Home Political science Devolution and Localism in England
English versus British Identity
The traditional view has certainly been that English public opinion has remained substantially committed to a unitary state (Harvie, 1991) and so has been uninterested in regional devolution. Some (Smith, 2001) argue that even globalisation will not be the end of the nation because people still see it as relevant. However, this view tends to focus upon 'national attachment and pride of people living in Western Europe' (Antonsich, 2007), which is not necessarily the same thing as national identity in the British case. Is the national attachment one which is towards Britain or England or some combination of the two? Some argue that in the United Kingdom, citizens have dual identities: one of (ethno-) nationality (English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish), and one a common state-based British identity (Wilson and Stappleton, 2006). They argue that devolution intensifies the distinction between national/territorial and state structures and is likely to result in a de-coupling of cultural and civic identities (Wilson and Stappleton, 2006).
It is perhaps an unintended consequence of devolution, particularly with the possibility of Scottish independence, that the English have come to freshly consider the meaning of English identity. Certainly O'Neil claims to find modest stirrings of regional discontent in parts of England that are 'for the most part negatively inspired … less a drive for identity than an expression of relative deprivation visà-vis Scotland and Wales as these historical sub-nations of the Union threaten to steal a march on the altogether more anonymous or amorphous English regions' (O'Neill, 2004, p.336). The evidence for relative deprivation arises from a claimed better per capita allocation of government funding for Scotland and Wales than for the constituent parts of England through the Barnett Formula (Barnett Formula, 1998). The people of Berwickshire have even been reported to have a preference for a Scottish affiliation over an English one (Keily et al., 2000). However, Berwickshire has always had an anomalous status within the United Kingdom. Furthermore one should be wary of reading anything too political into statements about nationality. Bechhofer and McCrone (2010) suggest that both English and Scottish nationals emphasise national as opposed to their state identities based on cultural and institutional reasons and are not making any kind of political statement about the break-up of Britain. In general, as Harvie (1991) has argued, despite the top-down efforts of the government, regional government has proved unpopular, or, as he puts it, in England the 'regional dog has never barked'.
A recent Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) report entitled the 'The Dog that Finally Barked' claims that English voters are now more sceptical of Scottish and Welsh devolution than they have ever been in the past (Wynn Jones et al., 2012), but more importantly, they are demanding 'an “English” dimension to the country's politics [because] there is a lack of trust in the UK Government's willingness to work in the best long term interests of England', such that 'a substantial body of English voters are now dubious about the ability of UK institutions to work in the interests of England as a whole (Wynn Jones et al., 2012, p.14). While dual identity remains the norm, the English element is strengthening.
Do the People want Regional Governance?
At the same time, the IPPR argues that UK government is biased within England itself. Even in London a majority of voters believe that UK government favours London and the South East over other English regions. This majority rises to 87 per cent in the Midlands and the North (Wynn Jones et al., 2012, p.14).
The English regions have in practice varied widely in their nature, history and structure. Indeed, the main reason for the first regional assembly referendum vote being held in the North East region was precisely because it was believed that there was a sense of regional identity there. The negative response it received has been seen as being as much against the specific proposals, which lacked devolution of any real power (Tomaney and Mawson, 2002), and perhaps a reflection of a distrust of government, rather than against the idea of devolution per se. So, whilst much of the debate within political elites following that vote and much of the subsequent academic literature has been predicated on this assumption that England lacks traditions of regionalism (Tomaney and Mawson, 2002) and so has assumed a lack of enthusiasm for regional devolution among the non-elite, the actual, and fairly sparse, empirical evidence for this is less clear.
One frequently quoted survey at the time was the poll that MORI (1999) conducted for the Economist. This was used to demonstrate a general lack of support and enthusiasm for regional government across English regions. It certainly showed wide variations, with only London and the North-East showing majority support for regional government. However, even it reported that in seven of the ten regions, the figures show that a greater proportion of the population supported the idea of regional government than openly opposed it. Of course, results from opinion polls vary, and a subsequent poll conducted by ICM Research Ltd. (ICM poll 2000) for the Joseph Rowntree Trust reported that only 32 per cent thought an elected assembly was the best way of making decisions on jobs, transport, etc.., and support for regional assemblies declined even further subsequently (Curtice, 2006).
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