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Referendum Echos

Published: 16 September 2015
Author: Michael Kenny
A year has passed since the historic referendum on Scotland’s future but its imprint upon politics and politicians across the UK remains indelible.
One of the overlooked effects of the referendum has been its impact upon English sensibilities.
There is some evidence to suggest that many who live in England were concerned that the award of additional powers to Scotland represented an accentuation of an already unbalanced, and possibly unfair, situation. England is the one remaining territory in the UK that has not been the beneficiary of devolution, and a gathering sense of territorial grievance has settled over many English voters since the mid 2000s.
Other sentiments complicate this picture. The Union remains popular in England and polling undertaken during the referendum campaign suggested that the number of those who wanted the Scots to remain part of the UK grew during its course.
But a more uncertain, anxious national mood has begun to settle south of the Border. And a people who long prided themselves on their aversion to nationalism are now far more culturally self-conscious, and more likely to see themselves possessing a collective interest the Union state does not seem to recognise.
In this context, the Conservatives’ championing of English Votes for English Laws (Evel) for the Commons has struck a chord, as well as serving a useful political purpose. Ever since David Cameron tabled the "English Question" in response to the referendum result, Labour has been on the back foot on constitutional and territorial issues. Unable to summon a positive response to the idea of English devolution, the party was left vulnerable during the election campaign to the Tories’ relentless focus upon the prospect of a minority administration that would be reliant, in some way or other, on SNP support.
In this Parliament, the Conservatives have sought to press home their political advantage and to address what they see as a growing desire for an English "voice" in the political system. They have also, more controversially, devised plans for a veto English representatives can use if the UK Government seeks to pass legislation that affects England only, and with which a majority among them do not agree
But the reforms proposed by Chris Grayling, Leader of the Commons, before the recess came unstuck. This says much about the intrinsic difficulty of reforming the UK Parliament in this way, and is also a reflection of the hardening of differences along territorial lines in British politics.
Mr Grayling’s proposals to amend the Commons Standing Orders failed to satisfy those in the Conservative party who want a more full-bodied, and radical reform, and also provided an opportunity for SNP MPs to place themselves at the head of the anti-Tory parties in Parliament, while arguing that this reform reflects a new Conservative attempt to diminish Scottish interests.
The SNP’s about-turn on this issue, following their previous habit of abstaining from voting on legislation that affected England alone, is a striking sign of the conflictual nature of the new territorial politics. Evel has become totemic. It is part of the terrain upon which the leading parties are battling over the territorial soul of the UK state.
And it is for this reason that the seismic events happening inside the Labour party, culminating in the election of veteran socialist Jeremy Corbyn, could have wider constitutional consequences. Over the last two decades Labour increasingly played the role of being the most conservative party of the Union, but its position weakened as it started to lose two key arguments. The first was with those at Westminster who wanted to rebalance the Union to give the English more of a say and greater protection; the second was with the SNP over whether Scottish interests were better served by the present constitutional arrangements or by a radical change.
The election of a Labour leader – who is likely to steer well away from the kind of progressive Britishness figures like Gordon Brown promoted and is more likely to identify with attacks on the British state rather than promote arguments for its rebalancing and reform – brings a new and unexpected dynamic to these issues at Westminster. Whether Labour will continue to operate as a buttress for the Union, or will leave that role to the Conservative party alone, is one of the many questions posed by Labour’s choice of leader.

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