If Holyrood gets more powers, English views on regional parliaments may change

More powers are on the cards for the Scottish parliament. Bernt Rostad, CC BY-SA

One of the key themes of the referendum campaign will soon be aired when the three unionist parties in Scotland make a joint declaration about plans for more powers for Holyrood in the event of a no vote.

It is not difficult to discern why they see this as necessary. Each party has put forward different views on what more powers for Scotland within the union should look like; and the nationalists have repeatedly questioned whether they can really be trusted to deliver more powers as promised. Most recently, one of Quebec’s leading political academics was quoted in the Scottish press warning that more powers will be off the agenda if the Scots stay put.

One dimension to this discussion that has not received much attention is the tension between what the Scots seem to want – more devolution – and what the English think about it. Given that most of the UK electorate is based in England, their views could potentially influence what happens north of the border if there is a no vote.

British Social Attitudes survey

Last week’s NatCen British Social Attitudes survey sheds some light on this subject. First, it confirmed that attitudes in England about Scotland’s independence have taken a new turn, with growing support for Scotland remaining a part of the UK. While new opinion polls showed the Scots heading closer to being evenly split on leaving the UK, opinion in England is hardening in favour of the current political union.

Only 21% of people living in England – about one in five – think Scotland should become independent. This is a fall from 26% in 2011. People in England are expressing an ever clearer view that Scotland remain part of the UK.

Point two is that even fewer people (16%) believe it is in England’s interest for the UK to become dissolved and this figure is unchanged from 2007. It seems that English opposition to Scotland’s independence is based on the view they are “better together” than apart. People in England see a United Kingdom with Scotland as in their best interests.

It is not that the English oppose independence because they fear the loss of Scotland would lead to some crisis of identity, but rather a view of shared interests. While some may question the UK’s place in Europe, the English largely do not question England’s place in a United Kingdom.

But here’s the rub…

That doesn’t seem to mean the Scots are welcome on any terms. Slightly less than half (48%) of people in England surveyed responded that they favoured Scotland having a devolved parliament.

NatCen did not ask specifically if the English were in favour of more devolution for Scotland, but it did find that support for an English parliament had plunged from 29% in 2009 to 19% today. More than half (56%) are content with England’s laws being made through the UK’s House of Commons. This is the same figure found in 2002 and despite the fact that many non-English MPs can vote on laws that effect England alone.

One possible interpretation is that English reservations about devolution explain their wariness about Scottish devolution. But equally, these findings would indicate that the English are not keen on more power for Scotland.

The context is that there are questions about the extra benefits that Scotland is said to enjoy over others south of its border. There is also continuing debate over whether MPs from outside England should vote on matters that affect only England.

The English paradox

Put together, there may be a tension between what Scotland wants and the majority of UK voters would like them to have. Could this affect what the Scots are offered if they stay in the union?

I think it is unlikely. The Scottish parliament has been a success and the unionist parties have made ever-louder noises about handing over more tax and spend powers. To anyone questioning this hand-over in England, Westminster politicians would have an obvious reply: would you like more powers yourselves?

Paradoxically, the present answer is “no”, of course. Would this view begin to change if more power was seen heading over the northern border? It would not be surprising if it did.

And even if this didn’t happen purely out of logic, the risks of it being triggered are likely to increase. Suppose a major policy decision affecting only England won parliamentary approval thanks to non-England MPs, for example. In short, the days of scepticism about English devolution may be numbered.

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