Image: Theresa May addressing the 2018 Conservative Party Conference. Credit: Victoria Jones/PA Images, all rights reserved.
When UK party leaders regale their conferences with promises on health, schools, social care and housing their actual writ runs no further than the English border. Outside England most domestic policy will be determined by other politicians, usually from different parties, and elected – with no English input - to their own parliaments. That has been the effect and the intention of 20 years of devolution.
While the leaders do address major UK-wide issues, of course- not least Brexit and the ‘end of austerity’ - for the larger part these are conferences in and about England. Yet, quite bizarrely, England, as England, plays almost no part in the language or vision of the party leaders. This year Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and Vince Cable managed to name England just once between them. Even the leaders of the SNP and Plaid Cymru named England four times between them (though not necessarily in the most complimentary context).
The leaders’ distain for England is mirrored by their juniors. James Brokenshire, whose responsibilities at Communities and Local Government are almost entirely English, spoke at his party conference for 19 minutes without naming England once. John Healey only makes Labour housing policy for England alone but also failed to name the nation. Vague formulations like ‘our country’, or even saying ‘Britain’ when the target audience is England is endemic across the body politic.
Where once politicians spoke of England when they meant Britain, motivating calls for devolution and separation in Scotland and Wales, they now speak of Britain when they mean England, leaving the English as the unspoken people. Four out of five residents identify strongly as English, but much of the liberal left insists that Englishness belongs to the far right. For both left and right, to acknowledging that England is a nation and a democratic political community raises uncomfortable questions about why England is governed by the UK Parliament and not by its own elected MPs. The Conservative Government depends on the DUP. The last Labour government used Celtic MPs to pass English laws.
There is not yet a significant political movement of English nationalism. But ignored by their politicians, many voters are developing a separate sense of English grievance. This grievance is forming a powerful and rather unbiddable force. It was England and the English who provided most of the votes that are taking the whole union out of the EU. This month the Future of England survey showed half the voters in England would rather have Brexit than keep Scotland in the union or sustain the peace process in Northern Ireland. Theresa May can say the Tories are Conservative and Unionists, but these far-from-unionist views are shared by three-quarters of her English voters.
The Prime Minister’s tortuous European negotiations are constrained by voters (and MPs) who don’t value the union or the peace process as much as she. Jeremy Corbyn struggles to win working class English voters even when they support many Labour policies. Across Western Europe ignored and unrepresented communities have proved fertile ground for dangerous populist movements. Rather than ignore the English it might be better if our parties began to talk to them and work out how to give them a democratic voice.