The UK’s devolution settlement is based upon a striking form of asymmetry as Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have all been granted varying forms of self-government, but England has not. The introduction of these changes created the conditions in which the so-called ‘English question’ re-emerged in British politics, but was, until recently, of only marginal concern to most of its practitioners.
The omission of England from these reforms reflected an enduring tradition of British statecraft which has viewed concessions to the peripheral territories of the UK to offset nationalist revolt as a recurrent necessity. But the reforms of the late 1990s accorded a much fuller recognition of the principle of self-rule for these nations and peoples. It was introduced on the assumption that the core principles of parliamentary government were unaffected by these new legislative bodies. Whilst these reforms undoubtedly introduced a federalising dynamic into the UK’s constitutional arrangements – and indeed kick-started an extended period of ‘disjointed experimentalism’ in British governance – the absence of any serious attention to the idea of greater recognition for, and representation of, the peoples of England, constituted a major block to the prospect of a federal UK.
Devolution was never emphasised or explained to the English, and - unsurprisingly - for some years afterwards, in relatively benign economic and political conditions, it aroused little interest from them. But the widely held presumption that this indifference reflected a deep-rooted sense of consent has proved to be mistaken.
Since the mid-2000s questions about how England should be governed and how it fares within the systems of funding and representation that characterise the contemporary union have moved into public consciousness and increasingly penetrated the political ether. In part this is because of growing evidence of the return, since the mid-1990s, of an older lineage of English identity, especially among those living outside the largest metropolitan centres of England. And in part it has been prompted by various contingent events, including the passage of contentious legislation on issues that only affected England on the back of the votes of Scottish MPs – in the cases of tuition fees and foundation hospitals in 2003 and 2004.
The referendum on Scottish independence held in 2014 impacted upon an increasingly sour mood – as identified by various research studies – and accentuated the feeling that the voice of provincial England was unheeded, and its poorest inhabitants disenfranchised in British politics. This latter feeling helped power the dramatic rise of UKIP after 2012, a trend that contributed to the decision of Prime Minister David Cameron to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. His immediate political response to the outcome of the 2014 Scottish poll – the tabling of the West Lothian question – resulted in the introduction of a complex and opaque set of changes to the rules of the House of Commons for legislative business that pertains only to England.
Having grumbled in 2014 at being once again denied the opportunity to make their own collective choice about the terms of union, many of the English seized the chance to do so in the context of the EU referendum with alacrity. In numerical terms, it was the English vote which determined the outcome of this historic poll. And the very high turn-outs registered in post-industrial areas stood in stark contrast to the pattern of decline associated with participation trends in general elections. In demographic terms, the vote for Brexit was secured by a coalition of Eurosceptic voters from the shires and towns of southern England, and working-class voters from England’s former industrial heartlands.
And in the wake of this seismic geo-political event, England’s national mood is now the focus of a highly polarised debate, characterised in some quarters as a pathological symptom of an ethno-nationalist nostalgia, and by others as the first stirring of a new desire for self-determination. For the bulk of the last two decades, the orthodoxy governing political and intellectual discourse in this area has been that the English are temperamentally defined by their inability to come to terms with their post-imperial dilemma, and their inability to share sovereignty with others. And, as a result, the liberal consensus underpinning British political life has engendered considerable suspicion towards political expressions of, or claims upon, English identity.
This wariness runs in parallel with a constitutional debate that has proved reluctant to stray from the entrenched orthodoxy that granting a greater degree of institutional recognition of England is inherently incompatible with the ethos and practice of the British state.
At the same time the functional question of how to create a middling tier of governance within England has in this period become a low-level partisan football, as the model of regional administration built by the New Labour governments was unpicked by the Coalition government after 2010, and a new system of Combined Authorities, headed by directly elected ‘metro’ mayors, has been established in some areas. But these rival models were both premised upon the assumption that the primary purpose of such bodies was to deliver centrally determined priorities, not to provide the foundations for a more decentralised system of governance. Separately, the Mayor of London and London Assembly have become established features of the capital’s institutional landscape since 2000, but exercise control of a limited suite of powers.
Debate about the merits and forms of national-level devolution has barely got off the ground in relation to England. In recent years, however, there are signs that the idea of a distinct parliament for England is shifting from the outer fringes of British politics to a more mainstream preoccupation. This shift, and the emergent question of whether devolution for England is now imperative – for reasons of legitimacy and regional equity -- may well become central themes in political discourse as the extended crisis of governance prompted by the UK’s painful and divisive efforts to leave the EU continues.
About the author
Professor Michael Kenny, Inaugural Director, the Bennett Institute for Public Policy
Professor Kenny leads research in place and public policy, and re-making government in the 21st century. Learn more