The Future of England: Implications for Scotland

The latest Future of England Survey (FoES), conducted annually by the University of Edinburgh, Cardiff University and the Institute for Public Policy Research, is launched today (8 July). It shows that people in England are increasingly dissatisfied with their current constitutional arrangements and increasingly demand the political recognition of England.

Some of the dissatisfactions are well established. The latest survey confirms earlier findings on the role Scotland plays in England’s discontents. Around 80 per cent of people in England think that Scottish MPs at Westminster should not vote on English laws and that the Scottish Parliament should cover its spending through its own tax decisions. Over 50 per cent think Scotland gets more than its fair share of public spending while 40 per cent think that England gets less than its fair share. And around half think Scotland’s economy benefits more from the Union and just eight per cent that the English economy benefits more.

Importantly these are not figures skewed by discontented northerners in England caught between the political strength of devolved Scotland and the economic strength of London and the south east; they are remarkably uniform across England.

All this might sound a bit rich given the numerical domination of English MPs at Westminster and the widespread sense that the Westminster politics caters to English interests. But people in England do not feel the current UK political system works to their advantage.

This is not just about Scotland. The English are also unhappy with the way they are governed through the UK political system. Over 60 per cent of people in England do not trust the UK Government to act in England’s best interests. That might be seen as the mid-term blues of a government behind in the polls. But there is something more fundamental at play. The FoES asked several questions about England’s constitutional options, In none of them did more than a quarter of respondents plump for the status quo. And in all of them over half favoured some form of England-specific, England-wide political arrangements: the top choice (of a third or so) was special arrangements for English laws in the UK Parliament; second was a free standing English Parliament at around 20 per cent.

We also asked about the capacity of political parties in England – in government and opposition, inside and outside the UK Parliament – to stand up for English interests. What we found is striking. No party is seen by more than a fifth or so of the English as standing up for their interests. And Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are under strong pressure from forces outside the system. When we first asked this question in 2011 the top choice was ‘none of the above’ at 23 per cent. In FoES 2012 ‘none of the above’ was still top at 22 per cent. YouGov ran the question again for us in April 2013 and found that UKIP was now top at 21 per cent. The party of the UK’s ‘independence’ appears to have a specific and growing resonance in England.

What does all this mean for Scotland? We asked the FoES respondents the Scottish referendum question. They gave an answer pretty much the same as in most recent polls in Scotland: ‘Yes’ at 30 per cent and ‘No’ at 49 per cent. So, if the English had a vote, the union would be safe in England’s hands.

But it would be a different kind of union, with a limited role for Scottish MPs at Westminster and a Scottish Parliament that raised its own taxes. The English appear to be supporters of devolution-max. Combined with their preference for English self-government – and an apparent concern for a more vigorous advocacy of English interests – this points to a union with a weaker centre and more autonomy in the component parts, including England.

The FoES survey was carried out by YouGov with 3600 respondents in England from 23-28 November 2012. You can explore the topline FoES figures for yourself on this website.

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About the author

Charlie Jeffery is Director of the Academy of Government at the University of Edinburgh. He also coordinates the Future of the UK and Scotland programme of the Economic and Social Research Council.