9 January 2012

“British identity like the British weather”

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British national identity is becoming more and more like the British weather – a mixed bag, changeable from one place to another and on occasion difficult to describe to outsiders not already familiar with it, argues Ipsos Mori’s Mark Diffley.

When the Labour government devolved powers to the new Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly in 1999, supporters saw it as a way of accommodating the distinctive components of the British identity, in particular Welsh and Scottish patriotism, while also strengthening the concept of the union.  As Secretary of State for Scotland George Robertson said in 1995: “Devolution will kill nationalism stone dead”.

Sixteen years on, that claim looks increasingly hollow. Since its victory in the Holyrood elections of 2007 and subsequent crushing triumph in 2011, the SNP government in Scotland has used the powers at its disposal to portray itself as the defender of Scottish interests while painting their opponents as branches of parties controlled by and answerable to their London headquarters.

During this period, support for independence in Scotland has grown. This is illustrated in recent Ipsos MORI polls and is reinforced by our latest survey for British Future, which shows around a third of Scots now backing a breakaway from the UK, a view shared by around a quarter of people in England, though possibly for different reasons. At the moment, however, a majority of Scots prefer to remain part of the UK, albeit favouring substantial new powers for the Scottish Parliament. Ipsos MORI polling in Scotland shows that over two-thirds would vote in favour of giving Holyrood further legislative and tax-raising powers.

The research has also revealed that identifying with Scotland, Wales or England is stronger than feeling British or identifying with your neighbourhood or town, adding further weight to the impact of devolution, even to those in England who have not directly experienced it. Combined with growing support for greater devolution and, to a lesser extent, independence, is this a victory for nationalist parties, foretelling the end of the union?

John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, recently argued in The Guardian that rather than encouraging further dissatisfaction with the Union, seeing the Welsh and Scottish Government working has helped persuade people that devolution can be made to work for the populations of Scotland and Wales in ways that the Westminster-only government could not.

What is clear from the British Future research is that devolution is working to the extent that the public has a clear thirst for greater autonomy and is now more likely to identify as being Scottish or Welsh than British. Witnessing this reawakening among their neighbours, a majority in England also now back the establishment of an English Parliament; whether we are at a stage on a journey towards the break-up of the union remains to be seen.

by Mark Diffley

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