The election campaign has brought the issue of English attitudes towards their neighbours and the union into sharp relief, with UKIP making much of socially conservative values. However, as Michael Kenny explains, the reality is rather more complex.
The current furore about possible SNP influence on a Labour administration – though not, it seems, a full coalition – 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 is echoed in Conservative circles by talk of the lack of legitimacy which such an arrangement would enjoy in English eyes.
St George’s Day seems as good a time as any to set the political rhetoric to one side and ask what do we actually know about English feelings on this, and related, issues?
There is now a pretty extensive research base on what the English feel about the union, the Scots and the constitution. Although there is little direct evidence of what people in England would make of any governing arrangement that involved the SNP, we can draw some inferences about English attitudes on this from the available research.
Three aspects particularly stand out; the English are increasingly disenchanted with their politicians and the way they are governed, they are particularly sensitive to the financial implications of union, and majoritarian sentiment in England is a complex mixture of conservative, liberal and progressive elements – even if UKIP is currently the party most obviously talking about English aspirations.
The first of these, increasing English disenchantment, shows a growing sense of constitutional ennui that is a less observed accompaniment to the more widely discussed rise of an anti-politics mood. Three years of annual polling by the Future of England survey team from 2012 to 2014 shows that the least favoured choice of the English is the current status quo, and that there is a growing sense of irritation with England’s position within the current constitutional settlement.
The most consistently favoured constitutional change among the English is towards the principle of ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (EVEL). Given that Labour has latterly, if quietly, signalled its acceptance of the need for some change of this kind, the party would do well to identify this as a priority, should it enter government, given its potential to undercut charges of illegitimacy arising from any arrangement with the SNP.
The second issue of a growing sensitivity to the financial implications of the union, shows that there is a real possibility that the territorial distribution of public expenditure could turn into a source or resentment. But it is also the case that this irritation is cross-cut with another significant attitudinal trend – a rising tide of resentment in many parts of England, as well as Scotland, towards the position of London and the South East. A new fiscal settlement across the UK is an increasingly imperative policy challenge, and is now a vital prerequisite for setting the union on a more enduring, sustainable footing.
Thirdly, although UKIP has vociferously articulated a socially conservative strand of English thought, there is also an historically ingrained seam of pragmatism and tolerance within England towards the many different governing arrangements – however asymmetric and idiosyncratic – and unions with which the English have lived for many centuries.
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 lack of accountability of economic elites, and the deepening regional imbalances within the country – are all also important concerns. They are melded with a gathering sense that the British state has been neglectful of, or indifferent to, the peoples of the English heartland.
The shifting character of an emergent English sense of identity, which has grown in the course of the last quarter century, suggests that the English have a growing desire for their politicians to speak more directly and unequivocally about England and its distinctive interests and worries, but within a wider union framework. Wanting a more Anglicised political conversation and idiom – an inevitable result of system changes that have produced much more self-confident Scottish and Welsh equivalents – does not necessarily signal a turning away from the UK. Nor does it mean that the English have en masse jettisoned the liberal values – of tolerance, fairness and pragmatism – that have for centuries run through their cultural DNA.
Michael Kenny, a fellow of the Centre on Constitutional Change, is Professor of Politics at QMUL and Director of the Mile End Institute.
This article was originally published on the Centre on Constitutional Change blog and gives the views of the author, and not the position of the ConstitutionUK blog, nor of the London School of Economics.