This will be a year of identity, and often of multiple identities, across Britain. Indeed it could be the year that breaks Britain up. Yet the State of the Nation 2014 poll, conducted by Ipsos-Mori for British Future, suggests that the national mood as the year begins might better be described as “keep calm and carry on”.
Scotland’s referendum, the First World War centenary, the European elections, the Commonwealth Games and the football World Cup will all present different mirrors to our sense of who we are. Yet George Osborne’s budget is chosen above all of these as the event which will matter most to people personally in 2014, reflecting how important economic concerns remain at a moment of growing, but fragile, economic optimism.
The State of the Nation poll has tracked opinion among 16-75 year olds since 2012: the number of people feeling optimistic about the economy has tripled in that time, from 9 per cent to 29 per cent. The number feeling pessimistic still remains higher, but it has halved in two years from 74 per cent in 2012 to 40 per cent.
The poll captures a strong contrast between Conservative optimism, shared to some extent by Liberal Democrats, with the pessimism of Labour and UKIP voters, on both the economy and the prospects for Britain in 2014 more generally. While Conservatives are optimistic about the economy in 2014 by 62 per cent to 14 per cent (+48), and Liberal Democrats by 41 per cent to 29 per cent (+12), Labour supporters are pessimistic, by 56 per cent to 19 per cent (-37), and UKIP supporters by 55 per cent to 17 per cent (-38).
People are, across the political spectrum, on balance, optimistic about what the year will bring personally to their families, but the challenge for the governing parties is that economic optimism is also a question of class and region. Those with professional jobs are most likely to see it as a year of green shoots but C1, C2 and DE voters remain considerably gloomier. While southerners, now equally split on economic prospects, are more likely to say that the glass is half-full, northerners remain gloomier.
Naturally the independence referendum is chosen by almost three-quarters in Scotland (72 per cent) as the most important event for them in 2014. The majority of Scots (58 per cent) predict that there will be a no vote, while one in five expect Alex Salmond to prevail. That reflects the persistent trend in Scottish polling: this survey shows that is currently a shared preference across Scotland, Wales and England too.
The State of the Nation poll finds very little English appetite for the Scots to depart. 19 per cent in England support Scottish independence, while 43 per cent are against it, and others indifferent or undecided. This particularly matters to Conservative voters, for whom the argument that there would be an electoral advantage in Scotland’s departure can be seen to matter much less than the maintenance of the UK.
English Conservatives disagree decisively with Scottish independence by 61 per cent to 16 per cent, a view that they hold rather more strongly than Labour (39-22), Liberal Democrat (47-21) or UKIP (44-22) voters in England, though pluralities across the spectrum would prefer the Scots to stay. Only those in England who say that they identify as ‘English not British’ (a description chosen by under one in five in this poll) would prefer to see Scotland leave the UK, and even then by the fairly narrow margin of 34 per cent to 30 per cent.
If there is broad support for the United Kingdom, “mend it not end it” is also the public’s preference when it comes to the European Union: the public is sceptical about Europe, but there is more support for David Cameron’s proposal to seek to renegotiate the terms of membership than for leaving the club.
Asked what Britain’s long-term approach should be, 28% would like to leave the European Union, while 38 per cent would prefer to stay in but reduce the EU’s powers. Just eight per cent support the status quo, and nine per cent want to see more EU powers.
While 73 per cent of UKIP supporters would leave the EU, only 29 per cent of Conservative supporters make that choice. 57 per cent of Conservatives would prefer to stay in while reducing the EU’s powers. That is also the most popular choice for both Labour (41 per cent) and Liberal Democrat (43 per cent) voters. 14 per cent of Liberal Democrats would prefer to see an increase in the EU’s powers – including three per cent who want to work for a single European government. That is also the ambition of one per cent of Conservative voters.
Most Westminster watchers expect UKIP to poll ahead of the Conservatives in the European elections. But the poll shows that many treat this as a mid-term chance to protest.
Most of those who intend to vote UKIP in May 2014 say that their vote is intended to ‘send a message to the other parties’ (56 per cent) while 27 per cent say it reflects the view that they have the best policies on Europe, and 15 per cent that they support UKIP because they have the best policies to run Britain.
Conservative voters prioritise the party’s policies to run the country (65 per cent) over their having the best policies on Europe (16 per cent).
UKIP supporters are also distinctive, compared to the public generally, in making the Brussels vote a higher personal priority in 2014 than the football World Cup – and are the most likely to predict that England will get knocked out in the first round.
But there is little confidence in England’s prospects from anybody – though two per cent of the public predict that England can end their 48 year wait for a major trophy.
Scotland’s vote could and probably should make this a year when England finds its voice too. With both Italy and the Uruguay of Luis Suarez laying in wait for England’s footballers in Brazil, and following the Ashes cricket debacle in Australia, perhaps 2014 is the year for England’s politicians to wake up to the idea that a confident national identity can’t be left to sport.