Analysis: New figures show the Union is falling apart in front of our eyes

Ben Wray

Future of England Survey shows majority in England hostile to the United Kingdom

AS SNP leaders and delegates debate the next moves in the fight for Scottish independence at the SNP conference, new figures have revealed a derth of support for the union, notably in England.

The Future of England Survey, carried out by YouGov at the request of academics at Edinburgh and Cardiff universities, has revealed the true extent of cross-national disenchantment with the UK union.

What does it mean when the predominant nation in a union of nations no longer wants its dominant position? And what happens to the union once it has run out of supporters?

England against Union

England is of course by far the largest part of the UK. Around 84 per cent of the UK’s population lives in England, and this fact has posed problems for any scheme of federalism or the reorganisation of the UK constitutionally. The UK’s stability depends on support for the union in England, and there has been a long held assumption that challenges to the union come essentially from the ‘periphery’. The Future of England Survey fundamentally undermines this notion.

Disquiet with the union and Scotland’s place in it touches many aspects of social and political life, including political representation, public spending and public policy.

One in three English voters don’t think Scottish MPs of any party should be members of the cabinet. This rises to 40 per cent when asked about specifically SNP MPs.

Fifty one per cent of English respondents thought that money raised in English taxes should be spent in England, against 49 per cent who wanted the money spent on public services across the whole UK.

But this changed dramatically when Scotland was mentioned. 71 per cent thought English tax revenues should be spent in England against 29 per cent who thought they should be distributed to Scotland.

But despite opposition to the distribution of political power and public spending, English voters thought a single policy regime should be in place across the UK.

For example on prescription charges, 77 per cent of English voters wanted policy to be uniform across the UK. On tuition fees for higher education 72 per cent wanted uniformity.

In Scotland free prescriptions and free university tuition are flagship Scottish Government policies. These charges still apply in England.

Scotland against Union

These figures, of course, could scarcely contrast more sharply with attitudes in Scotland.

Only 12 per cent of Scots think Scottish MPs shouldn’t be in cabinet. 20 per cent think SNP MPs shouldn’t join the government.

Forty two per cent of Scots think England gets more than its fair share of public spending, while 39 per cent think Scotland gets less than its fair share.

Seventy six per cent of Scots thought Scottish tax revenues raised in Scotland should be spent here, as opposed to 24 per cent who thought they should be distributed to England.

Fifty one per cent of Scots thought prescription charge and tuition fee policy should be the same across the whole of the UK.

Even Scottish unionists aren’t exactly keen on the union. Almost half of Scottish Tories, 49 per cent, would be happy to see Scottish independence if it was the cost of Brexit – pointing perhaps to a degree of political sentiment over sense.

Precious union?

In her battle against the Brexiteer wing of her party, Theresa May has repeatedly evoked the need to defend the UK’s “precious union” from being broken up under the pressure of hard Brexit.

Indeed, an obsession with the union, both as the functional organisation of the UK state and as a symbol of international prestige and Empire legacy, has long marked the Tory party and the political right and far right.

Yet the Future of England survey has found that not only has the union (or if not the abstract idea of union, at least the actually lived experience of union) become unpopular across the four nations of the UK, it is especially unpopular among the right (conversely, leftwing voters in England are more likely to have a favourable view of, for example, the distribution of tax revenues).

Seventy nine per cent of English Conservative supporters are happy to see Scotland break from the union, and 75 per cent are prepared to see the collapse of the peace process in Northern Ireland as the price of Brexit.

Further to the right, Conservative leave supporters are even more hostile to the union. A massive 92 per cent are prepared to see Scottish independence, and 87 per cent the end of the political settlement in Northern Ireland, if that is what it takes to achieve “taking back control”.

In other words, the break up of the union is being driven from the left and the right, from Scotland and England. The union is running out of friends.

Picture courtesy of Marco Garro