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What does England want? 

Authors: John Curtice

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It is often argued that there are important differences of political outlook between England and Scotland. In particular, public opinion in England is often portrayed as both further to the right and more Eurosceptic than that in Scotland, and that therefore becoming an independent country would enable Scotland to pursue a more social democratic and Europhile policy agenda.

Meanwhile, concern has often been expressed that introducing devolution in rest of the UK but not in England would eventually result in an ‘English backlash’ whereby, thanks to an aroused sense of national identity, people in England would begin to question the ‘advantages’ that devolution delivered to Scotland and might even question its continued role within the Union. Any such development might be thought to undermine the prospect of Scotland being granted yet more devolution within the framework of the Union, should the country decide to remain part of the UK.

In this paper we use data from the British and Scottish Social Attitudes series, together with some opinion poll data, to assess the validity of these two arguments. Is England really much less social democratic than Scotland? And has she become more resentful of what Scotland now enjoys? most recent data included in this report were collected between June and October 2013.


At first glance England is a bystander in Scotland’s referendum debate. In the protracted negotiations last year about the rules under which the independence referendum should be held, neither the UK nor the Scottish Government suggested that anyone resident south of the border should have the right to vote. For good or ill, it is those living in Scotland alone who will decide whether the country remains part of the United Kingdom or will become an independent state.

In this briefing we examine how accurate these portrayals of England might be. Is public opinion south of the border well to the right of that in Scotland? If so, is there any evidence that this divide has grown since the advent of devolution? Similarly, is Euroscepticism alien to most people living north of the border? Meanwhile we examine whether there is any evidence of an English backlash, and whether the character of public opinion south of the border could have implications for the kind of constitutional settlement that Scotland could secure should voters decide to continue the Union.

Our principal source of evidence on attitudes in England is the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey. Now in its thirtieth year, this high quality annual survey, conducted by NatCen Social Research, has established itself as the principal source of evidence on long-term trends in social and political attitudes across Britain as a whole.4 By extracting from each year’s survey those people living in England (who, of course, comprise the majority of the 3,000 or so people interviewed face to face each year) it can provide us with a reliable picture of public opinion in England alone too. However, as Scotland contains less than 10% of the population in Great Britain, each year’s BSA contains too few respondents from north of the border to provide reliable estimates of public opinion there. When we wish to compare public opinion in England with that in Scotland we therefore use the Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) survey, conducted by ScotCen Social Research (the name by which NatCen is known in Scotland).5 This survey is conducted using much the same methodological approach as BSA, and thus where the two surveys have carried the same questions they can provide a robust basis for comparing attitudes in the two countries.