Identities and constitutional preferences across the UK
In 1983 the UK was a unitary state and all legislative and executive power was with Westminster and Whitehall. Thirty years on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have separately elected representative bodies with law-making powers. Has the advent of devolution strengthened or weakened public support for keeping Britain together?
Constitutional preferences in Scotland have remained relatively stable since 1997, with devolution the most popular option. Support for independence is weaker since the SNP first came to power in 2007.
Support in Scotland for independence has fallen from 30% in 2006 to 23% now. Only around half of those with a strong Scottish identity back independence.
Support in Northern Ireland for reunification with the rest of Ireland has fallen since 2007. This has been accompanied by an increase in the proportion who say Northern Ireland should become an independent state or else “don’t know”.
Since 2007 support in Northern Ireland for reunification with the rest of Ireland has fallen from 23% to 15%.
In England, dissatisfaction with Scotland’s share of public spending has grown since the early years of devolution.
The proportion of people in England who think Scotland gets more than its fair share of public spending has doubled since 2000 to 44%.
In 1983 the United Kingdom was very clearly a unitary state. Despite consisting of three distinct nations and a territory whose national status is disputed, all legislative power and executive responsibility lay with Westminster and Whitehall. Proposals to introduce separately elected devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales had failed to secure adequate support in referendums held in 1979. Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, where a devolved parliament and government had existed until 1972, hopes of reintroducing devolution were looking unlikely to be fulfilled in the wake of continuing civil strife. All that was in place was an assembly that had the ability to scrutinise the Westminster government's Secretary of State, but which was being boycotted by its nationalist members - and before long even that limited institution was to come to an unheralded end.
Thirty years on the position is very different. Both Scotland and Wales now have separately elected representative bodies that have the ability to make laws without reference to Westminster, and governments that can decide for themselves how many of the public services in their country should be funded and run. Northern Ireland too now enjoys devolution once more, albeit in a very different form to what was in place before 1972 or is to be found anywhere else in the UK today. In order to ensure that power is shared between the two distinct ethno-religious communities living there - a Protestant community whose roots lie in 17th-century immigration from Scotland and a Catholic community that shares many ties and affinities with the rest of the island of Ireland - not only is the territory's law-making Assembly elected by proportional representation, but ministerial posts are allocated in that way too.
Much of the impetus for these developments lay in a wish to demonstrate that the United Kingdom was capable of accommodating the diverse identities and aspirations that lie within it, and thereby help end disputes that threatened its territorial integrity (Aughey, 2001; Bogdanor, 1999; Mackintosh, 1998). It was hoped that by giving Wales and (especially) Scotland their own separate political institutions that had the ability to determine much of their country's domestic affairs, demands for independence that were being spearheaded by nationalist political parties would be headed off. Meanwhile in Northern Ireland it was anticipated that, together with the creation of institutions to facilitate dialogue and collaboration with the neighbouring Irish Republic, giving nationalist politicians who represented the minority Catholic population a guaranteed role in the territory's government would facilitate accommodation of the identities and aspirations of Catholics, while recognising that, for the time being at least, a majority of the territory's population wanted to remain part of the UK (McGarry and O'Leary, 1995; 2006).
These innovations were not, however, without their critics. In Scotland in particular, it was argued that the creation of a separate parliament would put the country on a 'slippery slope' towards independence (Dalyell, 1977). The new institution's politicians would inevitably want to increase their power at Westminster's expense. Creating distinctively Scottish political symbols would simply stimulate and fuel Scottish national identity rather than strengthen adherence to Britishness and the UK state (Thatcher, 1998). At the same time, relations with England would be soured because while Scotland and Wales would now be able settle many of their own affairs for themselves, politicians from the rest of the UK could still meddle in the affairs of England, where no devolution was in place and where public spending per head would continue to be less than that enjoyed elsewhere. It was even suggested that an 'English backlash' might ensue (Wright, 2000).
In Northern Ireland there were doubts whether the devolution settlement that was agreed in talks concluded on Good Friday 1998 would succeed in bringing all parts of the territory together. One of the two main Protestant political parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), chose not to be party to the Agreement. For many unionist politicians, much rested on whether the proposals for decommissioning weaponry that had been accumulated during 30 years of civil strife, not least by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), would be seen to work in practice. Meanwhile, by providing guaranteed representation to both unionist and nationalist politicians in the executive as well as the legislature, and in requiring that major legislative decisions have the support of the representatives of both communities in the Assembly, some commentators were concerned that the settlement would simply reinforce existing lines of division as well as potentially undermine the effectiveness and accountability of ministerial decision-making (Wilson and Wilford, 2003; Horowitz, 2001).
Initially, at least, it was the doubts about the stability and effectiveness of the settlement in Northern Ireland that appeared to have the greater force. The Assembly only operated for 10 weeks before it had to be suspended because of a perceived lack of progress on arms decommissioning. After a number of other hiccups the devolved institutions actually lay in abeyance for nearly five years, from 2002 to 2007. However, some nine years after the conclusion of the Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement) and with the issue of decommissioning finally resolved, the devolved institutions began to operate in 2007 on a continuous basis, and this time with the DUP as full participants. Indeed Northern Ireland was faced with the remarkable sight of the DUP's leader, the Revd. Ian Paisley, a long-standing and rhetorically flamboyant advocate of hard line unionism, working in government with Martin McGuinness, who had formerly been an active member of the Provisional IRA.
More recently, however, it has been the durability of Scotland's constitutional position that has looked to be in most doubt. Far from killing nationalism 'stone dead' as had been anticipated by the former Labour Cabinet Minister, (Lord) George Robertson (Hassan, 2011), it soon became apparent that elections to the Scottish Parliament were proving to be a relatively happy hunting ground for the Scottish National Party (SNP) (as indeed were Assembly elections for the Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, in Wales). In 2007 the SNP narrowly succeeded in securing the largest number of MSPs, and for the next four years formed a minority government. Still, the party's ambitions to hold a referendum on whether Scotland should leave the UK and become an independent country remained on hold thanks to the absence of a majority for such a move in the Edinburgh Parliament. However, in 2011 the nationalists dramatically won an overall majority and the UK government accepted that this gave the party the moral right to hold an independence referendum. After extended negotiations between the two governments the way has now been cleared for a referendum on independence to be held in September 2014. Should there be a majority 'Yes' vote then preparations will begin to be made for Scotland to leave the UK.
In this chapter we look underneath the bonnet of these election outcomes and political developments to examine the trends in identities and constitutional preferences among the general public since the advent of devolution in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Has public support for remaining part of the UK in fact either grown or diminished in the wake of constitutional change? At the same time we also examine developments in the UK's largest component: England. Does it accept the patchwork of asymmetric devolution that has emerged or are there signs of discontent? To answer these questions we address three key issues that are central to understanding the role that devolution has so far played in helping to maintain - or fracture - the UK.
First, what has happened to patterns of national identity? A shared sense of Britishness is often regarded as the emotional glue that helps keep the UK together. Yet it coexists alongside other 'national' identities, Scottish, English, Irish, Northern Irish and Welsh. Has the establishment of a distinctive Scottish Parliament undermined adherence to Britishness north of the border? Has England become more aware of its own separate English identity? And has greater acknowledgement of the aspirations of many Northern Irish Catholics served in practice to reinforce in them a sense of having a distinct Irish identity?
Even if the pattern of national identity has not changed, people's preferences as to how they would like to be governed may have done so. The electoral success of the SNP certainly gives good reason to wonder whether in Scotland support for leaving the UK has increased since devolution has been in place. Meanwhile, perhaps England has begun to question whether it should continue to accommodate the demands of its seemingly increasingly truculent neighbour and/or whether it should be enjoying some form of devolution itself. At the same time, we might wonder now that the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland have been up and running for a while, whether more people in the region are willing to accept its continued role as part of the UK. So, our second key issue is, 'What trends have emerged in how people in each part of the UK would like to be governed?'
Finally, we turn to the relationship between identity and preferences, and ask how far those with different national identities disagree about how their part of the UK should be run. If devolution really has been successful in strengthening public support for keeping the UK in its current form, then arguably those whose primary sense of identity is something other than British should have come to accept that where they live should remain in the UK. In short it should have succeeded in healing the constitutional divisions between those with different identities. On the other hand, if the fears of those who were critical of devolution have been realised we might find those who do not feel primarily British have become even less likely to accept that they should be part of the British state. Those who feel Scottish or Irish may have become even more determined to want to leave the UK, while those who primarily feel English may have particularly come to wonder whether their part of the UK is getting a raw deal. So our third issue is then, 'Has the link between identity and constitutional preference strengthened or weakened?'
To answer these questions, we draw on data from three complementary sources. The first is the British Social Attitudes survey which, since the late 1990s, has been asking its respondents in England, on a regular basis, about both their national identity and their constitutional preferences. In addition, since 1983 British Social Attitudes has asked all respondents in Britain what they think the constitutional position of Northern Ireland should be, and so we can examine how far the rest of the UK believes that territory should form part of the British state.
British Social Attitudes covers Scotland too, but it contains too few respondents in any one year to provide us with reliable estimates of the distribution of public opinion north of the border. Instead for this information we turn to British Social Attitudes' sister survey, the Scottish Social Attitudes survey, which was first established in the immediate wake of the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and is conducted using the same methodological approach as British Social Attitudes. It is the only survey to have asked the same questions about national identity and constitutional preferences in a consistent manner ever since the advent of devolution in 1999.
British Social Attitudes has never been conducted in Northern Ireland, but in 1989 NatCen Social Research helped establish an equivalent survey there, known as the Northern Ireland Social Attitudes survey. Funding ended in 1996, but two years later researchers at Queen's University, Belfast and the University of Ulster launched the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, using much the same methodological approach as the Northern Ireland Social Attitudes survey and, in turn, British Social Attitudes. Between them the Northern Ireland Social Attitudes survey and the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey provide the longest running series of Northern Irish data on our subject matter. Furthermore, the similarity in the way in which all three surveys are conducted means they provide the most robust opportunities for comparing trends in opinion across all three parts of the UK.
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- Entitled the Northern Ireland Executive.
- Wales is not included because surveys using a methodology similar to that deployed by those analysed here have not been conducted there since 2007. For information on the surveys that have been conducted since then and the trends in respect of national identity and constitutional preference they suggest have occurred see Curtice (2013), and Wyn Jones and Scully (2012).
- There is one small difference between the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey and the two social attitudes surveys so far as their reporting conventions are concerned. In the case of British Social Attitudes and Scottish Social Attitudes the standard practice is to include in the denominators on which percentages are based those who refused to answer a question or are otherwise recorded as not having answered a question. In the case of the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, however, they are usually excluded. To avoid the risk of us quoting in this chapter figures for any of these surveys that might be slightly different from those given elsewhere we have followed as appropriate each survey's usual practice.
- Though we should note that the fieldwork for the 2012 survey, when there was a particularly marked drop to 53 per cent, was undertaken during and in the weeks immediately following the 2012 London Olympics and that we cannot reject the possibility that that event may have helped to foster a short-term increase in feelings of British identity.
- It should also be noted that as long ago as 1996, a System Three poll reported that 39 per cent said that they were Scottish not British, many more than did so in our 1992 and 1997 surveys. However this System Three poll was conducted using a rather different methodological approach and thus we cannot be sure that the difference represents a methodological artefact rather than evidence that the incidence of an exclusive Scottish identity had at some point been just as high before the advent of the Scottish Parliament as it has proven to be subsequently (Moreno, 2006).
- On the events in 2012 that might help account for the lower level of Northern Irish identity in that year see Note 8.
- Bases for Table 6.2 are as follows:
- Belfast City Council voted in December 2012 to fly the Union flag only on a limited number of special days rather than, as hitherto, every day. The decision occasioned some rioting. There was also some serious rioting in Belfast and elsewhere the previous summer in the wake of that season's Orange Order parades (Nolan, 2013: 161). The year 2012 also saw the centennial commemoration of the events leading up to the signing of the Ulster Covenant in opposition to Home Rule.
- Wyn Jones et al. (2012) claimed on the basis of an internet 'Future of England' survey conducted by YouGov in July/August 2011 that there had been a marked increase in English as opposed to British identity. They found that 40 per cent said they were exclusively or predominantly English (compared with 33 per cent on the 2009 British Social Attitudes survey). However, a subsequent YouGov poll conducted for Channel 4 News in January 2012 found only 33 per cent saying they were exclusively or predominantly English while a second Future of England survey in November 2011 put the figure at 35 per cent (Wyn Jones et al., 2013). Even leaving aside the many methodological differences between the two exercises, it would appear that Wyn Jones et al.'s relatively high 2011 figure could well have been the result of no more than sampling variation.
- It should be noted that in 2012 the English version of the Moreno question was not administered to a small number of respondents who had been born in Scotland or Wales (N=76). However, given their place of birth they might reasonably be expected to be more likely to claim to be exclusively or predominantly British rather than exclusively or predominantly English. Their exclusion thus should not have diminished the proportion saying they are predominantly or wholly English.
On the whole, do you think that England's economy benefits more from having Scotland in the UK, or that Scotland's economy benefits more from being part of the UK, or is it about equal?
England benefits more
Scotland benefits more
Would you say that compared with other parts of the United Kingdom, Scotland gets pretty much its fair share of government spending, more than its fair share, or less than its fair share of government spending?
Please choose your answer from this card.
Much more than its fair share of government spending
A little more than its fair share of government spending
Pretty much its fair share of government spending
A little less than its fair share of government spending
Much less than its fair share of government spending
- Bases for Table 6.4 are as follows:
- In 1991 talks with the parties (other than Sinn Fein) were instigated by the then Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Peter Brooke. Sinn Féin were excluded from these talks, but at the same time Brooke authorised secret contact be made with the Irish Republican Army. Meanwhile the UK government appeared to recognise nationalist sentiment by declaring that the Britain had "no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland", a declaration that helped pave the way for talks between John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein that in turn were eventually able to help pave the way towards the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement (Nolan, 2012: 20).
- The bases for Table 6.6 are as follows:
- We should also note that there has since 2007 been a marked decline among Catholics in the level of support for reunification. In that year no less than 47 per cent backed that view, but now only 32 per cent do so. A similar decline, from 21 per cent to eight per cent, has occurred among those of no religion. One possible explanation is that the prospect has come to look less attractive, for the time being at least, as a result of the particularly adverse consequences that the banking crisis of 2008 visited upon the Irish Republic. Recent demands from Sinn Fein that another poll be held on Northern Ireland's constitutional status may also have encouraged people to consider the possible practical consequences of reunification.
- We do not, however, find intensification on the scale claimed by Wyn Jones et al. (2012; 2013) who reported the results of two Future of England internet surveys that asked, in 2011 and 2012, the same question about the voting rights of Scottish MPs as that asked by British Social Attitudes and then compared these surveys' findings with those obtained by British Social Attitudes up to and including 2007. The Future of England surveys reported that in 2011 no less than 53 per cent strongly agreed that Scottish MPs should not vote on English laws, and in 2012 that as many as 55 per cent did so, far higher figures than obtained by British Social Attitudes either before or since 2007. The figure obtained by the 2011 survey might have been thought to have been occasioned by the fact it failed to offer respondents a "neither agree nor disagree" option, but this option was included on the 2012 survey and an even higher figure obtained. However, in both years the remaining response options on the Future of England survey read, "Strongly agree" and "Tend to agree" together with "Strongly disagree" and "Tend to disagree", whereas the options on British Social Attitudes are, "Agree strongly" and "Agree" together with "Disagree strongly" and "Disagree". We would suggest that respondents are more likely to say that they "Agree strongly" when the alternative is to say "Tend to agree" rather than "Agree", and that consequently there must be severe doubt about the merits of drawing substantive conclusions from any comparison of the findings of the two series. We would also note that those who evince a relatively high level of interest in politics are more likely to agree strongly with the proposition that Scottish MPs should not vote on English laws, and that while just 36 per cent of the 2012 British Social Attitudes sample in England said that they had "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of interest in politics, as many as 67 per cent of the 2012 Future of England sample said they were "very" or "fairly interested". In short part of the reasons for the difference between the two sets of findings may well be that the internet survey contained more people with a high level of interest in politics.
- The Future of England surveys (Wyn Jones et al., 2012; 2013) also record relatively high levels of don't know responses on this issue, 31 per cent in 2011 and 26 per cent in 2012. However, they also report rather higher proportions saying that Scotland gets more than its fair share, 45 per cent in 2011 and 52 per cent in 2012, suggesting that attitudes have become yet more critical since 2007. However, we should note that the question is administered somewhat differently on the Future of England survey than on British Social Attitudes; respondents are simply invited to say whether Scotland gets pretty much its fair share, more than its fair share or less than its fair share whereas on British Social Attitudes respondents are presented with a showcard that lists all five options shown in Table 6.9. In addition, on the Future of England surveys the question is asked immediately after a question that asks respondents whether England gets its fair share of public spending and this may have helped cue some respondents into saying in the following question that Scotland gets less than its fair share.
- In 2004-2006 the second option read "that makes decisions about the region's economy, planning and housing". The 2003 survey carried both versions of this option and demonstrated that the difference of wording did not make a material difference to the pattern of response. The figures quoted for 2003 are those for the two versions combined.
- Bases for Table 6.11 are as follows:
- Bases for Table 6.12 are as follows:
- Bases for Table 6.13 are as follows:
- Bases for Table 6.14 are as follows:
- If we undertake a loglinear analysis of the data in Table 6.15, we find that the data are fitted adequately at the 5% level of probability without fitting a term for the interaction between national identity, constitutional preference and year. The residual chi-square for such a model is 13.0, which, with eight degrees of freedom, has a p value of 0.11.
- Note that in their attempt to argue the contrary position neither Wyn Jones et al. (2012) nor Wyn Jones et al. (2013) demonstrates that the link between Moreno national identity and attitudes towards devolution is stronger now than previously. They merely demonstrate that there is a link between national identity and such attitudes now, a point that is not in dispute. What has to be demonstrated for their argument to be sustained is that the link has grown stronger.
- Bases for Table 6.15 are as follows:
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