Understanding English identity and institutions in a changing United Kingdom

_MIK4650.cropped.114x133image_normaliainmclean200pxThe current devolution settlement has left England as the only UK country subject to permanent direct rule from Westminster, which has the dual role of governing both the UK and England. In their new book, Akash Paun, Michael Kenny and Iain McLean have been exploring some of the key arguments concerning the status of England within the Union, who speaks for England politically, and the concept of an English national identity.

Governing England, a new volume published today by the British Academy and Oxford University Press, explores whether, why and with what consequences there has been a disentangling of England from Britain in terms of its governance and national identity. The book concludes that the English have grown dissatisfied with their constitution and relationship with the wider world (as reflected in England’s decisive vote in favour of Brexit), and less content for their nationhood to be poured into the larger vessel of Britishness. But England’s national consciousness is fragmented and embryonic – unlike the other UK nations, it has yet to engage in a reflective national conversation about how it wishes to be governed – and, as Brexit unfolds, England is struggling to reshape its relationship with the other UK nations and the wider world without a cohesive national narrative to guide the way.

England, alone among the nations of the UK, has no legislature or executive of its own, and remains one of the most centralised countries in Europe. It is ruled directly from Westminster and Whitehall by a parliament, government and political parties that simultaneously represent the interests of both the UK and England. Correspondingly, at the level of identity, the English have historically displayed a greater propensity than the Scots and Welsh to conflate their own nationhood with a sense of affiliation to Britain and its state. As Robert Hazell noted in 2006, writing for the Constitution Unit on The English Question, ‘in our history and in our institutions the two identities [of English and British] are closely intertwined, and cannot easily be unwoven’.

As a result of devolution to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, Westminster and Whitehall frequently oversee legislation that applies entirely, or predominantly, to England. But the government and most politicians at Westminster tend to elide these territorial complexities, talking of setting policy or legislating for ‘the nation’ or ‘the country’, whatever the precise territorial application of the announcement in question. Governing England is rarely considered as an enterprise separate from the wider governance of the UK. Continue reading

The 2017 election manifestos and the constitution

Over the past two weeks the political parties have published their manifestos for the snap general election. In this post Chris Caden and Fionnuala Ní Mhuilleoir summarise the constitutional content, covering proposals relating to Brexit, the possibility of a constitutional convention, devolution, House of Lords reform, electoral reform, human rights and freedom of information.

Theresa May’s surprise election announcement left the political parties with the challenge of putting together manifestos in a matter of weeks. The Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru all published their manifestos in the week beginning 15 May. UKIP followed on 25 May and the SNP on 30 May. With much of the election debate centring on whom the public trust to lead the country through the biggest constitutional upheaval in recent history, Brexit is unsurprisingly covered by all the parties. Attention on other constitutional issues has wavered somewhat as a result, but Labour and the Liberal Democrats both propose a constitutional convention to review aspects of the UK’s constitutional arrangements. The manifestos also lay out a variety of options in areas such as House of Lords reform, devolution, electoral reform and human rights.

Brexit

Negotiating Brexit is a major theme for all parties. The Conservative Brexit commitments include ending membership of the single market and customs union so that a greater distinction between ‘domestic and international affairs in matters of migration, national security and the economy’ can be made. This means negotiating a free trade and customs agreement between the UK and EU member states and securing new trade agreements with other countries. Theresa May’s party aims for a ‘deep and special partnership’ with member states. A successful Brexit deal would entail regaining control of borders, reducing and controlling net migration, but maintaining a ‘frictionless’ Common Travel Area for people, goods and services to pass between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The manifesto controversially maintains that ‘no deal’ is better than a bad deal for the UK.

Labour also accepts the referendum result, but rejects ‘no deal’ as a feasible option and envisages something more akin to a ‘soft Brexit’. The party would scrap the Conservatives’ Brexit white paper and replace it with an agreement maintaining the benefits of the single market and customs union; the government’s proposed ‘Great Repeal Bill’ would be replaced with an EU Rights and Protections Bill to ensure no changes to workers’ and consumers’ rights, equality law or environmental protections. The party pledges to immediately guarantee existing rights for all EU nationals in the UK and UK citizens in EU countries, and would also seek to remain part of various research and educational projects such as Horizon 2020, Erasmus and the European Medicines Agency. Additionally, membership of organisations like Eurojust and Europol would be retained. Labour commits to no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Unlike the Conservatives and Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Greens pledge a second referendum after a Brexit agreement is concluded, which in each case would include an option on the ballot paper of staying in the EU. Preventing a hard Brexit is the first priority for the Lib Dems and as a result the party promises to fight for the continuation of UK membership of the single market and customs union. It also pledges to protect the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens abroad, to maintain UK participation in the Erasmus+ programme and other EU-funded schemes, and to retain the European Health Insurance Card. The Greens set out a similar agenda.

The SNP wishes to mitigate what they see as the damage of Brexit with the proposal that Scotland should remain in the single market. The party seeks additional powers for the Scottish government including powers that will be repatriated from Brussels to the UK like agriculture, fisheries, environmental protection and employment law. Plaid Cymru, meanwhile, pledges to make sure ‘every penny’ of European funding for Wales is replaced by the UK government and that the Welsh share of the money promised by the Leave campaign (referring to the £350 million for the NHS) is delivered. It also demands that the UK government seeks the endorsement of each UK devolved legislature before any trade deal can be signed.

UKIP supports leaving the single market, the customs union and the European Court of Justice. The manifesto outlines that no ‘divorce’ bill should be paid to the EU and that Brexit negotiations will be complete by the end of 2019.

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Party conferences and Brexit

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Party conference season presented an opportunity for each of the political parties to set out their responses to the EU referendum result. Unsurprisingly, there were major differences between their respective visions for the post-Brexit landscape. Whilst the Liberal Democrat and Green leaders called for a second EU referendum, and the SNP promised a draft bill for a second independence referendum, at the Conservative conference the Prime Minister vowed to ‘get on with the job’ of negotiating Brexit. Ailsa McNeil offers an overview.

Following a long summer of uncertainty, with only Theresa May’s vague and much repeated statement that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ offering any semblance of clarity, conference season was a chance for Britain’s political parties to outline their post-referendum strategy. Of the main UK-wide parties the Greens were first to hold their conference, from 2–4 September, followed by UKIP on 16 and 17 September and the Liberal Democrats from 17–20 September. Labour’s conference was held in Liverpool from 25–28 September, whilst the Conservatives gathered in Birmingham from 2–5 October. Finally, the SNP conference took place in Glasgow from 13–15 October.

Conservative

Brexit dominated the Conservative conference. As well as the usual party leader’s speech to close the conference, Prime Minister Theresa May also delivered a speech focused on Brexit on the opening day.  She firmly dismissed the demands for a second referendum and promised to ‘get on with the job’ of negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU, pledging to invoke Article 50 by the end of March 2017.

In defiance of a legal challenge aiming to prevent the government from triggering Article 50 without parliament’s consent and of a large number of MPs and peers who have called for a parliamentary vote, the Prime Minister told the conference that it is ‘up to the government to trigger Article 50 and the government alone’. Although not unexpected –  in August she indicated that no parliamentary vote would be held – May’s stance is at odds with a considerable body of legal opinion, contending that such a move would both expand the royal prerogative arbitrarily and subvert parliamentary democracy (by undermining the express intention of the legislature, as expressed in the European Communities Act 1972).

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UK elects most diverse parliament ever but it’s still not representative

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Jennifer Hudson and Rosie Campbell assess the diversity of the new parliament and write that while the Class of 2015 has more female and BME MPs, it is still a long way from being descriptively representative of the population it serves.

Ahead of the 2015 election, broadcaster Jeremy Paxman argued that voters were being given a choice ‘between one man who was at primary school with Boris Johnson and one man who was at secondary school with him – both of whom did PPE at Oxford’.

Throughout the campaign, we’ve been gathering data on the parliamentary candidates to see if this lack of choice plays out across the board. Do the people elected to represent the UK, bear any resemblance to the public they represent?

Women on the rise

This year saw 48 more women elected that in 2010 – bringing the total number of women MPs to a record 191. Women make up 29% of newly elected MPs, up from 22% in 2010.

The Green party had the highest percentage of women candidates selected at 38%, but with chances in only a handful of seats, they had little chance of affecting parliamentary gender balance.

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UKIP Candidates: The Anti-Westminster Outsiders?

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Much of UKIP’s appeal has arisen from positioning itself as the ‘anti-Westminster party’ but to what extent do UKIP candidates differ from those put forward by the ‘traditional parties’? Sally Symington and Jennifer Hudson assess the backgrounds of UKIP candidates using the data available and suggest that they may in fact reinforce the ‘male, pale and stale’ image of parliament.

UKIP is no longer a peripheral party and will, for the for first time in a British General Election, have a measurable impact on the outcome, both directly, through winning seats, and indirectly by influencing the behaviour of the other major parties. According to recent polling data, support for UKIP is at 16% and Ofcom has endorsed it as a ‘major’ party, including UKIP in the prospective TV leader debates. A recent poll of pollsters predicts UKIP will win five seats in May.

Much of UKIP’s appeal has arisen from positioning itself as the outsider or ‘anti-Westminster party’. After the Clacton by-electon in October 2014 Nigel Farage claimed, ‘We have a career political class of college kids who have never had jobs in their lives with absolutely no connection to ordinary people’. In this blog, we look at the backgrounds of UKIP candidates and ask to what extent are they different from candidates representing the traditional three parties? Are they less likely to have gone to university and worked outside of politics? Are UKIP candidates really different or do they reinforce the ‘male, pale and stale’ image of parliament?

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If the debates do not go ahead, it will be the fault of self-interest on the part of the main parties and the broadcasters

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Whether there will be debates this year in advance of the 2015 General Election is open to question, with partisan and corporate self-interest threatening to overwhelm the process by which inclusion in the debate is governed. Nicholas Allen argues that this brinksmanship threatens the debates taking place not only in a satisfactory manner, but going ahead at all. 

The negotiations between the broadcasters and the political parties to stage televised leaders’ debates in 2015 have entered a new stage of brinkmanship. The current round of bluff and counter bluff was triggered in early January by Ofcom’s interim decision not to include the Green Party (including the Scottish Green Party) in its list of Britain-wide major political parties. This decision greatly weakened the party’s claim to be included in at least one of the proposed debates.

In response, David Cameron upped the stakes by publicly refusing to participate unless the Green leader Natalie Bennett was allowed to do so as well. And in response to Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage have now joined forces and called for the debates to take place anyway and for an ‘empty podium’ in Cameron’s place if he chooses not to participate. Inevitably, the political parties claim to be acting in the public interest, so too the broadcasters. Equally inevitably, all the interested parties are acting in their own interests.

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Guarded and sensible? The problem with UKIP and women

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In the wake of a second UKIP win in Rochester and Strood, Rosie Campbell, Chrysa Lamprinakou and Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson consider how the background of UKIP candidates selected so far compare with the other parties.

Mark Reckless’s win over Conservative candidate Kelly Tolhurst in the Rochester and Strood by-election doubled the number of UKIP MPs in Westminster and reignited speculation as to who will be next to defect.

The Tory defeat in Rochester was indeed a bad day for Cameron and the party, with many commentators highlighting what was seen to be an ineffective campaign, despite reports that MPs were required to campaign in the constituency three times in the run up to 20 November. Others, however, argued it was worse day for Labour with Emily Thornberry’s controversial tweet, subsequent resignation and the fact that UKIP continues to pull Labour party supporters into its ranks. It’s a day the Lib Dems will also want to forget, polling 5th, 1300 votes behind the Greens and 150 votes ahead of the Monster Raving Looney party.

On the back UKIP’s success in Rochester and in Clacton, pollsters and pundits have turned their attention to estimating the number of seats UKIP will win come May 2015. The numbers vary considerably: projections range from 5, 30 or even 128 seats. Back in 2013, Farage claimed that UKIP would put a UKIP candidate in every parliamentary seat. However, given the rate of UKIP selections to date, this appears (perhaps as it did from the start) highly unlikely. Instead, and on the back of success in both by-elections, UKIP will have to concentrate its campaign resources on its target seats—reaching out to a broad base of potential supporters in those seats.

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