Given the outsized attention Britain’s political class devotes to discussions of American policing methods, you’d assume the politics of our own nation were broadly stable. You’d be wrong. Recent polling underlines the fragility of the union in which we live, with 54% of Scottish voters and 25% of Welsh voters now backing independence, and 45% of Northern Irish voters backing union with the Republic. New Labour’s gamble that devolution would defang the independence movements in Britain’s Celtic nations seems to have dramatically backfired: instead, the result seems to be that London’s media pays far less attention to the currents threatening our union than they should.
But more interesting than all of these poll results is the revelation that 27% of voters in England would back English independence from the United Kingdom. On the face of it, the fact that independence for England has a wider popular base than that for Wales, with its own longstanding independence movement, devolved parliament, unique national language and culture, seems startling. There is, after all, no meaningful political campaign for such an outcome, very little discussion of what this would mean or how it would work, with even the notion of English independence seeming until now solely the preserve of a minuscule and eccentric fringe. So what’s driving this emotion, and is it worth taking seriously?
Digging into the statistics, the most striking thing about the recent polling is its sheer conservative-ness. Among Tory voters in England, 49% of those who have an opinion would support an independent England, as would 48% of the over-65s. Cross-referenced with Brexit data, we see that a startling 56% of English Leave voters support breaking away from the union, compared to only 17% of Remainers. This is the bedrock of the Tory base and a startling shift for the Conservative and Unionist party, which has yet to publicly address these trends, let alone begin to reckon with them.
What’s very unclear is whether this newfound English nationalism is reactive against the UK’s other independence movements or is being driven by a long-dormant and now stirring sense of English nationhood in itself. Certainly, devolution made the English Question more salient, raising English awareness of the constitutional disparity between the UK’s largest and most populous nation and those of the Celtic fringe.
On an anecdotal level, many English voters have been alienated by the Scottish independence debate, coming to the conclusion it’s better to leave a loveless marriage on your own terms than hold out for your disenchanted spouse to finally commit to a decision. Equally, many English voters resent the spending imbalance by which English taxpayers subsidise the relative largesse of the devolved nations towards their voter base while bearing the brunt of austerity themselves. Yet attempts to offset the imbalance and preserve the union by offering devolution to England’s regions have been broadly rejected by English voters: if and when England goes it alone, it will do so as a whole.
Perhaps a devolved English parliament would dampen these nationalist stirrings, though the evidence from Scotland and Wales implies the very opposite. An unavoidable constitutional reckoning of some kind is on the horizon, and even if the final break is decided in Edinburgh, a startling number of voters south of the border will relish the result. English nationalism was for decades the dog that hadn’t barked; but with English conservatives now beginning to view the breakup of the UK as more an opportunity than a threat, our politicians and media will need to start taking the English Question seriously, whether to defend the Union or start shaping its replacement.