The researchers predict that “some of the glue holding the different parts of the UK together is likely to become weaker” as older generations of unionists die out. This will create greater potential for independence movements to make headway. “The success of such movements will depend on political contingencies that cannot be predicted, but affective attachments to Britain will provide a weaker defence against separatism that they have done in the past,” they say.
The study, by the National Centre for Social Research and involving investigators from a number of universities, was a collaborative project across the territories of the UK. It examined public attitudes to national identity and the political system in the light of devolution, introduced in Scotland and Wales in 1999. Access to earlier studies made it possible to compare changes in attitudes over time. The findings have particular relevance as Scotland and Wales go to the polls this week after an election campaign where, in Scotland, independence has been a major issue.
Researchers examined whether the introduction of devolution had affected national identify; the impact on the UK political system; whether patterns were similar or different across the territories, and whether any changes in national identity could be attributed to devolution or were the result of other processes.
The findings show that:
- Britishness provides a civic identify that is more inclusive than the separate English, Welsh and Scottish ones. Just as members of ethnic minority communities define themselves as Black British or Asian British, people from the white majority tend to emphasise their Britishness when they move from their home territory to a different one.
- Devolution appears to have had some impact on the way English people think of themselves. The proportion of survey respondents who thought of themselves as English rose from 31 per cent in 1992 to 39 per cent in 2003, having peaked at 44 per cent in 1999, the year in which Scottish and Welsh devolution began.
- Senses of British identity and pride in Britain were strongest in England. In Wales, and even more so in Scotland, substantial minorities did not feel British at all. But although overall levels of Britishness are much lower in Scotland and Wales than in England the extent of changes over time have been rather modest, and appear to be part of longer-term trends rather than specifically affected by devolution.
- There has been an unambiguous decline in pride in Britain, with the percentage of survey respondents declaring themselves ‘very proud’ of Britain falling from around 55 per cent in 1981 to 45 per cent today. Analysis suggests that the major factor contributing to this decline is a generational one. Younger people are less likely to have acquired the strong attachments to Britain that older generations developed in their youth and maintained throughout their adult lives. Such generational change in attitude has been more rapid in Wales, and even more so in Scotland, than in England, suggesting that young people may become potentially more receptive to appeals from nationalist parties.
The research concludes that devolution appears to have had little impact on national identify, except perhaps in England where it may have strengthened an awareness of differences between English and British identify. Instead, there appears to be a gradual long-term process of declining British identify that predates devolution.
It finds that the broad contours of the current devolution settlement are in tune with public opinion across Britain, and that devolution has secured a high level of legitimacy in both Wales and Scotland. People in Scotland and Wales have substantially higher trust in the devolved authorities than in the UK government. Meanwhile there remains a substantial appetite for further devolution of power in both territories.
Intriguingly, say the researchers, “support for devolution has been maintained in Scotland and increased in Wales despite the fact that the perceived impact of the devolved institutions to date has not lived up to the expectations of people at the time of the 1997 referendums.” In Scotland in 1997, for example, 73 per cent of people thought having a Scottish Parliament would increase standards of education: but by 2003 only 23 per cent believed it was actually doing so. The equivalent figures in Wales were 50 per cent and 27 per cent.
More than half the people who participated in the last Scottish Parliament elections in 2003 said they voted mainly on Scottish issues, while more than a quarter voted on UK considerations.
Prof Lindsay Paterson, professor of educational policy at Edinburgh University and one of the researchers, said: “Voting in the elections this week will be influenced mainly by what David Cameron calls ‘bread and butter issues’. But voter's views of which party bakes the best bread are influenced now by whether they believe that the bread is baked in Scotland or Wales, rather than imported from England.
“The battle for votes between Labour and the nationalist parties is over which party best stands up for Scotland or Wales. The expected close results will show that Labour’s long-standing claim to represent those countries is more tenuous that it has been for several generations. Whoever wins, that loss of unchallenged national leadership by Labour will be the most lasting outcome of these elections.”
Annika Howard | alfa
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