The Union

Press Release: May’s ‘Precious Union’ has Little Support in Brexit Britain

Press Release
8 October 2018 01:00–9 October 2018 00:59

Theresa May’s ‘precious Union’ has little in the way of meaningful support from her own supporters or self-professed Unionists in other parties. Moreover, according to new research from the Universities of Edinburgh and Cardiff, attitudes to the Union are marked principally by rivalry and mutual-indifference. The Future of England Study, the largest and longest-running study of English constitutional attitudes available, found that self-professed Unionists, most notably Leave-voting Conservatives, were largely unconcerned about the risks to the Union posed by Brexit, were reluctant to prioritise the needs of the Union over their own constituent part, and were largely ignorant of other territories’ politics.

Key findings include:

  1. Clear majorities of English Conservatives would support Scottish independence (79%) or the collapse of the NI Peace Process (75%) as the price of Brexit.
  2. 87% of (overwhelmingly Unionist) Leave voters in Northern Ireland see the collapse of the peace process as an acceptable price for Brexit and 86% say that of a Yes vote in IndyRef2
  3. Nearly half (49%) of English Conservative voters do not think Scottish MPs should sit in the UK Cabinet and, in worse news for David Mundell as the SNP gathers in Glasgow, 24% of Scottish Conservative voters agree with them
  4. Voters typically expect higher levels of policy alignment with Europe post-Brexit (roaming charges, food hygiene standards, etc.) than within the UK (tuition fees, prescription charges, free social care, etc.)
  5. In none of the UK’s nations is a majority of taxpayers happy to see their taxes spent in other parts when those parts are mentioned by name

The research, some of which was presented at a Conservative Party Conference fringe event, is drawn from the annual Future of England Survey, now in its sixth year. The survey has consistently found a correlation between Euroscepticism in England and ‘devo-anxiety’, a sense that England was being neglected or left behind by benefits awarded to the devolved territories. This year the team, led by Profs Ailsa Henderson (Edin) and Richard Wyn Jones (Cardiff), conducted parallel surveys in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and found similar attitudes, especially among Leave voters, to the European and UK unions.

Prof Henderson said:

“The data suggest that, in the pursuit of Brexit, Leave supporters across the UK would be relaxed about a fundamental transformation of the Union but this attitude is not confined exclusively to Leave voters. There is also evidence that Brexit is dislodging long-held red lines about the Union.  If even Unionists in Northern Ireland care less about the territorial integrity of the UK than pursuing Brexit, then it really raises questions about the type of union we’re in, and indeed what Unionism means.

“At the same time, voters, including Leave voters, want ongoing policy conformity between the EU and the UK on everything apart from immigration. To any outsider it must look as the Conservative and Unionist government is prepared to rip up the UK constitution because its supporters wish to stop migration from the EU. Some might consider that a curious interpretation of Unionism.”

Prof Wyn Jones said:

“Strident protestations of faith in the future of the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from Theresa May and her leading ministers cannot hide the fact that that the Union is under huge stress as result of Brexit. Ironically, that threat is posed at least as much by those who would regard themselves as Unionists as it is by those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who actively wish the Union’s demise.

“An overwhelming majority of Conservative voters in England would prefer to see Scotland become independent and a breakdown of the peace process in Northern Ireland rather than compromise on their support for Brexit. But it’s not just Brexit. Half of English Conservative supporters want to stop Scottish MPs from sitting in the British cabinet altogether.

“The bonds that have tied the Union together have frayed to such an extent that, frankly, it’s hard to imagine that the proposed festival of ‘national renewal’ is going to do anything more than emphasise the extent to which we continue to drift apart.”



Notes to Editors

For further information or to arrange interviews please contact Nick Bibby (Edin) on 0131 651 4735/07866 053359, or Luke Nicholas (Cardiff) on 029 2068 8059/07817 411389,

  1. The surveys were conducted by YouGov (E, W, S) and Lucid Talk (NI) between 30 May and 4 June 2018 with 2,741 adults (Eng), 30 May and 6 June with 2,016 adults (Wal), 30 May and 5 June with 1,502 adults (Scot) and 28 June to 2 July with 1,089 adults (NI).
  2. Definitions of Leave and Remain are based on reported 2016 referendum vote in England, Scotland and Wales and are based on vote intention in a purported second Brexit referendum in Northern Ireland.
  3. Ailsa Henderson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Edinburgh and Richard Wyn Jones is Professor of Welsh Politics at Cardiff University.
  4. The Future of England study has been running since 2011 and has conducted surveys in each of those years other than 2013.
  5. The data tables for England, Scotland and Wales are available from YouGov: