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'Muscular unionism’ approach to devolved nations risks backfiring across the UK, according to new report

7 September 2023

The ‘muscular unionism’ approach to governance adopted by many Westminster politicians in recent years risks backfiring among those who want Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, an IPPR report warns today.

A growing rhetorical commitment to the union, particularly one that is unreformed, is out of step with people across the four nations of the UK who are far more ambivalent about its future. Support in England for the union in its current form is relaxed, and there is low concern in the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland about others of them going their separate ways.

Taking a “muscular unionism” approach in the aftermath of both the Scottish independence and Brexit referendums has led to the UK national government excluding governments of devolved nations from key areas they expected to control after Brexit. This risks fuelling resentment and undermining the merely “ambivalent” support for the UK as a single state, the report says – resembling an attempt to govern on the basis of “to the victors the spoils”.

It also finds widespread variation in what people in the UK’s four constituent nations see as their common ‘British’ values, and a striking ambivalence about the importance of retaining all four nations as part of the union.

While the report finds that British national identity aligns with constitutional attitudes, it does so in different ways in different parts of the state. For example, in Scotland and Northern Ireland people who emphasise their Britishness exhibit similar levels of Euroscepticism to those in England who emphasise their English (but not their British) identity. Conversely, people in England who emphasise their Britishness were more likely to be pro-EU.

The report, published today by the IPPR progressive think tank, provides the first detailed analysis of the 2021 ‘State of the Union’ survey, led by Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones at the University of Edinburgh and Cardiff University. The survey asked identical questions of representative samples of around 1,600 voters in each of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, enabling cross-cutting comparisons of attitudes between all four nations of the UK.

Professor Richard Wyn Jones, Director of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre and co-author of the report, said:

“Given the constant appeals to ‘Britishness’ in the rhetoric of the two main UK-wide political parties, it’s perhaps surprising how little research has been undertaken into the values and attitudes that, in reality, align with British national identity. This new analysis suggests the idea that there is a single understanding of Britishness, held and cherished across all four constituent territories of the UK, is a myth.

“Instead there are multiple, territorially-differentiated versions of British identity that stand in a very uneasy – even contradictory – relationship with each other. This suggests in turn that attempts by recent UK governments to champion a single version of Britishness, to buttress what some have termed ‘the precious Union’, are not only doomed to failure but are likely to be self-defeating.”

The report is available in full at the IPPR website.

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