Much of Britain’s domestic politics has recently been dominated by three issues: the levelling up agenda; the aftermath of Brexit; and the future of the UK’s constitutional settlement. Only England is directly affected by each of these challenges. So what do its people themselves feel about these issues? And do the political and policy outlooks of those living in the largest part of the Union vary depending on whether they identify more strongly as English or British, in their sense of nationhood? Is English nationalism, as has been widely claimed, in the ascendancy?
These are some of the questions that Professor Michael Kenny, Dr Joel Rogers de Waal and I attempt to answer in our brand-new polling paper, What matters to the English after Covid?, which marks the culmination of a collaboration between the Bennett Institute for Public Policy and the YouGov-Cambridge Centre for Public Opinion Research.
The results suggest that English attitudes on these questions are divided along various axes, and that whether people feel more ‘English’ or ‘British’ does correlate with markedly different attitudes to questions like immigration, but this correlation does not hold for other major social and economic questions.
Boris Johnson has made the ambition to level up the UK the main focus of his government’s domestic policy programme but there has been only limited investigation into how people across England feel about this commitment.
Our polling shows that levelling up is a popular idea in the abstract, with two-thirds (68%) of English people saying that it should be a high or medium priority. But there is also a widespread sense of scepticism about what this will mean in practice. More than half of our respondents (53%) think that levelling up will mean government investment in their local area remains unchanged or actually declines.
A closer look at the results reveals a marked pattern of regional differences in attitudes towards this issue. In London and the South East, only 18% of people think levelling up should be a high priority for government, compared to 40% of people in the Midlands and North. Likewise, whereas 41% of people in the Midlands and North believe that it will result in more money for their locality, only 9% of people in London and the South East believe this to be true for their own area.
Brexit in hindsight
Five years on from the Brexit referendum, how do the English feel about the decision to leave the European Union?
Our survey shows that, at the time the fieldwork was undertaken (May 2021), a plurality (46%) of English people thought leaving the European Union (EU) was the right decision in hindsight, compared to 39% who felt it was a mistake. And while some observers have suggested that a sense of ‘buyer’s remorse’ has since settled on those who voted ‘Leave’ in 2016, our results suggest otherwise. Whereas 11% of English people who voted ‘Remain’ in 2016 now think leaving the EU was the right decision, only 4% of 2016 Leavers think Brexit was a mistake in hindsight.
The UK’s constitutional settlement
Some observers have suggested that a resurgent English nationalism is currently destabilising the UK’s territorial politics, but our findings do not entirely support this characterisation. Only 4% of respondents to our survey feel Scottish independence is one of the four main issues facing the country at present. And a large minority (26%) of people are yet to decide whether or not they would support Scottish independence. Together, these results suggest that the abiding attitude towards the future of the Union among people in England is indifference or complacency, rather than nationalist grievance.
The influence of national identity on public opinion
The second question we asked in this report is: Do those who see themselves as English adopt a different political mindset to those who see themselves as British?
The answer to this question suggested by our polling is that it depends on the issue which people are considering. For example, on Brexit and immigration, we do find notable evidence of divergence in the attitudes of English-identifying, as opposed to British-identifying, respondents. English identifiers are more likely than their British-leaning counterparts to think that leaving the EU was the right decision and that immigration levels should be reduced.
However, on some other issues, there is a notable overlap between these two groups. On globalisation, for example, both English and British identifiers are more likely to feel positive than negative about its impact on their local economy, the UK’s economy as a whole, and the cultural life of the nation, although the British identifiers are slightly more positive than their English counterparts. These findings raise questions about the characterisation of an England divided between two distinct tribes, one ‘open’ to the forces of global integration and the other ‘closed’.
The results of this polling offer a window onto the various priorities, hopes, fears and national outlooks of England’s disparate publics. They point to the need for a more nuanced approach to characterising English public opinion – one which recognises that certain divisions exist with respect to some, but not all, policy domains.
With respect to levelling up in particular, our findings also cast a light onto the challenges facing the leaders of the two main political parties. The nervousness of many southern voters who fear that levelling up will involve some spatial redistribution away from their localities is grist to the mill of those Conservatives concerned that Boris Johnson’s flagship policy programme could hamper support for the party in the home counties. On the other hand, the apparent willingness of voters in the Midlands and North to buy into the prime minister’s rhetoric about levelling up leaves Keir Starmer in an equally unenviable position.
- Read Polling Paper: What matters to the English after Covid?
- Read media release: ‘Levelling up’ met with widespread scepticism across England, survey study suggests
 The polling survey was conducted between 17 and 18 May 2021. The sample consisted of 1,467 adults in England.
About the author
Tom is a Senior Research Officer at the Electoral Commission. From October 2020 to September 2021, he was a Research Assistant at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, having previously worked as a Policy Adviser at the think tank Green Alliance and as a researcher for a Member of Parliament. Tom holds a BSc in Government from the London School of Economics and an MSc in Democracy and Comparative Politics from UCL.