It has become commonplace to highlight the UK’s internal divisions over Brexit by contrasting the Remain majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland with the Leave majorities in England and Wales.
Which is obviously an important and political consequential part of the story. It is, however, far from the whole story, not least because this framing risks ignoring two other features of public opinion in England.
First, comparing – say – Leave-voting England to Remain-voting Scotland underestimates the level of variation within England itself about Brexit, and the extent to which the Remain and Leave camps remain polarised.
But also, secondly and relatedly, because the English electorate is divided not just on Brexit, but also on what the future holds for England within the UK. In what follows we outline what the English electorate wants for England as the domestic union looks set to be reshaped following Brexit, drawing attention to areas of consensus or disagreement and how this relates to national identity. To do so we draw on data from the 2019 iteration of the Future of England Survey conducted in October.
As we have long noted (Wyn Jones et al 2013), attitudes to England’s two unions are linked: those who have tended to be most Eurosceptic are also those most likely to express dissatisfaction with the current constitutional arrangements in the UK.
This dissatisfaction manifests as both a specific sense of grievance about levels of public spending in England as compared to other parts of the UK, in particular Scotland, and a more generalised sense of discontent about the changes to the state wrought by devolution.
These attitudes are in turn also closely related English national identity. In England, the more one prioritises an English rather than a British national identity, the more hostile to both the EU and current constitutional status quo within the UK one is.
The UK’s departure from the EU is therefore highly unlikely to mark an end to English dissatisfaction with the constitutional status quo. Rather, our evidence from the immediate pre-election period suggests that there remain high levels of dissatisfaction with the distribution of power and ‘voice’ within and for England, as well as suspicion about the willingness of the parties to reflect the preferences of an English electorate.
Indeed, on a scale of 0 to 10 where 0 is not at all and 10 is a great deal, only 2% of the electorate trust the UK government ‘a great deal’ to work in the best long-term interests of England with a majority (51%) selecting between 0 and 4 on the scale.
The lack of trust is higher among Remainers (57%) than among Leave voters (47%), which suggests there are enduring problems of losers’ consent within England.
There remains concern about levels of public spending outside England’s borders. Thus even while the English electorate appears happy with the general principle of sharing resources throughout the UK (with 66% agreement that the UK government should ‘step in to even out economic differences’ between different parts of the UK), when we ask about specific parts of the UK that might receive these benefits, support drops precipitously.
When asked if tax revenue raised in England should be kept in England or shared throughout the UK there is majority support (53%) for sharing. But if we ask about sharing with Scotland support drops to 35% and drops to 42% for sharing with Northern Ireland.
In addition, the English electorate is the most likely in the UK to take a dim view of devolution, with no more than 23% saying any of the devolved legislatures has improved the way the UK is governed.
Almost in 1 in 3 say the Scottish Parliament has had a negative effect on UK governance. In short, the English electorate is dissatisfied with the UK government’s treatment of England, disinclined to share resources with other parts of the UK (although it should be noted here they are no different from the Scots in their (un)willingness to share), and unhappy with current devolution arrangements. Looking to the future, then, what do they want?
The first and perhaps most important point to make is that looking forward is not really what the English electorate – as a whole – tends to do. When asked to consider England’s ‘best moment’, a majority say it was in the past rather than the future. The fact that fewer than five percent say the best moment is ‘now’, is itself a telling comment on contemporary politics.
That said, when asked to look to the future it is clear that a majority of England’s population favours all England rather than any of the much-touted regional ‘solutions’ to the problem of English governance.
To be precise, 62% of respondents want England to be treated as a single unit as compared to 20% who want each region to be treated as a separate unit. As might perhaps be expected, there is a national identity dimension to this with 77% of those who describe themselves as English not British wanting England to be treated as a single unit. But it is also the majority preference of those who describe themselves as British not English (53%).
Regional government remains, therefore, a very hard sell in England. But given the difficulties of accommodating England – some 85% of the whole – as a single unit within the UK constitution without completely unbalancing the whole edifice, it is currently hard to envisage significant momentum being generated for all-England solutions either. Beyond, that is, the token that is the current system of ‘English votes for English laws’.
Herein lies the conundrum in which the current generation of British policy makers find themselves. On the one hand, awareness of the need to rebalance the economy in favour of the ‘left behinds’ and ‘the North’ – to invoke two of the clichés of post-Brexit political discourse – has rarely been higher.
Yet policy solutions involving radical changes in governance arrangements currently appear beyond the pale. As in the case of Brexit, majority opinion in England about the future of England in the domestic union is clear only about what it doesn’t want.