Wednesday, 7 March 2012
THE ENGLISH QUESTION – HOW IS ENGLAND RESPONDING TO DEVOLUTION?
WHAT ARE WE TO MAKE OF RACHEL ORMSTON’S INTERVENTION IN THE DEVELOPING ENGLISH QUESTION DEBATE? A COMMENTARY ON THE ENGLISH QUESTION – HOW IS ENGLAND RESPONDING TO DEVOLUTION?
Rachel Ormston, as her biography shows, is the “Co-director of the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey”, she has “a particular interest in measuring and exploring attitudes across a wide range of areas, from discrimination and prejudice to constitutional change”. Ms Ormston “joined Scotsen in 2005 from TNS Social Research” and she has “a First Class Degree in Philosophy and a Master (with distinction) in Policy Studies from the University of Edinburgh.”
Here is a link to her report >>> http://www.natcen.ac.uk/media/816007/the-english-question-final.pdf
Looking at her report, on the positive side Ms Ormston’s study does at least refer to the question as the “English Question” rather than the usual British Unionist Establishments “West Lothian Question”, (no doubt in the hope that no ordinary English person will understand that they are talking about England’s Constitutional position!).
Ms Ormston does however nevertheless fall into the common error of Scottish commentators many of whom seem to suppose the only issue arises from Scotland. Thus Ms Ormston discusses the question of the rising support for independence in England by reference solely to the election of a majority Scottish National Party government in Holyrood and finds that support for independence in England has not risen dramatically between that election and the date her figures were collated (which seems to be quite a few months ago, in some cases more than a year).
I don’t find it at all surprising that there hadn’t been much of a rise, as up until that time Alex Salmond had not made much noise that was audible in England about his moves towards having a referendum on independence and much of the British national media had downplayed the idea that independence for Scotland was a meaningful option.
However the interesting thing is that, if the full range of her figures are looked at there has been a very significant rise in support for the independence option in England, rising now to 26% (from 14% in 1997)! When we talk about such percentages, even though independence is not yet a majority preference in England, nevertheless 26% is a significantly larger proportion of the population than gave Tony Blair his last landslide victory in the 2005 General Election (when he received the votes of 21.6%).
It is often instructive, when trying to consider the aim of a paper, to look carefully at its conclusion. Interestingly the conclusion of Miss Ormston’s paper appears to be focussed on attacking her commercial and academic rivals in the Institute of Policy Public Research (IPPR) which recently produced a report entitled ‘The dog that finally barked – England as an emerging political community’. That report showed that there was a striking emergence of English nationalist sentiment which was giving rise to an increasing demand for reform of the UK’s constitution to adequately reflect England’s interests.
Interestingly for a balanced consideration of Ms Ormston’s paper, it is her approach which seems to be out of kilter with the many opinion polls that have been done in the last four or more years which have consistently shown over 60% support for an “English Parliament” in some form or another.
NatCen Social Research claim on page 3 of their report that the difference between their findings and other recent surveys reflect a lack of consistency in the methodology and question wording used by all the other studies. On the contrary, the odd man out is the NatCen survey. What is more, the true state of English opinion is being made very clear in the research they have made but they are either blindly or deliberately misinterpreting the data.
The Report actually concerns English attitudes to Scotland, Wales and presumably Northern Ireland. However it chooses to concentrate on Scotland owing to there being more data specific to Scotland. Nonetheless it is probably fair to assume, (as they seem to), that attitudes towards Scotland also broadly represent those towards Wales and Northern Ireland as well.
The report says that there is "some evidence of an increasing 'backlash' in English public opinion" with regards to the excessive public spending in Scotland. Given that the numbers holding this view have more than doubled from 21% in 2000 to 44% in 2011 it brings into question the impartiality of the author’s of the report in being so keen to downplay what any neutral observer would describe as a significant and growing change in public opinion.
We also learn that by 2009, 82% of English residents thought that Scotland ought to raise its own budget. This is then dismissed on the grounds that the level of resentment does not appear to have grown further since 2007, even though their own figures actually show it to have risen by another 10% (from 75% to 82%). To achieve a further 10% growth when three-quarters already hold this opinion is actually quite remarkable. With 82% of English residents expressing their dissatisfaction one has to wonder exactly how high this figure is supposed to rise before they will finally take notice.
As for attitudes to the 'West Lothian' (actually English) Question, it appears from Table 13 on page 15 that 66% of English residents believe that only English MPs should make laws that affect only England, (Table 7). Moreover, the number who strongly agree with this principle has now risen to 31%, almost a third of the electorate. When asked of those who are specifically English, this figure rises as high as 77%, (Table 15). Despite this, the Report blithely concludes that "debates about devolution do not yet appear to have translated into ... majority demand for other changes to the way England is governed" (page 16). Given the figures quoted before are clearly well in excess of 50% it is hard to understand in what way they should not be accepted as "majority demand".
But the really egregious misrepresentation of the data can be seen with the (mis-)interpretation of the data concerning how England should be governed. We have already learnt that respondents believe that only English MPs should make English Laws. The Reports goes on to admit in the quote highlighted in the bottom of page 11: "Devolution does not appear to have weakened commitment in England to being governed from the House of Commons. However, people in England do want changes - most agree that Scottish MPs should not be able to vote on England only matters, and strength of feeling on this issue has increased."
So why were respondents not given the opportunity to express this preference?
The authors made much of the fact that "only" 25% of respondents chose the option "England as whole to have its own new Parliament with law-making powers" - despite the fact that the location and make-up of a new, separate and presumably additional English Parliament were not made clear, nor indeed what would happen to our existing Parliament in its traditional English home at Westminster in England's capital city. Despite the lack of clarity with regards to this option, and also that it is an option that has received no support from the three main parties nor the media as a whole, it was nevertheless chosen by fully 25% of respondents. Why is this not evidence of significant public feelings?
Ms Ormston talks about consistency in the polling approach, but of course what might have seemed a sensible and reasonable question years ago may no longer seem to be relevant. In addition we don’t know either the location or social profile of the people who have been polled in this case, so therefore such difference as she claims from the IPPR Report might not reflect any real difference in English opinion. Certainly to the extent that Ms Ormston does differ from the IPPR Report, I would say that that difference is strikingly contrary to my experience, and that many other English Democrats’; in talking to people on the doorstep. Indeed, it is not even necessary to knock on doors to realise there is a rise in English nationalist feeling, you merely have to look at the numbers of Crosses of St George flown from flagpoles across England and also the dramatically increasing support, largely despite official discouragement, of St George’s Day. The English Democrats have of course been at the spearhead of promoting such change. We are however part of this sea-change in English National identity rather than its authors.
In any event, one of the striking aspects of Ms Ormston's findings is that despite all her efforts she is still forced by the incontrovertible facts to concede that there is a significant rise in the demand for constitutional change to properly reflect the interests of the English Nation and it is to that extent that I welcome this report, imperfect and partial though it may be.