Government – A third concern was that once Edinburgh and Cardiff had their own parliaments, it would only be a matter of time before people in England started demanding changes to the way they are governed. In particular, the continued ability of Scottish and Welsh MPs to vote on domestic English issues was seen as an issue that was bound to provoke public anger (Dalyell, 1977). Such resentment might increase demand for an English Parliament, separate from Westminster, or else for powerful English regional assemblies. Finally, English bitterness over the apparently favourable financial and political position of Scotland and Wales post-devolution might even lead people in England to call for the break up of the union, and for Scotland and Wales to go their own way.
These areas are often viewed as linked, with any shift in views on one seen as having the potential to trigger related change on the others. In particular, the role of national identity is seen as key – if people in England start feeling more English and less British, this might, for instance, bolster support for a distinctively English Parliament, or weaken support for the union.
The previous Labour government at Westminster tried to address the issue of unequal devolution within the UK via the introduction of regional assemblies within England. However, following the resounding defeat in 2004 of proposals for an assembly for the North East, plans for further devolution in England came to an abrupt halt. Under the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition at Westminster, the West Lothian question has again come to the fore. In January 2012, the UK government announced the the membership of an expert commission to address the basis on which MPs should be allowed to vote on legislation that affects only part of the UK. The election of the Scottish National Party in the 2007 Scottish Parliament election and their re-election in 2011 has also provided a renewed focus for discussions about the future constitutional structure of the UK.
What is less obvious is how the public in England has reacted to any of these developments. Have the policies pursued in Scotland lead to increased resentment over its share of public funding? Have the SNP’s victories in the 2007 and 2011 Scottish Parliament elections been associated with any increased demand from England for Scottish separation? And have any of these factors been accompanied by an increasing sense of Englishness or a decreased sense of Britishness among those living in England?
This paper uses the latest data from the British Social Attitudes survey (BSA) to address these questions. Established in 1983 by NatCen Social Research, BSA provides the best and most robust data on the state of British public opinion and how it is changing. This reflects its use of strict random probability sampling procedures, and of the same sampling and data collection methods (a face-to-face survey with a self-completion section) year on year. The survey has strict rules about the importance of maintaining consistent question wording over time, in order to be sure that shifts in how people respond reflect genuine changes in the public mood and not merely a response to changed question wording. For most of the questions discussed in this paper, the most recent BSA data was collected in either 2010 or 2011. All the data presented in this paper is based on the BSA sample in England.
The paper assesses trends in public opinion in England on each of the areas identified above: national identity, finance and government. It also considers whether there is any relationship between English national identity and calls for changes to the way England is governed – in other words, is Englishness (increasingly) ‘politicised’, such that the views of those who consider themselves to be English pose a particular challenge to current constitutional arrangements in the UK? Finally, at the end of the paper we reflect on differences between our findings, based on the BSA series1, and other recent survey findings on the same topic which claim to show quite different trends. We argue that these differences largely reflect a lack of consistency in the methodology and question wording used by other studies.