The English question seen from Westminster

The Institute for Public Policy Research published a short paper earlier this week reporting on a survey of MPs about the ‘English question’ after 10 years of devolution.  The paper, The English Question: The View from Westminster.  What do our MPs think of ‘The English Question 10 years after devolution? is available here.  The authors are Mike Kenny, also of Sheffield University, and Guy Lodge (formerly a colleague at the Constitution Unit), and an ‘analysis’  piece by them is here.  News coverage from the Daily Telegraph (concentrating on financial issues, but once again getting wrong what the Barnett formula actually does) is here.

The survey has some interesting findings.  It identifies a widespread consensus among MPs that there is a problem, and that the status quo is not acceptable.  There’s broad support for some mild symbolic measures to recognise England – St George’s day as a public holiday, a specifically English national anthem for sporting fixtures, and so on.  There’s also consensus about the ‘unfairness’ of financial arrangements, particularly but not only among Conservatives.  That in turn has excited a hostile response from the SNP, that ‘Tory MPs want to slash Scotland’s budget’ (the SNP’s press release is available here).  One might add that the SNP’s response suggests they haven’t read the report closely enough to note what it also says about fiscal autonomy.  It reports that Conservatives were more supportive of the idea of fiscal devolution than the other parties (even though a lot of backbench Tories find this idea goes against the bone, seeing it as a potentially-dangerous concession to ‘the nats’).

Beyond that, however, there is widespread disagreement about what the answer to the constitutional dimensions of the English question should be.  The split is overwhelmingly along party lines: Tories support ‘English votes for English laws’ solutions, while Labour and Lib Dem MPs generally support ‘localist’ or ‘regionalist’ solutions.  The Conservative MPs who responded were at best lukewarm about localism (despite their party’s official policy), and strongly opposed to ‘regional’ ones.  There was also a strong body of support for the view that the present funding arrangements were ‘unfair’, strongest among Conservative MPs but with considerable backing from Labour and Lib Dems too.

What’s really striking about these findings is the extent to which party affiliations appear to determine their views about constitutional approaches.  These are clearly tied to party self-interest.  They don’t appear to be rooted in any wider conception of what’s in the best interests of England, or the UK as a whole – just the best interest of their party.  This is highly dangerous.  Accepting that there’s a problem, but failing even to try to find a compromise solution to resolve it, is a route to disaster.  It means that a serious grievance goes unredressed – that the political process fails to find a solution to a difficult but important political problem.  Can anyone blame the public for being disaffected with politics if politicians’ pursuit of a narrow self-interest has such results?

There’s a second interesting finding in the report.  It asks if the respondents think that Scotland will become independent, and if so when.  58 per cent say ‘never’; 20 per cent ‘don’t know’, and 22 per cent say it, will in period between 5 and 50 years (mostly between 5 and 20 years’ time).  What’s striking about this is the extent to which it conflicts with the wide understanding of many involved in Scotland’s constitutional debates of where Scottish opinion is.  The fact that support for independence is relatively low, and consistently has been since 1999 (commanding the support of around a third of the Scottish electorate, or a bit less), is no reason for such complacency.  It’s clear from a wide range of quantitative evidence that Scots want clear, institutional recognition of Scotland’s distinctiveness within the Union.  That implies a form of extensive devolution – more than the present settlement allows.  This sort of view is based on the assumption that, if forced to choose, Scots will back a union that grants only limited recognition of that distinctiveness rather than independence.  Will they?  It’s far from certain.  And believing that this is how things appear to the people of Scotland runs contrary to the idea that the Union should reflect the wishes of the people of its various parts (as well as the unionist parties’ referendum-avoiding strategy).   This position looks like a heck of a gamble.

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7 Comments

Filed under Conservatives, Devolution finance, English questions, Labour, Referendums, Scotland, SNP, Westminster

7 responses to “The English question seen from Westminster

  1. There have been a few polls that show that the number of people who think that the Union will break up is greater than the number who want it to break up (who are separatists). Is this an example of Jack Straw’s risk vs perception of risk or do people have a perception that the Status Quo is unsustainable and therefore something has to give and will make the end of the Union more likely?

    I think something has to give, there are too many centrifugal forces pulling away from a centre that has declining gravitational pull, politically and culturally.

  2. English Parliament and English independence for me, enough is enough, the Scotch have exploited England for far too long now, how can someone whom has signed the Scottish claim of right govern over England? On top of that is the fact nobody in England elected him.

  3. Alex Buchan

    It is exactly this sort of London-centric ignorance of, and disdain for, Scottish distinctiveness that led to pressure in Scotland for the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in the first place. The most recent social attitudes survey, issued just the other day, whilst showing limited support for independence, nevertheless showed overwhelming support for a settlement that would have left only defense and foreign affairs at UK level. Even more tellingly, most of those who did not support independence still said that, if it happened, it would boost their self-confidence. Their is a built-in disinclination in London to take any of this seriously because it doesn’t fit with a view of the UK state that feels comfortable.

    In effect Westminster is reverting to type, which is hardly surprising because it flows directly from the view of Britain held by almost all politicians there. To acknowledge Scottish distinctiveness would be to accept the true multi-national nature of the British State, which, if fully acknowledged, would have a major impact not only on how Scotland is regarded but would also mean accepting that England is a separate nation, and that British/English greatness might, after all, be something of a myth.

  4. theenglishman

    It is not now possible for any United Kingdom British political party to set out a manifesto or a government to put out a set of social and domestic policies that would apply to all of the UK nations equally – This is a catalyst for its redundancy.The majority of the British people who live in England if asked at this time would not want to see the UK break apart,but things can change very quickly if the English questions continue to be ignored. Devolved parliaments all round of equal stature being denied the ability to raise their own revenue would leave the UK parliament with enough power to govern.

  5. Rob

    It always amazes me that English MPs can get exercised by issues like this, but the fact that Scotland is about to get a Conservative government which will be rejected at the polls by 80% or more of Scots voters is just never seem as a problem. How would England like a government that only 20% of its people voted for?

  6. Glad that you’re amazed Rob. You might want to reword your final sentence to: “How would England like a government?”

    I’m not aware that there were many complaints from England when, pre-devolution, a Labour UK Government was foisted on England on the strength of Scottish and Welsh votes. Devolution has changed the game. You have your government, we should have ours.

    Labour received 35.4% (21.7% of registered voters) of the vote in England at the last election, the Tories received 35.7%. Because we don’t have devolution, or a fair electoral system, this has seen England governed in its entirety by a government it doesn’t want – for five long years – and by a democratically unaccountable Scot for 3 of those years. That’s probably why English MPs get exercised by issues like this.

  7. Pingback: Mike Kenny on Englishness « Devolution Matters

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