By most measures it would seem the English have many reasons to celebrate. Their economy is finally clawing its way out of the gutter and the birth of the royal baby has continued a wave of positive attention and international goodwill that last summer’s Olympic Games and Diamond Jubilee engendered. Yet evidence indicates that, for the average English citizen at least, there is a growing dissatisfaction with the status quo — a fact that often gets lost in Britain’s dual political coverage of Whitehall schemes and Scottish secession plans.
Part of this sentiment can be traced to the debate about Scotland and its upcoming independence referendum. As Scotland’s citizens have begun to rethink what it means to be both British and Scottish, so have England’s. Evidence from the Institute for Public Policy Research shows (PDF) the English no more in favor of the union than those north of the border.
According to the institute’s most recent Future of England Survey, English citizens feel that the process of devolution has given unfair advantages to the other three countries of the United Kingdom — at England’s expense. The result of which is a ballooning level of parochialism. Today, twice as many people in England prioritize being English over being British. The rhetoric of the Scottish government and the Scottish National Party in particular, which is often aimed at driving a wedge between England and Scotland, must bear part of the responsibility. As they focus on what is unique about Scottish culture, they remind England what is unique about its culture too. However, England’s negative feelings do not end simply with Scotland.
There is equally widespread discontent felt toward Westminster. This proceeds from a perception that the English lack genuine political representation from any of the major parties. According to Charlie Jeffery, one of the lead researchers for the survey, “No party is seen by more than a fifth or so of the English as standing up for their interests.”
This view of Westminster is compounded by the problems surrounding the so-called West Lothian Question — a situation that has arisen since the emergence of devolved government in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Lawmakers in London who represent these countries are able to vote on issues that are specific to England but their English counterparts do not vote on corresponding issues for the other three countries. While the House of Commons has taken some steps to address this via committee investigation, the unbalance in decisionmaking persists. As it stands today, there is no equivalent England government that acts as a counterpart to bodies like the National Assembly for Wales or Northern Ireland Assembly.
Even as English sentiment trends toward dissatisfaction with the United Kingdom, it trends toward outright hostility to the European Union. According to the same survey, only 33 percent of English citizens would vote to keep the country in the European Union. This correlates closely with the increasing popularity of the United Kingdom Independence Party whose core platforms also includes reducing immigration. Euroskepticism goes hand in hand with negative attitudes toward immigrants from Commonwealth and European countries alike. Anti-European and -immigration views mark an emerging insularity that is expressed in prioritizing English citizenship over a British or European sense of identity.
All of which begs the question — why? English people, especially outside London, seem to feel a mix of besiege and neglect. A commonly cited root cause for these feelings is economics. While the country’s unemployment and economic woes can certainly be tied to some of these attitudes — especially views about Europe’s role in undermining the British economy and producing “job stealing” immigrants — data in the Future of England Survey suggests that the English have been unhappy about their lot since the early 2000s when economic conditions were much better.
A more likely answer is inertia. Scotland’s pro-independence leader Alex Salmond and UKIP’s Nigel Farage are two of the most vocal and influential individuals on the island. Neither of them has an equally compelling counterpart. In that sense, they nearly resemble two sides of the same coin: one of disgruntled populism. They command headlines with their utopian visions that play upon unique and exclusive cultural identities. One vision from Scotland tells the English they have been mistreating their northern neighbors and would like to be well left alone; the other tells them they’ve been equally had by their neighbors across the Channel and deserve to be rid of them.
With the coalition government apparently tone deaf to these resentments and having little success in delivering solutions, it is not surprising that the English are so unhappy. However, unless policymakers move to address the grievances of English citizens sooner rather than later, they could have far-reaching consequences for the country’s role, not just as a member of the international or European community, but on the island that it has been administering from London for more than three hundred years.