The English question

I've just been listening with increasing annoyance to Angela Eagle, deputy leader of the Labour Party, speaking on devolution. She wants to drive down devolution "to the regions and to our major cities". This would of course only apply to England. Scotland already has its own Parliament and Wales and Northern Ireland have Assemblies: further devolution would give these country-level governments more power to manage their own affairs. But if the Labour Party get their way, England will be denied this. England, the largest country in the "group of four" that is the United Kingdom, would be the only country with no government of its own.

England is not just a name, and it certainly isn't just a "collection of regions". I get a little tired of people (mostly Americans, or Celts with chips on their shoulders) telling me that England has no culture and no history except an inglorious one as a failed colonial power. England has well over a thousand years of history as a unified nation: it is one of the most ancient nations of Europe, far older than Germany or Italy. We were all taught at school how Alfred the Great, in the eighth century CE, unified the warring Saxon clans. And although England was subsequently divided after the invasion of the Danes, that split was short-lived and England was reunified even before the invasion of the Normans in 1066 and the establishment of the Plantagenet dynasty. There were some nasty civil wars after that - the standoff between Empress Matilda and King Stephen, and the Plantagenet family dispute known as the "Wars of the Roses". But these never challenged the existence of a country called "England". The argument was always over who should run it.

Yet now, it seems, the Labour party wants to eliminate England. This is understandable: as this map shows, England is overwhelmingly Conservative, and the Labour party would struggle to gain any presence at all in an English parliament:

(map h/t @MarcherLord)

 But the Conservatives have similar problems in Scotland and Wales: they struggle to win any Westminster seats in either country and are in a tiny minority in both the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly. Is this a reason for breaking these countries up? Surely not. Neither, therefore, are the Labour party's problems in England a reason to break up an ancient nation.

Calls for England to be regionalised along the lines of historic kingdoms such as Cornwall and Northumbria, or the old Saxon/Viking territories of Wessex, Mercia and so on, are understandable, as is the call for great cities such as London and Manchester to run their own affairs. I don't have a problem with any of this. Devolution to regional and city level WITHIN England is sensible, though it could go too far: regionalising the NHS, for example, would be bonkers, since it would be bound to result in very variable standards of care across the country - already the case to some extent because of the budgetary problems of some NHS Trusts.  But I don't see  regional/city devolution within England as an alternative to the creation of an English parliament. I see it as a decision that an English parliament should be empowered to make. Westminster's job is to create and empower the English parliament, not meddle with the governance of English regions. 

The main objection to an English parliament seems to be the dominance of England at Westminster. This is of course an existing problem, which would become even worse with further devolution to Scotland and Wales. Some people want England regionalised so that there is parity of population among areas represented in what is inevitably going to become a federal parliament. But this is absurd. Scotland has twice the population of Wales, and both have higher populations than Northern Ireland: is anyone suggesting these, too, should be broken up so that Northern Ireland is adequately represented? No, they are not. The integrity of all three of these national governments is to be preserved despite the population imbalances. So it should be with England, too.

It is not England that should be broken up to create a UK federal model of governance. It is Westminster. I think the UK should become a federation of four nations, each with their own elected government, with a separate directly elected federal government. Westminster must undergo radical surgery: the number of MPs must be slashed, and it must become properly representative of the people of the UK. Reforming Westminster would involve regionalisation of the whole UK - not just England - along similar lines to the EU parliament. But the principal of subsidiarity should also apply: Westminster's powers should be limited to those matters that the four countries agree are best handled at federal level.

But I fear the changes to Westminster that this would involve are so great that political vested interests will ensure it never happens. The Labour party's stance is determined only by its worries about losing the 2015 election, while the Conservatives are clearly seeing the "English question" as an opportunity to shaft Labour and get back at the SNP. It's shabby, frankly.

The people of the UK deserve better. We need a proper debate about how we wish to be governed, rather than a package of ill-thought-out measures rushed through ahead of a general election.


  1. Very good article,well reasoned.Cant see any of the parties agreeing to it though, too worried about their own fortunes.

  2. So you'd have an English first minister and a UK prime minister - very likely from different parties. Who would have seniority? Obviously the former?

    Imagine a USA of four states - one 10 times larger than the others. Four state governments and one federal government. How could the federal government have authority over the government of the largest state?

    It doesn't work.

    "Scotland has twice the population of Wales, and both have higher populations than Northern Ireland: is anyone suggesting these, too, should be broken up so that Northern Ireland is adequately represented?"

    Five million is closer to 3 million than 55 million. English regions would be of roughly similar size to Wales, Scotland and NI. To avoid the problem of English dominance and a UK executive competing with an English executive (the latter would always have more legitimacy among the English).

    The overriding reason why I don't want an English parliament (besides selfish reasons of being an English Labour voter) is that I don't want to see more English nationalism. I would prefer it if we hadn't seen Scottish nationalism arising out of a separate Scottish parliament. We've broken up the British demos already - I wish it hadn't happened.

    I'm beginning to think this is just a disaster. We can't preserve the UK like this. Our best hope is that the English forget about the West Lothian stuff and that the Tories are unionists before they're English nationalists. Yes, it's not fair on the English - but there are 55 million of us. A Westminster executive is a de facto English executive. Try to rationalise that and the union unravels.

    PR at Westminster would solve all these problems. FPTP exaggerates differences in regional voting patterns. The Tories are underrepresented in Scotland overrepresented in SE England. Hence why a Tory government in Westminster lacks legitimacy in Scotland. Correcting that imbalance is the only way of preserving the union.

  3. Labour would have won without Scotland in 1997, 2001, and 2005 BUT I don't know what would have happened without Wales. That map shows the big town versus the rest split. If we get permanent Tory governments in England, the big towns will want to keep their business rates.

    Do we really want different laws in England and Wales? It's easy to split with Scotland as they always had a separate legal system. Do the Welsh really want their own contract and land law? I'm not sure they do. Once you have separate and equal legislatures for England and Wales, that's what you end up with.

    1. >Labour would have won without Scotland in 1997, 2001, and 2005 BUT I don't know what would have happened without Wales. That map shows the big town versus the rest split.

      Yeah, I'm astonished to see something so dense on a usually well informed blog...

  4. According to Social Attitudes Survey data, about he only thing that there is not a clear majority for Scottish control of is defense.
    To make this coherant, I'd add foreign affairs and, if a union is to mean anything there should be some redistributive function.
    Perhaps MPs could abolish themselves and the MEPs could do this part time?

    1. Well, since the MEPs don't actually have any useful function, they could do it full time.

  5. To rely on the geographic Map is misleading; sure, the Tories are more dominant in England, but it's actually the South they're streets ahead in, with only 10 Labour Mps south of the Severn-Wash, excluding London.

    This is much better map which shows Labour's dominance of the North and London (I include the Midlands in this, going off Danny Dorling's work on the 'true' dividing line between North and South in England being that Severn-Wash.


    1. "with only 10 Labour Mps south of the Severn-Wash, excluding London"

      "Excluding London" is doing quite a lot of work there. Roughly double the population of Scotland, or (roughly) equal to NI, Wales and Scotland combined. You can't just "exclude London". It's large, Labour, and pays taxes.

    2. London is, as everyone acknowledges, very different. It's excluded here because it's not running to the same beat as the rest of the UK, and certainly not the rest of the South. In a discussion about the political temperature of England, it's a different part of the South; when Labour were out of power int he 80s and 90s, they were never out of power in London.

  6. I completely agree with Anonymous 17.22.

  7. It does work, the superiority of the UK government would be set by definition, the size of the individual countries is irrelevant.

    That there would be some stresses between governments is generally good thing, not bad, as it means some issues will be exposed and debated rather than fudged.

    A fundamental problem arises only if the UK government takes responsibility for matters that could have been competently optimised if they had been devolved to the countries.

    This is not about the West Lothian stuff at all. That is a trivial symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. Some will maintain otherwise but only in mistaken optimism that they can make it appear they have removed the problem by merely reducing that one symptom.

    The issue on nationalism is a perfectly valid consideration. However, as everything is currently aligned along national borders (including the borders of England) that analysis can only result in no change or in extraordinary change.

  8. Frances,

    You say “I get a little tired of people . . . telling me that England has no culture and no history . . “. Tut tut. That’s not very PC.

    Guardian journalists have been drilling it into us for years, and quite rightly, that English culture is cr*p, and that there are innumerable benefits for us to be derived from being “enriched” by sundry aspects of incoming cultures, like er, suicide bombings, beheadings, killing the cartoonists one doesn’t like, butchering members of other religions ISIS style, abducting schoolgirls and selling them into forced marriage or slavery, homophobia, pedophilia Rotherham style. I could go on.

    Don’t you understand how immeasurably superior the latter stuff is compared to Shakespeare or Jane Austin...:-)


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