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The University of Southampton
Centre for English Identity and Politics

England's elites and the governance of England

England’s elites and the governance of England

Prof John Denham

Dr Lawrence McKay

20th January, 2021


There is a curious paradox about the governance of England. Many English voters want to see changes in the way that England is governed. Most want to see England’s interests defended within the union. Yet in political discourse England is rarely mentioned[i] and, occasional calls for local devolution aside, substantive debate about reform is limited. This blog explores the possibility that those who hold power and influence in England – ‘England’s elites’ - are unrepresentative of the English public, being more likely to identify as British than English and holding correspondingly different views on reform.

Over the past twenty years national identity in England has gained increasing political salience. The ‘more English’ were more likely to vote Leave, and the ‘more British’ to vote Remain. The Conservative lead over Labour in England in the December 2019 General Election was almost entirely due to greater support amongst the ‘more English’. However, the broader political preferences of English and British identifiers have only occasionally been given weight in analysis of these recent electoral events.

To understand these better, we draw on two surveys[1] conducted by YouGov for the Centre for English Identity and Politics amongst the public in June 2019 and amongst English MPs, civil servants, ‘cultural influencers’, and business leaders in March 2020.


English residents


The first survey asked respondents to place themselves on the Moreno scale, a standard way of measuring dual identities. For simplicity, we base our analysis on three categories derived from the original five, one combining the ‘more’ and ‘only’ English, one including the ‘more’ and ‘only’ British, and one for those who were ‘equally’ English and British.  In the June 2019 poll of English residents, the breakdown was as follows: (See Table 1)

[1] The surveys can be found on the website of the Centre for English Identity and Politics


Table 1
Table 1

English interests

Nearly three-quarters[i] of voters said there was ‘little’ or ‘no’ difference between the interests of England and those of the union as a whole, while a quarter felt there were ‘significant’ or ‘very different’ interests.  Nonetheless, over 7 out of ten identified at least one issue where English interests were distinct, with university fees, the EU, NHS, immigration and social care being chosen most often. This may reflect awareness of different charging policies in Wales and Scotland and the greater resonance of immigration and the EU in England.

National identity had little influence on the likelihood of identifying English interests per se, but it had a marked impact on the extent to which voters wanted English interests defended within the union.  88% of the ‘more English’ (88%) said it was ‘very’ or ‘fairly important’ to them that ‘political parties’ stand up for the interests of England within the union. This fell to 76% of the ‘equally English and British’ and 49% of the ‘more British’. 

While the political representation of English interests is of overwhelming importance to those who have a strong sense of English identity, it nonetheless remains important to many who emphasise their British identity.

The governance of England

Respondents were asked if they supported or opposed possible different reforms to the governance of England (but not to rank or express a preference). The support given to each option was as follows: (See Table 2)


Table 2
Table 2

In line with polling by the Future of England Survey, there is considerably more support for reform at the national level (though not independence) than devolution within England.

Given the paucity of debate about England’s governance, it is not surprising that levels of ‘don’t know’ ranged from 22% on English independence to nearly 50% on both combined authorities and regional assemblies.

National reform is most strongly supported by those who emphasise their English identity.

Full EVEL is supported by 74% of the ‘more English’ than British; 60% of the ‘equally English and British’; and 45% of the ‘more British than English’. An English Parliament receives support from 57% of the ‘more English’, 42% of the ‘equally English and British’, and 29% of the ‘more British’. While independence has little overall support, it is endorsed by nearly a quarter of the ‘more English’, but only one in ten or less of the other identity groups. (See Figure 1)

Figure 1
Figure 1

There is a less clear relationship between support for decentralisation and national identity. Regional assemblies and combined local authorities do receive 6 or 7% more support amongst the ‘more British’ than the ‘more English’, but the ‘more British’ are also more likely to oppose both reforms.

Support for each reform reflects voters’ judgements on whether it would make England’s government better or worse (see Table 3)[i]. Full EVEL is seen as the most effective reform, and most strongly by the ‘More English’ and ‘Equally English and British’. The lower levels of support seen for regional assemblies and combined local authorities amongst all identity groups clearly reflects a broader scepticism about how effective they would be.[ii] (See Table 3)


Table 3
Table 3

England’s elites

How does this match with elites? Our follow-up survey, in March 2020, surveyed 2375 people falling into different categories of ‘elite’: academics, civil servants, journalists, senior creatives and businesspeople, and finally MPs (from YouGov’s panel). To analyse the data, we divided these into MPs, business, and civil servant groups, with the remaining groups aggregated as ‘cultural influencers’.[i]

We have described these respondents as ‘England’s elites’ because their work or seniority, is likely to give them more influence over public debate and political issues than ordinary members of the public.

With regard to the results for England’s constituency MPs, we must offer readers a note of caution. It is typically difficult to get MPs to participate in surveys, especially Conservative MPs. Our survey shares this problem: our analysis is based on a sample of 78 of 533 MPs and under-represents Conservatives. To solve this problem, we ‘weight’ Conservative MPs higher and Labour MPs lower in the analysis, in order to produce results ‘as if’ we had surveyed all MPs. This is not a precise science, and our results for MPs should be taken as indicative – but given a lack of other data we hope they remain useful.





Table 4
Table 4


As with the public survey, we asked elites to place themselves on the Moreno identity scale. The first striking feature is that all elite groups are less likely to identify as ‘more English’ and more likely to be ‘more British’, than the general public. (Table 4). The cultural influencers are almost three times as likely to be ‘more British’ than ‘more English’ (and nearly one in five identify as ‘other’) and civil servants four times as likely. The pattern is less strong amongst MPs, but the ‘more British’ still outweigh the ‘more English’. Many more MPs are ‘equally English and British’. (See Table 4)

The governance of England

Elite support for reforms to English governance is similarly out of step with the general public, as Table 5 shows:


Table 5
Table 5

Devolution options tend to garner more support from all elite groups than from the public, although MPs share public scepticism of devolution to regional assemblies. On EVEL, business and MPs are in line with popular sentiment, but other elites are less supportive. An English Parliament, fairly popular among the public and business, is toxic to MPs and fairly unpopular among civil servants and cultural influencers. Finally, the hard line option of English independence finds few friends either among elites or the general public.

The survey also strongly suggests that national identity does play a role shaping elite attitudes towards reform, although given the small size of the subgroups (particularly among MPs[1]), we hope that readers will pay attention to the broad patterns over the precise figures.

Looking at elite support for reforms, we find the same broad patterns as amongst the general public. On national reforms, the ‘more English’ amongst the elites are more positive about EVEL and an English Parliament than the ‘more British’. This pattern holds true for both kinds of reform among civil servants, cultural influencers and business, and for EVEL among MPs. Support for English independence is low throughout but, as with the public, highest amongst the English identifiers in all our elite groups.

Support for regional assemblies and combined local authorities is significantly higher amongst MPs, civil servants and cultural influencers who identify as ‘more British’ than amongst the ‘more English’ and ‘equally English and British’. Business attitudes to these reforms show little difference in preference by national identity, in line with the general public.


England is the largest nation within the United Kingdom, yet its governance and even its existence as a nation remain relatively marginal issues in political and public debate. Twenty years after devolution to Scotland and Wales, few changes have been made in England. While English MPs have gained a limited veto on England only legislation, and London has gained an elected Mayor and Assembly, there is neither a defined machinery of government nor clear accountability of minsters to English MPs.

The absence of a vigorous public debate about England’s governance is often taken to indicate little public appetite for change but, while our public survey does not show a majority consensus for change in England, there are significant levels of support for national reform, through change at a national level through Full EVEL and an English Parliament Underlying this is a strong consensus behind the need for the defence of English interests within the union. It is also clear that national identity correlates strongly with support for a Parliament, Full EVEL and the defence of English interests, with the ‘more English’ much more supportive than the ‘more British’ and the ‘equally English and British’ positioned between the two.

Our surveys prompt a number of observations:

· The general public in England gives much more support to reforms of England’s national government than those in England’s elites, outside of the business community.

· Public support for English reform is strongly correlated with national identity on the Moreno scale. In broad terms, those same patterns are evidence amongst English elites.

· Members of those elites are much less likely to identify as ‘more English’ than in the public as a whole and much more likely to say they are ‘more British’.

· It seems likely that the different composition of national identities amongst elites is at least one reason why elite attitudes differ from the general public.

· In turn, the absence of a lively debate about England’s national governance in contemporary politics may reflect the lack of support amongst England’s elites for ideas that are popular amongst the public.

· At the same time, elite support for decentralisation over national reforms may explain why these, rather than reforms to England’s national governance receive greater public attention.

The influence of national identity on politics within England has frequently been neglected. Our analysis suggests that it should be given more attention.

[1] The Remain campaign, for example, campaigned as ‘Wales Stronger in Europe’, ‘Scotland Stronger in Europe’ and – but only in England – as ‘Britain Stronger in Europe. In 2019, Labour promised to ‘Rebuild Wales’, Rebuild Scotland’ and – only in England – ‘Rebuild Britain’. Government announcements frequently fail to make it clear when they apply only to England, a practice that caused particular confusion when COVID-19 lockdown policies varied significantly between the four parts of the union.

[2] Excluding Don’t Knows.

[3] This is usually referred to as English Votes for English Laws. Under current procedures, EVEL allows English MPs to veto laws that would only apply to England, but MPs from the devolved nations can participate in other legislative stages. Recent studies have suggested that EVEL gives England neither a voice nor a legislative programme. In this blog we use the term Full EVEL to mean a process in which only English MPs vote on English laws.

[4] The survey posed a scale -5 (much worse) to +5 (much better). For this analysis -1/-5 is taken as ‘worse’ and +1/+5 as ‘better’

[5] Surveys of this kind are sensitive to the wording of questions. It is at least possible that if respondents had been asked whether combined local authorities or regional assemblies would improve government ‘where they live’ it might have produced different results.

[6] The following table describes our elite survey sample. (See Table 6)

Table 6
Table 6

[7] Table 5 is based on weighted data for the MPs category, owing to the partisan skew of the MPs who responded (as discussed above). The application of strong weighting to small subsamples could potentially create inaccuracies. However, we observe the same patterns by identity group regardless of whether we apply the weights. Therefore, we are more confident that the patterns we observe are real.

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