3 July 2020

Conservative, but not unionist? English Tories pose a challenge to the Minister for the Union

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Earlier this week the pro-Welsh independence group Yes Cymru released the results of a YouGov poll showing that 27% of English adults would support English independence in a hypothetical referendum (51% were against, whilst 18% responded ‘don’t know’, and 4% refused to respond). This figure in itself was relatively shocking, especially when one considers that recent figures from Wales put support for Welsh independence at 25%. That means more English voters want independence for England than Welsh voters want independence for Wales.

However, perhaps the most important finding was how high support for English independence was amongst 2019 Conservative voters – 40% of whom supported English independence, compared to 42% who opposed it. This is quite the figure for voters of the Conservative and Unionist Party.

There are further signs that all is not well when it comes to support for the Union amongst English voters. The latest wave of the excellent British Election Study shows over 22% of English Conservative voters are in favour of Scottish independence, a figure which rises to nearly 28% in ‘red wall’ seats. Perhaps they just want a break from Ian Blackford at PMQs? Similarly, when asked on a scale of 0 (disappointed) to 10 (happy) how happy they were that Scotland voted to remain a part of the UK, Conservative voters registered a broadly indifferent average of 5.0. 

These stats should give the Minister for the Union pause for thought – the position was only created ten months ago, in July 2019, but already the voter coalition which brought Conservatives their largest majority since 1987 presents another threat. The Government is used to the threat to the Union coming from Scotland, via the SNP, and Northern Ireland, due to issues around post-Brexit trade, but it should not take England – and especially English Conservatives – for granted.

So, what can the Minister for the Union do? Typically these positions are given to MPs without any real power to shape relevant policy. But in this case the Minister for the Union is one Boris Johnson. 

When we look at the sample of 2019 Conservative voters who support an English parliament (either within or without the UK), and who support full independence for England, two key issues stand out – these voters tend to be less satisfied with how democracy in England and the UK operates, and they tend to think England does not get its fair share. They feel powerless, voiceless, and taken for granted. The Vote Leave campaign showed what a potent cocktail those emotions can be.

Firstly, dissatisfaction with democracy. English Tories who are less satisfied with how democracy is working are more likely to support an English parliament and English independence.  Interestingly, however, when we look at how politically engaged an area is – by seeing if an English Conservative voter was contacted in the month before polling day – we see that those who were contacted were less likely to support English Independence and were more likely to be satisfied with democracy in the UK than those who were not. That suggests that more active local parties might be one way to improve satisfaction with democracy.

Secondly, English Conservatives are much more likely than voters from other parties (except the Brexit Party) to think that England does not get its fair share. Tory voters who think that England is short-changed are more likely to support an English Parliament and English Independence (and for the latter, Red Wall Conservatives are more likely to support English independence regardless of their views on funding). Conversely, English Conservative voters are more likely to see Wales and Scotland as getting more than their fair share. 

To some extent, they are right. English Tory misgivings reflect reality – in 2018/19 Scotland received per-person spending of 17% above the UK average, Wales 11% and NI 21%. London, hardly a bastion of Conservative voting nowadays, saw rises 9% above the UK average. Across the rest of England spending was below the UK average everywhere, except the north-west and north-east. If many English Conservatives feel like England is getting a bad deal, it might be because it is.

Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ agenda and the mooted post-Covid recovery funding could go some way to addressing this. A decade of austerity has taken its toll on many local authorities, whilst many town centres are barren, home only to charity shops, pound shops and takeaways. There are few jobs, and those which do exist are low-skilled and hence low-paid. In many ways non-London England has been forgotten, and when people feel ignored by the status quo they are less likely to support it – regardless of whether it was established by the Treaty of Rome in 1957 or the Acts of Union in 1800.

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Dr David Jeffery is a Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Liverpool.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.