Westminster’s Dominance Could Undermine Public Backing of Unionism, Survey Finds

A survey looked at attitudes towards the UK union, economic and social solidarity across the country, independence, the idea of “Britishness,” and the notion of “muscular unionism.”
Westminster’s Dominance Could Undermine Public Backing of Unionism, Survey Finds
A Union Jack flag flutters in front of the Elizabeth Tower, commonly known as Big Ben, in London on Feb. 1, 2017. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
Evgenia Filimianova

Prioritising Westminster’s dominance in national decision-making by the central government could undermine public support for the UK as a single state, a think tank has claimed.

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) published its State of the Union survey (pdf) on Thursday after analysing public attitudes in the country.

The survey looked at attitudes towards the UK union, economic and social solidarity across the country, independence, the idea of “Britishness,” and the notion of “muscular unionism.”

The term “muscular unionism” became prominent during Boris Johnson’s years as prime minister. It referred to his administration’s strong support for maintaining the union, or “the awesome foursome,” as Mr. Johnson would call it.

Westminster acts on behalf of the UK on issues such as defence and foreign affairs. The three devolved legislatures in Belfast, Cardiff, and Edinburgh to various degrees control policies on education, health, local government, elements of tax, and social security.

In the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum and Brexit, the former prime minister would also call devolution a “disaster north of the border.”

Muscular Unionism

In line with the “muscular unionism” approach, Westminster had denied the devolved nations control of some policy areas. For example, the governments of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland were largely excluded from economic development schemes that replaced European structural funds.

The survey found that public support for Westminster’s supremacy over devolved governments was “relatively muted” in all four nations.

Findings showed that only 19 percent of people in Northern Ireland believe that the union’s interest should be prioritised. This was the same for 28 percent of respondents in England, 25 percent in Scotland, and 24 percent in Wales.

Therefore, the central government’s stern conviction on the significance of the union does not resonate with the majority of people across the country, the think tank said.

Opinions also differed based on the respondents’ political affiliation. Support for “muscular unionism” was higher among members of the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) in Northern Ireland and Conservative Party supporters in Wales and Scotland.

The survey noted that English Conservatives do not share the same view.

In Scotland, 35 percent said their interests are more important that of the union. In England, only 19 percent believe this.

National Identity

The survey also found that the idea of “Britishness” works in different ways in different parts of the UK.

“One might even argue that there is no single British national identity with a shared understanding of the union,” the IPPR suggested.

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, analysis showed.

At the same time, those in England who prioritise their Britishness are the least eurosceptic.

Those who identify as British in England opposed Brexit, while in Scotland and Wales they voted Leave, the survey said.


Analysis found that all four UK nations have a “distinctly conditional and ambivalent attitude towards the union.”

There is a positive support for Irish unity in every part of the country, apart from Northern Ireland itself. On the other hand, there is net opposition to Scotland’s independence in the other three territories.

“Many in England, especially, appear to be relatively relaxed about the prospects of a reshaped state,” the survey found. This goes against Westminster’s “precious union” rhetoric, inherited from the former Prime Minister Theresa May.

Union of Grievance

People in all four parts of the UK tend to feel their territory is “hard done by” when compared with others, said the survey. It called the UK a “union of grievance.”

While Britons support the idea of sharing resources and social policies, their answers changed when they were told which part those resources should be redirected towards.

There is strong support for transferring money from richer to poorer parts. This compares poorly to the willingness in Wales and England to share tax revenue with the rest of the country.

Only 15 percent in Wales supported sharing revenue with Scotland.

With ambivalence towards unionism on the rise and independence high on the Scottish government’s priority list, Westminster faces a complex task of keeping the “precious union” alive. This could reflect in the manifestos of both the Conservatives and the Labour Party in the looming 2024 general election.

Evgenia Filimianova is a UK-based journalist covering a wide range of national stories, with a particular interest in UK politics, parliamentary proceedings and socioeconomic issues.