36% of English people support independence – for England

A ComRes opinion poll commissioned by BBC Radio 4, published yesterday, found that 36% of the English-only people questioned felt that “England should become a fully independent country with its own government, separate from the rest of the United Kingdom”. By any account, this is an extraordinary finding. However, if all you had heard about the poll was what was said about it on last night’s Newsnight programme dedicated to discussing Scottish independence, and its impact on England and Britishness, you wouldn’t know about this particular finding, as it was not referred to.

This appears to be another, all-too typical, instance of the establishment suppressing discussion of the English Question: the question of how England should be governed. For all that the programme represented a refreshing attempt to deal with the impact Scottish independence might have on the rest of the Union, and to consider an emerging sense of Englishness and English nationalism, it glossed over what for me is the most important issue: England’s democratic deficit and how this should be remedied, irrespective of Scotland gaining independence or not. The programme did not dwell on this issue or treat it with any degree of seriousness, nor did it link it to the issue of an emerging English consciousness, to which it is central: one of the main purposes of an English parliament or English independence being that they would give England a national voice and institutions, around which a confident English identity could coalesce.

How significant is the 36% support for English independence, though? Another finding of the ComRes poll that was reported is that 36% of English people favour independence for Scotland (versus 48% who oppose it). This is also, incidentally, a striking finding. The programme did acknowledge that this represented a significant increase on the last time support for Scottish independence in England was canvassed, when it stood at 16%. However, one suspects that there is a close correlation between the 36% of English people who favour English independence and the 36% that support Scottish independence. In other words, people must be assuming that English independence would result from Scottish independence; and in that, I can’t help feeling that they’re sadly mistaken.

This was another thing that the programme didn’t explore (well, I guess you can’t cover every aspect of the question): what sort of residual United Kingdom, if any, would be the by-product of Scottish independence? My own feeling is that if the Scots voted for independence in a referendum, the inhabitants of the rest of the UK would not be given the opportunity to decide in a referendum how they wish to be governed (although 45% said people in the rest of the UK should have a say in whether Scotland became independent, while 47% thought they shouldn’t).

Specifically, I think the English people would not be given the chance to choose whether to have a parliament of their own, still less independence. Instead, the UK Parliament, which is presently sovereign in such matters, would simply decide what sort of state the residual United Kingdom would be. Overriding any consideration of whether the United Kingdom as such should be considered dissolved as a consequence of Scotland separating from the Union (because this breaks up ‘Great Britain’, and hence dissolves the union of Great Britain with Northern Ireland, which is what the UK is), Parliament would simply decree that a new United Kingdom (e.g. a ‘United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’) should inherit the legal personality and constitution of the old UK. And Parliament would then carry on governing England as the UK, as if nothing had changed – except it would be less likely, but still not impossible, for a UK government to be formed based on a majority of UK MPs without enjoying a majority of English MPs.

The programme did not nail down this issue, which is central to the whole debate: would Scottish independence be a separation from a United Kingdom that would carry on pretty much unchanged as a consequence (in which case, it could be considered to be a purely Scottish matter, although the Welsh and Northern Irish might wish to dissent from that view if it meant they were dragged into what they perceived as an even more England-dominated UK); or would it involve breaking up the UK altogether by virtue of dissolving the Union of 1707 – in which case the other party to that Union (England) should have a say in its own constitutional and political future.

These are two quite distinct questions, and the ambiguity in the Newsnight discussions in part resulted from a failure to make a distinction between them. And that further reflects the establishment’s reluctance to explore any avenue that might lead to something such as a distinct English nation deciding how it wishes to govern itself. Because, surely, that’s the logical outcome from the Scots opting for independence: that each of the UK’s remaining nations should then be allowed to choose whether the UK itself remains, or whether they follow Scotland’s example and decide for independence.

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