29 February 2012

On the English Question (II) ...

As promised in yesterday's post on attitudes in England towards identity, devolution, finances and government, a few more graphs from the NatCen data.  In my last blog, we saw that English perceptions of Scottish public spending have changed significantly since 2000, but much more modestly in the past few years. Perhaps the starkest finding is that in 2011, 43% of respondents based in England believe that Scotland received more than its fair share of public spending, compared to 21% who harboured such suspicions in 2000.

Today, I wanted to focus on the identity questions posed by the NatCen researchers. Their study report asks, does England feel more English? Answering that question using this sort of data is not unproblematic.  But to proceed in a workmanlike manner, within the very limited terms afforded by the survey instrument, how did the decent wadge of respondents self-identify? How have these identifications changed over time? What primary identities do people avow? Where folk identify with multiple identities (as many British people do), which of them, if any, would they prioritise? Are there any signs that people are increasingly giving Englishness priority over Britishness?

To kick us off, the researchers collated data from 1996 to 2011 British Social Attitudes Survey, asking which national identities those questioned identified with. Respondents living in England were invited to choose from a list of options - English, British and so on - and could choose as many as they liked. So what did they find? The results are plotted below, but to take the most recent year, in 2011 61% of people living in England identified themselves as English, 66% chose British, while 37% of folk chose both identities.  Despite the instability presently pulling at the fabric of the British state, as an identity in England, bare and unadorned identification with Britishness has proved strikingly stable over the last sixteen years, while Englishness leaps up and down like an irate frog.

In an attempt to move beyond binary choices, and to try to say something more nuanced about how respondents envisaged their identities, data was also generated which seeks to discern (or one might say, for villainy, impose a model of) prioritised identities on respondents. You'll likely all have answered questionnaires with similar forms of question: do you feel Scottish not British, more Scottish than British, equally both, or more British or just British? Between 2000 and 2009 (but not every year in that period), these questions were put to those living in England. In 2008 and 2011, by contrast, the question was asked of those born in England only.  For the first period, the results were as follows. As the researchers suggest, it hardly furnishes clear support for the thesis that a clear English consciousness is emerging (in part response to developments elsewhere in these islands), which rejects as increasingly sclerotic an addled and irrelevant Britishness. Not a bit of it, in fact.


Does the drift of opinion change if you ask only those born in England? Not spectacularly. While the number of English-born respondents rejecting British identity altogether increases, it does so relatively modestly. The results for 2008 and 2011 were as follows:



28 February 2012

On the English Question...

Earlier on this year, I took a very enjoyable jaunt to the University of Warwick, to talk to students studying Michael Gardiner's course on Devolutionary British Fiction: 1945 to the present day.  That such a course of study exists at all in an English university is itself of interest, but even more so the number of folk who turned up and engaged with the salmagundi of issues around contemporary politics in these islands, British, Scottish and English identities and our constitutional futures which I raced over. 

For me, perhaps the most interesting moment of the session came when I asked the young audience how they would self-identify in national terms. This was no wicked Nationalist attempt to divide sheep from goats, or to deny the multiplicity of identities many folk in these islands feel, mark you. Offered "British", I was startled when only one or two folk raised their paws. Testament to Michael's critical pedagogy, when a second question was posed - when you started this course, how many would unquestioningly have identified as British? - a forest of hands were raised. Put to the question, with thought, reflexive Britishness had been displaced by a rather more problematic, less certain, but ultimately more interesting and anxious series of questions, most of them concerning England and Englishness.

Beyond practicalities, beyond ordering of the emergent states, the division of their powers - what might an independent Scotland mean for how England and English politics is conceptualised? Would the current  phenomenon - arguably a British politics in England, be replaced by an English politics for England? What might that look like? Would the English be abandoned with an "inherently reactionary", even racist ethnic identity, deprived of the emancipatory, non-racialised identity of "Britishness"? What of social and political solidarity if Scotland breaks away, leaving England to contend with a Tory hegemony, the Labour Party - already beset with difficulties - faced with still further challenges, if it is to reclaim government in what remains of the UK? 

I don't propose to answer any of these questions here, but it was curious simply to hear what sorts of issues are preoccupying folk, beginning to question these issues and think about what Scottish nationalism might mean for the rest of Britain.  Beyond these useful and dispersed conversations, suggesting some of the ways thoughts may be tending in England about devolution and independence and what it means for Britain, broader impressions about opinion in England are difficult to discern. 

Hitherto, we've hardly been awash with data. Today, however, the National Centre for Social Research have contributed an interesting new study, On the English Question.  Quantitative research, the NatCen study seeks to discern the difference devolution has made to English opinion in three main areas: on English national identity, attitudes towards the equitable distribution of public finances across Britain and finally, on attitudes towards Government, and the desire for institutions of English democracy.  

For the moment, I wanted to focus on the issue of finances. We're all familiar with other hackneyed images of disgruntled English taxpayers, feeling pick-pocketed by the dissolute, burdensome and girning institutions of Scottish democracy, with their wasteful, self-indulgent social democratic programmes and bottomless store of petulant saws about being hard-done-by.  What does the NatCen research suggest? Are English people becoming more resentful of Scotland's (perceived) financial position? The research suggests so. Between 2000 - 2003, and from 2007 - 2011, the researchers asked:

Compared to the other parts of the UK, Scotland's share of government spending is...
... much more than its fair share
... little more than its fair share
... pretty much its fair share
... little less than its fair share 
... much less than its fair share. 
... don't know. 

And here is what they found (transformed into a fetching colour chart). The numbers are the percentage of respondents who answered each way, each year the question was posed.


Cull a few significant points. While in 2000, 21% of respondents thought Scots received more than their fair share, in 2011, 43% did so in 2011.  This increase has primarily been at the extremer end. While those who think Scots get a "little more" has increased by 7% from the start of the polling to the most recent figures, the increase at the top end - those who think Scots enjoy significant public spending advantages - has increased by almost double between 2000 and last year, by 13%. As NatCen notes, however, the figures suggest this shift in perception isn't terrifically recent.  While uncertainty about levels of public spending has been relatively stable across the decade, the bump in the percentage of folk who perceive Scottish spending advantages dates from around 2008 onward.

Just a wee thought on this point, and then I'll close. Last week, Michael Gove cautioned his Tory colleagues about the "under-appreciated" threat posed by "English separatism", caused by bitter recrimination in the press against the injustice to English constituencies of perceived levels of Scottish public spending.  The knotty thing is that from a general partisan perspective - parking their Unionism - such images are exceedingly helpful in reinforcing mainstream Tory rhetoric.

If their central economic narrative is that their cuts and changes are merely necessary not ideological - precipitated by feckless Labour politicians rather than predicated on a pre-existing desire in the Conservative Party to shrink the size and scope of the state - anything which suggests the possibility of making alternative political choices, problematising claims about the necessity of measures adopted, risks seriously undermining the central "common-sense" the discourse of political necessity the coalition relies upon. NHS reform in England is one example, but take another: university fees. A while back, it was not untypical to hear Tory MPs representing English constituencies saying that they'd love to be able to offer free higher education, but simply couldn't afford it. So how the devil could the Scots manage it? It couldn't possibly be an exercise in political choice about where public resources are best allocated. Heavens no! Instead the Scots must be receiving more than their fair share of state revenues, at the expense of the English. Anecdotally, it is amazing how many left-leaning folk in England you meet who are immensely hostile to the coalition's programme of reforms, who nevertheless borrow this sort of thinking, despite the fact it does them - and their cause - no good at all.

Instead of posing the political question: why can't we have free education in England, whose must, your must or my must? - those vehemently dissenting from the Tory lead coalition's decisions are invited to look elsewhere for those to blame. I say, did you hear the Scots are still stirring gold-leaf into their porridge while you can hardly afford your oats? Revolting. Don't blame me for cutting your oat ration. Lodge your grievances elsewhere. This may be a mad absurdity: a self-serving victim fantasy (amongst other fantasies) which tells us most about the reassuring cant of the "oppressed majority" and its soi-dissant rhetoricians - but if these NatCen figures are anything to go on, it is pretty damn effective for all that.

That full NatCen publication.