It may only be Scotland that is heading to the polls on September 18, but it is not the only interested party in the results of the independence referendum. England would obviously play a dominant role in any independence negotiations.
And should Scotland choose to remain in the union, the role of English politicians and English public opinion should not be underestimated in the complex bargaining processes that may emerge regarding devo-max or even the establishment of a constitutional convention. What England thinks of the union and of the potential loss of Scotland will matter a great deal.
According to the latest findings from the British Social Attitudes survey, Scotland’s southern neighbours are increasingly keen for it to remain in the union. It finds that English support for Scottish independence declined from 26% to 21% between 2011 and 2013 and that the percentage of English voters who want Holyrood abolished has fallen from 23% in 2012 to 18% last year. It finds little demand either for English independence (16%) or for some form of English devolution (combined support for an English Parliament or regional assemblies stands at 34%).
The findings on what southerners think about Scottish independence are somewhat at odds with another common narrative of recent years. It says that the English have been indifferent to the prospect of Scotland leaving the union. Journalists and commentators on either side of the political spectrum have commented on a “blissful indifference” or a collective shrug of shoulders in England towards the outcome of the referendum.
It is worth noting that a YouGov poll in 2011 ironically found strongest support for Scottish independence not in Scotland but in England and Wales. Similarly a YouGov poll conducted for Sky News in January 2014 found that 46% of voters in England and Wales “wouldn’t mind” if they woke up on September 19 to discover that Scotland had left the union, with only 34% saying they would be dismayed.
Colin Kidd, one of the most eminent historians on the Anglo-Scottish union, has suggested that Scottish unionism has been exposed to a battle on two fronts: first, against the forces of Scottish nationalism and second, against “the polite, blinkered non-recognition by the English that Britain is a multinational United Kingdom”.
This goes to the very heart of the union between England and Scotland. It was Daniel Defoe who famously noted that, “a firmer union of policy with less union of affection has hardly been known in the world”.
The reluctant unionists
The English from the outset were reluctant unionists who had rejected Scottish overtures for union in 1689, among other occasions. When they did relent in the years running up to 1707, a look at the proceedings of parliament from that time highlight that union was just one of a series of control mechanisms against the Scots considered by the English to ensure security and stability in their realm.
Union was based on a belief that it represented the continuation of, rather than a break with, the long development of English history. Not only does this arguably explain the ease with which Englishness was subsumed into Britishness, but this idea of English predominance within the union helps us to understand more recent political developments.
For example if Germany is portrayed as the “chequebook of Europe”, England is often depicted as the chequebook of the union. Newspapers like the Daily Mail regularly views English taxpayers as funding a “freebie culture” elsewhere in the union while not being able to enjoy perks such as free prescriptions and free university education themselves.
As Professor John Curtice notes at the beginning of the latest survey, “We might wonder whether the residents of England have had enough of what they might regard as Scotland’s apparently endless demands for more, despite the fact that it enjoys a substantial measure of devolution when England has none and enjoys considerably higher levels of public spending per head.”
The Scottish Raj and other backlashes
In this context, the findings in the BSA report are rather startling. Historically, English public opinion has tended to respond in a rather negative, albeit not transformative, way to periods when the union is no longer seen as functioning effectively for England.
We can look back at the Lords debate on Scottish secession in 1713; to the xenophobic reaction to the accession of Lord Bute to the Premiership in 1762 (the first Scot to be first lord of the treasury post-union); or to claims of a “Scottish Raj” under Gordon Brown’s premiership. Or we could look at public attitude surveys such as the 2011 census, which found that 67.1% of respondents across England and Wales identified themselves as English (either alone as part of a dual identity), with 57.7% seeing themselves as purely English.
This chimes with research undertaken by Cardiff and Edinburgh universities and the Institute for Public Policy Research that suggests that the English have become increasingly assertive about their identities since devolution.
According to this research, while an Anglo-British identity exists, the “Anglo” component is predominant. While it finds limited appetite for regionalism or an English parliament, it also finds that support for the status quo has fallen to barely a fifth of English voters. It seems the English electorate want to regain control of the Westminster parliament, with 79% supporting English votes for English laws.
England may not want devolution or regional assemblies, but it seems it may want something more fundamental: a restoration of their conception of union, one that serves the English national interest. Three hundred years on from Defoe’s musings, it still seems the United Kingdom is a union where policy outweighs affection.