In bed with a stirring English elephant

John Osmond examines the consequences for Wales of a new report’s findings that England is demanding a political say

English identity is becoming politicized in a process that will have far reaching consequences for Wales and the political parties. This is a major conclusion from a reading of England and its two unions: The anatomy of a nation and its discontents, a new report published by the IPPR (here) and launched at a seminar in Cardiff Bay yesterday.

The report is packed with data that shows a distinctive politics of England is on the ascendant, whilst British sentiment is in decline. According to the 2011 census, in England 7o per cent of the population now identify themselves as solely English (60 per cent) or English in combination with some other identity (10 per cent). Only 29 per cent described themselves as feeling any sense of British identity. According to the IPPR report the headline political consequences are:

  • This strong feeling of Englishness as the primary identity is surprisingly uniform across England, both in socio-economic and geographic terms, with London and black and ethnic minority groups being outliers of difference.
  • The English are increasingly unhappy with the implications of devolution to Wales and Scotland and with the status of England within the UK.
  • The English increasingly want England recognized as a political unit within the UK, but are split on how this should best be achieved – whether by a separate English Parliament, or by English MPs voting for English laws at Westminster.

The report explores at length English disaffection with the EU. If a referendum were held tomorrow 50 per cent would vote to leave the EU, 33 per cent to say in, 5 per cent wouldn’t vote, with 12 per cent Don’t Knows. As the IPPR report states:

“These figures throw prime minister David Cameron’s manoeuvring around a possible future referendum on EU membership into stark relief. His is an extraordinary double gamble. First, unless he can bring home a significantly altered relationship with the EU, the English might well vote to leave. Second, recent polling in Scotland suggests the Scots think rather differently about Europe, and these differences could impact significantly on the independence debate.”

Why is all this so important for Wales? At yesterday’s seminar Professor Roger Scully, of the Wales Governance Centre and one of the authors of the report, pointed to two reasons. The first was that the emergence of a distinctive English politics presented a challenge to the Labour Party, which, historically, has been reluctant to address England on these terms. As he put it, “Labour is now the only serious British-wide party and there is a potential for it to be pulled between competing narratives for the three nations.”

He said there was an analogy with the experience of the Conservatives in Scotland. In the 1980s and 1990s they failed to address the emerging distinctive Scottish agenda around the demand for a Parliament.  As a result they have become marginalised in Scottish politics. If Labour doesn’t have anything positive to say about England and its demand for a distinctive voice then they risk becoming marginalised in English politics in the same way.

Professor Richard Wyn Jones, Director of the Wales Governance Centre and a co-author of the report, said Labour would be foolish to cede England as distinctive territory to the right wing, in the form of the Conservatives and also UKIP which was, in effect, an English Nationalist Party. “The reality is that in England the left have got the best tunes historically in voicing English aspirations,” he said.  As the IPPR report puts it:

“From the Levellers to Orwell and Tawney, there are serious intellectual roots to the English radicalism on which significant strands of the Labour tradition draw. There is no reason to believe that recognising England as a political community and giving it a voice must be inevitably linked to the more inward-looking and defensive agendas pursued on the political right.”

Professor Scully said the politicisation of England also has major implications for the Silk Commission, which will have to take into account the implications for Wales, alongside the more immediate impact of next year’s Scottish independence referendum.

The temptation may be for politicians across the parties to ignore the findings of this survey. They will argue that constitutional issues are relatively low down the list of most people’s priorities of most people who tend to vote on the bread-and-butter economic and social questions. They will also point to the lack of a consensus around any solution. The following table gives the report’s findings on English constitutional preferences:

English constitutional preferences

Status quo – governed as at present by Westminster


English votes for English laws at Westminster


English Parliament


Regional Assemblies


Don’t Know


The striking result in this table is that less than a quarter are content with the status quo. But the alternatives all have problems. A separate English Parliament would lead directly to a federal or even confederal constitution for the UK, a prospect unlikely to appeal to either Labour or the Conservatives. English votes for English laws, the recommendation of the recent McKay Commission, would present major dilemmas to the parties, especially Labour.  There could be the potential for an election result with different majorities in England and Britain as a whole The Conservatives could win in England, but Labour in Britain as a whole, as happened in 1964 and 1974. One way this could be addressed would be by introducing proportional representation for Westminster elections, but again that is a prospect unlikely to appeal to either Labour or the Conservatives.

An alternative scenario for giving England a greater voice and representation to match Wales and Scotland would be to establish English regional assemblies. However, this only appealed to 8 per cent of respondents. A referendum in the North East on a regional assembly was lost by a four-to-one vote in 2004.

The IPPR report concludes that there are few signs that mainstream politics has woken up to the emergence of an English political community defined by a distinct English identity, its devo-anxiety and Euroscepticism, and its support for English political institutions. It hazards a number of reasons

Much of the political class remain in denial, failing to acknowledge the trends identified in this report, or refusing to admit their salience. Others prioritise Scotland, fearing that engagement with the ‘English question’ may in some way strengthen the hand of Alex Salmond ahead of the Scottish independence referendum. It would seem a little odd, though, if advocates of union refused to talk about its largest constituent part at a point when in Scotland the very terms of union are being challenged. Where is the English perspective – which is not the same as the Westminster perspective – on what the UK union is and should be?”

The authors identify a further fact in explaining why politicians at Westminster are failing to address the emergence of an English political identity, a sense of trepidation about what contemporary Englishness stands for:

“For some, Englishness seems to be regarded as a dark and chauvinistic force, best kept under wraps. The evident association of English discontentment with the right-wing populism of UKIP may well reinforce that concern. In particular, progressives may be reluctant to engage with the emerging English agenda for fear of legitimising what they see as the grievances of ‘little Englanders’. This, we believe, would be a serious error. The issue is not going to go away. This is not merely because of the public attitudes identified in this report – although they constitute sufficient cause in their own right – but also because the continuing processes of renegotiation of the terms of union in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales will ensure that England, by default, becomes ever more clearly delineated as a distinct political arena. Any decision to ignore English discontentment for fear of guilt by association with right-wing populism is only likely to further feed such discontentment – and perhaps encourage it to develop more toxic undertones, if the perception grows that the political class is simply ignoring issues of real concern to people.”

Politicians at Westminster might comfort themselves that all this is merely constitutional navel gazing, and that when it comes to the general election voters will be reoccupied by the economy, education and the health service. At yesterday’s seminar the two Welsh authors of the report agreed that such bread and butter issues preoccupied voters more. But Professor Scully said it would be foolish to allow the underlying English constitutional issue to fester until it suddenly emerged as the major concern. Professor Jones said there was an analogy with Wales, where polling began to see the emergence of a politicization of Welsh identity around 1987 – after the third Conservative UK general election victory in a row (while Wales supported Labour by a large majority). This politicization found expression in the 1997 devolution referendum little more than a decade later. As the IPPR report concludes:

“The challenge is for the major parties to take England seriously, and this appears easier for the Conservatives than Labour. Conservative supporters in England identify more strongly as English than Labour supporters, and are more anxious about devolution, more Eurosceptical, and stronger advocates of English political institutions. There is an obvious strategy of tacking more overtly towards these positions, not least to ward off the inroads UKIP is making in this section of the electorate. The Tories’ Byzantine manoeuvres on the question of an EU referendum around the 2013 Queen’s speech are an obvious, if clumsy, example of this strategy in action.

“There is a bigger challenge for Labour. Some may review the data here and conclude that Englishness is natural territory for the right and should not be a ground on which Labour competes – especially if a ‘more English’ Labour might undermine the party’s standing in Scotland and Wales. Yet the importance of Labour’s strength outside England is easily over-stated. Labour has never won a stable and enduring parliamentary majority without winning a majority of seats in England – Labour needs to win in England to win UK elections.”

John Osmond is Editor of ClickonWales

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