Is England Tiring of Its Northern Neighbour?

Yet another ‘referendum milestone’ is reached today. The latest one is that there are now just 100 days of campaigning left before polling day on 18th September – cue another round of campaign stunts and media speculation.

Anyway, the milestone has provided us with an excuse to release a short briefing on how people south of the border have been reacting to the Scottish independence debate. The evidence comes from the latest British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey – conducted between June and October last year – for which full results (including a lot more of relevance to the independence debate) will be published on Tuesday of next week (so watch this space!).

BSA has been asking people in England how they think Scotland should be governed on a regular basis ever since the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. The question posed is exactly the same as the one that has been asked each year on the Scottish Social Attitudes survey and offers people the choice between independence (inside or outside the European Union), devolution (with or without tax-varying powers) or maintaining the Union with no Scottish Parliament at all.

In recent years the survey began to uncover increased support in England for independence (and thus, by implication, an apparent decline in support for maintaining the Union). And irrespective of what  Scotland decides it wants to do on September 18th, the long-term sustainability of the United Kingdom might be thought to be in question if those living in by far its largest component part were coming to think it should be brought to an end.

Back in 1997 just 14% of people in England backed independence, while in repeated readings between 1999 and 2007 support was usually less than 20%. But by 2011, the figure had increased to 26% and it was almost as high again (25%) in 2012.

However this trend has apparently now gone into reverse. In the latest BSA survey just 21% say that Scotland should become an independent country. (This finding was also echoed on Saturday in an online poll by Populus for The Financial Times that found that just 15% of people in England actually ‘hope that Scotland votes to leave the UK and become an independent country’.)

Even those whose support for the Union might be thought to be weakest – those with a strong sense of English identity – are no less likely now to back Scottish independence than they were at the outset of Scottish devolution. In 1999 29% of those who say they are ‘English, not British’ thought Scotland should leave the Union; now the figure is 27%.

Not least of the reasons why most people in England would prefer Scotland to remain in the Union is that they continue to feel that England’s own interests are best served by being part of the UK. Over three-quarters (78%) say it would be ‘better for England’ for it ‘to remain part of the United Kingdom along with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’. Just 16% reckon it would be better, ‘for England to become an independent country, separate from the rest of the United Kingdom’. These figures are almost identical to what they were when the question was previously asked in 2007.

Of course, nobody living south of the border will have a vote in September. They do, however, potentially have a voice – though it remains to be seen how many people in England decide to take up the Prime Minister’s recent invitation to advise friends and family in Scotland of their pro-union views, let alone whether anyone in Scotland is influenced by any such entreaties. In the meantime it seems there is little reason to believe that seven years of nationalist government in Edinburgh has caused England to tire of its northern neighbour.

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About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.