England, Englishness, and the Scottish Referendum

Guest blog by Michael Kenny, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, University of London

What kind of impact is the Scottish Referendum having on public opinion in England? And might the English end up having a role to play in its outcome? These questions will certainly have been considered by the strategists of both campaigns in Scotland, but have not figured prominently in public debate on Scotland’s future.

Commentators generally regard the English as disengaged from this issue which has not as yet become a major focus of interest south of the border. It is, however, a mistake to overstate the indifference of the English. There are good reasons to think that on-going changes in the national sensibilities of many English people could have an impact upon the politics surrounding the Referendum.

The considerable success of UKIP during 2012 and 2013, and the support which its populist politics elicits in parts of England, signals an important, unpredictable dynamic which may come to have a bearing upon this question. Nigel Farage’s chaotic appearance in Scotland in Edinburgh in May 2013, made very apparent what close observers already knew – that, whatever it may claim, UKIP is a party with roots in English soil that has only the most precarious footing upon the Scottish political landscape.

More generally, the gathering mood of isolationism and insularity which underpinned the increase in English scepticism towards the EU and the Eurozone following the financial crisis of 2007-08 does not just stem from a rise in Euroscepticism. The same outlook underpinned the considerable opposition which the prospect of British involvement in US-led military intervention in Syria aroused among English public opinion. Several surveys of the attitudes of the English in the last couple of years have identified the emergence of a national consciousness that is profoundly pessimistic and more insular in its conception of ‘the nation’ and its spheres of interest. This outlook was illuminated in polling conducted by Lord Ashcroft into the views of UKIP sympathisers in 2012. This research indicated that its appeal was not anchored in any one issue, but arose from a wider seam of disaffection which UKIP was seen as uniquely willing to express. Meanwhile, the results of the surveys conducted by the Future of England team in 2011 and 2012  illustrated that this sensibility was now spilling over into a heightened sense of dissatisfaction with the domestic, as well as European, union. A clear majority of respondents indicated that they felt that the West Lothian situation was unjustifiable and required reform, and that England was losing out, in financial terms, due to the higher comparative levels of investment in Scotland.

Importantly, although UKIP’s rise to prominence since 2012 has dramatised these sentiments, a significant, longer-range shift underpins this recent manifestation of English surliness. Research that I have conducted into the shifting national consciousness of the English reveals that some began to think differently about their own sense of nationhood as early as the mid-1990s, and that devolution dramatised and exacerbated changes in how the English were starting to think and feel about their own nationhood (http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/academic/politics/science/97801996086...). This has not, for the most part, resulted in a straightforward abandonment of an affiliation to Britain and Britishness. But it has recalibrated English national identity as a more meaningful sense of imagined community, and sustained an idea of nationhood that is increasingly depicted as more separated from the institutions and values of the British state. When the census allowed people in England to select their own preferred national identity for the first time in 2011, 70% opted to identify as English, and 29% as British (http://www.ippr.org/articles/56/10097/our-parties-must-respond-to-the-ri...).

This shifting pattern of national consciousness may well become a factor in current and future arguments about Scotland’s constitutional position. This is so for two main reasons. First, it is clear that a large number of Conservative MPs are highly attuned to the sensibilities of their English constituents and to the potential threat posed by UKIP’s increasingly Anglo-nationalist tunes. Some are clearly prepared to vote against the Government on touchstone issues, such as the European Union and military intervention. This could well mean that as the Referendum battle heats up, backbench Tory MPs will not hesitate to express the dissatisfaction felt by their constituents with the Union and Scotland's perceived advantage within it -- a situation that the ‘Yes’ campaign will be quick to exploit.  

And, just as importantly, should Holyrood receive additional powers following a ‘No’ vote in 2014, there is every prospect that Conservative MPs, and some Ministers, will be prepared to revisit the implications of the extraordinarily lop-sided nature of the post-devolved union, which leaves England as the only national territory whose domestic affairs are predominantly managed by Whitehall and the UK’s parliament. Such a scenario would also put onto the political agenda the ticklish issue of the constitutional position of MPs voted to Westminster from Scottish seats, whose legitimacy would be open to question if yet more responsibilities pass to Scotland.

This is one reason why the somewhat arcane issue of how legislation that applies to England is currently handled in the House of Commons -- upon which the independent McKay Commission reported in March 2013 -- could well become more salient in the next couple of years. Tory strategists have not been slow to notice the defensive and undemocratic posture that Labour still adopts on the English question. Compare, for instance, Ed Miliband’s insistence on the need for the left to talk about Englishness (http://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2012/06/07/ed-miliband-s-engl...) with his party’s refusal to talk to the McKay Commission about how the English are represented at Westminster, and its subsequent silence after the latter’s report.

There is, though, a second reason why the English may well come to exercise an influence upon the constitutional future of Scotland. And this does relate to the fall-out generated by the dynamics of opinion on one particular issue – the European Union. As the prospect of a Referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU has become much more apparent following David Cameron’s recent announcement that his party intends to support such a vote in the next Parliament, the markedly different perceptions on Europe that exist in England and Scotland could well become a significant political factor. The prospect of a potential exit from Europe at the behest of the voters of Southern England is a card that supporters of independence may well wish to play in the run up to the Referendum -- and beyond, if they are not successful in 2014.

Not surprisingly then, there are signs that politicians and policy-makers on both sides of the border are becoming more interested in the national consciousness of the English. Questions about how the various traditions that inform ‘Englishness’ can be re-invented in such a diverse and socially unequal country, and whether this form of identity is -- as many hope or fear --  a predominantly conservative one, are now of considerable interest. The latest Future of England survey identified a stronger correlation between an identification with English, rather than British, nationhood and support for parties of the right.

Yet, the question of what kinds of political and cultural resonance are compatible with Englishness is actually a more open-ended one than is often suggested in political circles. Most of the English still remain in favour of the continuation of the Union, if unenthusiastically for the most part, and would not want the Scots to leave. But the discernible drift towards a stronger sense of attachment to Englishness appears to be draining support from the various forms of multi-national cooperation and involvement which the British state has tended to favour. As such, the further development and political appropriation of Englishness may well become a major factor in the political and constitutional futures of Scotland and the UK.  

Michael Kenny is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, University of London UK and currently holds a Major Research Fellowship funded by the Leverhulme Trust. His book, The Politics of English Nationhood, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2014.

Comments policy

All comments posted on the site via Disqus are automatically published. Additionally comments are sent to moderators for checking and removal if necessary. We encourage open debate and real time commenting on the website. The Centre on Constitutional Change cannot be held responsible for any content posted by users. Any complaints about comments on the site should be sent to info@centreonconstitutionalchange.ac.uk

Michael Kenny's picture
Guest post by Michael Kenny
University of Cambridge
23rd September 2013
Filed under:

Latest blogs

Read More Posts