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Who do we think we are?

Mary Southcott on English questions and dogs who haven't barked

Unlike the unanswerable West Lothian Question which a Commission has been set up to ponder, English Questions are multiple, complex and maybe solvable. There have been divisions between those, like Billy Bragg in Progressive Patriot, who wanted to reclaim England and its union flag from the British Nationalist Party and those who want the Commons to become the English Parliament without Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland representation such as the misnamed UKIP's Nigel Farage.

91 per cent of Conservative MPs in 2010 supported English Votes on English Laws (EVOEL) which came in Power 2010's top five. This could be the quid pro quo for DEVO MAX; enhanced powers for the Scottish Parliament, if Mr Salmond has his way and there is a fall back question in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Perhaps his speaking in the Hugo Young lecture and David Cameron in Scotland are two sides of the same coin.

Regional government offices, set up by the Conservatives, have been closed, recentralising at a time of devolution. Now we have the Hannah Mitchell Foundation backing elected government in the north. Some in the south are asking to disinter Derek Senior's provinces with their city regions. Some abolished metropolitan counties, after the experience of London as part local authority/part English region, are revisiting cooperation across their former territory. Labour's former Regional ministers have a role in this debate. John Denham is arguing that Labour candidates should be allowed to write 'English Labour' on their ballot papers.

Now after a series of seminars and publications, IPPR has come up with The dog that finally barked: England as an emerging political community. We can see why the English haven't spoken yet although they have grumbled about the better social scene they view in Scotland or Wales. But problems remain and are multi-faceted. They are to do with: Geography and Population: England provides 84 per cent of the UK population and the English regions are seen as too small for strategic thinking or too large for identity. Celtic Britons, in Cornwall as well as Ireland, Scotland and Wales who suffered under the pre-devolution settlement equate England with the ruling elites in England. But people living in England, even London, share a suspicion of England, perhaps the 'last colony', in which decision makers are remote and not accountable to the people whose lives they affect.

The chimera of Scottish independence leaves unanswered the Scots who cannot vote in the Referendum and the English in Scotland who can. Plus all those hybrids who cannot choose. And what about all the Scots who have led the Labour Movement from Kier Hardie through John Smith to Gordon Brown?

History and Empire: Jeremy Paxman has written two relevant books, in 2004 on The English: A Portrait of a People and his more recent Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British. The question he asks is quite important in this context because the English are often identified with the colonisers and Scots get away with not being associated with the slave trade despite the Afro-Caribbeans who share their surnames. We need to move away from common usage especially in England and outside the UK of using British and English interchangeably if England is to be recognised constitutionally.

Identity and Immigration: According to the Future of England Survey only ethnic minority communities place greater emphasis on their British over their English identity. In Immigrant Nations, Paul Scheffer suggests that both immigrants and host societies need to deal with loss of familiar worlds. The summer's riots have also made the white English look at themselves. 97 per cent of all people from ethnic minority backgrounds live in England. But are they encouraged to be Black English? John Denham argues in his IPPR The Rise of English Pride article that we need to shape the rising English nationalism by empowering people, creating security and tackling unfairness. It cannot be left to the English Defence League, the BNP or UKIP.

EU, Regions and localism: Subsidiarity is more of a European concept than an English language one. But it makes more sense than the quasi- decentralisation in the Localism Act. We needed to tackle the democratic deficit in the governance of English regions not to centralise it.

Diversity: Englishness does not take one form of white people descended from Doomsday. Most of us are mixtures, genetically and geographically. Identity is not the 'cricket test' of the past but we need to choose and own identity, rather than have one thrust upon us. However the IPPR point to their most important finding: 'the more strongly English a person feels the more likely they are to believe that the current structures of the post-devolution UK are unfair and the more likely they are to support the development of an English dimension to the governance of England'.

Electoral reform: Our electoral system has polarised the picture we see; a Labour Wales, a growingly Nationalist Scotland and a Conservative England. A system which broadly rewarded votes with representation would have given Surrey its first Labour MP ever, and elected a Conservative in Manchester. Equally our first past the post system would have rid Scotland and Wales of Conservatives and reduced Labour to a rump in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections.

It is time to engage in this debate about who we think we are, as people of England, whether Englishness is the answer, or changing the old colonial style of centralised governance. We were all alarmed by David Starkey's 'white have become black' statement but what are we doing to create inclusivity in the context of a multi-racial multi-ethnic multi-religious England? A good question but only one of the many solutions in this green and pleasant part of the United Kingdom.