John Denham, the Labour former secretary of state for universities who has previously called for the creation of an English Labour party, hopes to “take forward the debate about English identity and politics” as leader of a new centre at the University of Winchester.
The former MP, who stepped down from his Southampton Itchen seat at the last election, is now professor of English identity and politics at Winchester.
He will lead the Centre for English Identity and Politics, which launched formally on 23 November.
In the New Year, conferences and seminars will cover the role of “English issues” in the general election, and in the forthcoming EU referendum.
Professor Denham, who served as secretary of state for innovation, universities and skills between 2007 and 2009, told Times Higher Education that polling showed an increasing trend for people to identify as English, and that this was “coming to the fore in politics”.
He added: “We saw that in the 2015 election with the Conservatives’ campaign to exploit fears about SNP influence. And you’ve also got these trends towards devolution in England, which is reflecting stronger regional voices.”
Professor Denham said that Joy Carter, Winchester’s vice-chancellor, had invited him to become a visiting professor two years ago. He replied that he would “love to come, but what I would really like to do is set up a centre that will take forward the debate about English identity and politics. She was good enough to back me.”
Asked if the centre would address the issue of an English Labour party, Professor Denham replied: “I’ve certainly been asked by a number of people in the Labour Party to help put on a series of seminars that would look at the issues facing [it] in England: the question of English identity, the electoral challenges in England. So that’s one strand of our work, yes.”
He added that the centre would take a “cross-party” approach. Future events will include lectures by Robert Salisbury, the Marquess of Salisbury and former Conservative leader in the House of Lords, and Labour MP Tristram Hunt – who, like Professor Denham, is an advocate of an English Labour party.
Professor Denham said that there should be “a clearer settlement for England” in terms of the constitution.
He added: “I think the union [the United Kingdom] will be stronger when England is more confident about its role in the union.
“The attempt to say the Scots can have an identity, the Welsh can have an identity but we can’t afford for the English to have one – which was essentially Gordon Brown’s position – I don’t think actually works.”
Professor Denham, who works at the university two days a week, said that Winchester is “serious about its academic research, but also has an openness and a flexibility”.
He added of the centre: “We do want to try to set the agenda in some areas.
“One of the more worrying parts of the current dynamic is that the trend towards increased English identity is much more marked among the white majority population than it is among the BME [black and minority ethnic] population.”
Professor Denham said that the centre would “look at what things might be done culturally and politically over the coming years to make sure Englishness is an identity available to all residents of England whatever their background. That’s a crucial debate of national importance.”