Richard Wyn Jones: If our political class continues to ignore the English Question, UKIP could prosper
Professor Richard Wyn Jones is Director of the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University. He is an expert on devolved politics and is one of the co-authors of the newly published IPPR report England’s Two Union: And Anatomy of a Nation and its Discontents. He is happy to confirm the suspicion that he is, indeed, Welsh.
Conservatives may have enjoyed the obvious discomfort of the BBC when it was forced to admit last week that it had failed to give due prominence to concerns about very high levels immigration into the UK because public attitudes were not consistent with the “liberal bias” of corporation programme makers.
But it is not only liberals, or socialists for that matter, that can find some public attitudes so challenging to their own biases and preconceptions that they find it easier to ignore them. Perhaps the most glaring example in contemporary British politics is attitudes to the anomalous – and, in English eyes, iniquitous – position of England within the post-devolution United Kingdom. When it comes to England, with very few exceptions, the British political class as a whole seem to find denial or displacement much easier than serious engagement.
An indication of the importance accorded to the issue among the public is that, when asked which constitutional issues should be prioritised, the “way that England should be governed now that Scotland has a parliament and Wales an Assembly” emerged in a very clear second place. Behind Europe, to be sure, but well ahead of such “Westminster bubble” issues as House of Lords reform, reform of local government, or even the referendum on Scottish independence.
Even on Europe, there is an English dimension that is simply not reflected in current political rhetoric – even among those Eurosceptics who pride themselves in reflecting the view from the street or saloon bar. Europe we are repeatedly told is a threat to British traditions and values. Yet counter-intuitive as it may seem to many, our survey makes clear that, in England, the more exclusively British a person’s sense of national identity, the more pro-European that person’s attitudes tend to be. Those who feel “British not English” or ‘”More British than English” say they would vote to stay in Europe. By contrast those who feel “English not British” or ‘More English than British’ say they would vote in overwhelmingly numbers for British withdrawal. Euroscepticism is an English and not British phenomenon.
Euroscepticism in England is also closely associated with a sense that England is getting a raw deal within the UK. It’s largely the same people who feel most strongly about the two issues. As such, it makes sense to view Euroscepticism and what we might term “Devoanxiety” as two sides of the same coin. Both reflect a widespread sense among the English that they are not being well served by either of the Unions of which they are a part.
When confronted by these sentiments, there is widespread tendency among the British political class to reach for the non sequitur. The answer to English discontent, we are repeatedly told, is “localism”. As if changing the arrangements for local government within England (however worthwhile such a development may be) could ever address the issue of how England qua England is recognised in our constitutional arrangements.
Beyond this kind of displacement there has been little serious thought or engagement, even in a Conservative party that has fought successive general elections on a platform that has included support for some form of “English votes for English laws.”
The McKay Commission reported in late March and the UK government’s response is awaited at some point before the summer recess. That response represents something of a litmus test of the British political class’s willingness to take England seriously.
The McKay scheme – essentially a non-binding form of English votes for English laws – seems purposively designed to be as inoffensive and respectful of vested interests as possible. If even this proves too much to swallow for the current political class then it appears that only a fully blown crisis will force movement. The question is, of course, who or what could possibly create such a crisis? A potential answer also emerges from our survey data: UKIP.
UKIP support is strongly concentrated among those with a strong sense of English national identity. UKIP supporters are also strongly supportive of giving England much more explicit recognition within the UK. De facto, it is the English National Party. If UKIP were able to harness English concerns about both of the Unions of which their country is a part, this would place the party in a potentially very powerful position. At the BBC, failure has given rise to little more than a self-administered slap on the wrist. For the British political class the potentially costs of ignoring England and English concerns are considerably higher.