Governing England in the wake of Brexit

English Brexit voters may have voted not so much for the return of Empire, but for greater attention to England as the only stateless nation in the UK.

John Denham
3 December 2018

Image: St Georges flag on display in Canvey Island, Essex, 2016. Rights: Teresa Dap/DPA/PA Images, all rights reserved.

"No one voted to make themselves worse off" claim many Remainers, although the evidence is that some were willing to choose sovereignty and immigration controls over their immediate financial interests. But as the bumpy road towards Brexit comes towards its first deadline, the question of whether it will deliver for its voters will increasingly be put to the test.

Many factors went into the mix, but one is not in doubt. It was the English living outside London (some of them in Wales) who delivered the bulk of the Brexit votes. Their frustrations more than those in the rest of the UK were most attracted to ‘take back control’. One test of Brexit (or any moves to reverse it) will be whether it soothes England’s anger.

This is a timely moment for the British Academy to publish a series of essays ‘Governing England’. Conceived before the referendum the very fact of its publication is significant. It shows growing awareness amongst academics that English issues have been neglected for too long. While individual writers, including Anthony Barnett, and some of the academics who have contributed to Governing England have ploughed lonely English furrow, England’s government has rarely been seen as an important field of study. But that is now belatedly changing: the roots of today’s tensions have been coming for a long time.

Like all such studies, there are contradictions and disagreements, but the central argument is remarkably consistent. Britain’s creation as an imperial state depended on an asymmetric relationship between the nations. England’s identity was folded into Britain’s while Scotland and Wales could hold a national identity within the union. The empire is no more, and in the words of one contributor, the old settlement is ‘becoming narrowed, in one direction by English self-interest and in the other by nationalist self-assertion’. That self-assertion has claimed legislative devolution to Wales, Scotland and, by a different route, Northern Ireland, leaving England as the only stateless nation in the UK. One by-product is that England is the only part of the union that has never had the opportunity or been challenged to re-think its role in the post-empire world of the 21st century.

The difficulties of the current unstable settlement are manifold. Much of Westminster and Whitehall’s work is concerned with English domestic policy, but there are few signs of an emerging English state able both to deliver for England and manage relationships with the other nations. The long-standing government Barnett formula that distributes money between the nations appears unfair to English voters and the facts suggest that the current funding of England’s regions seems to bear little relationship to need. The poorest regions of England have been denied even the relative protection of the Barnett formula from the austerity policies of the UK government. Most voters don’t want Scottish and Welsh MPs deciding English laws on devolved matter.

This resentment has not yet crystallised around a clear consensus on the nature of any reform, but Brexit provided an opportunity to reject the status quo, without having to pose an alternative.

The nature of that response is still fiercely debated. Some focus on UKIP’s successful appeal to a working class English national identity that saw leaving the EU as a means to restrict immigration and protect England’s interests more clearly. True as that may be, the referendum was also won amongst comfortably off southern voters. Voters may well be nostalgic for a lost status but there is little evidence that many hanker for the return of empire. Indeed, much of England may be rebelling against a British establishment that hankers after great power status but which overlooks the English.

Brexit will raise new challenges to the union beyond the Northern Ireland border and the possibility of a new Scottish referendum. The return of powers forces a minister like Michael Gove to represent both UK and English agricultural interests at the same time. The interests are different, and this unsatisfactory position has already been challenged by the Welsh and Scottish governments. According to some analyses, 20 similar changes are coming down the Brussels track, adding further pressure to define England’s governance.

Outside of London, England has seen little change in its governance over the past 20 years.

The introduction of English Votes for English Laws has had little impact either on legislation or in providing a voice for England. The much-hyped devolution to city region combined authorities has transferred little resource and less power from the centre. It is not clear whether these changes have the potential to become into more radical local reform. Two options for national constitutional reform – a new English parliament or a reformed Westminster – are not straightforward. Yet ‘no change’ looks untenable in even the medium term.

Brexit may well disappoint its supporters because the promise of ‘control’ will never be delivered. Yet reversing Brexit would simply persuade them that change is not allowed. New and dangerous forces may exploit discontent under either scenario. That need not happen if other political leaders are prepared to address England’s grievances, but the signs are not propitious.

England was ignored in the referendum campaign and is being ignored today. Theresa May has pitched her deal in national terms to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland but has said nothing to the English. Many Conservatives do see Britain through Anglo-centric eyes but that makes them even more reluctant to name England. As I outline in my chapter of the book, it was Labour’s inherent centralism, not the ungrateful voters who rejected the North East Assembly, that prevented any serious English reform in 13 years of government. Today there are a few serious devolutionists in the Shadow Cabinet, just as there were in 1997. But the average Corbynite seems as wedded to the centralised imperial unitary state as their Blairite, Brownite and Milibandite predecessors.

If Brexit was a cry from England there are few signs that enough of the right people have yet heard it.

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