Reimagining ‘the English Question(s)’:

English Voices, Spaces and Institution Building

Gerry Hassan

Public Policy Research, Volume 16 Number 2


It is a decade since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly and just over thirty years since the Scots and Welsh first voted on devolution in the ill-fated 1979 referendums. While the Scots and Welsh, along with the Northern Irish have each voted twice on their constitutional status or devolution, one part of the UK – namely England – has not voted once.

Some commentators and observers now talk about the emergence of ‘the English question’ when this actually describes what could be better termed ‘the English questions’. These are a set of issues which have been in the British political system since Gladstone raised Irish home rule in the 1880s, and more recently, since devolution re-emerged as a serious political issue for the British state in the mid-1970s.

This essay will explore the background and terrain of ‘the English question(s)’ and address what is the essence of the issue, namely whether it is primarily one of identity and culture or governance and legitimacy; ask if it growing in salience and what factors and dynamics are likely to influence it in the near-future? In particular, it looks at the likely environment after the 2010 UK election; and in what ways  ‘the English question(s) can be addressed in the immediate and longer-term.

The Environment of ‘the English Question’

The creation of devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1998-99 changed the political governance of the United Kingdom. At the same time, it left many elements of the UK unaltered, namely: the belief and in part ‘myth’ of parliamentary sovereignty intact, the nature of the political centre unreformed, and the issue of England. England is the largest part of the UK by a large margin, representing 84% of the total population. Devolution has resulted in a situation in which 16% of the UK’s population – in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland live in devolved territories, while 84% do not.

Since devolution some English commentators such as Jeremy Paxman (1998) and Simon Heffer (1999) have articulated a sense that England is somehow losing out. This touches on concerns about higher public spending per head in the devolved parts of the UK versus England, but also wider issues of identity. This perspective can represent itself as a cry for a ‘lost England’, of a past rural idyll seen in the writing of Roger Scruton (2001), or the passing of a more civilised, humane age, articulated in Pink Floyd’s lament for the post-war consensus on their number one album ‘The Final Cut’ which stated:

What have we done Maggie?

What have we done?

What have we done to England?

Should we shout?

Should we scream?

“What happened to the post war dream?” (Pink Floyd 1983)

It is not a coincidence that this track was released in 1983 and tied together a potent sense of something being lost about England and Britain: of Thatcher’s very narrow English nationalism eroding an alternative, progress idea of England, and of a world being lost through global economic change working to the disadvantage of the working class.

Others have gone overboard on a populist and reactionary track articulating a xenophobia against immigrants or in some cases non-Scots: the latter of which George Monbiot strayed into when he articulated a populist, close to xenophobic sentiment that ‘England was becoming a colony’. Monbiot wrote in a departure from his usual script:

England, the great colonising nation, has become a colony. It is governed by a Scotsman who uses foreign mercenaries – Scottish, Welsh and Irish MPs – to suppress parliamentary revolts over purely English affairs. There is still no democratic forum in which English interests can be discussed only by English representatives. The unfairness is staggering, the silence stranger still. (Monbiot 2009)

A strand in some of the English voices, emerging from parts of the English left, which takes a deterministic belief that the rise of ‘Celtic’ nationalism will lead to the re-emergence of England and the inevitable ‘break-up of the union’. This view in some places seems to have breathlessly switched from an almost mythical faith in the power of ‘class’ to one based on ‘nationalism’ (Perryman 2009). This was once a criticism unfairly levelled at Tom Nairn by a Marxist critique of his nationalism, but now such a caricatured position exists (Beveridge and Turnbull 1988).

Billy Bragg has taken a more interesting position – that the Scots in particular could be looked at enviously for somehow working out their identity and developing a civic, sober, progressive nationalism which had reshaped their politics. The prognosis posed in Bragg’s writings is that the missing English ingredient is a national identity or project, and that England’s ‘weak nationalism’ is the main problem that needs to be addressed (Bragg 2006).

An alternative perspective would see England’s supposed ‘weak nationalism’ as having allowed the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish to develop their own devolved institutions without waiting for ‘home rule all round’ or a comprehensive UK wide settlement.

English sensibilities post-devolution are antagonised by Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs voting on what are seen as ‘English matters’. They do so at a time when Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have devolved institutions, a voice and power, and England has none of these. This is particularly controversial when Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs are seen to overturn English majorities on contentious issues. This raises the abstract of ‘the West Lothian Question’ into a salient political issue. And then there are Scottish MPs sitting in Cabinet enacting legislation in devolved areas such as John Reid as first, Health Secretary, then, Home Secretary.

There is the powerful issue of equity in a lot of this, of issues around citizenship, social rights and access to public services and goods, and perceived and real differences and inequities across the United Kingdom. Thus, we see this reflected in newspaper headlines such as: ’Prescriptions Free For Everyone: But Only If You Live in Wales) (Daily Express), ‘Medical Apartheid’ (Daily Mail), ‘UK’s Apartheid in Medical Care’ (The Sun).

These headlines are about Scottish and Welsh Government decisions to follow different priorities: in this case abolish or reduce prescription charges. Devolution changes citizenship and social rights (Greer and Matzke 2009). These have political implications and have the potential for conflict with some voters dissatisfied at different policy outcomes and what they may perceive as preferential treatment for other voters.

‘The English Question’: Politics, Culture and Identities

One dimension of understanding ‘the English question’ is to encourage the disaggregation of politically conceiving of England, Scotland and Wales as homogeneous blocks. There is a mismatch between the territorial balance of the political parties at Westminster and party representation.

This is not just about Scotland and Wales having Labour over-representation, but the nature of Tory support in England – due to the vagaries of First Past the Post. For example:

  • England is not as historically Tory as some commentators believe. The Tories have only won a majority of the vote in England once in post-war times – 1955 – the same year they won a majority of the vote in Scotland (as they did in Northern Ireland, meaning only the Tory lack of support in Wales stopped them winning a UK wide majority of votes).
  • Scotland is not as Labour as is commonly thought. Labour has never won a majority of the vote in a Westminster election in Scotland. In the 2005 UK general election it won 38.9% of the vote and 67.8% of the seats (in 1997 it won 78% of seats).
  • Wales is not as Labour as many often assume. Welsh Labour has at many points in post-war politics won a majority of the vote at Westminster elections, but in 2005 it won 42.7% of votes and 72.5% of seats (in 1997 winning 85% of seats).

The machinations of First Past the Post exaggerate the national differences between England, Scotland and Wales, and a more proportional electoral system would reduce the potential for conflict between the nations.

Robert Hazell has commented that ‘‘the English question’ ‘is not an exam question, which the English are required to answer’ (Hazell 2006, 19). Instead ‘the English question’ throws up a number of issues about the character and constitutional nature of the UK. These include the fact that the UK is an asymmetrical union and has always been both pre-devolution and post-devolution; asymmetry does not automatically mean or lead to constitutional instability.

More crucially, there is the wider question of the English voice in a union where the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have found expression through a political voice and devolved institutions (Kelly and Lodge 2009). How does this ‘voice’ find expression and does it have to take a political and governmental form? There is the character and nature of the UK, the over-loaded centre, much critiqued by those on the right in the decade of ‘ungovernability’ in the 1970s and from the left in the 1980s. This has become much more over-reaching and problematic in the early 21st century, and paradoxically even more controlling and omnipotent post-devolution. This transformation of the political centre of the UK and the relationship of its transformation under Thatcher and Blair to its overload has contributed to the systemic crisis of the British state post-crash and the disconnection and anger felt towards the political class.

The economic and political environment of the first decade of devolution has been relatively benign and stable, allowing for the new devolved institutions to bed in and establish themselves without any major constitutional conflicts or instability. The foreseeable future will see this economic and political context change dramatically. The economic climate has darkened over the course of 2008-9 in the UK and globally and the allocation of public resources will become more critical and contested. At the same time, it is possible that political events will create an environment whereby inter-governmental conflict becomes more heightened than in the past decade: by the return of a Conservative Government with little Scots or Welsh support, or a Labour administration at some point in the future with less support in England raising the profile of ‘the English dimension’.

Numerous other factors influence the shaping of England, particularly at a political and cultural level. Firstly, there is the process of European integration and the spectre of the European Union and how it is perceived by part of the British political class and part of English public opinion, particularly in right-wing circles and the tabloid press. ‘Europe’ is seen as a threat to a mythical idea of ‘England’ and ‘the British way of life’: the two being seen as interchangeable.

Secondly, and related to this is the articulation of a certain kind of ‘grumpy old man’ Englishness by the tabloid press, which welds together all kinds of popular anxieties about modern life with a sense that England is being short changed: by the Scots, asylum seekers and immigrants, multiculturalism, Europe, ‘the PC culture’ and so on.

Thirdly, some of this has spilled over into fears and worries associated with ‘the white working class’ and the emergence of the BNP as a serious electoral force. It is not an accident that the BNP’s electoral base is nearly exclusively English, and that its support in the recent Euro elections, was focused around the three Northern English regions where its support was at points twice what it was in the South of England.

Fourth, there is the problem with ‘official’ versions of Britishness and in particular those accounts associated with the Brown Government. To some on the right, these are seen as being part of a project to subjugate ‘Britain’ to Europe, multiculturalism, the nanny state and so on. To other perspectives this is all part of a Machiavellian plot to deny the existence of ‘England’. Brown’s version of Britishness gives some credence to critics and cynics with his 2007 Fabian Society pamphlet, published on the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Union, failing to mention ‘England’ (Brown and Alexander 2007; Hassan 2009).

Scotland Pre-Devolution and England Post-Devolution

Scotland pre-devolution was a nation which increasingly felt the tension and crisis of ‘the democratic deficit’; is there any real comparison between this situation and that of England today?

Firstly, such an exploration involves a little deconstruction of the nature of ‘the democratic deficit’ in Scotland. For most of the post-war period such a situation could not have been further from the realities of Scottish politics. From 1945 until 1964 the gap between the Labour and Conservative Parties was very narrow in seats and votes (Bogdanor 2009).

Such an exploration involves a little deconstruction of the nature of ‘the democratic deficit’ in Scotland – a reference to the extent to which the UK government carried a democratic mandate north of the border. Contrary to what some think it was not until the 1964 election that a serious gap opened up between Labour and Conservative representation in Scotland, with Labour leading the Tories by 43 to 24 – a gap of 19 seats. Yet in 1945 the Tories won 10 more seats than Labour, suggesting that the scale of ‘the democratic deficit’ seen in the 1980s and 1990s was unprecedented and of recent import – resulting in a 56 Labour seat lead in 1997.

Second, the experience of Scotland, first in 1970 when the Heath Government did not enjoy a democratic mandate north of the border, and then the Thatcher-Major Governments, saw administrations receiving less and less support and seats – to the point by 1997 they were reduced to a rump of 17.5% of support and no parliamentary seats.

The 1980s and 1990s ‘democratic deficit’ felt like a severe experience to a whole swathe of Scottish public opinion and institutions. At the time, many people actually thought that Scotland as an entity and ‘Scottish values’ were under threat from Thatcherism (Torrance 2009). While this might in retrospect look a bit overdone, what it shows is how intense and passionate the times were and how big the chasm of incomprehension between Scots majority opinion and Thatcherism.

At the same time as this cold climate blew over Scotland, a counter-narrative began post-1979 in which artists, writers and cultural figures began to explore and imagine different aspects of Scottishness, society, reclaim hidden or difficult parts of history, and engage in a cultural nationalism which often made for an uneasy bedfellow with political nationalism.

How would such an experience measure against the position of England today? What would have to happen for England to feel itself so alienated and misunderstood by the pervading political climate of the times? To ask these questions is to acknowledge how far England as a political, cultural or any kind of entity is from such a sense of feeling.

This does not mean that all is well in England as it exists or be perceived as an explanation for the status quo. England has at two post-war points seen the election of a Labour Government – 1964 and February 1974 – in which the Tories led Labour in England in votes and seats. In 1964 the Tory lead in England was 123,668 votes (0.6%) and 16 seats, while in February 1974 it was 666,509 votes (2.6%) and 31 seats (Craig 1981). Both of these elections were incredibly narrow results across the UK which produced very short lived Parliaments, and can hardly be compared to the situation in Scotland and Wales in the 1980s. In 2005 Labour were returned with an overall majority of 66 and had 92 more seats than the Tories in England, while the Tories actually led in votes by 0.2%. (Butler and Kavanagh 2005: 204).

Is there some deeper, existential level in which the plights of pre-devolution Scotland and post-devolution England can be compared? Allowing for the fact that the two situations are very different, is there some degree of similarity as in each case the existing democratic arrangements, structures and governance failed each nation? In Scotland pre-devolution, this resulted in a sense of nationhood articulating itself into the democratic demand and voice for self-government and home rule in the form of a Scottish Parliament. This was mixed between intrinsic reasons – of nation, identity and pride, and instrumental ones – of a belief in better governance and policy.

There is in England some sense of dissatisfaction with existing arrangements which has not coalesced into a tipping point or breaking point in relation to a crisis of the system. Nor has one view emerged as the supposed ‘settled will’ of English opinion in the way it did in Scotland. Yet, this is not to assume that all is well with the current situation; there clearly is a sense of grumbling, of loss, and anxiety which could boil over into a demand for change in certain circumstances.

There is one crucial difference between Scotland pre-devolution and England post-devolution: the scale of demand for democratic change. In Scotland in the 1980s and 1990s opinion polls showed a consistent 70-80% support for a Scottish Parliament; whereas there has never been significant support for an English Parliament and as importantly, the salience of the issue appears very low (Curtice 2009).

There are two inadequate responses to ‘the English question’. One is to say that the UK has always had anomalies at its heart. It was not seen as an adequate response to the grievances of Scottish home rule campaigners, nor should it be now. Nor is the argument that Scotland put up with Conservative Government from 1979-97 a justification for the English putting up with the form of government they are (see for an example of this: The Herald Editorial, February 16th 2009). The other is to try and repackage ‘the English question’ into a box marked ‘English Parliament’ or ‘English regionalism’, when there is currently not majority support for such change.

What Happens After the 2010 General Election?

There is a distinct possibility that the next UK general election could easily produce a set of circumstances which increase the salience of ‘the English question’. Despite current opinion polls showing a sizeable Conservative lead, the party has to achieve a significant swing to win an overall majority. The political environment of the next UK general election means that a 1.46% swing which puts Labour and Conservatives on the same number of votes – would give Labour 96 more seats than the Conservatives and an overall majority of six seats.

  • A swing of 1.6% means that Labour would lose its overall majority;
  • On a 4.3% swing the Conservatives would become the largest party;
  • A 6.9% swing is required for the Conservatives to win an overall majority of one seat;
  • To win a working majority of twenty or so seats would require a lot more.

Therefore, any swing to the Conservatives of Labour of between 1.6% and 6.9% would produce a hung Parliament (Rallings, Johnston and Thrasher 2008). While this does not look likely at the moment, numerous commentators have acknowledged that the Conservative lead is ‘soft’ and that they have not ‘sealed the deal’, while the electoral system does present a significant hurdle to the Tories.

A hung Parliament post-devolution would raise the importance of ‘the English question’. The Conservatives have never in post-war times achieved a swing from Labour of 6.9% or more: their best being 5.2% in 1979; while on only one occasion has either of the two parties achieved more than it: Labour’s 10.2% swing from the Conservatives in 1997.

Suggested Solutions to ‘the English Question’

There are a number of solutions which have been suggested for ‘the English question’. Each of these has existed since Gladstone’s debates on Irish home rule in the 1880s. These are four main ones:

English votes for English laws:

This is also known as ‘in/out voting’ and would involve English MPs only voting on purely English matters, debarring Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs the right to vote on such matters. This is seen as an answer to the particular anomaly known as ‘the West Lothian Question’ – so named after Tam Dalyell’s constituency – whereby Scots MPs post-devolution can vote on English health and education matters, which they cannot vote on for their own constituencies. At the same time English MPs cannot vote on the same issues in Scotland.

This would in effect create two classes of MPs and would also produce two Parliaments sitting in one Parliament, with the potential when English/UK majorities were out of sync, of in effect, creating two governments of differing political persuasions. It also carries with it immense technical difficulties of defining what is an exclusively ‘English issue’. Strictly speaking there is no such thing as ‘English law’: there being law which is either United Kingdom, Great Britain, or England and Wales. Some see the solution to this as the creation of a specifically English law-making dimension (Hadfield 2005).

Cutting Scottish and Welsh representation:

This would entail the Scots and Welsh number of MPs being reduced post-devolution – along the precedent set by the establishment of the Northern Irish Parliament of 1922-72 which saw the number of MPs cut by one-third. Scotland has already had its number reduced to cut its over-representation from 72 to 59. A Scots and Welsh cut by one-third on this logic would, according to Robert Hazell, see the Scots fall from 59 to 40 seats, and the Welsh suffer a double-cut – from 40 to 33 – to reduce their over-representation, and then, by one-third to 22 seats (Hazell 2006).

The reduction of Scottish and Welsh Westminster representation does not of itself directly address ‘the English question’, but reduces the possibility of flashpoints and conflicts by which some commentators see the possibility of ‘an English backlash’. However, it also carries with it the prospect that the Scots and Welsh could become increasingly disenchanted and detached from Westminster, fuelling calls for Scottish and Welsh independence.

An English Parliament:

An English Parliament would give England the political voice it currently lacks. The problem with an English Parliament is three-fold: it has very little support amongst English political opinion, has been unsupported by a single senior politician in recent times, and, it is also true that the English generally see Westminster as their Parliament (Curtice, 2006).

However, a more challenging concern is the issue of what an English Parliament could do to the union – representing 84% of the UK’s people. This could provide a recipe for conflict and instability between Westminster and any new institution. No union has ever been successful and continued where one of the parts is so dominant. Examples of this include the West Indies Federation and Jamaica’s predominance, the first Nigerian federation, and Pakistan pre-1971 amongst others.

English Regionalism:

English regional government could directly answer ‘the English question’ by giving the English a variety of institutions and political voices. Labour were committed to English regionalism until the 2004 North East referendum decisively rejected regionalism by a margin of four to one. The Lib Dems are still formally committed to regionalism, while the Conservatives are opposed.

There have been numerous institutional supporters of English regionalism: the Kilbrandon Minority Report of 1973 making the case for symmetrical devolution across the UK (whereas the Majority Report made the case for devolution to Scotland and Wales alone).

A number of factors will influence and shape ‘the English question’: the future of English regionalism and the issue of ‘English voted for English laws’. The dynamics and pressures for regionalism cannot be entirely abolished with the legacy of creeping functional regionalism evident in England seen in the establishment of the Government Offices for the Region in 1994, which have been subsequently been built upon by Labour with Regional Development Agencies and unelected regional chambers. This set of institutions has developed its own policy and influencer networks which made headway post-1997 in changing the regional makeup of England at a governance level, although with no democratic input or scrutiny (Keating 2006).

However, this evolving regionalism has been hit by the complete stalling of the democratic aspect of it after the emphatic North East referendum vote. Labour have now began to backtrack on some of this, announcing the dismantling of the unelected regional chambers. The Conservatives are committed to abolishing this regional tier including Regional Development Agencies (RDAs).

The party’s current position is the product of Kenneth Clarke’s review which concluded that when a bill is deemed ‘English’, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs would be able to vote on bills at their second and third reading stage, while restricting votes to MPs with English seats when the detail of a bill is debated in committee stage. A convention would be established where non-English MPs would not overturn amendments agreed by English MPs at third reading. David Cameron recently underwrote the importance of this policy with an intervention stating, ‘For English-only legislation, we would have a sort of English Grand Committee’ (Tait and Carlin, February 15th 2009).

Gordon Brown, in a book co-authored with the academic Henry Drucker, ‘The Politics of Nationalism and Devolution’ supported such a position. Brown and Drucker commented in 1980 that Labour had to address the ‘West Lothian Question’:

Most of all, a raised Scotland Act could embody some form of the ‘in and out’ principle. Under such a principle the remaining Scottish MPs at Westminster would not be allowed to take part in the proceedings of the House when it was debating English or Welsh domestic matters. The ‘in and out’ principle ought to be attractive to Conservatives since it would ensure them a semi-permanent majority on most social issues at Westminster – no small prize. Labour remains formally committed to devolution and may be expected to consider a plan along these lines in the future. (Drucker and Brown 1980: 127)

The logic of Brown’s thinking here, of supporting ‘English votes for English laws’ as the quid pro quo for establishing a Scottish Parliament, has never become Labour’s position, and nor did it remain Brown’s for very long. While politicians are entitled to change their minds on affairs of state, it is illuminating that Brown once saw the allure of a position which is so associated with an English Tory position.

Institution Building, Nation Building and England

Where does this take ‘the English question’? First, we have to offer a description and explanation of England. Richard Rose has famously said, ‘England is a state of mind, not a consciously organised political institution’ (Rose 1982: 29), and this remains the case post-devolution. England remains as a nation a unitary polity in a union state.

Second, there are many Englands and versions of Englishness. England is many things, voices and ideas. It can be reactionary, progressive, radical, conservative, inward-looking or outward-looking: all, some or none of these things. At the heart of ‘the English question’ is a contest between different Englands of the imagination. Historically, the Conservatives have been better at tapping into this than Labour (Aughey, 2007).

Labour have tended to be silent on Englishness, for most of their history hoping all our different identities could be contained in an inclusive Britishness. Conservatives have traditionally found it easier to navigate and negotiate between Englishness and Britishness and do so at least, until Thatcher, in a manner which did not alienate the other nationalities of the UK.

Both of these traditions seem to have exhausted the way they think about Britishness, reducing it at points to cliché, and explicitly, the way Englishness is framed and understood. As much as future political shifts and voting, this matters for what happens to ‘the English question’.

Ultimately, ‘the English question’ does not need to be addressed unless English people want it to be. Firstly, the English incremental technocratic and managerial agenda of regionalism is now stillborn. The anti-democratic stance of arguing that the future of England and regionalism will be shaped by elites has been proved as spurious. A recent study of the future of England’s position in the UK argued that: ‘Technocratic factors are more important than popular pressures. Political and bureaucratic elites will determine whether the regional tier continues to grow ….’ (Harding et al 2008: 88). This perspective has led into a complete cul-de-sac.

How does a different English approach begin to emerge which values a democratic voice and institutions? A more bottom up approach is the only viable way of developing a regional set of identities and mindset and landscape which can evolve into a regional consciousness strong enough to want democratic institutions. Any approaches along these lines are not likely to bear immediate results and will require a long-term perspective.

However, the English debate is not taking place in splendid isolation, but in a fluid environment. The Scottish dimension in particular will influence the shape of ‘the English question’ from the Calman Commission recommendations to the eventually inevitable Scottish independence referendum, which will throw up issues about the character and position of England and the union itself. A number of election permutations in an asymmetrical union, from a Conservative Government with little Scottish or Welsh representation to other scenarios, could begin a train of events which radically alter the union.

Finally, the difference between identity and culture and governance and legitimacy posed at the outset of this essay is ultimately a false one, in that they are not completely separate, but cross-cutting and shaping of each other. It does seem that the contemporary answer to ‘the English question’ lies in starting with the cultural and identity realm and recognising that this has institutional and governance consequences.

Two examples here would be the UK and Scotland. Fifty years ago the UK Government decided to ‘rebrand’ (in the days before the term was used) ‘the UK’ as ‘Britain’, noting the lack of recognition in the terms ‘United Kingdom’ and ‘Great Britain’, and in the days before think tanks did this – doing so quietly and successfully (Mitchell 2009: 3-4). The other example is the slow journey of the Scots perception of themselves as a ‘nation’ leading to institution building and then nation building: the establishment of the Scottish Office and administrative devolution in 1885 subsequently culminating in the Scottish Parliament and legislative devolution in 1999.

Two lessons for ‘the English question’ can be drawn from this. One that to begin answering the issues underlying it one needs to begin talking, using and articulating a concept of ‘England’. Talking it, naming it and bringing ‘England’ into the public domain changes how it is seen and thought off.

The second point is about the English realm, institution building and nation building. Across a range of areas and institutions England is still something that dare not speak its name. There has been some movement in recent years with the emergence of the Arts Council of England from the Arts Council Great Britain in 1994  (with separate Scottish and Welsh entities created). Yet, across the public life of England there are anomalies and omissions. Why for example are there British Councils for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? And yet not a British Council England? Instead, the British Council based in London covers the UK, England and acts as the quasi-imperialist hub of its international network: rather like a mini-version of the imperial state itself.

There has to be the beginning of an English awakening which involves not just naming, but the start of a reclaiming and reimagining of England as a place, territory and nation, and then the thinking of what consequences flow from that. This may sound like a dry and arcane exercise as compared to those exciting grandiose ideas of an ‘English Parliament’ and ‘English regionalism’, but then the remaking of a nation is never usually a sudden process.

We live in confused times with a messy political system, constitution and political order. Despite the belief of Vernon Bogdanor (2009) that the UK has shifted from an ‘old’ to ‘new’ constitution, we actually neither live entirely in the world of the ‘old’ or the ‘new’. Instead, we inhabit a strange, shadowy, ill-defined transition world which is in part shaped by the twilight of the Westminster model, its bastardisation and morphing into a neo-liberal state, and its gradual authoritarian degeneration under Thatcher and Blair. At the same time, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and to an extent London, have begun to emerge as alternative centres of power and influence. This leaves the UK in a position which in the ultimate long term is neither sustainable, balanced or attractive, and it is in this wider context that ‘the English question’ may ultimately come to be resolved.


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