I am in London this week attending the annual conference of the Political Studies Association (PSA), or rather I’m spending the week flitting between the PSA conference and the Lords. Although both Houses are in recess, there is a fair amount of activity in the Palace.
The conference opened this morning and I chaired a panel on ‘The principles of British Conservatism: from Balfour to Cameron’. That was meant to be my only formal involvement. However, I was immediately persuaded to be on a succeeding panel on ‘English Questions under the Coalition’. (This was to compensate for the fact that two other members of the panel, including a leading MP, cried off.) Rather than having days to think about what I was going to say, I had only the time in which the other paper givers spoke.
Suffice to say that I kept my comments short. (As I was the last to speak, I was all that stood between the audience and lunch.) I made the point that the ‘English Question’ went wider than the West Lothian question – a point developed by previous speakers – and created two problems, an English problem and a Conservative problem.
The English problem was that the question invited an insular response in the context of a society not used to to being insular. The English operate in the context of a United Kingdom, and a United Kingdom that has been used to operating on the world stage, but a United Kingdom that has a dominant English base. The Act of Union was meant to be a merger, not least of two parliaments creating a new parliament, but what it was in practice was the English parliament with Scottish members added. (A similar situation pertained with the Act of Union with Ireland.) It was because of this English domination that there has not felt to be a need to celebrate St George’s Day. The Conservative problem is that the Conservative Party is a Unionist party resting on English support.
Given these problems, my initial thought was that there was a need to answer the English question but without doing anything about it. On reflection, though, I wondered if there may be a stronger case to do something, or rather some things, to adjust to the situation that has been created but without actually answering the question. Lord Irvine famously said that the best thing to do with the West Lothian question was not to ask it. I pondered whether that may be true of the wider English question.