CHELMSFORD, England — Just a month after the United Kingdom survived a near-death experience when nearly half of Scots voted to secede, the focus of British politics has rapidly shifted to that other hotbed of churning nationalist discontent: England.
The English, genteel as they may appear, are in an increasingly foul mood, irked by what many see as a sweetheart deal for the Scots that will come at England’s expense.
In quaint towns like Chelmsford, where residents amble past tearooms outfitted in Victorian finery, calls are rising for England to have a greater say over its own affairs, with some even questioning why England should remain in the United Kingdom.
“It’s time,” says Robin Tilbrook, leader of the English Democrats, a fringe party that advocates an end to the United Kingdom, “to get rid of the historical rubble.”
That’s still an extreme position, held by a small minority. But from Prime Minister David Cameron on down, politicians are pushing plans that would migrate power in England away from a central government representing all four nations of the United Kingdom and toward representatives elected solely by the English.
That effort has prompted an angry backlash from the Scots, who suspect that Cameron is trying to derail the autonomy for Scotland that he promised in the run-up to their Sept. 18 referendum. Cameron’s Scottish predecessor, Gordon Brown, took to the floor of the House of Commons recently to warn of an impending “constitutional crisis.”
If it happens, it will be a crisis that’s been long in the making. Despite a considerable head start, the British have never fully reckoned with many of the essential balance-of-power issues that Americans managed to check off over a sweaty Philadelphia summer in the late 18th century. But to be fair, their task is considerably more complex.
Unlike the United States, where no single state dominates, the United Kingdom has a fundamentally imbalanced union, with four nations composing the whole, but one — England — making up 85 percent of the U.K. population of 64 million.
That has long meant English dominance in the British Parliament, much to the consternation of the union’s other three component parts — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. To address demands for more control over their own affairs, each was granted its own assembly or parliament in 1999.
But that process — known here as “devolution” — was haphazard, with the three national bodies enjoying differing levels of authority. And it left the English as arguably the most disenfranchised people in the union, with no national legislature to call their own.
At the time, there was little appetite for a greater English say in governance. But that’s changed in part because of the bite of austerity, with growing resentment among the English that other parts of the United Kingdom get a higher proportional share of government spending.
“People in England feel they lack a voice. They lack a way of saying what they think, and having people listen to it,” said Charlie Jeffery, a political scientist who co-wrote a recent study of English politics that found widespread discontent with the status quo.
The problem of how to represent the English has simmered for years, but the Scottish vote brought it to a boil. Hours after the Scots opted to stick with the three-century-old union at the core of the United Kingdom, Cameron was in front of cameras at 10 Downing Street saying he would push for devolution not only for Scotland but for England as well.
Bernard Jenkin, a Conservative member of Parliament who represents an area of east England not far from Chelmsford, said the reform is needed to address the “unanswerable unfairness” of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish members of Parliament getting a say over English laws, but not the other way around.
The quirk has had real-world implications: Scottish support has enabled the British Parliament to impose tuition fees on students at English universities, even as Scottish universities remain tuition-free.
“I think the Americans had something to say about this at the Boston Tea Party,” Jenkin said. “This question can no longer be avoided.”
But the question has no obvious answer. Surveys show low levels of support for the idea of an English parliament, which would create an entirely new class of politicians — and an added layer of bureaucracy.
An alternative favored by Cameron and Jenkin is a concept known as “English votes for English laws,” whereby English members of the British Parliament would get exclusive say over matters related to England. Cameron’s government has promised a vote on the idea by the end of next month.
But Brown and others from outside England have balked, saying it would turn non-English members of Parliament into second-class citizens.
“The proposal, in practice, turned out not to be any new English rights of representation, but a reduction in Scottish rights,” Brown said in a recent parliamentary debate.
The government’s plans for England, Brown added, could jeopardize the intricate negotiations over which powers are shifted from London to Edinburgh following promises made to Scottish voters in the run-up to the referendum.
Underlying the entire debate, of course, is a heavy dose of political maneuvering — with both Cameron and the opposition Labor Party anxiously eyeing the general election in May.
“It’s quite a spectacular tangle,” said Alan Trench, a scholar at University College London who runs a blog focused on devolution. “And it’s not a problem that’s made any easier by the way the parties have played partisan politics.”
Cameron has, perhaps, the most to immediately gain from the debate: By championing English rights, he can try to outflank the upstart U.K. Independence Party, which casts itself as a defender of English nationalism, while putting Labor in an uncomfortable spot. Unlike Cameron’s Conservatives, who have little backing outside England, Labor has important reservoirs of support in Scotland and Wales.
The increasing clamor for English rights corresponds with a rising sense of English identity. When forced to choose between calling themselves British or English, people living in England chose British by a ratio of 2 to 1 just a generation ago. In a 2014 survey, British had lost its edge, with the two options tied.
Here in Chelmsford, the seat of government for southeastern England’s Essex County, English identification runs strong — as does dissatisfaction with the politicians in London, just a quick train ride away.
The British Parliament may be dominated by English members, but residents here resent just how little direct control they have over their own affairs — and are hungry for government that’s closer to the people, said David Finch, leader of the Essex County Council.
“We have probably the most centralized government in the West,” Finch said. “But the opportunity is there in England for significant change. We just have to grasp the nettle.”
Karla Adam contributed to this report.