UK Constitutional Future: Politicians Ignore The "English Identity" At Their Peril

IPPR North, devolution and localism, England

Author(s):  Lewis Goodall
Published date:  26 Jan 2012
Source:  eGov Monitor

In 1947 George Orwell noted that “Up to date the Scottish Nationalist movement seems to have gone almost unnoticed in England…It is true that it is a small movement, but it could grow, because there is a basis for it.”

Were he living in 2012, he might well have said the same about nationalism south of the border.  For, as new research by IPPR shows, far more voters living in England have become more assertively ‘English’ and place much greater emphasis on their English rather than their British identity.  A first for many, many decades.

The report shows that the proportion of the population that prioritise their English over their British identity (40 per cent) is now twice as large as that which prioritise their British over their English identity (16 per cent). The English are not rejecting Britishness outright and retain a dual sense of identity, but in recent years they are increasingly choosing to emphasise their English over their British identity.

This phenomenon is consistent across England's regions (including London) and across all social and demographic groups – with one exception provided by ethnic minority voters.  However the report also points to evidence of a growth in English identification within ethnic minority communities.

This shift has profound consequences for the way our nation, countries and regions relate. The causes of this surge of English feeling are complex but one surely must be the imperfect nature of the devolution settlement.  The report shows that the number of voters in England who believe that devolution has made the way Britain is governed worse (35 per cent) has doubled since 2007.  Moreover the English believe they get a raw-deal from the devolution, with 46 per cent of voters in England saying that Scotland gets ‘more than its fair share of public spending’.

Meanwhile 40 per cent of voters in England say that England gets ‘less than its fair share’ of public money. This ‘West Lothian Question-max’- a combination of political, economic and cultural grievance that the English are developing requires action: political parties must begin to address ‘the English Question’ in its own right, regardless of what happens in Scotland, or risk a major backlash.  

Presently, beyond local authorities, the English (outside London) are the only people of the union with any government other than the national Parliament.

This inequality is increasingly seldom tolerated by the English electorate: the report finds that having initially been content to continue to be governed themselves by an unreformed set of UK institutions at Westminster, support for the status quo has now fallen to just 1 in 4 of the English electorate. 59 per cent say that they do not trust the UK government to work in the best long-term interests of England.  Indeed, recent IPPR North research found clear evidence in support of this view: in London and the South East  £2,700 per person is planned to be spent on forthcoming infrastructure projects: for projects that benefit to the North East of England, the planned level of spending is equivalent to £5 per person.  The English regions, of all of the UK, clearly have most about which to complain.

If an English parliament or English votes on English issues are unfeasible, as most constitutional experts believe, and regional government is undesirable, as people in opinion polls suggest, then we must be imaginative in our approach. One start might be much greater financial and political devolution for local government and the creation of city-regional government, for example via the creation of metro-mayors. This will help provide an outlet for resurgent political identities and help mitigate the view that the English have no way to forge their own future.

In a United Kingdom, we have historically expected a large degree of uniformity in services and provision. Increasingly this tenet of the union is disintegrating. A new settlement is evolving in which, to return to Orwell, English voters perceive that all countries and regions are equal, but some are more equal than others.  This is giving rise to a resurgent sense of English identity and nationhood- long suppressed by the attachment to common Britishness. To prevent a backlash- and potentially to save the union- we must be unafraid to engage with the English question head on.