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Talk of a divided union does not reflect English opinion

Better together? Stuart Rankin, CC BY-NC

The current furore about the possibility of the SNP having influence on a Labour minority government has led to heated speculation about what the English would make of such a situation.

English taxpayers will not put up with it, declares Nigel Farage – and he has been echoed in Conservative circles, where scaremongering about the threat posed by a rising SNP tide has lately become the centrepiece of the election campaign. But what do we actually know about how the English feel about these questions?

Breaking up is hard to do

In recent years there has been a lot of research conducted on what the English think of the union, the Scots and the constitution. And this suggests overall that, while there is resentment about the deal England gets, there is no real desire to break up the UK among majority opinion.

We know too that the English are increasingly disenchanted with their politicians and the way in which they are governed. But, along with this widely discussed anti-politics mood, there is also a growing sense of constitutional ennui.

Three years of polling data from 2012 to 2014 shows that the English favour the current status quo less than any constitutional reform that is put to them. There is a growing sense of irritation with England’s position in the current constitutional settlement. And, the most consistently favoured change among the English is the idea of English votes for English laws.

Given that Labour has latterly, if quietly, signalled its acceptance of the need for a modest version of such a reform, the party would do well to identify this as a priority, should it enter government. Such a move has the potential to undercut any charges of illegitimacy arising from a possible arrangement with the SNP.

The English are also particularly sensitive to the financial implications of the union. And there is a real possibility that the territorial distribution of public expenditure could turn into a source of resentment. But this sense of grievance is, for most people, directed at London and the south-east rather than Scotland.

This suggests that a new fiscal settlement across the UK is an increasingly imperative step, and is now a vital pre-requisite for setting the union on a more enduring, sustainable footing.

Let’s stay together

But while UKIP has articulated a nostalgic and populist vein of Englishness, and the Conservatives have tried to stoke anti-Scottish sentiment, neither of these expressions of English national identity capture the fluidity and character of mainstream opinion in England.

There is also an historically ingrained seam of pragmatism and tolerance running throughout the English psyche, and this has underpinned its peoples’ forbearance towards the many different governing arrangements – however asymmetric and idiosyncratic – and unions with which they have lived over many centuries.

Sturgeon and Farage face off in the leader debate. Stefan Rousseau/PA

It is certainly true that a growing minority of English voters are more inclined to hang a variety of grievances upon an English identity. But the vast majority do not tend to see things in quite that way.

Worries and anger about inequality, the unaccountability of economic elites, and regional imbalances within the country are all also important concerns. And these are bound up with a growing feeling that the British state has been neglectful of, or indifferent to, the people of the English heartland.

The shifting character of this new English sense of collective self, which has grown over the last quarter century, suggests that the English want their politicians to speak more directly and unequivocally about England and its distinctive interests and worries – but still envisage the continuance of a wider union.

The growing desire for a more anglicised political conversation is perhaps an inevitable result of the rise of much more self-confident Scottish and Welsh equivalents, but does not necessarily signal a turning away from the idea of a United Kingdom. It is time, perhaps, that Westminster’s campaigning politicians took note.

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