One Nation Labour needs to re-engage with the English Question

14th November, 2012 5:17 pm

By Michael Kenny

Ed Miliband’s adoption of the ‘one nation’ mantle offered a timely claim upon the political centre-ground at a point when the Conservative leadership is facing a strong magnetic pull rightwards. But, as it starts to put some policy flesh on the bones of this slogan, Labour needs to do some hard thinking about its future offer to the one nation in the UK that was really being addressed in his speech.

England is the sole national territory to which Labour’s ambitious first-term devolution programme did not apply. And, London aside, it did not, during its years in power, settle upon an answer to the question of how to devolve powers to sub-national levels within England – its own standard response to the often posed ‘English Question’.

Labour needs now to reconsider what kind of democratic order, as well as rebalanced regional economic model, it wishes to propose to the English. For the suspicion remains that its fulsome talk of decentralising power within England is too often a way of evading, not grasping, the representative and cultural dimensions of the English question. Yet, if Labour is credibly to present itself as a party that really does want to engage more authentically with the questions of identity, belonging and security that concern ordinary people,  such a response is no longer adequate: Englishness has become a much more salient identity for many people within England and provides a vehicle for the expressions of a variety of political ideas and social frustrations at a time when the language of politics has tended to become unduly tepid. Those on the left who argue that Ed Miliband should stick to talking about class and forget nationhood fail to grasp this fundamental point.

Yet, Labour has a major reputational problem in this area. Various studies produced towards the end of its time in office confirm that a growing section of the English public became more resentful at the idea of a government which had a number of prominent Scottish Ministers and appeared more favourable to the non-English nations of the UK.

The party has generally been united in its wariness towards Englishness (with the noble exception of a handful of figures like Jon Cruddas, John Denham and David Blunkett) which it has written off as inherently regressive and chauvinist in character. And it has long assumed that any move to grant England recognition within the current political system would harm Labour’s electoral prospects.

But a reconsideration of both of these assumptions is overdue. First, a number of distinct, competing ideas about the political and cultural character of the English have emerged in this period, and while a sub-set of these frame Englishness in chauvinist ways, the majority of those who identify primarily as English are, in broad terms, politically moderate, socially liberal and culturally conservative. Many are actual or potential Labour voters.

And, second, the widely held assumption on the left that Labour cannot win in England and therefore needs Scotland to secure a parliamentary majority is greatly exaggerated. Labour has won elections for the most part when it has secured a majority of seats in England.  Elections in which Scottish MPs have been decisive are in fact relatively rare. There have been none since 1945 in which Scottish MPs have turned a Conservative majority into a Labour government or vice versa. Moreover, Labour would have won, if with a reduced majority, in 1945, 1966, 1997, 2001 and 2005, without its Scottish MPs. An exaggerated fear of the Conservative inclination of the largest country in the Union has become a damaging mental habit in Labour circles.

The intellectual and policy conservatism associated with this abiding fear of Englishness needs now to be replaced by an appreciation of the longer-range forces that are reshaping the UK and the national identities within it.

This means facing up to the implications of devolution, and reconsidering the arcane, but increasingly pressing, West Lothian question. As it becomes ever clearer that devolution is more like a slowly turning ratchet than a stable settlement, the Westminster Parliament is evolving into an English one, at least when it comes to domestic matters.  Should Scotland vote against independence, but be granted additional powers including a greater degree of fiscal autonomy, it is hard to see how, in terms of procedural justice, Scottish MPs can be returned to Westminster on the same basis as their English counterparts.

Given the growing likelihood of hung parliaments and coalitions, it is of course possible that Scottish MPs might still be crucial to the parliamentary balance in the future. The outrage expressed when the legislation that introduced Foundation Hospitals and Tuition Fees in England was passed because Scottish MPs were whipped through the Commons is a foretaste of the controversies that such a situation would engender.

And so, while the idea of English-votes-on-English-laws in Parliament has long been seen as a Tory-inspired attempt to constrain a future Labour government, it is time to take a closer look at the different versions of this idea. The various technical and procedural disadvantages of such a proposal are now potentially outweighed by the need for an insurance policy against the legitimacy crisis that West Lothian issues could potentially generate. The party’s response to the report which the McKay Commission is due to produce will provide an early test of its thinking on this issue.

Both for its own political fortunes, and the longer-run future and survival of the United Kingdom itself, Labour is going to need to re-position itself as a force that speaks more directly and credibly to the ‘one nation’ that has experienced some important shifts in national self-awareness in the last twenty years, and which currently includes a growing number of citizens who are disenchanted with the political system and devolution.

But, contrary to its darkest fears, there is every reason to think that Labour can adapt to a Union which incorporates a new English settlement, including greater powers for its leading cities, city-regions and local authorities, and a greater sense of cultural recognition for the English. The most pressing English question in British politics today is whether Labour has the confidence and capacity to address these issues in a forward-looking and democratic, rather than fearful and short-termist, manner.

Michael Kenny is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, University of London and is the author of “The Politics of English Nationhood” which will be published next year by Oxford University Press. 

This piece forms part of Jon Cruddas’s Guest Edit of LabourList

  • rekrab

    Michael, if devolved powers were established in the English counties, I’m pretty sure some would endorse free university tuitions fees amongst other things.

  • Mike Homfray

    I would prefer reasonably sized regional assemblies – the proposal by the Hannah Mitchell Foundation to have a Northern assembly makes sense

  • Wyrdtimes

    How about asking the English if they want an English parliament re-established to work in their interest. You know in the same way the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish were asked.

    Despite the fact the subject is virually never discussed there is considerable and consistent support Meanwhile the pro region IPPR could only muster 10% support for the ‘regions’. This should be no surprise – why would the English want their proud historic nation carved up into arbitrary regions? Especially as England already has recognised regions with the necessary infrastructure in place. they are known and even loved and they’re called counties.Let’s devolve power down to county, town and parish.

    Many English people voted Conservative to get rid of anti English Labour.

  • Wyrdtimes

    Oops didn’t mean to press post just then…

    As I was saying the ConDems are terrible for England. Labour can win because people will be desperate to get rid of the anti English coalition. How much better if Labour start addressing the issues that affect the people of England?

    How about an English manifesto for starters? After all the UK Labour party CAN only vote on English issues when it comes to health, education, transport, law and order etc. But when did Ed Miliband last say “English education” or the “English NHS”? It would be fair and honest to have an English manifesto in the same way there are Scottish and Welsh manifestos.

    And then how about English Labour in the same way there is Scottish and Welsh Labour? And how about policies that work in the English interest? Tuition fees, care for the elderly, prescriptions, funding, national recognition and representation etc.

    How about getting elected in England not because everyone is sick of the coalition but because Labour will finish devolution by giving the English the national voice they need and the funding and services they deserve?

  • Andrew McKay

    England should have it’s own national anthem in Jerusalem. Labour need to be seen to stand up for the English as well as supporting devolution in Wales and Scotland.


  • News Weekly Survey: Momentum, fiscal charter and the Privy Council

    Weekly Survey: Momentum, fiscal charter and the Privy Council

    Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn have formed a group called Momentum, which says it will organise to campaign on issues both inside and outside the Labour Party. Do you think it should focus on working inside or outside the party? Having said two weeks ago that Labour will support the proposal, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has now said that the party will vote against the fiscal charter on Wednesday. Do you think the move to oppose the charter is a good […]

    Read more →
  • Comment No serious economist supports Osborne’s fiscal charter. Opposing it doesn’t make us deficit deniers

    No serious economist supports Osborne’s fiscal charter. Opposing it doesn’t make us deficit deniers

    I have been worried about the impact of George Osborne’s fiscal charter since it was floated last summer, which is why as a member of the Treasury Select Committee I asked questions of the economists who came to give evidence last July. We found no one, not even the Governor of the Bank of England, who would endorse George Osborne’s latest proposal. This was not just criticism from left wing economists. The Thatcherite professor who now runs the Institute for […]

    Read more →
  • Comment A green London isn’t a luxury, it’s a lifesaver

    A green London isn’t a luxury, it’s a lifesaver

    We’ve reached a tipping point. Most Londoners now say action is urgently needed on climate change. The ICM survey published today for Here Now climate campaigners, shows that this isn’t a preserve of ‘red’ Islington or ‘hipster’ Hackney but a view held across the capital, inner to outer London. As an executive member of SERA, Labour’s environment campaign, we’ve recognised the salience of this argument and that action is not a nice to have but a necessity. ‘It’s the environment, stupid’ […]

    Read more →
  • News Corbyn claims victory after Cameron u-turns on Saudi prison deal

    Corbyn claims victory after Cameron u-turns on Saudi prison deal

    Jeremy Corbyn is this afternoon celebrating the news that the Government has cancelled a £5.9m prisons contract with Saudi Arabia. The deal would have seen training programmes for Saudi prisons, and came under criticism because of the severity of the country’s judicial system. It emerged today, for instance, that a British pensioner is facing 360 lashes after being caught with homemade wine. Corbyn used his Labour Party Conference speech to attack the deal, claiming that overlooking Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses […]

    Read more →
  • News Full text: McDonnell’s letter to Labour MPs on opposing fiscal charter

    Full text: McDonnell’s letter to Labour MPs on opposing fiscal charter

    Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell yesterday sent a letter to Labour MPs informing them that the party would now be voting against the Charter for Budget Responsibility on Wednesday, having previously stated they would support it. The letter has been passed on to LabourList and can be read in full here: Dear Colleague, Charter for Budget Responsibility and the Fiscal Mandate On Wednesday the vote will take place on an order to adopt the Government’s charter for Budget Responsibility including the fiscal […]

    Read more →
Share with your friends