Conservative Party activists and the future of the Union

3 Mar 2017
Union Jack and EU flags

New research from the University’s Centre for English Identity and Politics reveals the relationship between Conservative activists’ sense of national identity and their views on the Union. 

At the beginning of the week, media reports claimed that Downing Street was expecting demands for a second Scottish referendum to follow the triggering of Article 50. Theresa May is a strong supporter of the Union, telling the New Statesman recently ‘We are so much stronger from being together’.
But ground-breaking new research from the Centre for English Identity and Politics suggests that many Conservative activists, particularly those living in England, are quite sanguine about Scotland leaving the Union. Fewer than a third believe that the loss of Scotland would cause ‘serious damage’ to the rest of the UK.
The survey, conducted through the website ConservativeHome, reached over 860 Conservative Party members, 90 per cent living in England.
Twenty-two per cent of respondents thought the break-up of the Union would be ‘manageable’, while a further 15 per cent think it would be ‘a shame’ but would have no real significance for the rest of the UK. It is particularly striking that nearly as many members believe that break up would end ‘unreasonable demands’ on England for ‘ever greater financial and political concessions’ to Scotland, as worry seriously about the loss of Scotland. Indeed in England more would welcome an end to Scottish demands than would worry about the damage of break-up.
It’s clear that Conservative Party activists in England hold a fairly jaundiced view of the impact of Scottish and Welsh devolution since 1997. Three-quarters regard the settlement as ‘harmful for England’. And there is no mood at the grass roots for making any special efforts to keep Scotland within the Union. In the closing stages of the 2014 election, the UK party leaders, corralled by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, launched ‘the Vow’; a promise of ‘near home rule’ for Scotland. Many of those measures have now been enacted, and it's clear most Conservative activists don’t want to go any further.
Over two thirds (68 per cent) of English activists would rule out any further devolution and, while 28 per cent would support further policy devolution, fewer than one in twenty would contemplate either more financial support or the influence on foreign policy that Nicola Sturgeon has sought.
Taken together, the survey suggests that the Prime Minister’s room for manoeuvre during a referendum campaign is limited. Whether the passporting of fisheries and farming policy direct from the EU to Scotland would be welcome by Conservative activists remains to be seen. At the very least, a job of persuasion will have to be done. On the other hand, the results might strengthen May’s hand if she wants to flush out the SNP with a hard, ‘take it or leave it’ campaign, banking on the perils facing an independent Scotland to win Scottish voters over. Such a campaign wouldn’t get a hard time from these Conservative members.
The survey also sheds new light on the relationship between respondents’ sense of national identity and their views on the Union. Activists in England were asked to place themselves on a five point scale between English, more English than British, equally English and British, more British than English and British only. In one stark result, 63 per cent of the ‘English only’ felt devolution had harmed England, while just 13 per cent of the ‘British only’ felt the same. Similar trends are seen in attitudes towards the break-up of the Union and desirability of offering Scotland further powers. As the Centre for English Identity and Politics has consistently argued, the correlation between national identity and political behaviour is too persistent and powerful to be ignored.
Even allowing for the self-selection of respondents to this survey, it is likely to provide a fair reflection of the broad views of Conservative activists. It is striking how few Conservative activists display a whole-hearted commitment to the Union and to the retention of Scotland within it. The attitudes of Conservative activists – particularly those in England – differ significantly from the Prime Minister’s very public commitment to the Union, and could be characterised as more an English National Conservative Party rather than a Conservative and Unionist Party.
In a one off survey it is hard to judge whether these trends are recent or have been developing ever since the passing of the Devolution Act. They may reflect growing concerns about the perceived financial and political privileges enjoyed by Scotland over nearly 20 years. On the other hand, it would not be surprising if the Conservative 2015 General Election campaign, based on encouraging English fears of Scotland, had not had its own influence on the outlook of English Conservative activists.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the University.

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