The DUP says it would rather bring the government down and trigger a hard Brexit than countenance anything that could ever give Northern Ireland a different status in the union. But Theresa May’s problem is not just with the DUP, but with her own supporters. They too would rather see a hard border – impossible to negotiate with the EU – than abandon Brexit.
Polling by the Future of England Survey underlines how strongly English voters now prioritise Brexit. Almost half of all English voters would risk the peace process to leave the EU, but this rises to three quarters of Conservative voters. Mainstream commentators may damn Boris Johnson, Owen Paterson and Jacob Rees-Mogg as they airily dismiss Irish border issues, but these Brexiteers seem to be on the Tory centre ground.
However much the Prime Minister invokes the traditions of the Conservative and Unionist Party, the English voters who put her in office put English grievances first. Indeed, the FES survey showed the same voters prefer Brexit to keeping Scotland in the union. If there is any vestigial desire in No 10 to go to the country for a fresh mandate for an EU deal, it will have to calculate on May being outflanked by her own base.
It is an extraordinary reflection on our politics that this sense of distinct English interests has grown so influential without any engagement from either the Tories or Labour. The divergence of a key group of English voters from Anglo-British unionism into something distinctly different has been apparent for some time. In 2014, the same Future of England group showed how a quarter of English residents (and a third of English identifiers) thought the EU was the layer of government with most influence over their lives. In Scotland and Wales, the comparable figure was around one in 20.
Immediately after the Scottish referendum, David Cameron proposed the introduction of English Votes of English Laws, declaring: “We have heard the voice of Scotland and now the millions of voices of England must be heard.” EVEL proved so obscure and complex that few people in England have any idea it exists, let alone hear a distinct voice in Parliament. But in the short term, it was Labour, which opposed even EVEL, that was going to suffer most.
Picking up on discussions in focus groups, the 2015 Tory election campaign centred on the “threat” to England of SNP influence on a minority Labour government. The debate dominated the media and was echoed on many doorsteps. Though it may have only shifted a small number of votes, those running the party campaigns and some analysts believe it was enough to give Cameron his majority.
Buoyed by an unexpected victory, the Tories don’t seem to have understood that the force they had cultivated might cause them problems in the future, or that Cameron’s promise to England should be delivered. On the Labour side, the official inquest did not even mention issues of English identity – though Labour came third amongst English identifiers and won amongst the British. As Labour surged towards Corbyn, defeat was blamed on poor policy, not the growth of national identity politics north and south or the border.
A year later, and the bulk of the Brexit vote was delivered by English voters. Remain, notoriously campaigned (as the People’s Vote does today) for Britain Stronger in Europe. Unlike the distinct national campaign in Wales and Scotland, England was not mentioned.
We cannot prove that English alienation is directly linked to the lack of any English institutions, political community or voice, or the routine failure of the major party leaders to mention England. But it was well before the referendum or even Ukip’s surge, that English voters so over-estimated the EU’s influence compared to those who enjoyed devolved government in Wales and Scotland. It is striking that, as Anthony Barnett has shown, Paisley and Wigan, two similar post-industrial towns in Scotland and England voted in opposition directions on Brexit. The BBC/YouGov poll this summer revealed deep discontent with how England is governed and much pessimism, unique across the union, about the future.
There are few short-term fixes available to government or opposition. The Brexit process will be concluded against this difficult background. But post-Brexit Britain will remain a fractured union unless we can find a new way of bring the nations, including England, together.
The emergent English interest is not a majority, even in England. Yet it has the power to constrain a Conservative government and be a major obstacle to Corbyn winning England. Often the expression of people who feel marginalised and ignored, it expresses anger and frustration as much as any coherent vision of the future. Engaging with it and allowing England a voice has some risks but much potential. Without it, it is hard to see how England can develop a positive and shared vision of its own future or understand its relationship and responsibilities towards a union. The alternative – to wait and see where this powerful but unpredictable force goes next – seems much worse.