What Does England Want?

The Commons gets its first chance this week to consider the fallout from the Scottish referendum, including a full day’s debate today. Although some of the discussion will be about the hopes and aspirations north of the border for more devolution, there will doubtless be debate too about what changes to the governance of England should be made in consequence. A number of the polls and surveys conducted towards the end of the referendum and immediately thereafter give us an idea of where public opinion stands on this subject south of the border.

First though we might note that according to these recent exercises, public opinion in England is probably willing to acquiesce in giving the Scottish Parliament more power and responsibility, albeit without necessarily a great deal of enthusiasm. The latest instalment of the Future of England survey, conducted back in April, found that 42% of people in England backed giving the Scottish Parliament control over the majority of taxes in Scotland while just 25% were opposed. Similarly, 40% said the Edinburgh institution should have the power to make its own decisions about welfare benefits, while only 26% were opposed.

But given that in both cases around one in three either said they neither agreed nor disagreed or else that they did not know, it is evidently not a subject that generates a great deal of English excitement. And this is also reflected in the fact that people’s answers on the issue do depend on how the question is posed. Thus on the one hand immediately after the referendum ComRes found that 47% agreed that ‘Giving more powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is good for the UK’, while only 28% disagreed. On the other hand when just before the referendum ICM asked, ‘If the people of Scotland decide to reject independence, do you think more powers should be transferred from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament or not?’, only 38% said that powers should be transferred, while 44% reckoned they should not. Perhaps the idea of taking power away from Westminster goes down less well than the prospect of a devolution settlement that might help keep the UK together – or maybe ICM’s respondents were simply not clear why and how more powers might be transferred to Scotland after it had just rejected independence.

Back, however, to our main theme. One possible reaction south of the border to the prospect of Holyrood acquiring more power and responsibility is that England might finally have decided to embrace devolution for itself. But on that possibility the poll evidence remains far from clear. On the one hand when in June Ipsos MORI administered much the same question as one that has appeared regularly on British Social Attitudes since 1999, as many as 45% of people in England said that the England should continue to be governed as it is now with laws made by the UK House of Commons, while only 22% backed the creation of a set of regional assemblies and 26% an English Parliament.

On the other hand, when at around the time of the referendum two polls simply asked people whether or not they wanted an English Parliament, rather higher (but again wildly varying) levels of support were obtained. Just before polling day, ComRes found that 40% (in the whole of Britain) were in favour of setting up an English Parliament for English only MPs. Immediately afterwards, Survation found that no less than 60% (in England & Wales) believed there should be an English Parliament that dealt with English only matters like health and education, with the remit of the UK Parliament confined to UK-wide matters. At the same time, an even greater proportion, 63%, said they backed giving more powers to the regions of England, (along with Wales and Northern Ireland) – though whether people would actually want (and could have) both an English Parliament and relatively powerful regional institutions is far from clear.

Perhaps all we can take from these questions is that there is a widespread sense that England should in some way or other be able to have its own say on matters that only pertain to itself, even though there is far from a settled view as to how that sense should be recognised institutionally. The existence of that sentiment becomes clear when voters are asked about the notion of ‘English votes on English laws’. Between them ComRes (both before and after polling day), ICM, Survation and YouGov all addressed this issue at around the time of the referendum, and all found a clear majority in favour – just as British Social Attitudes has done persistently since 2000. Support seems to be higher (up to 71% across the whole of Britain) if the idea is expressed as only allowing English MPs to vote on English laws, than if it is presented as not allowing Scottish MPs to vote on laws that do not impact on Scotland (54% across all of Britain). The latter formulation perhaps taps less effectively into the feeling that England should be able to determine its own affairs. Although the issue is not necessarily regarded as a priority (according to Survation just 5% feel that constitutional reform in the wake of the Scottish referendum should now be the UK government’s top priority between now and the general election) it seems unlikely that it will be possible for the issue to continue not to be addressed if significantly more devolution were to come to Scotland.

The other principal bone of contention for many in England is the higher level of public spending per head that Scotland enjoys as compared with England. A number of recent polls have demonstrated, unsurprisingly, that people in England will complain about this higher level – after having been told that spending is indeed higher in Scotland. Thus when immediately after the referendum Survation asked whether it was fair or unfair that people in Scotland enjoy £1600 a year more spending per head than the rest of the UK (by which given the disparities across the rest of the UK was presumably meant England), no less than 71% of people in England and Wales said it was unfair. Meanwhile, two other polls, worded in a not dissimilar vein, found that a majority of people would like to see Scotland’s apparent spending advantage reduced. Just after the referendum YouGov found that, after being advised that it meant that Scotland secures more spending per head than England & Wales, 59% of people across the UK as a whole feel the Barnett formula should be abolished. Meanwhile back in June the Future of England survey reported that 56% of people in England agree that, ‘Levels of public spending in Scotland should be reduced to the levels in the rest of the UK’.

The problem with this line of questioning is that it runs the risk of exaggerating awareness and thus concern about the differences in the level of spending across the UK. It also fails to mention any of the arguments that are sometimes used to justify the higher  level of public spending north of the border, such as the higher level of revenues per head.  An alternative approach adopted by the British Social Attitudes survey simply asks people south of the border whether they think Scotland secures more or less than its fair share of spending – without advising them of what the levels are or, of course, as to why the differences might be justified. This does uncover a degree of concern, but at 36% the proportion who say it is unfair is far lower. And of course if Scotland does acquire more taxation powers and responsibility its public spending will come to depend more on the health of its own tax revenues and less on the alleged generosity of the English taxpayer anyway. English concern and Scottish aspiration may not necessarily be in competition with each other.

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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.