Last year’s independence referendum might have settled – for the time being at least – the question of whether Scotland should be an independent country. But it left a legacy of two further debates and controversies. The first, instigated by Gordon Brown’s ‘vow’ in the final days of the referendum campaign, was about how much more power and responsibility should be passed to the Scottish Parliament, the UK government’s proposals for which are currently making their way through the legislative process. The second, given its impetus by David Cameron on the steps of Downing St. on the morning after polling day, is what should happen to the governance of England now that Scotland (and indeed Wales) is to enjoy further devolution. After a hiccup in July, the Commons is expected to pass judgement on Mr Cameron’s principal answer, ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (EVEL), not long after it returns next week from its summer break.
There can be no doubt that the principle of EVEL is relatively popular amongst voters in England, albeit just how popular is less straightforward. Since last September’s referendum, there have been at least seven polls that have asked voters in England in a variety of ways whether or not Scottish MPs should be able to vote on ‘English’ laws, The lowest level of support for the idea was 50% recorded by ComRes shortly after May’s UK general election, when they asked people whether they agreed or disagreed with, ‘Preventing Scottish MPs in the UK Parliament in Westminster to vote [sic] on issues that do not impact on Scotland’. At the other end of the spectrum last October YouGov found as many as 72% saying, ‘should’, when asked, ‘Scottish MPs should or should not be able to vote in the House of Commons on issues that affect only England?’
One possible explanation for the difference in the level of support for the two propositions lies in the fact that the ComRes question asked about barring Scottish MPs from voting on issues that do not affect Scotland whereas YouGov’s question refers to laws that affect ‘only England’. As we have noted before, the latter would appear more likely to evoke the sentiment that Scottish MPs should not be ‘meddling’ in ‘our’ (i.e. England’s) affairs. Certainly three other polls that used a wording more similar to YouGov’s – two more from ComRes and one by Survation – produced levels of support for EVEL 66% (twice) and 65%, similar to that of the YouGov poll. In contrast, further polls conducted by ComRes (again) and Ipsos MORI that referred instead to ‘issues that did not have any impact on Scotland’, put support lower at 55% and 53% respectively.
There is though nothing new about this sentiment, nor is it clear that it has become markedly more widespread. As long ago as 2000, shortly after the devolved Scottish Parliament was established, British Social Attitudes found that as many as 63% of people in England said they either ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ that, ‘Now that Scotland has its own parliament, Scottish MPs should no longer be allowed to vote in the House of Commons on laws that only affect England’, while only 9% ‘disagreed’ or ‘strongly disagreed’. When the question was last asked again, in 2013, the former figure was virtually unchanged at 62% while the latter had slipped just a little to 8%. The only difference of note was that those who ‘strongly agreed’ rather than just ‘agreed’ were now a little more in evidence (29%) than before (18%).
Meanwhile, in the one instance where a polling company (ComRes) has asked the same question since the referendum as it had done beforehand, the proportion agreeing with ‘Not allowing Scottish MPs in the UK Parliament in Westminster to vote on issues that do not impact on Scotland’ was, at 55%, exactly the same in December as it had been in the week before the referendum. And while no company has asked the same question on either side of May’s UK general election, at which the SNP was so successful, we might note that the two lowest levels of support for EVEL were in the two polls (by ComRes and Ipsos Mori) that were conducted after May 7th. Rather than an indication of growing English resentment towards the degree of self-government that Scotland enjoys let alone the enhanced role of the SNP in the House of Commons, support for EVEL looks more like a long-standing sentiment that probably simply seems like ‘common sense’ to many living south of the border.
Indeed, it is also a sentiment that up to now at least has also been widely accepted north of the border. Reflecting many a previous finding, in January both Ipsos MORI and Panelbase found that just over 50% of people in Scotland accepted that Scottish MPs should not be voting on issues that do not affect Scotland. Whether the SNP’s electoral success in May has served to change attitudes (as it certainly has the party political implications of EVEL) is, however, as yet still unknown – no polling on the subject has been conducted north of the border since May. Unless attitudes have changed, the reaction in Scotland to the passage of EVEL could prove to be quite limited.
However, even if the UK government’s proposals are approved by the Commons, they will, in truth, fall some way short of only allowing English MPs to vote on English laws. The proposals are more accurately characterised as giving English MPs a veto on the passage of England-only legislation, while still leaving them powerless to secure the passage of such legislation unless it gains the support of the Commons as a whole. Just one poll, by Ipsos MORI in July, has tried to ascertain what difference, if any, this distinction makes to voters. It did so by asking half of its sample whether Scottish MPs should ‘be allowed to vote…on issues that have no direct impact on people in Scotland’, and the other half ‘whether English MPs should be allowed a veto…on issues that only have an impact on England’. That suggested that the idea of a veto (61% in favour) was somewhat more popular than barring Scottish MPs from English business entirely (53%) . However, we cannot be sure from this whether more voters would prefer the veto to barring Scottish MPs entirely if they were to be asked to choose directly between the two options.
In any event, even if the UK government succeeds in getting Commons approval for its proposals, there is certainly no guarantee that they will end the debate about devolution in England. After all, despite being portrayed as a response to developments in the rest of the UK, what might be regarded as a modest change to the way in which the Commons deals with English-only legislation does little, if anything, to bring a degree of symmetry to the way the various parts of the UK are governed.
But then, it is still far from clear how much popular support there is for devolution in England. According to a Comres poll in December, only 41% agree with establishing an English Parliament, while the proportion backing the Chancellor’s favourite project, city regions, is only a little higher (44%). Both figures are much the same as they were immediately before the Scottish referendum. Equally another Survation poll in February this year found 44% in favour of devolution ‘to regions and communities across England’ (though this did represent a 15 point increase on the position a year earlier). In each case around three in ten simply said they did not know whether they supported the idea or not, suggesting that as compared with the apparently straightforward sentiment behind EVEL, the prospect of changing how England is governed is for many voters still a relatively obscure one.
Still, whichever way opinion in England turns in the coming months, this website will now cover the wider UK fallout from last September’s referendum. We have added (and will continue to add) to the poll database more data on attitudes in England and in Wales towards how the various parts of the UK should be governed, and we will be blogging occasionally on new polls and developments in the rest of the UK as they occur. At the same time we have retained all the data on attitudes north of the border that we compiled during the referendum and the UK general election, and will continue to chart how public opinion in Scotland evolves in the wake of its continuing constitutional debate – and forthcoming Scottish Parliament election. We hope you enjoy the widened service.
About the author
John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.