The English question – the role of England in a devolved United Kingdom – is rumoured to be best left unasked, let alone answered. Whilst this short blog is not able to provide an answer, it hopes to explain why the question is so difficult, why, nevertheless, it is necessary to ask the question and, finally, to provide some suggestions as to a possible answer.
Why is the question so difficult?
I think there are three main reasons why it is hard to assess the role of England in the devolution settlement. First, there is no English political identity in a manner similar to a Scottish, Welsh, or Northern Irish political identity. This is for historical reasons. Those living in England often feel a stronger regional as opposed to a national sense of identity. Yet, when referendums were held to determine whether to devolve power to the regions, there was no support for devolution. Local political issues don’t attract the same interest as national political issues – national here meaning the UK, not England.
Second, even when we experimented with providing an answer to the English question, the answer was later abandoned. English Votes for English laws (EVEL) was introduced by a change to the Standing Orders in Parliament in 2015, requiring a majority vote of English MPs and Westminster MPs for legislation affecting England alone. It was abandoned in July 2021 without a division and little debate. Its demise was barely noticed by the media.
This is hardly surprising. EVEL’s rules were complex and difficult to apply. Given cross-over issues with the Barnet formula, it was hard to determine whether an issue only applied to England. The double veto, with legislation required a vote on English MPs and Westminster as a whole, hardly seemed to give greater power to England or create a separate Parliament within a Parliament. Despite requiring debate in a legislative grand committee, research showed that there was little debate or engagement in these committees. If there was an English voice, this was not necessarily a means of finding it. There is also less need to answer the West Lothian question when the political party in power has a majority of seats in England as well as in Westminster, or if the majority of Scottish MPs are happy to abstain when voting on English issues.
Third, even if there were a desire to move to a federal structure, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to provide a balance between England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Disparities in GDP, population, social and physical geography seem to create an irresolvable asymmetry. However, it is not clear that further regional devolution will resolve these disparities. Will this really help to level up regional disparity, or will the balance of power still be tipped in favour of the South-East?
A question that needs to be put
Nevertheless, despite these difficulties, the ‘English question’ is one we can no longer avoid, for three key reasons.
First, Brexit has changed our political identity. England and Wales voted to leave the EU, with Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. This placed the Union under stress. But it also created a new form of English identity. For those who voted leave, the Brexit referendum created a sense that their voices were finally being heard, particularly those voices from outside London, especially rural areas and areas that had experienced social deprivation.
Second, this identity was not just formed from the referendum alone. It built on newfound regional identities forged in the face of austerity cuts. Local authorities bore the brunt of reduced funding, forced into determining whether to cut services or to reduce welfare payments and social care. How were councils to balance provisions for the elderly, the young and others needing care and support in the face of severe cuts? Some of these changes required councils to consult those affected. These consultation exercises helped to mobilise local groups and generated more interest in local politics. These local groups, in turn, started to create national networks.
The establishment of elected mayors has also helped to fill in the gap between local and national politics, with elected mayors taking on more regional development. Devolution deals are bespoke, within a framework. They permit a combination of greater powers in planning, regional transport, the provision of skills training, business support, and economic development. This is helping to re-establish and forge regional identities, as well as facilitating economic development in areas focusing on local and not national needs.
Third, the Covid pandemic has illustrated how achieving the national good requires regions to work together as well as requiring localised regional solutions to achieve a national policy goal. Covid regulations empowered local councils to make local directions, as well as allowing different areas to move into different tiers when needed. Regional mayors were also not silent – drawing attention to local needs. Greater Manchester’s metro mayor – Andy Burnham – has hardly been silent, campaigning for greater financial assistance for regional and local authorities in areas hit hard by the pandemic.
A new direction?
We need to come up with better solutions to the English question than EVEL and disparate local devolution settlements. This needs us to think more carefully about the problem. If there is an emerging sense of political identity across England it is forged from a consensus that certain parts of England their interests are being ignored. We do not need to find a role for ‘England’. We need to listen to regional and local voices more when devising and implementing national policies.
If we refine the question in this manner, then I would suggest two possible ways of further exploring how to answer the English question. First, we need to replenish that middle layer between local and national politics, building on localised aspects of devolution. Second, we need to build effective communication networks between those involved in local, regional, and national issues in England, as well as between England, its regions, and Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
First there needs to be a wide consultation to forge greater regional representation, both building on existing localised schemes of devolution and determined whether more powers need to be devolved. Second, we need to create effective mechanisms within Parliament to enable regional English voices to be heard, alongside those of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. This may be through forming a parliamentary committee for the regions, preferably in the Commons or a Joint Committee. This Committee could not only write reports, but also have the power to initiate debates. It could also scrutinise legislation and report on any regional issues that arise. Third, any parliamentary committee needs to listen to and work with these regional centres. There needs to be meetings between governmental representatives and civil servants, allowing voices to be heard and not merely told of Westminster’s solutions.
If we are going to answer ‘the English question’ we need to spend less time thinking about empowering the role of England and more time devising a means through which to listen to and take account of the many diverse English voices. We also need to ensure there is an effective mechanism for regional concerns and to influence the development of national policy developments and to ensure national policy is implemented in a manner that ensures it is achieved in all regions of England and of the United Kingdom.
This, perhaps, is illustrative of the deeper problem underpinning the Union – the need to ensure decision-making is less Westminster-centric and has a role for the regions and the devolved legislatures and governments in the development of national policies. As Professor Douglas-Scott advocated in her lecture, there is a need for more shared-rule as opposed to more self-rule across England as well as in the United Kingdom as a whole.
(Related topics—Putney Debates 2021：The Unity of a Nation)