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The English Question

The English Question is a subject that tends to generate more heat than light whenever it is raised. It was first coined by Selina Chen and Tony Wright who defined it thus:

Where does England fit into the reconfiguration of Britain? What should be the English response to what is happening elsewhere in Britain? Does England need political reform of its own - and, if so, what kind? What does it mean to be English?

Selina Chen and Tony Wright, The English Question: Fabian Society, 2000

Over the years political commentators - usually Tories - have often used the phrase 'English Question' to describe the West Lothian Question. The Telegraph's Philip Johnston did just that in his article 'At last, an answer to the English Question', in which he hailed Ken Clarke's Democracy Task Force recommendations as the answer to the question of England. But Ken Clarke's recommendations were designed to mitigate the West Lothian Question, they were not an attempt to address the wider question of the national identity and national governance of England. If anything the West Lothian Question would be better described as a British Question because it concerns the voting privileges of British MPs in the British Parliament.

The West Lothian question is not an "English question," a "Welsh question," a "Scottish question" or a "Northern Ireland question"--it is a union question.

Jack Straw (2007), Prospect Magazine

Anthony Barnett argued that "The English question is bound to arise when all around others are finding and renewing their identities" (This Time: Our Constitutional Revolution (1997)). But as the 'others' increasingly gave expression to their national identities there was, claimed Andrew Marr, a nervousness, which in itself was dangerous, about allowing England to do the same:

‘Englishness exists. England’s senses of itself go back more than a thousand years, albeit in different forms, and unless England is recognised and given a new sense of its own security, then all the hopes for a liberal, open, democratic and tolerant future are in danger. England cannot be ignored, tied down, balkanised or dissolved. Yet England has been pushed into a corner where it is expected to passively await its future. That, in itself, is dangerous’

Andrew Marr (2000), The Day Britain Died.

David Blunkett, in a similar vein to the Campaign for an English Parliament, argues that it is the lack of political and constitutional recognition for England that constitutes the English Question.

In the island of Britain today there are three governments representing three constitutional and political bodies. There is the Scottish Parliament, there is the Welsh Assembly, there is the United Kingdom Parliament. They represent Scotland, Wales and the United Kingdom Constitutionally and politically just those three exist. Constitutionally and politically England does not exist. That situation, and its implications, constitutes the English Question.

David Blunkett (2005), A New England: An English Identity within Britain: IPPR

In his book The English Question Prof Robert Hazell identifies the dual nature of the English Question: whether England needs a stronger political voice, to balance the louder political voice now accorded to Scotland and Wales; and whether England too would benefit from devolution, by devolving power within England.

However, Hazell doubts whether the English have any interest in answering the English Question, and suggests that the English may decide to leave the question of England hanging:

...the English Question does not have to be answered. It is not an exam question that the English are required to answer. It can remain unresolved for as long as the English want. Ultimately only the English can decide whether they want to seek an answer to the English Question.

Robert Hazell (2006), The English Question, Manchester University Press

The Institute for Public Policy Research take the view that the English Question is central to the British Question and the most salient of UK constitutional questions.

The English Question has moved from the margins of British political life to centre-stage. For too long the government’s approach has been to cross their fingers and hope the question will go away, but it will not: it is the one area of constitutional reform that is genuinely provoking widespread public debate.

But the English Question is not one overarching questions, rather it is a collection of problems. It refers to how England is governed in a post-devolution UK, the ability of Scottish MPs to vote on English matters but not vice versa and the way that devolution is financed, as well as broader social and cultural question about the identity of the English.

IPPR (2008), Answering the English Question: a new policy agenda for England

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