THE ‘muscular unionism’ approach to governance adopted by many Westminster politicians in recent years risks backfiring among those who want Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, says a report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

A growing rhetorical commitment to the union, particularly one that is unreformed, is out of step with people across the four nations of the UK who are far more ambivalent about its future. Support in England for the union in its current form is relaxed, and there is low concern in the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland about others of them going their separate ways.

Taking a “muscular unionism” approach in the aftermath of both the Scottish independence and Brexit referendums has led to the UK national government excluding governments of devolved nations from key areas they expected to control after Brexit. This risks fuelling resentment and undermining the merely “ambivalent” support for the UK as a single state, the report says – resembling an attempt to govern on the basis of “to the victors the spoils”.

It also finds widespread variation in what people in the UK’s four constituent nations see as their common ‘British’ values, and a striking ambivalence about the importance of retaining all four nations as part of the union.

While the report finds that British national identity aligns with constitutional attitudes, it does so in different ways in different parts of the state. For example, in Scotland and Northern Ireland people who emphasise their Britishness exhibit similar levels of Euroscepticism to those in England who emphasise their English (but not their British) identity. Conversely, people in England who emphasise their Britishness were more likely to be pro-EU.

The report provides the first detailed analysis of the 2021 ‘state of the union’ survey, led by Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones at the University of Edinburgh and Cardiff University. The survey asked identical questions of representative samples of around 1,600 voters in each of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, enabling cross-cutting comparisons of attitudes between all four nations of the UK.

The report’s authors devised a ‘muscular unionism’ index to assess where people stand on a spectrum between full-throated support for and complete rejection of the approach. Voters as a whole in all four constituent territories tend slightly away from the centre line – away from ‘muscular unionism’. Only those who support the Conservatives in Scotland and the UUP or DUP in Northern Ireland lean towards the muscular unionist approach – putting them out of kilter with attitudes of most supporters of the union in England. Although the approach resonates with Conservative and some Labour voters in Scotland, it is not shared by the far greater number of pro-union voters in England and Wales – suggesting that adopting its rhetoric risks weakening already ambivalent support.

Among its other findings the report reveals:

  • High support for the principle of transferring money from richer to poorer parts of the UK, so that everyone can have a similar level of public services – ranging from 70 per cent support (in England) to 86 per cent (in Northern Ireland).
  • But lower support for the more concrete notion of ‘sharing tax revenue’ with other parts of the UK (from 28 per cent support in Wales to 41 per cent in England) – and even less when voters were asked about particular nations: from only 15 per cent of those in Wales who supported sharing revenue with Scotland, to 32 per cent in England who backed sharing with Wales or Northern Ireland.
  • Widespread belief within each of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that the others receive more than their fair share – particularly England, identified as such by at least half of those polled in each other nation – and that their own country receives less than it should do (between 43 per cent in Northern Ireland and 58 per cent in Wales). The authors say this suggests the UK is partly “a union of grievance”.
  • Low concern among voters in each of the four nations at the possibility of others (except England) going their own way. Asked to rate their support for England, Scotland or Wales becoming independent, or for Northern Ireland becoming part of a united Ireland, voters in each nation gave similar average scores. These ranged from minus 2 to plus 1.5 on a scale of minus 10 (no) to plus 10 (yes) – suggesting the UK is a highly “ambivalent union”.
  • Willingness to trade off the current union, even among its supporters, for another objective seen as more important. Fewer than half in any nation see maintaining the current union as a priority – suggesting further evidence of “ambivalence”.

Ailsa Henderson, professor of political science at the University of Edinburgh and an author of the report, said: “Attitudes to the union are typically understood as polarised between those who want its end and those who believe its benefits should be defended more assertively. Nowhere is that polarisation more obvious than in Scotland, but UK-wide there is also considerable ambivalence to the union, with much support either muted or conditional on perceived benefits.

“In addition, the way ‘Britishness’ coalesces around not just different but at times opposite values, preferences and attitudes across the UK must be seen as a considerable challenge to anyone hoping to identify a unifying narrative around what it means. The union’s advocates might wish for a more muscular defence of its benefits, but the United Kingdom is, in many ways, an ambivalent union.”

Richard Wyn Jones. professor of Welsh politics and director of the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University, co-author of the report, said: “Given the constant appeals to ‘Britishness’ in the rhetoric of the two main UK-wide political parties, it’s perhaps surprising how little research has been undertaken into the values and attitudes that, in reality, align with British national identity. This new analysis suggests the idea that there is a single understanding of Britishness, held and cherished across all four constituent territories of the UK, is a myth.

“Instead there are multiple, territorially-differentiated versions of British identity that stand in very uneasy – even contradictory – relationship with each other. This suggests in turn that attempts by recent UK governments to champion a single version of Britishness, to buttress what some have termed ‘the precious Union’, are not only doomed to failure but are likely to be self-defeating.”

Philip Whyte, director of IPPR Scotland, said: “Despite what were, ultimately, two close results in the Scottish independence and Brexit referendums, the UK government’s response has often portrayed them as the settled will of the majority. We’ve seen the rise of ‘muscular unionism’ alongside an undermining of the devolved nations – perhaps best summed up as an attempt to govern on a basis of ‘to the victors the spoils’.

“However, not only is that out of kilter with the public, it is ultimately self-defeating. As the Westminster parties gear up to design their offer to voters across Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland next year, they must open their eyes to the very real variety of people and views across every part of the UK – and respond in a way which respects, rather than alienates, them. Otherwise they will risk fuelling even greater ambivalence.”

* Read: Ambivalent union: Findings from the state of the union survey here.

* Source: Institute of Public Policy Research