The introduction of devolution in Scotland and Wales and its re-introduction in Northern Ireland was one of the major achievements of the Labour government. Yet its aspirations for fostering devolution in England largely came to naught.
True, city-wide government for London, controversially abolished by Mrs Thatcher in 1986, was restored in 2000 - but when, in 2004, voters in the north-east of England rejected the idea of having their own elected regional assembly, any hopes of rolling out a programme of devolution across the length and breadth of England died an instant death.
So has England simply been unmoved by the sight and sound of devolution elsewhere? Is it largely content with the way it is governed at present? And as Scotland prepares to vote in a year’s time on whether or not it should leave the UK entirely, is England really willing to tolerate what might be thought to be the ever increasing demands of its near northern neighbour? These are some of the questions addressed by a study of long-term trends in identities and constitutional preferences to be found in the latest British Social Attitudes report published today.
Status quo (for England)
England does indeed continue to evince relatively little interest in devolution for itself. Well over half, 56%, say that England’s laws should continue to be made by the UK parliament at Westminster. Although the figure has fluctuated up and down since 2000, there is no sign of a consistent trend in either direction. Just over one in five (22%) would like to see an English parliament established, while just 15% now back Labour’s original idea of regional assemblies. With figures like these, there seems little prospect of any government securing public support for changing the way England is governed any time soon.
Not that voters in England are entirely sanguine about some of the consequences of the fact that the rest of the UK enjoys a measure of devolution while it does not. Two-thirds say that now that many of Scotland’s laws are made by its own devolved parliament Scottish MPs should no longer be able to vote on laws that will only apply to England.
True, that sentiment has been present since the very early days of devolution, but it seems to have become more insistent with as many as 29% now saying that they strongly agree with this proposition, up from 18% in 2000.
In short, voters in England would appear to think that the proper response to some of the apparent anomalies thrown up by the introduction of devolution elsewhere is to amend the way in which Westminster works rather than imitate the changes that have been introduced elsewhere. However, it remains to be seen whether there will eventually be a positive response to the ideas for changing Commons procedure on English bills put forward earlier this year by the MacKay Commission.
Pay own way
England has also become less happy about the advantage in terms of public spending per head that Scotland continues to enjoy (albeit that is a state of affairs that long predates devolution). In the early years of devolution, only around one in five people in England felt that Scotland received more than its fair share of public spending, but since 2007 the figures have been consistently running at around twice that level.
But if this discontent is not reflected in a demand that England should enjoy devolution itself, how is it expressing itself? The answer appears to be in a growing willingness to question whether Scotland should continue to have devolution for itself. In years immediately after the creation of the Scottish Parliament public opinion in England was remarkably sympathetic to the idea that its northern neighbour should enjoy a measure of autonomy, with up to 59% agreeing that devolution was the best way of governing Scotland.
English backing independence
Now, however, that figure has fallen to 43%. Meanwhile the proportion who think that perhaps Scotland should indeed leave the UK and become an independent country appears to have edged up from around a fifth to a quarter, while almost as many question whether there should be any kind of Scottish Parliament at all.
At the moment most opinion polls suggest that in fact Scotland will vote to stay in the UK. Yet, at the same time, not only does almost everyone in Scotland want to keep their parliament, but a majority say they would like their parliament to be even more powerful than it is already.
At first glance that would seem to be recipe for a potential clash with opinion in England. However, one consequence of such a move could well be that Scotland has to rely more on revenues raised by taxes in Scotland itself rather than on monies handed over by taxpayers from across the UK. Maybe such a step is now just as necessary to assuage English discontent as it is to meet Scottish aspirations?