Read the reports

The English question: How is England responding to devolution?

Authors: John Curtice

Download full chapter


This report uses data from NatCen Social Research’s British Social Attitudes survey (BSA) – the longest running and most robust source of information on changing public attitudes – to assess the evidence of an increasing ‘English backlash’ to devolution in the rest of the UK. It focuses on three areas – national identity, financial resentment, and views about how England (and Scotland) should be governed. It also discusses differences in our findings and those from recent internet polls on the same topic, and argues that consistency in methodology and wording are essential if we are interested in identifying real changes in public opinion over time.


The question of how people in England would respond to the greater devolution of political powers to Scotland and Wales is one that has exercised unionist critics of devolution for many years. Fears of an ‘English backlash’ to the establishment of a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly in 1999 centered on three overlapping areas:

  • National identity - The creation of distinctive national political institutions based in Edinburgh and Cardiff obviously had the potential to strengthen Scottish and Welsh national identities. But critics argued that they would also encourage people in England to feel more strongly and distinctively English. British identity, meanwhile, would be eroded by a sense that the different nations of Great Britain were increasingly pursuing their own, separate paths.
  • Finance – Scotland and Wales have long enjoyed higher per capita public spending than England (McLean, 2005; McLean et al., 2008). However, the distinctive policies they have pursued post-devolution have created new disparities in the services and benefits available to people living in different parts of the UK. The abolition of university tuition fees and the provision of free personal care for older people in Scotland and the abolition of prescription charges in both Scotland and Wales all focus greater attention on differences in public expenditure within the UK. And those who predict an English backlash argue that this will result in growing resentment over the higher levels of funding enjoyed in Scotland and Wales.
  • Government – A third concern was that once Edinburgh and Cardiff had their own parliaments, it would only be a matter of time before people in England started demanding changes to the way they are governed. In particular, the continued ability of Scottish and Welsh MPs to vote on domestic English issues was seen as an issue that was bound to provoke public anger (Dalyell, 1977). Such resentment might increase demand for an English Parliament, separate from Westminster, or else for powerful English regional assemblies. Finally, English bitterness over the apparently favourable financial and political position of Scotland and Wales post-devolution might even lead people in England to call for the break up of the union, and for Scotland and Wales to go their own way.