The surprise outright victory of David Cameron’s Conservative party at this year’s General Election means that we are now certain there will be a referendum on Britain’s future in the European Union (EU). At some point before the end of 2017 we will be asked whether we think the UK should remain a member of the EU or leave the EU. Although the date of the referendum is yet to be set, the long campaign is already well underway and the battle lines are starting to be drawn. One such line, it appears, is that between England and the other nations of the UK. Assertions (not least from leaders of the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales) about the constitutional implications of a vote by England to leave the EU while the rest of the UK votes to remain have become so commonplace that one might be forgiven for thinking such an outcome was almost inevitable.
In a paper published today on this website, we assess the evidence to date on the gap between England and the rest of the UK and the reasons why such a gap might exist.
Overall, recent polling suggests that attitudes to the EU across Britain as a whole are extremely finely balanced. Based on our ‘Poll of Polls’, which averages the 6 most recent polls (excluding those people who have yet to make up their minds), at present ‘Remain’ have a lead of just 2 percentage points over ‘Leave’ – 51% favour remaining, 49% leaving. However, at present, a majority in each of the four constituent nations of the UK say they would vote to remain in the EU. A vote that divides the UK on national lines is by no means a necessary outcome.
At the same time, all recent survey and polling data do indeed point to a sizeable gap between England and Scotland (typically between 12 and 17 percentage points) in the level of support for remaining in the EU, and to a somewhat smaller gap between England and Wales (typically around 5 percentage points). Based on recent online polling (to mid-November) in each country, on average 52% of people in England, compared with 64% in Scotland and 55% in Wales, would vote to remain in the EU. There are fewer reliable sources of data on attitudes to the EU in Northern Ireland, but if recent polls there are accurate then Northern Ireland may be even more enthusiastic than Scotland about remaining in the EU, with as many as 75% supporting remaining in the EU.
If Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland voted as these polls indicate, then it would only take a relatively small shift among voters in England before we were faced with one of two potentially constitutionally unsettling outcomes. First, if a narrow majority of between 50 and 52.4% of people in England voted in favour of leaving the EU, the UK may nonetheless be kept in the EU by the votes of people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Conversely, if the leave vote in England reached 52.5% or more, then England could take the UK out of the EU even though majorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland voted to remain. So while a constitutionally uncomfortable outcome is by no means guaranteed, it is clearly a possibility if the polls as they currently stand are indeed an accurate reflection of the balance of public opinion.
Why then are voters in England more inclined than their neighbours elsewhere in the UK to want to leave the EU? The answer is not one of demographics – the kinds of people who favour staying in the EU (young people, managers and professionals, graduates) are very similar in each country. And if anything, differences between the demographic structure of England and that of Scotland and Wales should favour England being the relatively more pro-EU country: there are, for example, more managers and professionals in England than in Scotland or Wales. So England’s relatively EU-sceptic position clearly cannot be explained by demographics.
However, if the demographic differences between the nations of the UK are, for the most part, relatively small, the political differences across the country in the wake of this year’s General Election are anything but. The SNP dominates the current political landscape in Scotland. The Conservatives are the largest party in England. Labour took the most votes in Wales, with a substantial minority supporting the Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru. UKIP took around 1 in 7 votes in each of England and Wales, but fewer than 1 in 50 in Scotland.
And of course, these political parties take very different views on the EU. Analysis of data from the British Election Study shows that, regardless of where they live in the UK, voters’ views on the EU broadly mirror those of the parties they supported in May. In fact, once differences in the party-political structure of the three countries are taken into account, differences in support for remaining in/leaving the EU are no longer statistically significant. In short, parties help shape voters’ views on the EU, and England’s relative lack of enthusiasm for staying in the EU is a reflection of the relative popularity of the Conservative party and UKIP there.
In a context in which, according to other polling evidence, the public are relatively lukewarm about the prospect of an EU referendum, the positions taken by our political leaders may well prove crucial. The steer they give as the referendum campaign warms up may influence not only the outcome as a whole, but the degree of divergence between England, Scotland and Wales – with potentially profound consequences for the continuing constitutional debate about relations between our nations.
This is an extended version of a blog that first appeared on www.cityam.com
By Rachel Ormston
Rachel Ormston is Head of Social Attitudes at NatCen Social Research. She regularly writes and presents on social and political attitudes and has a particular interest in attitudes to UK constitutional change.