Professor Richard Wyn Jones is Director of the Wales Governance Centre
at Cardiff University. He is an expert on devolved politics and is one of the
co-authors of the newly published IPPR report England’s
Two Union: And Anatomy of a Nation and its Discontents. He is happy to confirm the suspicion that he is, indeed, Welsh.
Conservatives may have enjoyed the obvious
discomfort of the BBC when it was forced to admit last week that it had failed
to give due prominence to concerns about very high levels immigration into the
UK because public attitudes were not consistent with the “liberal bias” of
corporation programme makers.
But it is not only liberals, or socialists for that
matter, that can find some public attitudes so challenging to their own biases
and preconceptions that they find it easier to ignore them. Perhaps the most
glaring example in contemporary British politics is attitudes to the anomalous
– and, in English eyes, iniquitous – position of England within the
post-devolution United Kingdom. When it comes to England, with very few
exceptions, the British political class as a whole seem to find denial or
displacement much easier than serious engagement.
That this is in an issue about which the English
feel strongly is confirmed by findings from the 2012 Future of England
Survey undertaken by Cardiff and Edinburgh Universities and
IPPR. When a representative sample of 3600 English electors was questioned in
November 2012, 81 per cent felt that it is no longer appropriate that Scottish (and by
inference Welsh and Northern Irish) MPs should be allowed to vote on English
laws. 79 per cent felt that public services in Scotland should be funded by taxes
raised in that country. 62 per cent felt that the British Government does not stand up
for English interests. The fact of the matter is that the English feel that
they are getting a raw deal in the post-devolution UK. It is a view that is
very widely and deeply felt right across the country.
An indication of the importance accorded to the
issue among the public is that, when asked which constitutional issues should
be prioritised, the “way that England should be governed now that Scotland has
a parliament and Wales an Assembly” emerged in a very clear second place.
Behind Europe, to be sure, but well ahead of such “Westminster bubble” issues
as House of Lords reform, reform of local government, or even the referendum on
Even on Europe, there is an English dimension that
is simply not reflected in current political rhetoric – even among those
Eurosceptics who pride themselves in reflecting the view from the street or
saloon bar. Europe we are repeatedly told is a threat to British traditions and
values. Yet counter-intuitive as it may seem to many, our survey makes clear
that, in England, the more exclusively British a person’s sense of national
identity, the more pro-European
that person’s attitudes tend to be. Those who feel “British not English” or ‘”More
British than English” say they would vote to stay in Europe. By contrast those
who feel “English not British” or ‘More English than British’ say they would
vote in overwhelmingly numbers for British withdrawal. Euroscepticism is an
English and not British phenomenon.
Euroscepticism in England is also closely
associated with a sense that England is getting a raw deal within the UK. It’s largely
the same people who feel most strongly about the two issues. As such, it makes
sense to view Euroscepticism and what we might term “Devoanxiety” as two sides
of the same coin. Both reflect a widespread sense among the English that they
are not being well served by either of the Unions of which they are a part.
When confronted by these sentiments, there is
widespread tendency among the British political class to reach for the non sequitur.
The answer to English discontent, we are repeatedly told, is “localism”. As if
changing the arrangements for local government within England (however
worthwhile such a development may be) could ever address the issue of how
England qua England is recognised in our constitutional arrangements.
Beyond this kind of displacement there has been
little serious thought or engagement, even in a Conservative party that has
fought successive general elections on a platform that has included support for
some form of “English votes for English laws.”
The McKay Commission
reported in late March and the UK government’s response is awaited at some
point before the summer recess. That response represents something of a litmus
test of the British political class’s willingness to take England seriously.
The McKay scheme – essentially a non-binding form
of English votes for English laws – seems purposively designed to be as
inoffensive and respectful of vested interests as possible. If even this proves
too much to swallow for the current political class then it appears that only a
fully blown crisis will force movement. The question is, of course, who or what
could possibly create such a crisis? A potential answer also emerges from our
survey data: UKIP.
UKIP support is strongly concentrated among those
with a strong sense of English national identity. UKIP supporters are also
strongly supportive of giving England much more explicit recognition within the
UK. De facto, it is the
English National Party. If UKIP were able to harness English
concerns about both of the Unions of which their country is a part, this would
place the party in a potentially very powerful position. At the BBC, failure
has given rise to little more than a self-administered slap on the wrist. For
the British political class the potentially costs of ignoring England and
English concerns are considerably higher.