing nature of the UK parliament at Westminster.

It was England that delivered the Brexit vote and, within England, it was those voters who felt most strongly English who opted most heavily for Leave. In England, those who identify themselves as British mainly backed Remain.

The divergent political choices of the “more English” and the “more British” have been growing for some time. Back in the Labour landslide of 2001, the party’s support hardly varied by English or British identity. By 2015, Labour came third among the “English not British”, well behind UKIP and the Conservatives, only recovering to a limited extent this year. Conservative activists who identify as “English” have a much more negative view of the union than their “British” party colleagues in England.

Significant though these trends seem to be, their real influence is not clear. Some of the most intensely English are also the most intensely British: patriots twice over. It isn't just those who identify themselves as English who have a strong interest in how England is governed. And while identity maps to some extent against age, class and education (the other markers of England’s cultural divide), there are plenty of liberal English people and socially conservative British.

For politicians, the practical challenge may simply be one of showing respect. We all want our identities to be recognised. For a long time, the English have heard few people speaking to them. The EU referendum might have been closer if the Remain campaign had also been “England Stronger in Europe”: England was the only UK nation where the campaign only spoke of Britain being stronger in Europe.

Whenever it comes, the next election will be decided in large-town and small-city England, places that are on the cusp of the clash of social values. In these places, it may be important to be able to talk about England’s future, not just that of Britain. 

The British Academy conference, “Governing England: Devolution and Identity in England” sponsored by the Carnegie Trust, will take place on 5 July

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