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Westminster Government’s ‘muscular union’ approach may backfire – report

08 Sep 2023 7 minute read
Richard Wyn Jones.

Martin Shipton

The UK Government’s “muscular unionism” approach, aimed at putting the devolved nations in their place, is out of step with the majority of people and may backfire, according to research by leading academics from Wales and Scotland.

Professor Richard Wyn Jones of Cardiff University and Professor Ailsa Henderson of Edinburgh University have produced a report, The Ambivalent Union, which shows that fewer than half of voters in any of the four UK nations see maintaining the union in its current form as a priority.

Another finding shows strong backing for common social and economic support across the UK nations, but it evaporates when voters are asked about sharing tax revenues.

Equally, sidelining devolved governments is, according to the research likely to put off even supporters of the union.

In their report for the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) think tank, the academics conclude that the UK Government’s growing rhetorical commitment to the union, particularly one that is unreformed, is out of step with people across the four nations of the UK, who are far more ambivalent about its future.

Support in England for the union in its current form is relaxed, and there is low concern in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland about other UK nations going their separate ways.

The “muscular unionism” approach, which entails excluding governments of devolved nations from key areas they expected to control after Brexit, risks fuelling resentment and undermining the merely “ambivalent” support for the UK as a single state, says the report.

British values

The report also finds widespread variation in what people in the UK’s four constituent nations see as their common “British” values, with a striking ambivalence about the importance or retaining all four nations as part of the union.

While the report finds that British national identity aligns with constitutional attitudes, it does so in different ways in different parts of the state. For example, 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.

Conversely, people in England who emphasise their Britishness were more likely to be pro-EU.

The report provides the first detailed analysis of the 2021 “state of the union” survey, led by Professors Jones and Henderson.

The survey asked identical questions of representative samples of around 1,600 voters in each of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, enabling cross-cutting comparisons of attitudes between all four nations of the UK.

The report’s authors devised a “muscular unionism” index to assess where people stand on a spectrum between full-throated support for and complete rejection of the approach.

Out of kilter

Voters as a whole in all four constituent territories tend slightly away from “muscular unionism”, with only those who support the Conservatives in Scotland and the UUP or DUP in Northern Ireland leaning towards it. This puts them out of kilter with the attitudes of most supporters of the union in England.

Although the approach resonates with Conservative and some Labour voters in Scotland, it is not shared by the far greater number of pro-union voters in England and Wales – suggesting that adopting its rhetoric risks weakening already ambivalent support.

Among its other findings the report reveals high support for the principle of transferring money from richer to poorer parts of the UK, so that everyone can have a similar level of public services. Support for this principle ranges from 70% support in England to 86% in Northern Ireland, with Wales on 74%.

Responding to a slightly different question asking whether the UK Government should step in to even out economic differences between the different parts of the UK, answers ranged from 73% in Scotland to 87% in Northern Ireland, with Wales on 77%.

But there was lower support for the more concrete notion of “sharing tax revenue” with other parts of the UK – from 28% support in Wales to 41% in

England – and even less when voters were asked about particular nations. Only 15% of those surveyed in Wales supported sharing revenue with Scotland, while 32% in England backed sharing with Wales or Northern Ireland.

Fair share

There was a widespread belief within each of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that the other nations receive more than their fair share – particularly England, identified as such by at least half of those polled in the three other nations – and that their own country receives less than it should do. Such a view is taken by between 43% in Northern Ireland and 58% in Wales. The authors say this suggests the UK is partly “a union of grievance”.

There was low concern among voters in each of the four nations at the possibility of others (except England) going their own way. Asked to rate their support for England, Scotland or Wales becoming independent, or for Northern Ireland becoming part of a united Ireland, voters in each nation gave similar average scores. These ranged from minus 2 to plus 1.5 on a scale of minus 10 (no) to plus 10 (yes) – suggesting the UK is a highly “ambivalent union”.

There was also evidence of a willingness to “trade off” the current union, even among its supporters, for another objective seen as more important. Fewer than half in any nation see maintaining the current union as a priority, suggesting further evidence of “ambivalence”.


Prof Jones. director of the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University, said: “Given the constant appeals to ‘Britishness’ in the rhetoric of the two main UK-wide political parties, it’s perhaps surprising how little research has been undertaken into the values and attitudes that, in reality, align with British national identity. This new analysis suggests the idea that there is a single understanding of Britishness, held and cherished across all four constituent territories of the UK, is a myth.

“Instead there are multiple, territorially-differentiated versions of British identity that stand in very uneasy – even contradictory – relationship with each other. This suggests in turn that attempts by recent UK governments to champion a single version of Britishness, to buttress what some have termed ‘the precious Union’, are not only doomed to failure but are likely to be self-defeating.”

Prof Henderson said: “Attitudes to the union are typically understood as polarised between those who want its end and those who believe its benefits should be defended more assertively. Nowhere is that polarisation more obvious than in Scotland, but UK-wide there is also considerable

ambivalence to the union, with much support either muted or conditional on perceived benefits.

“In addition, the way ‘Britishness’ coalesces around not just different but at times opposite values, preferences and attitudes across the UK must be seen as a considerable challenge to anyone hoping to identify a unifying narrative around what it means. The union’s advocates might wish for a more muscular defence of its benefits, but the UK is, in many ways, an ambivalent union.”


Philip Whyte, director of IPPR Scotland, said: “Despite what were, ultimately, two close results in the Scottish independence and Brexit referendums, the UK Government’s response has often portrayed them as the settled will of the majority. We’ve seen the rise of ‘muscular unionism’ alongside an undermining of the devolved nations – perhaps best summed up as an attempt to govern on a basis of ‘to the victors the spoils’.

“However, not only is that out of kilter with the public, it is ultimately self-defeating. As the Westminster parties gear up to design their offer to voters across Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland next year, they must open their eyes to the very real variety of people and views across every part of the UK – and respond in a way which respects, rather than alienates, them. Otherwise they will risk fuelling even greater ambivalence.”

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Owain Morgan
Owain Morgan
7 months ago

While only indicative, due to the sample sizes, the margins in some cases are definitive. It’s clear that people don’t want muscular Unionism! That is the stand out point here. What is clear though is that Unionism means different things to different Unionists, that pursuing one aggressive form only alienates other kinds of Unionist, and that’s before we discuss Nationalists! Ambivalence tends to be the stand out theme and while I’m not surprised at that in Scotland and Wales, the figures in England and Northern Ireland were. Overall what’s obvious is that citizens of the UK want to be consulted… Read more »

7 months ago

I was UK only till Cameron and wavered, then Boris got in and now I don’t see a way forward with the UK in the long term. The nation was lied to with Brexit, and the Tory party machine continues to lie through its back teeth and wreck the UK, a future Labour Gov will not entertain dropping FPTP. Cons get back rinse and repeat. Rejoining the EU as an independent nation has a vibe about it, though it will be a long road.

7 months ago

I don’t think it will, History tells us how the People of Wales will put up with anything if it comes from London. This is why we lack serious respect from nations around the world, especially when compared to Ireland or Scotland.

Owain Morgan
Owain Morgan
7 months ago
Reply to  Riki

I used to think that, but Brexit and the return of Muscular unionism has changed much. We’re at a tipping point and it will only take one wrong move from the British establishment to create a majority in all of the devolved nations in favour of leaving this dictatorial union. A union that was created out of bloodshed, theft and corruption that will NEVER be ‘a union of equals.’

Steve Duggan
Steve Duggan
7 months ago

It would have been interesting to see the age range and differences between the ages in this survey. I suspect if these questions were given to a group under 30 the results would be completely different to a group of over 30s. That difference would be the main indicator as to where the Union is heading. Other recent surveys suggest there is no future for the Union.

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
7 months ago

Westminster’s muscular unionism is a knee to the throat of Wales.

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