England and the new United Kingdom
This year’s vote in Scotland on independence has put the constitutional future of the United Kingdom in question, and while polls consistently show independence is unlikely, after the referendum further devolution of powers from Westminster to Holyrood is almost a certainty. However, the debate over Britain’s constitutional status quo has not been limited to beyond Hadrian’s Wall. In England, there are calls for change.
England is increasingly unhappy with the current political set-up of the United Kingdom, believing devolution favours Scotland at England’s expense. In January 2012 the IPPR detailed how a new English political identity was emerging. A later IPPR study, published after the Olympic Games and the Jubilee, both great celebrations of ‘Britishness’, revealed the continued strength of this identity, as well as discontent with England’s place in Britain and Europe.
Both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats promised to resolve the ‘West Lothian Question’ in their 2010 manifestos and figures from both parties recognised the need for reform. LGA Chairman Sir Merrick Cockell has suggested there be a ‘Minister for England’. Sir Menzies Campbell earlier unveiled proposals for a ‘Federal Union’, reviving the old Liberal dream of ‘Home Rule’. Meanwhile the McKay Commission recommended laws affecting England should only be supported by a majority of MPs representing English constituencies.
England has not had a separate Parliament since 1707. It is the only constituent country of the United Kingdom to not have political representation. The Scottish Parliament was re-established in 1997, the Welsh Assembly was founded in 1998, and in 1999 full powers were devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, which had replaced the Parliament of Northern Ireland. To grant England its own legislative body would therefore be the most equitable solution in addressing England’s position in the Union.
The alternatives to an English Parliament are ultimately inferior. A ‘Minister for England’ could not sufficiently represent the affairs and interests of the United Kingdom’s largest nation. Plans to give English MPs a veto could result in awkward political gridlocks in the future, and keep decision-making within the ‘Westminster Bubble’.
The British left has historically been uncomfortable with English national feeling. George Orwell himself remarked “In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings”. But left-liberal commentators have now recognised the need to engage the English on this issue. Writing in the Observer, Henry Porter warned England to start thinking about itself. Professor Richard Wyn Jones in the New Statesman called upon the modern Left to draw from England’s tradition of social radicalism. Martin Kettle for the Guardian urged Ed Miliband to prevent the Right from dominating England’s national debate.
Yet it is the Conservative Party that is best placed to capitalise. In 2010, Conservatives gained 296 seats in England, compared to Labour’s 190. In the event an English Parliament was established, it is likely Conservatives would be the predominant political force.
Research by the IPPR also revealed UKIP supporters to be the most disaffected on constitutional affairs. Clear Conservative support for an English Parliament could help win back UKIP voters without conceding to hard-right positions on immigration and the European Union.
Conservative advocates for localism, such as MEP Daniel Hannan, oppose an English Parliament, arguing instead we should devolve power closer to the people than at a national level. Yet the rejection of elected Mayors for England’s 11 biggest cities in 2011 demonstrated the limits of public support for localism. Numerous polls however show repeated majorities in favour of an English Parliament.
The Conservative Party should be wary of top-down reorganisation of politics without popular support. However, by pledging to re-establish the English Parliament, the Conservative Party can reconnect with voters who feel alienated by the ‘Westminster Bubble’, especially if the institution was placed in one of the great cities of the North or Midlands, where feelings of ‘Englishness’ are particularly strong. Birmingham, England’s second largest city and home to diverse communities is reflective of modern Britain, and is a potential candidate.
Furthermore, just as the Scottish and Welsh legislatures have been vanguards of centre-left policy-making, with free prescriptions and reduced tuition fees, so could an English Parliament be a vanguard of centre-right policy-making. Public sector reform, such as greater choice in education and more competition in the NHS, is something a Tory-led England could pioneer. Once proven successful, Conservative policies adopted in England could be replicated elsewhere.