Throughout the referendum on EU membership, the notion that English nationalism had become a driving force behind the eventual ‘Leave’ vote gained credence. However, Andrew Mycock argues that both in the referendum, and more immediately this General Election campaign, the resonance of England as a national political entity has proven in fact to be somewhat limited.
The proposition that England has emerged as a nascent but identifiable ‘political community’ has gained considerable traction over the past decade among academics, political parties and the media. Moreover, research indicates that English national identity has become increasingly politicised in its form and expression in response to a range of grievances about inequalities associated with devolution within the UK, the cost and terms of European Union (EU) membership and the scale and impact of immigration.
The resonance of England as a national political entity during the current general election has however proven limited. According to John Denham, former MP and Professor of English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester, although ‘the English electorate has become increasingly assertive (and increasingly English)’, Brexit has (temporarily) diminished the resonance of English identity politics. Brexit, argues Simon Lee, has thus allowed the main unionist parties to maintain their adherence to orthodox forms of ‘British nationalism’ that underpin Westminster’s political hegemony over England.
Evidence would appear to support such assertions. Unlike in 2015 general election, the Conservatives have not published an England-only manifesto. Moreover, none of the main unionist parties’ election manifestoes have sought to speak consistently to the English electorate, instead providing a confusing and often conflated mix of English-only, England and Wales, and UK-wide policies. Tellingly, although the Liberal Democrat manifesto is titled ‘Change Britain’s Future’, it timidly notes in its end matter that ‘the proposals here apply to England only’.
This noted, England is frequently signposted in policy terms within all the main party manifestoes, particularly education, health and social care, and transport. This is in part a reflection of the progressive Anglicisation of Westminster policy-making in the wake of devolution to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It also highlights the growing resonance of a distinctive ‘politics of England’ which is recalibrating British party politics and exacerbating growing identity tensions within some of the union-wide parties.
Furthermore, there is evidence that many of the main unionist parties have sought to provide some answers the overlapping and interconnected so-called ‘English Questions’ of devolution to and within England. Labour would appear most bold in their manifesto commitment to create a Minister for England to encourage ‘a relationship of equals with devolved administrations’. Claims of ministerial parity are however somewhat compromised as the new Minister will sit under the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (unlike the Northern Irish, Welsh, and Scottish counterparts who are members of the Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet). As one commentator acidly noted, ‘think more junior minister than an English Nicola Sturgeon’.
Unlike in previous manifestoes, the Conservatives do not seek to explicitly engage with the constitutional reform of England as a national polity. Although they note that in the wake of Brexit ‘we envisage that the powers of the devolved administrations will increase’, this is framed in terms of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – but not England. They do nevertheless seek to reinforce ‘our precious union’ by rejecting what they typify as ‘devolve and forget’ in favour of ‘active government’ which seeks to reinforce an integrative union-state. This would principally be achieved through working closely with the devolved governments and encouraging cross-border initiatives between England and Wales – to ensure devolution ‘does not become a barrier to business, education or communities’ – and England and Scotland – via a ‘Borderlands Growth Deal’ and collaboration on trade, energy, and agriculture.
UKIP draw on familiar if implicit themes of Anglocentric exceptionalism, noting ‘the public widely regards the United Kingdom’s current devolutionary system as fundamentally unfair, particularly to the English’. They maintain their support for an English parliament to replace the House of Lords, arguing that all four nations will have broadly similar devolved powers.
The Liberal Democrats restate their support for ‘English votes for English laws’, to ensure ‘English MPs can have a separate say on laws that only affect England’. However, they somewhat opaquely note ‘this should be on a proportional basis, genuinely reflecting the balance of opinion in England’. How this would be achieved is not stated, and the party instead note they are committed to delivering ‘home rule’ to each of the four nations of the UK via a constitutional convention.
Federalism is also a prominent theme in Labour’s manifesto – though one which was absent from the leaked draft. But beyond hosting an all-party UK-wide Constitutional Convention ‘to examine ways Britain works’, there is scant detail of how federalism might manifest in constitutional terms beyond a laudable but vague declaration to explore where sovereignty should reside in ‘extending democracy locally, regionally and nationally’.
It is noteworthy that main parties invest more political capital in seeking to articulate plans to the extend devolution within England. The Conservatives frame their ‘positive evolution of our constitution’ in terms of aspirations to ‘consolidate our approach, providing clarity across England on what devolution means for different administrations so all authorities operate in a common framework’. This suggests tacit acknowledgement that their bespoke and piecemeal approach to regional devolution is proving increasingly unmanageable and requires in greater calibration in terms of the extent if not form of reform within England. They go to note however that elected mayors will remain an integral feature of devolution to cities but not counties – thus failing to resolve uncertainties regarding combined authorities entities such as West Yorkshire which contain more than one city and a number of ‘rural counties’.
The Liberal Democrats reiterate their commitment to ‘devolution on demand’, which has been a feature of their approach to reform in England, while also noting ‘all areas should however have access to the same opportunities and mayoral authorities should not be ranked higher in terms of the powers with which they can be granted’. This also suggests acknowledgement of problematic asymmetries created between city-regions and other parts of England and the need for a more coherent approach to devolution.
Labour appear less sure about their approach to devolution within England, noting that they will be ‘guided by public opinion when determining whether to include directly elected mayors in future devolution deals’. The promise to ‘restore regional offices’ – indicating a residual affection for New Labour’s English devolution programme – has been framed in terms of redressing north-south economic and public spending disparities. There is though no discussion of how these would link with emergent city-region polities across England.
All of the parties proclaim a desire to promote localism by empowering local government (Labour), give it greater control to raise taxes (Conservatives), or rejuvenating local democracy (Liberal Democrats). Such promises are laudable but are familiar in their lack of detail and will be viewed with a somewhat weary scepticism in town halls across England after a period of extensive cuts to local government funding. UKIP offer the most concrete reform to local governance, noting they will scrap the ‘cabinet’ system of local governance, ‘which puts too much power in the hands of too few people’ and favour of a return to the committee system.
Both Labour and UKIP support St George’s and St David’s day becoming public holidays. Labour propose ‘four new public holidays – bringing our country together to mark our four national patron saints’ days entitlement so that workers in Britain get the same proper breaks as in other countries’. This proposal appears to not recognise that Scotland and Northern Ireland already have public holidays for their patron saint’s days.
To conclude, England has resonated strongly in the current general election, shaping both the form and content of policies espoused by the main unionist parties and their approaches to campaigning. It has not however encouraged English identity politics at a national level. This may well in part be due to Brexit. However it is clear that devolution within England has powerfully recalibrated party politics, suggesting that localism and regionalism are seen as equally – and maybe more – important in their appeal to English voters.
Dr. Andrew Mycock is Reader in Politics at the University of Huddersfield.