Academic research reveals an added new dimension to the debate over the future of Britain and it’s being driven by discontent among English voters, writes Charlie Jeffrey
IT IS easy to think that the future of the UK is simply a matter of what Scotland decides in the referendum next year. But, largely unnoticed, England has begun to change in ways which may question the current form of the union just as much as Scotland’s referendum.
This is the central message from the latest Future of England Survey (FoES), a major poll conducted annually by the University of Edinburgh, Cardiff University and the Institute for Public Policy Research. The latest FoES shows how the English are beginning to see themselves – as the Scots have long done – as a national community that demands political recognition.
The drive for recognition is in part about identity. People in England have (at last, many in Scotland might say) begun to distinguish Englishness and Britishness. English identity has strengthened significantly in England since the late 1990s, and British identity weakened. While the strength of Englishness dipped last year – perhaps as a consequence of the Jubilee and the Olympics – twice as many in England prioritise their English identity (35 per cent) as those who prioritise their British identity (17 per cent).
Perhaps more significant is the way in which English identity shapes attitudes to constitutional questions. The English, put bluntly, are discontented with their lot. That feeling of discontent has much to do with devolution. People in England think devolution has given Scotland unfair advantages.
Around 80 per cent of people in England think that Scottish MPs at Westminster should not vote on English laws and that the Scottish Parliament should cover its spending through its own tax decisions. Over 50 per cent think Scotland gets more than its fair share of public spending while 40 per cent think that England gets less than its fair share. And around half think Scotland’s economy benefits more from the union and just 8 per cent that the English economy benefits.
These are not figures skewed by discontented northerners in England, caught between the political strength of devolved Scotland and the economic strength of London and the south east; they are remarkably uniform across England, also in the south east.
People in England do not feel the current UK political system works to their advantage.
Importantly that is not just a complaint about Scotland. It is a complaint about the Westminster system itself. Over 60 per cent of people in England do not trust the UK government to act in England’s best interests. And in none of the questions we asked about England’s constitutional options did more than a quarter plump for the status quo. Over half favoured some form of England-specific, England-wide political arrangements: the top choice (of a third or so) was special arrangements for English laws in the UK parliament; second was a free standing English Parliament at around 20 per cent.
We also asked about the capacity of political parties in England – in government and opposition, inside and outside the UK parliament – to stand up for English interests. Table One (left) shows responses to this question in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
Two things are striking. The first is that no party is seen by more than a fifth or so of the English as standing up for their interests. The second is that Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are under pressure from forces outside the system. The top choice in 2011 and 2012 was “none of the above”. In 2013 it was Ukip. The party of the UK’s “independence” appears to have a specific and growing resonance in England.
Talk of Ukip inevitably raises the question of Europe. Here lies England’s other discontent. The EU is very unpopular in England. Asked whether Europe is a “good thing” or a “bad thing”, 43 per cent opted for the former and just 28 per cent the latter. And asked about an in-out referendum on Europe the answer is clear: English voters would leave: 50 per cent said “out” and just 33 per cent “in” with the rest undecided.
In these different ways the outline of a distinctive English politics is emerging, based on a strengthening English (and weakening British) identity, resentments about devolution and Europe, and a sense that neither the current political parties nor institutions of government are delivering for England. Significantly these different features of England’s new politics reinforce each other. Stronger English identity is associated with stronger levels of discontent about Scotland, stronger demands for some kind of English self-government, and passionate dislike of the EU.
It is interesting how these political attitudes map onto party allegiance. Liberal Democrat supporters are the furthest away from this new politics; they are more British, less resentful about Scotland, robustly pro-European and ambivalent about English self-government. Labour supporters are split. Conservative supporters are in the heartland of the new politics, but Ukip supporters are in the vanguard: they are the most English, the most discontented about Scotland, the most hostile to the EU and the most in favour of English self-government. Despite its “UK” title Ukip has become England’s national party.
What does all this mean for Scotland? We asked the FoES respondents the Scottish referendum question. They gave an answer pretty much the same as in most recent polls: Yes at 30 per cent and No at 49 per cent. So the union would be safe in England’s hands.
But it would be a different kind of union, with a limited role for Scottish MPs at Westminster and a Scottish Parliament that raised its own taxes. The English appear to be supporters of devo-max. Combined with their preference for English self-government this points to a union with a weaker centre and more autonomy in the component parts.
There is a joker in the pack though, and that is Europe. As Table Two shows – using recent Scottish data from MORI alongside FoES data for England – attitudes to Europe appear sharply divergent. In a referendum the English would vote to leave and the Scots would vote to stay. Europe plays a role in England’s emergent national politics that is not matched in Scotland. It marks out a dividing line between the two nations.
This dividing line may become important after next May’s European Parliament elections. Many expect Ukip to win. If it does do well, it seems unlikely – not least because it appears a response to England’s discontents – it will be anywhere near as strong in Scotland as England. The recent Aberdeen Donside by-election suggested as much. A newly prominent English nationalism that emphasises priorities quite different to those in Scotland may impact unpredictably on Scotland’s referendum.
What would the response be in England if Scotland did vote Yes? We asked the FoES respondents whether or not they agreed that England should become an independent country. A surprisingly high 34 per cent said yes, while 38 per cent said no, with the rest undecided.
We also asked what their views would be if Scotland voted yes next year. In that event 39 per cent were for English independence, 31 per cent against and 29 per cent undecided. We are accustomed to talking about the “rest of the UK” when imagining Scottish independence. Perhaps that – as those in Wales and Northern Ireland might note – is an optimistic assumption.
l Charlie Jeffery is director of the Academy of Government at the University of Edinburgh. The FoES survey was carried out with 3,600 respondents in England from 23-28 November 2012.