England and the Union

Ailsa Henderson

In the grand scheme of political cultures and attitudes in the UK, the study of English attitudes is one of two perennial silences.  Studies of UK politics are almost always studies of British politics and exclude Northern Ireland. The latter, by virtue of its parties, or the constitutional origins of its legislature, or the fact that it involves reading completely separate literatures on consociational democracies or conflict resolution, is seen as sufficiently separate that it is rarely integrated within analyses of political events across the rest of the UK. 

The second silence has been to exclude England, but the exclusion has been by default rather than design.  Indeed, data on British politics – whether parties or voters or attitudes – is almost always England-dominated but England’s role within it is rarely interrogated. The result is that ‘British’ explanations are proffered on the basis of England-only data with little thought to whether they hold in Scotland or Wales. That they don’t apply in Northern Ireland is usually precluded from the start.

Conscious efforts to study England as England obviously exist.  From Richard Rose’s analysis in the 1960s onward we see efforts to define the key themes and tensions in an English polity and markers of English national identity (Colls 2002).  These include the relationship between Englishness and Euroscepticism (Wellings 2012, 2019), the role of empire in English understandings of Britain and its place in the world (Kumar 2003, 2015), or how parties have reacted to a perceived sense of grievance (Kenny 2014). Many of these, however, explore what people have said about England (Aughey 2007, Mandler 2006), or what is being done about England (Kenny 2014), but little about what the English, as a population, were or are thinking. 

English identity is related to both Euroscepticism and devo-anxiety

It was in this context in which we established the Future of England Survey, conducting fieldwork for the first time in 2011.  Since then it has provided robust evidence that English identity is related to both Euroscepticism and devo-anxiety (Wyn Jones et al 2012, 2013, Jeffery et al 2014), that, London aside, there is little variation across English regions in terms of these relationships.  Englishness may now be considered a politicised identity that is changing British politics (Henderson and Wyn Jones 2021). Such claims are not without controversy. Data from the British Social Attitudes survey suggest English identity, although rising, is not rising to the same extent. 

The English Reaction to Devolution

The 1999 creation (or re-opening) of legislatures in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, which brought devolution in varying forms to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, was expected to prompt a reaction from an English electorate that lacked a legislature of its own.  Widely anticipated was that it would lead to the sort of ‘catch up’ instincts found in other asymmetrical states, where areas with greater autonomy are seen as examples for others to emulate. Surely, the thinking went, those in England would want something of their own – on a national or regional scale – when they saw how devolution operated in other parts of the kingdom?

The other anticipated reaction was that the English, not necessarily wanting an institution of their own, would become annoyed at the various inequities in the system. Not least of these was the fact that MPs from areas with devolution, could continue to involve themselves in English-only decision making at Westminster, when the same level of intervention was denied English MPs.  In short, we awaited an English backlash, borne on one hand by envy and on the other by frustration.

Writing in 2003, Curtice and Heath pronounced that no backlash had occurred.  True though this may have been at the time, we now see evidence of considerable English discontent: a deep frustration at the state of English governance as well as a level of dissatisfaction with the domestic constitutional status quo, perhaps best summarised as a sense of devo-anxiety.  In what follows we outline the nature of these two phenomena, as well as outline prospects for their resolution.

Attitudes to English Governance

In terms of attitudes to English governance, there is a widespread sense that the status quo is insufficient. Presented with a range of possible governance options, there is support for each possible option – a Minister for England, regional ministers for England, English Votes for English Laws, at times for the creation of an English Parliament, and an end to the centralisation of decision-making. One thing we know, therefore, is that there is an appetite for change. Within that, we know that the most popular option has been English Votes for English Laws (EVEL).

It might well seem counter intuitive that such an administrative and technical change would command such popular support but support for it has long outstripped other options. In addition, when we first started polling on different governance arrangements, support for an English Parliament was highest. When we added the option of EVEL, support for an English-only parliament dropped and support for EVEL was high. It was clear, therefore, that the introduction of EVEL would absorb rather a lot of the demand for more radical change and precisely because it allowed the English electorate to better conceive of Westminster as – at times – an English parliament.

Any sort of UK-wide constitutional change needs to accommodate England, but England is too large

The second thing we know is that there is a tension between the proposals for change that frequently surface and those that command popular support.  On the centre left, in particular, party elites tend to offer some form of regionalisation within England, largely as a way to deal with England’s disproportionate size within the UK. Any sort of UK-wide constitutional change needs to accommodate England, but England is too large and too unwieldy to accommodate on its own, so the solution is to break it into more manageable chunks, using English regions as the basis for further devolution that would impose a degree of symmetry on UK governance arrangements. 

However institutionally elegant such a solution might seem, it is an unpopular one. Since 2011 we have routinely found that the English electorate prefers England-wide solutions. This is true when we ask respondents to evaluate different options separately, but also when we force them to identify a single solution that they prefer.  And on the specific issue of keeping England whole or a regional solution, we put this specific issue to respondents and find that around three quarters want an England-wide solution. Critically, this is true of both of those who prioritise a British national identity as well as those who prioritise an English national identity.

Given that support for an English parliament, remains a minority concern, we are left with three seemingly incompatible facts: England is too big to accommodate by itself, the English want England to be accommodated by itself, but not necessarily with an English Parliament.  Little wonder that politicians find it difficult to identify solutions that resonate with voters.

English Devo-Anxiety

When the English cast their eyes beyond England’s borders we see a similar sense of dissatisfaction. Targets here include possible changes to the domestic union, the distribution of resources across it, as well as the level of influence that others wield within it.  English attitudes reflect a sense of devo-anxiety, or disquiet with the constitutional status quo. Within that there is particular frustration with Scotland, which manifests itself in two ways: as frustration with what is perceived to be undue access to resources and undue access to influence within Westminster.  Thus, support for English Votes for English Law can be viewed not just as a way of providing the English with an English-only forum for decision making, but also as a means of excluding others from decision making. It is important for who it excludes as much as the voice it offers to those who are included. 

one third of the English electorate believes that no Scottish MP should ever sit in government

After the 2015 election campaign in which the Conservative party portrayed the SNP as spendthrift Trojan horses at Westminster precisely because they knew that the English electorate viewed Scots with some unease, we polled to see whether English voters distinguished between the undue influence of Scottish MPs and SNP MPs. The results show that they do, but it is also the case that one third of the English electorate believes that no Scottish MP should ever sit in government.

On the issue of resources, the English electorate – admittedly much like the other electorates in the UK – believes that it gets less than its fair share of resources. Where the English differ is in the extent to which they believe that Scottish public spending should be reduced. The English are more likely to believe this than are, say, voters in Wales, but it is also true that Scotland is in England’s sights in a way that no other part of the union is.  Take, for example, attitudes to spending in Northern Ireland, where between 30 and 40% of English voters profess not to have an opinion at all.

If we think back to the two possible instances of an English backlash to devolution: a desire for governance solutions of their own and annoyance at the current situation, then it is now easy to find evidence of both in the available survey data on English attitudes.

Prospects for resolution

Notwithstanding these clear preferences within England, there are three reasons to suggest that the English question (or English problem) lacks an easy solution. The first is that previous attempts at constitutional change appear not to have satisfied pre-existing demand, even when that demand was considerable and obvious.  After the introduction of English Votes for English Laws we found that the English electorate was largely unaware that the changes had occurred, and to the extent that they are, they felt the changes don’t go far enough.  In short, the introduction of EVEL didn’t satisfy demand for EVEL. Admittedly this was an easy one to miss – the proportion of the general population interested in procedural rules of the House of Commons is not a large one, but more visible change – like, say, Brexit – brings little comfort.

Second, previous attempts at constitutional change reveal how conditional and ambivalent English attitudes to the union are.  Asked whether losing Scotland or a disrupted peace in Northern Ireland were prices worth paying for Brexit, around 80% of English Leave voters said yes. Asked whether the union was important, whether they wanted independence or whether, if one or more other parts of the union wanted to go their own way, we reach more than half the English electorate if we add together those who want indy and those with a more ambivalent attitude to the union. The English don’t want independence for themselves, but they wouldn’t mind all that much if they were left the union to themselves, Northern Ireland reunited with the republic, Scotland on its own, and Wales to keep it company.

Third, this ambivalence is entirely out of kilter with current government pronouncements about the precious union, with post-Brexit efforts to double down on a ‘take it, you can’t leave it’ state.  This tough love approach is part of why support for independence in Scotland now routinely touches 50%.  And yet the available public opinion suggests that the perceived alternative, efforts to appease Scotland, would only further annoy an English electorate that has a deeply ambivalent attitude to the union and an unambiguous dislike for Scottish spending and influence. The UK government is caught between a love bombing rock and a muscular unionist hard place, with seemingly zero sum choices over which electorate they seek to annoy/appease.

The Conservative party has done well precisely because it is perceived to be a party that stands up for England

What does this offer scholars of national identity and contemporary political attitudes to the polity, its members and governance arrangements?  Lots actually. The first is the clear political salience of English national identity to contemporary political attitudes. The second is the process of manoeuvring that political parties have undergone to communicate a sense of politicised Englishness to the electorate.  The Conservative party has done well precisely because it is perceived to be a party that stands up for England and –  this is an important distinction –  a party that is perceived by English identifiers to stand up for Britain.  Third, is the nuanced relationship of sub-state identities to Britishness, oppositional in Scotland and Wales, tangled together in England. 

While interesting in itself, the study of England as England offers much to those seeking to disentangle the overlapping demoi that exist within these islands.  It serves as a reminder that the territorial scale of academic pursuits matters.  Viewed through a British lens (specifically one that excludes Northern Ireland) the study of British politics leads us to make claims about a series of causal relationships that link contemporary attitudes, electorate behaviour and political events.  To view Brexit, for example, through a British lens is to identify the importance of tales about Britain’s past, its role in the world and its future given the chance to ‘take back control’. Shifting the territorial frame of reference to England, however, makes clear that this is a view held particularly strongly by those who prioritise an English – but not a British – identity in England.  English attitudes therefore tell us an awful lot about preferences in England and about tensions within the state. But they also offer us insights into how we can study social and political relations in a pluri-national multi-level polity.


Aughey, Arthur (2007) The Politics of Englishness. Manchester University Press.

Colls, Robert (2002) Identity of England. Oxford University Press. 

Henderson, Ailsa and Richard Wyn Jones (2021) Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain. Oxford University Press

Jeffery, Charlie, Richard Wyn Jones, Ailsa Henderson, Roger Scully and Guy Lodge (2014) Taking England Seriously: The New English Politics Edinburgh: Future of the UK and Scotland

Kenny, Michael (2014) The Politics of English Nationhood. Oxford University Press

Kumar, Krishan (2003) The Making of English National Identity. Cambridge University Press

Kumar, Krishan (2015) The Idea of Englishness. Ashgate

Mandler, Peter (2006) English National Character. Yale University Press

Wellings, Ben (2012) English Nationalism and Euroscepticism: Losing the Peace. Peter Lang

Wellings, Ben (2019) English Nationalism, Brexit and the Anglosphere: Wider Still and Wider. Manchester University Press

Wyn Jones, Richard, Guy Lodge, Ailsa Henderson and Daniel Wincott (2012) The Dog that Finally Barked: England as an Emerging Political Community London: Institute for Public Policy Research

Wyn Jones, Richard, Guy Lodge, Charlie Jeffery, Glenn Gottfried, Roger Scully, Ailsa Henderson and Daniel Wincott (2013), England and its Two Unions: The Anatomy of a Nation and its Discontents London: Institute for Public Policy Research

Ailsa Henderson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Edinburgh and co-author, with Richard Wyn Jones, of Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain (Oxford University Press 2021). Professor Henderson is currently leading the political behaviour programme for the Scottish Centre on Constitutional Change, which includes the Risk and Constitutional Attitudes Survey, has been a co-investigator for all three rounds of the Future of England Survey and is principal investigator for the 2014 Scottish Referendum Survey.

Header image credit: Drew Leavy


Henderson, Ailsa 2021. ‘England and the Union’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (2) https://doi.org/10.51428/dsoc.2021.02.0002