Why would the UK Government take a tough line with the Scottish Government after a Yes or No vote?

Update: so far, the main reaction to the Scottish No vote has been David Cameron’s plan to address the idea of ‘English Votes for English Laws’, plus some wider discussion of how to address the English Question. From what I can tell, no one has yet told politicians in Scotland to get stuffed. Instead, The Vow, coupled with Gordon Brown’s intervention, has kept quick and ‘extensive’ further devolution high on the agenda on Scotland and it remains to be seen if constitutional change for England will get the same attention.

Judging by some of the rhetoric on the Scottish independence referendum, one thing is certain: the UK Government will take a tough line with the Scottish Government. If there is a Yes vote, it will defend UK interests to the hilt. If there is a No vote, and the Scottish Government seeks further devolution, it will assert the rights of the rest of the UK. Why will this happen? Well, because the UK Government acts in the interests of the rest of the UK, and the rest of the UK – and England in particular – is waking up to Scotland’s privileged position within the Union.

At least, that’s what I’ve heard. Beyond this assertion, how can we demonstrate that the rest of the UK is ready to put pressure on the UK Government to take a tough line? I think there are three sources of relevant information, only two of which reinforce this argument.

The first is personal testimony from politicians, either directly in interview, or indirectly through the columns of journalists, including:

  • The decision by George Osborne, Ed Balls and Danny Alexander to rule out a currency union, on the basis that it is against the UK interest (Alexander also argues that it is against the Scottish interest).
  • Boris Johnson’s suggestion that there is no reason to grant the Scottish Parliament more powers in the event of a No vote.
  • Nigel Farage’s suggestion, in a BBC documentary, that a Yes vote would provoke the rest of the UK, and England in particular, to wake up and protect its interests (followed by vox pops making this claim in stronger terms).
  • Archetypal media commentary, such as Adrian Woolridge’s caricature of an English response, describing the opportunity to ‘turn off the tap’ (end subsidies for Scotland) after a Yes vote, or invite the Scots to shut up after a No vote (note that the first three paragraphs are set up to get your attention for a more subtle argument in the remainder).

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The second is quantitative survey research. For example, an IPPR press release in 2012 argues that: ‘The evidence presented here suggests the emergence of what might be called an ‘English political community’, one marked by notable concerns within England about the seeming privileges of Scotland in particular and a growing questioning of the capacity of the current UK-level political institutions to pursue and defend English interests, and one underpinned by a deepening sense of English identity. The full report by Richard Wyn Jones and colleagues suggests that a small majority of people who feel ‘English, not British’ or ‘More English than British’ believe that Scotland gets more than its ‘fair share’ (p27). It is not a majority of the English respondents as a whole – but the 44% response in 2011 is more than double the (21%) response in 2000 (see p116 of the Scottish independence chapter, by John Curtice and Rachel Ormston, in British Social Attitudes 29).

This was followed by a YouGov/ University of Cardiff survey of 3705 English adults which suggests that attitudes towards Scotland have hardened, on several measures. When asked:

  • If Scotland ‘should be able to continue to use the pound’, 53% disagreed and 23% agreed (15% neither, 9% DK).
  • If ‘Levels of public spending in Scotland should be reduced to the levels in the rest of the UK’, 56% agreed and 9% disagreed (21%, 13%).

Respondents were happy enough for the Scottish Parliament to take control over ‘the majority of taxes raised in Scotland’ and the welfare state, but not too keen to help it join international organizations.

The third is a mixture of qualitative and quantitative. In this case, the aim is to allow people to speak for themselves without a questionnaire setting the agenda. In other words, if you ask people , in a questionnaire, if Scots get more than their fair share, many will say ‘yes’ without having given it much thought. You don’t get a brilliant feel for the way in which they prioritise important issues – and you don’t know if they would have articulated this concern in the absence of someone asking them about it. The alternative is to simply raise a broad issue and ask people to say what they think. This approach has been done to great effect by Susan Condor (2010) in the journal article Devolution and national identity: the rules of English (dis)engagement, which draws on ‘1,652 conversational interview transcripts collected between 2000 and 2009’. The argument that is most striking to me is that: ‘most people remain unaware of the policy issues that excite so much interest among the political and intellectual elite’. In other words, politicians and journalists talk as if they represent the will of a population, without providing much evidence that the population knows or cares as much about the issues as they do.

The major caveat to this third argument is that the research took place before surveys started picking up a growing sense of English national identity (and before it started having some sort of impact on electoral behaviour via support for UKIP). Yet, it should still give us pause, to wonder: if Susan Condor repeated this research, would it support or undermine the assertion that there will be an English backlash to Scottish independence or further devolution?



Filed under Scottish independence, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

5 responses to “Why would the UK Government take a tough line with the Scottish Government after a Yes or No vote?

  1. Pingback: Scottish Independence: beware the Constitutional Convention? | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  2. Pingback: The Vow: what is the significance of the Barnett formula announcement? | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  3. Pingback: What will devo-max mean? | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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  5. Pingback: Constitutional issues look set to only have a marginal influence on the General Election, at least in England : Democratic Audit UK

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