3 in 4 Brits say the nations that make up the UK are becoming more divided
UK Government’s management of pandemic fuels sentiment for the break-up of the union
Trust in government ‘to do the right thing’ has collapsed 16 points from 60% at the height of the first lockdown last April to 44% at the height of the third lockdown this February.
The findings, from the UK supplement to the 21st annual Edelman Trust Barometer – the largest survey of institutional trust in the world – show that despite the success of the vaccine rollout, the trust bubble that characterised the government's initial handling of the pandemic has deflated.
The study suggests the integrity of the United Kingdom may now be under threat, with perceived mishandling of the pandemic and dissatisfaction around Brexit fuelling widespread concern about the future of the union between England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.
Three in four people (75%) say that the nations that make up the UK are becoming more divided, while 44% of Brits believe that the Brexit deal was a bad deal for the UK, compared to 31% of people who say it was a good deal and 25% who are undecided. Those who voted to leave the EU are more likely to be undecided.
As Boris Johnson seeks to kick start a new chapter in the story of UK, the Barometer's findings suggest the UK Government faces three definitional tests. First, how it builds both trust and confidence as lockdown is lifted and how it works with the devolved administrations as restrictions ease. Second, how it delivers against its agenda to build back better and level up across the nations and regions. And third, whether it can persuade people of the benefits of remaining part of the union.
UK Government’s Pandemic Performance Falls Short
A majority (57%) of the British public say the UK Government has performed poorly in its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the findings reveal the toll of the pandemic on people’s lives.
Half (50%) of Brits say the Covid-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing and nearly four in ten (38%) say it has had a negative impact on their physical health. Over a third say it has negatively impacted their future job prospects (34%), financial security (35%) and job security (36%).
The findings also expose how the UK Government’s handling of the pandemic has damaged the perception of the UK amongst Britons. 44% of those in England, 60% of those in Scotland, 53% of those in Wales and 51% of those in Northern Ireland believe that the handling of the pandemic has had a negative impact on how they view the UK.
Far from bringing the United Kingdom together, the Covid-19 crisis has helped to expose divisions in the union. 65% of the British public say that the pandemic has made them realise how divided the countries that make up the UK are, 61% say there is a decreasing feeling of national unity and 59% say it has made the breakup of the UK more likely – a number that jumps 11 percentage points to 70% amongst those living in Scotland.
Just 24% of Britons think that the UK Government has performed well in its response to the Covid-19 pandemic (25% of English people say so). The Scottish and Welsh Governments are seen as outperforming the UK Government by those living in these countries. 46% of people in Scotland say the Scottish Government has performed well in response to the pandemic, but just 15% of Scots say the UK Government has performed well. 35% of people in Wales say the Welsh Government has performed well, but only 21% say the same of the UK Government.
Similarly, trust in the Prime Minister sits at relatively low levels within the devolved nations - 32% in Wales, 34% in Scotland, and 32% in Northern Ireland. In England the figure is higher at 41%.
The leaders of the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales both enjoy considerably higher levels of trust among their populations than Boris Johnson. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's First Minister, enjoys the trust of 62% of those in Scotland, and Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, enjoys the trust of 43% of people there. Only Arlene Foster, the leader of the power sharing executive in Northern Ireland, has lower trust levels (31%) than the Prime Minister among those in her own country.
The Fracturing and Division of the UK
The UK Government’s management of the pandemic appears to have fuelled sentiment for the break-up of the union in Scotland. 45% there say the way the UK Government has handled the pandemic has made them more favourable towards independence, compared to 29% who say it has made them more in favour of remaining in the UK, while 20% say it has not impacted their opinion either way and 6% say they don’t know.
Opinions in Wales and Northern Ireland are more evenly divided, but significant proportions of the populations in both nations (30% in Wales and 33% in Northern Ireland) think the way the UK Government has handled the pandemic has made them more favourable towards independence.
There is a sense of grievance about the relationship between Westminster and the leaders in Holyrood, the Senedd and Stormont, with a majority of people in Scotland (70%), Wales (56%), and Northern Ireland (53%) believing that the UK Government does not work well with their national leaders.
At a time when the UK Government’s stated ambition is to level up, there is a pervasive sense of unfairness among a majority of the populations of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. 65% of those in Scotland, 60% of those in Wales and 66% of those in Northern Ireland believe that far from treating each nation equally the UK Government prioritises the needs of some nations of the UK over others. In England that view is shared by 43% of people.
Moreover, the UK Government is seen as out of touch, with a majority of those in Scotland (66%), Wales (56%), and Northern Ireland (62%), believing that the UK Government does not have enough local knowledge to represent all the nations of the UK effectively. In England, the figure is much lower at 44%.
Our findings reveal people also feel dissatisfied with how they are represented in the UK media. In Scotland (66%), Wales (61%), and Northern Ireland (59%), a majority of the public believe that the UK wide media does a poor job of representing all the nations and regions. In England, it’s 47%.
A majority of those outside England would also like to see more representation in the UK media of all the nations and regions that make up the UK. 59% of those in Scotland, and 52% of those in both Wales and Northern Ireland feel this way. The figure falls to 43% in England.
Despite all the fractures and grievances exposed in the study, when asked whether they would vote for their country to leave the union if there was a referendum today, people in Scotland are split, with 40% for and 41% against.
With elections to the Holyrood Parliament just months away and increasing talk about a new independence referendum, a significant proportion of the population remain undecided on the issue, with nearly 20% of those in Scotland unsure of how they might vote. That suggests hearts and minds are there to be won if there was an independence referendum.
In Wales and Northern Ireland, there may be growing discontent but the case for independence appears far weaker. In Wales, 25% said they would support independence if voting today, with 58% against, and 17% undecided. In Northern Ireland, 24% said they would want to leave if voting today, with 59% against and 17% undecided.
Ed Williams, President and CEO Edelman EMEA, said:
“The high Spring tide of trust in government in April last year has ebbed away and revealed cracks in the United Kingdom. Whether these divisions can be repaired or represent growing fault lines is now a fundamental question for the future of the union. For those looking to keep the UK together, building trust across all the nations and regions as the country emerges from the pandemic is an urgent and critical task, not just for government but for business and the media.”