Scotland’s big question was resolved on 18 September 2014. Early the next morning David Cameron opened up the English question, announcing:
I have long believed that a crucial part missing from this national discussion is England. We have heard the voice of Scotland – and now the millions of voices of England must also be heard. The question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian question – requires a decisive answer.
So, just as the Scottish No vote was to lead to rapid progress to additional devolution for Scotland, so it also opened up in the Prime Minister’s analysis a pressing need to give people in England a distinctive voice in how they are governed.
As this report shows the Prime Minister, though he may have been pursuing a tactical line to isolate Labour on the English issue, has a point. It presents the findings of the third Future of England Survey carried out in April 2014 following earlier surveys in the summer of 2011 and autumn 2012. The 2014 survey presents further evidence that England has a distinctive politics that combines a politicisation of English national identity with an increasingly clear political prospectus, and an increasingly vocal advocate for that prospectus.
The rallying point is an English desire for self-government. Some of that desire is defined by a continuing sense that Scotland has privileges that are unjustly denied to England. Some also has to do with a perceived loss of political control due to European integration, which in policy and practical terms is related to a perceived loss of control over immigration.
But people in England are not just reacting against their ‘others’ in Scotland and the EU. They are also searching more positively for an institutional recognition of England that can express their concerns better than the current political system, which submerges the representation of England within the wider UK’s institutions in Westminster and Whitehall. From the various alternatives, the most preferred one is – as David Cameron now seems to have recognised – English votes on English laws in the House of Commons.
People in England are also searching for advocates to press their case. They do not readily see such advocates in the major parties in the House of Commons, even though some backbenchers, mainly Conservative, do appear to recognise specifically English concerns. More by default than by design the United Kingdom Independence Party appears to have become a vessel for those concerns. UKIP’s prominence in 2014 – its victory in the European Parliament elections in May, the apparent omnipresence of Nigel Farage’s continuingly cheery and Teflon-coated visage, and the Carswell and Reckless defections from the Conservative party – has drawn heavily on prevailing sentiment in England.
The opportunity is there (despite the ‘UK’ in its title) for UKIP to nurture the English and their desire for self-government. The big question is whether the other parties will cede that ground to them, or whether they will, at last, come to take England, the English, and the way they are governed seriously.