In August, my research in Scotland found a slim majority for independence. In September, my poll in Northern Ireland found a tiny margin for leaving the United Kingdom and joining the Republic. This month, to round out the picture, I have surveyed voters in England to see how they feel about the union, especially the parts of it that voted to remain in the EU, and how they see the prospect of one or more of the home nations deciding to go its own way.
Many English voters think Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively benefit more from the union than the rest of the UK. This is particularly the case among those who voted Leave in the EU referendum, and especially among Conservative Leavers – two thirds of whom say Scotland benefits most from being part of the union, compared to one in five who think all parts of the UK benefit equally from its membership.
Notably, people were slightly more to think Scotland benefits disproportionately from being part of the UK than they were to say the same about Northern Ireland.
Just over half of English voters think that England subsidises Scotland financially, and they are divided as to whether or not they are happy with this arrangement (while four in ten say they don’t know whether they subsidise Scotland or not). Conservative voters are by far the most likely to think that England provides financial support to Scotland – three quarters believe this to be the case, and most of them are unhappy about it. Tory Leavers are also the most likely to think that England subsidises Northern Ireland, but with the difference that they are more likely to be happy to do so.
Our focus groups – conducted with voters of different political outlooks in Bexley, south east London, and Newcastle upon Tyne – shed some light on this apparent discrepancy. The widespread view that the English “pay for Scotland” goes hand-in-hand with the knowledge that Scots get certain things – free NHS prescriptions and free university education – that are not available in England: in other words, that English taxpayers are paying for the Scots to have things that they don’t get themselves. There is an extra dimension to this in Newcastle, where people question the idea of a more prosperous England supporting its poorer neighbour to the north: affluence was really confined to “that belt that goes from the Cotswolds through to London, into Essex to some extent, not as far north as Norfolk and Suffolk, not the Midlands”.
Moreover, it rankled with some of our English voters that Scotland seemed to show little affinity for the union they felt they were paying to maintain: “It’s always Scotland. They say ‘I’m not British, I’m Scottish’;” “With the Barnett Formula they come out ahead, and they’re still moaning;” “I’ve got nothing against Scotland but if they want to be independent let’s stop paying the funds.” Indeed, some felt that those who had voted against independence in 2014 had done so for purely economic reasons: “My Scottish friends are worried about their pensions if they become independent. They hate the English;” “I don’t think the people who voted to stay were particularly attached – I think they just thought it was in their best interests.”
These things do not apply in the same way with Northern Ireland, for three main reasons: people feel the province is much less able to support itself financially than Scotland; there was no perception that people there enjoyed benefits that were not available in England; and there was little awareness of a concerted movement to take Northern Ireland out of the UK or “moaning” about the English while enjoying their apparent largesse.
The Brexit effect
A plurality of English voters – including a majority of EU Remainers – think Brexit makes Scottish independence in the foreseeable future more likely, while Leave voters are more likely to think it makes no difference. For some in our groups, this was more because it had given the SNP “an excuse to go for another referendum” rather than any material change: Scots had already had “a chance to make a decision and they bottled it… They decided to stay part of the UK, therefore you have to sort of grin and bear what the general UK decision is. You’ve got to live with that.”
However, this was a minority view. Remainers were unsurprisingly sympathetic to the argument that Scots were being taken out of the EU against their will: “I can identify with their feeling of loss, they’re feeling angry that someone has taken something away that the majority of them wanted to keep. It adds to the longstanding list of things that ‘people in bloody Westminster do and we have to put up with’.” But English Leave voters – themselves feeling that their democratically expressed will was not being acted upon – also empathised with the Scottish Remainers’ predicament: “I’d be miffed. We’re miffed because we voted out and we’re not;” “Let them have their independence so they can stay in the EU if they want to.”
However, some were less sure that Brexit had hastened Scottish independence, arguing that the post-2016 saga might make some voters reluctant to go through the whole thing again: “If I were Scottish, I would be thinking – is there a withdrawal agreement, is it deal or no deal, what does that mean? They don’t want the farce of the three and a half years that we’ve had.”
Indeed, many English Leave voters saw many parallels between some Scots’ desire for self-determination and their own wish to leave the EU: “It’s similar in the way we want to control our own destiny. Scotland want their independence, we want our independence from the EU for roughly the same reasons… Taking back control.” Remain voters also sympathised – especially with the wish not to be “taken out” of the EU – but often ascribed more noble motives to the independence movement: “With Brexit, a lot of it was prejudice, ‘we don’t want foreigners in our country’. With Scotland it’s not as emotional.” While Brexit had in their view been driven largely by immigration, the Scots “are really into their heritage. It’s ‘I really want to be Scottish’.”
Most voters think Scotland is on course to leave the UK – and while most of those think Brexit has accelerated the process, a large minority of them (and three in ten of all Leave voters) think Scotland would probably vote for independence in the next few years whether Brexit was happening or not.
When the same questions are applied to Northern Ireland, English voters are much less likely to have a view. Apart from the observation that “the religious element is very strong,” very few had any grasp of the dynamics of Northern Irish politics, which seem complicated and even mysterious to many people. Some were not even aware that Northern Ireland’s long term place in the union was even an issue, and for others the question seemed less to do with self-determination, as in Scotland, than with identity: while Unionists there “probably feel much like us, that they’re part of us”, it was natural that others should feel that “Ireland is their own country. There’s water separating England and Ireland. So if Northern Ireland became part of Ireland, that’s Ireland, one whole country.”
Only just over a quarter of English voters – and only one in three Conservative Leavers – think it would be wrong on principle for some EU laws and regulations to apply in Northern Ireland after Brexit but not to the rest of the UK. A plurality – and a majority of Tories – think such an outcome is not ideal, but an acceptable compromise to get a sensible Brexit arrangement.
Should they stay or should they go?
On the big question of Scotland and Northern Ireland’s membership of the union, English opinion largely divides between those who say yes, and those who say it is for the Scottish and Northern Irish people to decide.
Of this latter group – more than two in five of the English population – only a handful say that if either voted to leave the UK they would be happy to see them go. Of those who say it is for Scotland and Northern Ireland to decide, a large minority nevertheless say they would be sorry to see them leave if they chose do so. This means that, overall, most English voters would rather keep the union together if it were up to them – though they recognise it isn’t up to them.
This overall view was also reflected and expanded on in our focus groups. Many felt there was something important but intangible about the union, and that the country would be diminished if one or more parts of it were to leave: “I like being part of the United Kingdom, I do. I think if we divide it we could make ourselves weaker, not stronger;” “We’re known as the four countries together worldwide. The Royal Family, bringing all of us together – people see us as one. I don’t think people abroad see us as separate countries;” “It’s like a family. You have dysfunctional families but you still come together;” “Historically, worldwide, the UK has been a leading force in a lot of areas. If it was all divided up I don’t think we would have the same standing in the world;” “If we separate from Scotland, would there be a border? That would be pretty sad. It would be going backwards. It’s the Berlin Wall all over again and the Mexicans and Trump. It’s not positive.”
As in the poll, very few of our focus group participants actively wanted Scotland to leave. For those who would be least unhappy to see them go, the point was not that we disliked them, but that the Scots seemed to resent the English. As mentioned above, this made the idea of financial subsidies harder to swallow: “We don’t want to be governed by the EU, they don’t want to be governed by us. But they still want our money.”
And while the idea of unity was good in principle, it seemed illusory to some, who often also felt that rivalry and antagonism went back much further than the union: “You go up to the borders of Scotland and see the castles and everything. We were always fighting;” “I don’t feel we’re united anyway. They’ve fought us for years and years;” “We’ve been segregated for quite a long time actually. I don’t think there’s much unity.”
This also helps to explain why, when asked what they would do if they had to choose between going ahead with Brexit and keeping Scotland and Northern Ireland in the Union, most Leave voters chose Brexit. As was clear from the groups, this does not reflect a callous disregard for the union but a pragmatic view that all parts of the UK had the right of self-determination. England and Wales had voted to leave the EU; if Scotland and Northern Ireland wanted to chart their own course, so be it:“If they want to be their country, what’s it got to do with us? Just let them crack on” – especially since their campaigns to leave the UK would continue whether we were in the EU or not.
But even most of these voters hoped it wouldn’t come to that: “I’d be prepared to say goodbye to all of them, because that’s what we voted for. But I don’t want that to happen;” “You’d have to change the flag and everything. It wouldn’t be the United Kingdom any more;” “We’re proud of our little nation and I don’t want bits breaking off. I want people to remember us as a dynamic little nation that fought against major powers and beat them. And it’s strength in numbers and historically what we’re known for. I’d rather we all stay together.”