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‘Devolution anxiety’ among English voters driving change in British politics, academics conclude

10 March 2021

Richard Wyn Jones

The rise of a politicised English identity is transforming Britain and British politics, a study concludes.

Professor Richard Wyn Jones of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre and Professor Ailsa Henderson of the University of Edinburgh have spent 10 years exploring political attitudes in England through their Future of England Survey, the most detailed study of attitudes in England towards national identity and constitutional change.

Their findings, which are outlined in a new book, Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain, published by Oxford University Press, demonstrate the close relationship between English identity and the Eurosceptic attitudes that triggered Brexit. They also show that current governmental structures for England fail to accommodate an increased appetite among the English population for more recognition as a distinct nation.

Professor Wyn Jones said: “Much is made of the salience of Scottish and indeed Welsh nationalism, but in recent years it is in fact English nationalism that has had the most profound effect on United Kingdom. It’s already played a central role in our departure from the European Union and there are now far-reaching questions about the long-term viability of the state itself given some of attitudes that tend to attach to English national identity.

“What’s so fascinating about English nationalism is its dual character. It embodies a sense of grievance about the way that England is treated within the UK and associated support for the recognition in some form of England as a political community in its own right. Yet it would be wrong to regard English nationalism as a rejection of Britain and Britishness, because those who feel strongly English are simultaneously fiercely committed to a particular vision of Britain’s rightful place in the world.”

The Future of England Survey was established in 2011 to explore political and constitutional attitudes in England, with additional surveys being conducted in Scotland and Wales for comparative purposes. These surveys have captured opinion during and after key political events, including the historic Brexit vote.

Professor Ailsa Henderson said: “We find that people in devolved Wales and Scotland are happier with the way devolution works for the UK as a whole. In England, however, we find considerable devo-anxiety and it manifests itself as particular frustration with Scotland, both in terms of the institutions it has and the resources it has.

“Related to this, we find less than whole-hearted support for the territorial integrity of the state at its English core, especially among those with a strong sense of English national identity.  Much of this stems from frustration at the lack of an English voice in current political institutions.”

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