Divorce without drama?

England thinks Scotland should pay its own way
January 25, 2012

David Cameron has been accused of misreading the mood of the Scots; but is he also guilty of misreading the mood of his own voters in England? YouGov has conducted polls for Prospect both north and south of the border, and it finds not just that the English are less keen than the Scots to keep the United Kingdom intact, but that Conservative voters see particular benefits in Scotland going its own way.

We offered respondents four options: scrapping devolution, the status quo, “devo-max” and full Scottish independence. If we combine the first two as “unionist” options and the second two as “tartan” options (tartan, on the basis that “devo-max” will end up as a stepping stone to later independence), we find that the Scots divide 51-40 per cent for an inevitably tartan rather than Unionist future—while English voters divide even more clearly, 52-32 per cent in the same direction. And English Tories favour a tartan future even more decisively, by 58-33 per cent.

The figures show the English to be relaxed about loosening Westminster’s grip on Edinburgh. Why? Mainly because they think Scotland gets the better deal at the moment, and that separation would free England of the financial burden of keeping the union together. Scots divide fairly evenly on the issue of who benefits most now, but by a margin of 11-to-one, the English think the Scots win out.

We asked two questions about the economic consequences of Scottish independence: would Scotland be better or worse off, and how would England fare? The Scots veer towards pessimism on both counts, with substantially more saying “worse off” than “better off.” In contrast, while most English people think Scotland would be worse off, two thirds of them—and more than eight out of ten Tories—believe England would survive separation either unscathed or economically stronger.

As for the worry that the United Kingdom would have less clout in the rest of the world if Scotland went its own way, just 17 per cent of the English fear this. And since half of the English don’t ultimately care what happens to Scotland, it seems unlikely that this argument will have much traction south of the border.

However, what our poll really shows is that the wider division just now is not about the future, but about the present. Is Scotland currently leeching money from England, or is it paying its way with an economy prevented by its lack of autonomy from achieving even more? In both countries, attitudes to independence depend largely on how people view that debate.