By Jack Newman
Research Associate, Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge

For as long as the United Kingdom has existed, there has been a tension between the notion of a ‘unitary state’ based on the sovereignty of Parliament and the notion of a ‘federal state’ based on a partnership of willing nations. The tension is further problematised by the dominance of England, in terms of its size (population, territory, economy) and its identity. Attempts to resolve, mitigate, or avoid this tension have tended to throw up the difficult English Question: where does England fit within the UK, is it a partner nation or the core of a unitary state?  

The interpretation of the UK as a partnership of nations grew over the 20th Century and has become increasingly influential in the 21st. Ever since devolution was restored in Northern Ireland in 1999 — along with the creation of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly (now the Welsh Parliament or Senedd Cymru), the UK has increasingly looked like a partnership in which sovereignty is split between the central government and the devolved governments.

This split is ensured by the Sewel convention  and reinforced by the democratic mandate of the devolved legislatures. The freedom of nations to leave the UK has been expressed in Northern Ireland by the Good Friday Agreement, and was recognised in Scotland by the independence referendum of 2014. However, the partnership model does not work when applied to England, partly because England lacks political institutions of its own, but also because the identity of England is closely bound up with the identity of the UK and Britain, to the extent that they are often used interchangeably. 

The English Question – current status 

Proposals to resolve these tensions have tended to rely on one of the two most common answers to the English Question. 

Firstly, there are those who favour an England-wide solution, usually in the form of an English Parliament. Though never seriously considered by the UK Government, an English Parliament would complete the federalisation begun in the devolved nations. The polling on public support for an English Parliament suggest that around 20% of people in England see it as their preferred option, with a larger group of around 45-50% seeing it as a good idea. However, support is much lower among political elites, and constitutional experts worry about its potentially terminal effect on the future of the Union. There are particular concerns about the overwhelming size of England within the Union in terms of its population and economic output. 

The second approach is to divide England into regions. London was the only part of England included in the original devolution settlement, with its mayor and assembly created in 2000. The attempt to replicate this arrangement in the other eight regions of England fell at the first hurdle, when the people of the North- East rejected Labour’s plans for a regional assembly in 2004.

In the years since, around 15-20% of people believe regionalism is the best option, with 35% consistently supporting the model. However, with the exception of London, England’s regional tier was abolished in 2011, and in the decade since, the government has pursued a ‘subregional’ system of cities and counties, which undermines the geographic model that has been central to regional federalism. 

Given that both options seem highly divisive, and increasingly unlikely in the current political climate, we must ask what other answers there are to the English question. In the ascendancy is the answer offered by the current government. It has pursued a Union-wide approach that seeks to restore England’s place as the core of the UK. This entails a reassertion of the UK as a unitary state, led by Westminster. For example, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities seeks to avoid any distinction between England and the UK.

The main policy tools for the levelling up agenda (local government, health, education, transport) are largely devolved matters, and yet the government continues to insist that levelling up is a UK-wide policy. For some Conservatives, ‘taking back control’ within the domestic union has been the logical companion to reacquiring sovereignty externally in the wake of Brexit. The problem with this forceful approach to managing the territorial constitution is that it risks pushing the devolved nations further away and thus poses a major risk to the future of the Union. 

The English Question – future developments 

Therefore, while the English Question is becoming increasingly important, the existing answers are becoming increasingly unfeasible. And yet, perhaps the seeds of an alternative approach already exist. The devolution agenda that’s underway in England is beginning to create stronger devolved institutions within England, which may someday be able to hold significant devolved powers.

The leaders of those institutions, the ‘metro mayors’ are already coming together in an informal body called the ‘M10’, which shares and discusses policies and engages with the UK government. There is potential for this to eventually grow into an institution that has the legitimacy to speak for England in some respects.  

At the same time, within the UK Government, it is becoming possible to distinguish between UK-wide departments (e.g. Ministry of Defence) and those whose remit only covers England (e.g. Department for Education). Though ministers and civil servants are rarely explicit about this distinction, it could create the potential for an embryonic government of England to develop within, and emerge from, the government of the UK. This could be aligned with a Minister for England and/or a Department for England, which sits within the UK Government but holds a degree of autonomy over England’s domestic policy agenda. 

The major challenge for this evolutionary approach to English governance is how these different institutions will relate to one another. The complexities of the existing system have created major difficulties in the interface between the different institutions and layers of governance. There is therefore a need for strategic leadership from the centre, which recognises the need to answer (rather than ignore) the English Question, but also recognises that the old solutions of regionalism and an English parliament have come to form a binary that must be transcended.