Menu Close

The main parties will regret not taking English politics seriously

Enough playing around. Lewis Whyld/PA

With a population of 53.9m, growing annually by 0.7%, England taken on its own as a country on its own would be one of the four most populous European Union member states. And with a national income of around £1.3 trillion in 2013, its economy is of sufficient size that it would merit membership of the G20.

But one of the stranger features of the 2015 UK general election campaign has been the absence of any national political identity, programme or agenda for England distinct from rest of the UK.

With the exception of the Conservatives, the UK’s major parties have declined to publish manifestos for England, despite the fact that various vital areas of public policy – notably the NHS, education, higher education, and housing – concern England alone, as a result of devolution to the other UK nations.

The Labour Party’s manifesto includes a section on “providing world-class health and education services” that would only have effect on England. However, they have been presented within a British political narrative which describes a UK-wide commitment where none actually exists. England is simply folded into “Britain” or “our country”.

And while the Conservative Party is apparently on the verge of belatedly publishing its first Manifesto for England, this appears to be part of an increasingly desperate attempt to rescue a faltering and excessively negative campaign than part of a principled agenda. After all, the Scottish and Welsh Conservatives launched their own manifestos on April 16 and 17 respectively.

Given their performances in England in 2010, it’s surprising that neither Labour nor the Tories has tried to gain a game-changing political and electoral advantage by publishing a separate programme for England.

At the last election, the Conservatives won 39.6% of the roughly 25m English votes cast and 298 (56%) of England’s 533 seats, a net gain of 92. No fewer than 97% of the Conservatives’ total of 307 seats at Westminster were won in England.

2010 was a major reversal for Labour, which won only 28.1% of the English vote cast in England and 191 of its seats. That’s a net loss of 87, the fewest English seats it had won since 1918, and its lowest share of the English vote since 1983.

But historically speaking, Labour is not doomed to do so badly: it won the largest number of English seats in 1945, 1966, 1974 (October), 1997, 2001 and 2005. That implies that whenever Labour has an attractive manifesto and credible leadership to present it, there is no reason it should struggle in England.

Stepping up

Since the major parties have declined to present any manifesto or national programme for England, the task of outlining one has been left to the right-wing English Democrats.

In their 2015 manifesto, the English Democrats have advocated, among other measures, the creation of an English parliament, executive and first minister within a federal United Kingdom and a reformed upper chamber at Westminster, the latter dependent upon the outcome of a referendum which would either replace it with an elected 100 member senate or abolish it.

Taking England on the road. Gordon Joly/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The party wants full fiscal devolution to all constituent nations of the UK, a referendum on the terms of the relationship with the European Union, a referendum in Monmouthshire to establish whether it should remain in Wales or be part of England, and the possibility of a Council of the Isles, similar to the Nordic Council, should the UK break up in the years ahead.

It takes a dim view of the current devolution regime, rejecting the concept of “English votes on English laws” on the grounds that it “will neither redress the unfair treatment of the people of England nor help produce a coherent constitutional settlement” and scorning the Barnett Formula since “there has been no assessment of need since 1976”.

There is little hope for the English Democrats. Their national membership is a little more than 3,000 (this at a time when the SNP’s membership has steamed past 100,000) and while it fielded 107 candidates in 2010, between them they could secure only 64,826 of England’s votes – 0.3%.

Other English and regional parties roused barely a squeak. Merbyon Kernow, which campaigns for national self-determination for Cornwall, could muster only 5,379 votes, and the sole candidate for the English Independence Party won only 803 votes.

This scarcely sounds like a concrete and thriving English political identity. But look elsewhere, and the signs are quite different.

English only

In the 2011 Census, when given the opportunity for the first time to specify their identity, no fewer than 32m people or 60% of respondents in England specified their identity as “English only”. This is a remarkably strong commitment to national identity given the lack of any major nationalist political party or campaign – and it also matches the Scots, 62% of whom said they were “Scottish only”.

Similarly, in the Future of England Survey 2014, 62% of people surveyed in England agreed that Scots MPs should not vote on English laws, while 56% agreed that public expenditure in Scotland should be reduced to the UK average – and a majority of supporters of all three major UK parties agreed with both propositions.

The authors of that survey subtitled it “Taking England Seriously” – something of which there’s been little sign in 2015. If England really is to be taken seriously, it needs its own integrated politics and economy. That means a new constitutional settlement that recognises England’s national and regional political identiites, which are separable from those of the UK, the British state and Britishness.

The surprising strength of English identity means there are risks to doing nothing. Whoever runs the UK after May 7 cannot go on without a progressive programme for England, fully democratically accountable to the English people. And if we end up with a minority Labour government sustained by SNP and other non-English MPs, we could run into a new English politics of resentment – one that could change UK politics dramatically.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 187,100 academics and researchers from 4,998 institutions.

Register now