Published on 12 July 2023
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The British Political Tradition and the erosion of ‘permissive autonomy’: ‘muscular unionism’ in the UK

Is the UK Government conflating England, Britain and the UK in terms of governance and national identity, and rolling back parts of the devolution settlements within the Union? This so-called muscular unionism has been more rhetorical than real so far in the 2010s and 2020s, but it may turn out to be an effective territorial management strategy for the UK Government, writes Mark Sandford.

Scholars and commentators have coined a number of terms in recent years to describe a more robust approach to territorial management emanating from the UK government. Among them are ‘muscular unionism’, ‘hyper-unionism’, ‘know-your-place unionism’, ‘aggressive unilateralism’, and ‘Anglo-centric British nationalism’. This is contrasted with a trend towards increased powers and autonomy for the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland from 1999 to 2019. The sentiment behind these terms has found support from the Scottish and Welsh governments, which have argued that recent developments indicate that the UK Government is seeking to reduce the autonomy of the devolved institutions. Examples of this trend include the UK Government’s first use of section 35 of the Scotland Act 1998 to block an Act of the Scottish Parliament, and the use of the Internal Market Act 2020 in the context of Scotland’s Deposit Return Scheme.

This purported change has been unfavourably contrasted with previous practice, and scholars have intimated that it is not a viable territorial management strategy for the UK. But is ‘muscular unionism’ real – and could it ‘work’? In a recent article in Political Studies, I argue that the evidence of a deliberate break from the UK’s historical governing strategy is at best ambivalent. Instead, I argue that what we see today is the reassertion of an older governing strategy, located within the British Political Tradition. It appears novel today because it contrasts with some of the constitutional narratives that have developed during the first 20 years of UK devolution, but it has a much longer pedigree, and is hardwired in many ways into broader UK constitutional practice.

Permissive autonomy

During the first 20 years of UK devolution, the traditional governing practices of the UK with regard to territory changed very little. Relationships between the new devolved institutions and the UK government operated on a light touch and ad hoc basis. Codification of responsibilities was absent, and no unifying narrative of the purpose and operation of the UK state emerged. The devolved institutions operated under what Charlie Jeffery, in 2007, called ‘permissive autonomy’. Each level of government managed its affairs largely independently: joint working between the tiers, and conditional grants, were as good as absent.

In comparative terms, running disputes between tiers of government about their respective powers and locus of responsibility, legal duties and accessibility of funding are the norm. If anything, the first 20 years of UK devolution are an exception to the rule. Powerful sub-national bodies had almost complete freedom to make policy in their areas of responsibility, and they successfully demanded extra powers on a number of occasions (such as the Calman, Holtham, Smith and Silk Commissions).

Politically, permissive autonomy suited both the UK and the devolved tiers of government. The devolved administrations had exceptionally broad control over most domestic policy, with minimal interference from the UK level except when absolutely necessary. The UK government could avoid creating extensive intergovernmental relations infrastructure, and thus maintain its traditional indifference to questions of constitutional principle and territorial management. This approach suited both Labour and Conservative governments, both of which (for slightly differing reasons) have long allied themselves with the British political tradition. 

However, in the context of the UK’s uncodified constitution, this hands-off approach enabled competing constitutional narratives to emerge in the devolved areas. These suggested that the UK had in practice become a ‘voluntary union’ with four constituent parts, each of which could exercise its right to leave. This narrative saw the UK as a form of emerging federation, in which each part of the UK should, by default, manage its own domestic affairs. In turn, the narrative justified the granting of extensive new powers to Scotland and Wales in the 2010s. It was also able to encompass a political openness to accommodating a strengthened English sentiment, something which became increasingly visible within the Brexit process.

The emerging federation: a mirage?

However, this narrative was always based on interpreting practices within the UK’s uncodified constitution. A number of developments in UK governance in the early 2020s point strongly to its assertions of change being illusory. The House of Commons legislated several times on devolved matters during and after Brexit, despite the Sewel Convention’s provision that it would not “normally” do so. The Internal Market Act 2020, in particular, obliges the devolved governments to accept goods and services that comply with the regulatory requirements in other parts of the UK, even if they do not comply with their own regulatory requirements. In the same vein, the Government has operated a number of UK-wide funding programmes covering devolved matters. Court judgements have established that the Sewel Convention is not justiciable, and that the Scottish Parliament cannot hold an advisory referendum on independence.

Arguably these recent shifts amount to a reassertion of the long-standing territorial management practices of the British Political Tradition. In large part, they appear novel because they are high-profile expressions of practices that have traditionally remained tacit. They have been accompanied by rhetoric from UK government ministers asserting the UK government’s right to intervene in matters that have long been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But examples of rhetoric are not themselves evidence of a governing strategy.

If these shifts in practice are regarded as reflex reassertions of an older governing practice, it becomes easier to account for the apparent lack of any strategic intent. A UK government determined on a wholesale reversal of the devolution settlement, for instance, could have been expected not to respect devolved rights during the intense pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic, or the energy price spikes of late 2022. The fact that the devolution settlement remained intact at during these crises point to the aforementioned shifts in practice constituting ad hoc responses to specific policy pressures, reflecting governing assumptions rooted in the British Political Tradition.

Future tensions?

Some commentators have predicted that if the UK government holds fast to traditional territorial management practices, it will inflame tensions between the component parts of the UK with damaging long term consequences. I argue that there are valid reasons to think that this turn could ‘work’ better than they suspect. The British Political Tradition’s core consisted of “leaving principles inexplicit”, blurring the (cultural and political) boundaries between England, Britain, and the UK, and avoiding vexed questions of national identities and their constitutional expression. These practices tap into an Anglo-British imaginary that has deep roots at the popular level. It sees no need to distinguish clearly between Englishness and Britishness, nor, by extension, between English and British governance. This perspective has little interest in abstract matters such as the Sewel Convention, intergovernmental relations, and constitutional process.

This imaginary is visible in a broad range of polling data. The 2020 British Social Attitudes survey found that 46% of respondents in England considered themselves ‘equally English and British’ on a standard Moreno scale, far higher than the other options. Support for an English Parliament in the British Social Attitudes survey and the Future of England Survey peaked at 31%. Polling during the 2010s found that English respondents were finally balanced on supporting Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland leaving the Union. These figures suggest that English respondents are more likely to respond to territorial grievance by looking to renegotiate the terms of the Union rather than support its end. One of the side effects of ‘permissive autonomy’ was a growth both in English sentiment and in awareness of the treatment of England as a territorial unit of governance. However, the available polling data does not indicate any robust demand for English political institutions. This suggests that the current reversion toward for blurring England and Britain reflects popular demand.

Many people in all parts of the Union would, of course, not sign up to this imaginary. In effect, this (re)turn to the British Political Tradition constitutes a bet that those people will not form a majority. But this approach could cause difficulties in the future. Critically, it circumvents the need to build a positive case for the Union. Most unionist commentary assumes that the Union is an absolute good, and simply requires more overt and explicit promotion for its benefits to become self-evident. That helps to prevent complex and emotive questions about national identities from arising. But a lack of clarity about the benefits of the Union could weaken the unionist case in the future.


The recent developments in the UK’s territorial relations can be seen as a reversion to the core principles of the British Political Tradition. One of the notable features of this shift is the unpopularity of ‘institutional fixes’: new institutions, new statutory duties, codification and juridification of the constitution. ‘Institutional fixes’ have regularly been proposed to address territorial tensions in the UK. But by defining relationships and introducing legal responsibilities, they threaten the core of the British Political Tradition – parliamentary sovereignty. It seems unlikely that any major party in the UK has the appetite to move decisively away from this traditional territorial management approach.

Sandford, M. (2023). ‘Muscular Unionism’: The British Political Tradition Strikes Back? Political Studies0(0).

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Mark Sandford

Mark Sandford is a senior research analyst in the House of Commons Library, specialising in local government and devolution within England. He has published a number of reports, papers and...

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