The emergence of Englandon 9 July 2013
Charlie Jeffery, Roger Scully & Richard Wyn Jones
The constitutional future of the UK is a matter of considerable debate at present. The 2014 Scottish referendum poses one fundamental challenge to the status quo: one part of the UK could vote to leave. A possible referendum on EU membership offers another means by which how the UK is governed could change radically. But largely unnoticed has been a third development that may bring into question how we are governed every bit as much as the first two. This latter development concerns public attitudes in England.
This is the central message from the latest Future of England Survey (FoES), a major social attitudes survey conducted annually by Cardiff University, the University of Edinburgh and the Institute for Public Policy Research in collaboration with the survey agency YouGov. The latest FoES report shows that the English are beginning to see themselves – as the Scots have long done, and the Welsh have begun more hesitantly to do in recent times – as a national community that demands political recognition.
The drive for recognition is in part about identity. People in England have (at long last, many in Scotland and Wales might say) begun to distinguish Englishness and Britishness. English identity has strengthened significantly in England since the late 1990s, and British identity weakened. Here, FoES findings are reinforced by those of the 2011 census, which found fully 70 per cent of the English population identifying as either solely English (60 per cent) or English in combination with some other national identity (10 per cent). Over 70% of census respondents in England did not indicate any sense of British identity at all.
But perhaps even more important than the growth in English identity is its politicisation. The English, put bluntly, are pretty discontented with their lot. Most people in England are unhappy with how England is dealt with – or rather not dealt with – by the UK state. There is no clear majority yet for any particular means of dealing with England. Around a third or so – depending on exactly how we ask the question – favour some form of special arrangements for English laws in the UK Parliament; a free standing English Parliament wins the support of around one-in-five. But in none of the questions we asked about England’s constitutional options did more than a quarter plump for the status quo. Even independence for England – which no serious political force currently advocates – won more support than the status quo in some question wordings. In fact, as the table shows, about the only option that is clearly less popular than current arrangements is that of treating England’s regions as the equivalent of Scotland and Wales and devolving power to them. What is desired is recognition of England as England.
Table: Constitutional Preferences in England, 2012
England should be governed as it is now with laws made by all MPs in the UK parliament
England should be governed with laws made solely by English MPs in the UK parliament
England should have its own new English parliament with law-making powers
For each region in England to have its own elected Assembly
Source: Future of England Survey, 2012.
This English discontent with the constitutional status quo is prompted in large part by perceptions about devolution. Our research reveals considerable ‘devo-anxiety’, with people in England increasingly feeling that devolution has given Scotland unfair advantages at England’s expense. 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. A majority think that Scotland gets more than its fair share of public spending, while a large plurality also think that England gets less than its fair share. And around half think Scotland’s economy benefits more from the union and just eight per cent that the English economy benefits.
Crucially, the more English someone feels the more likely they are both to object to how devolution operates and to support England being recognised in the governing structures of the UK. And what may surprise many people is how uniform these attitudes are by both social class and region. 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 consistent across England.
English discontent goes beyond devolution and the lack of recognition for England within the UK. It also encompasses the ‘other union’, the EU. 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. Asked about an in-out referendum on Europe the answer is clear: half English voters would vote to leave, only one-third to remain. And what is a truly striking feature of our research is how closely related are public attitudes to England’s ‘two unions’. Those most discontented with England’s status within the UK are the same people who are most unhappy about the EU. This helps explain perhaps our most surprising findings:
For all its Union Jack waving, UKIP actually attracts much more support from those who identify as English than people who consider themselves primarily British.
- Support for the EU in England is actually highest among those with the strongest degree of British national identity.
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 current arrangements are not delivering for England. And 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 de facto England’s national party.
Such is the depth of feeling revealed by FoES that we can be pretty certain of one thing: the issue of England is not going to go away. The level of discontent is so high that political parties will have to respond somehow. How they do so may do much to define politics in these islands for years to come.
Charlie Jeffery is Director of the Academy of Government at the University of Edinburgh and Chair of the Political Studies Association.
Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science at Cardiff University.
Richard Wyn Jones is Professor of Welsh Politics and Director of the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.
The FoES survey was conducted online by YouGov from 23-28 November 2012; the survey had 3600 respondents.