A new opinion poll has shown that half of Conservative voters in England support English independence, but tell us something we don’t know. English Tories supporting English independence is about as surprising as Scottish nationalists supporting Scottish independence – in many ways, they come from the same source and feel the same feelings. The only problem, in both England and Scotland, is what on earth anti-nationalists can do about it.

What the new poll by YouGov has shown us is that 49 per cent of Conservative voters in England now support English independence. It also shows that, in the general population in England, support for independence is at 35%, which is interesting because that’s broadly where support for Scottish independence was in Scotland 10 years ago. In other words, this could be the beginning of a new trend in England, who knows.

In other ways, the poll is only confirming what we know already: the highest support for nationalism and independence in England comes from voters who lean to the right whereas in Scotland, it generally comes from the left. But that doesn’t mean we’re dealing with completely different beasts here. Far from it: there are striking similarities between the instincts of some English Tories and Scottish nationalists and they help explain two things: why the parties behave as they do, and why there is a large group of voters they struggle to reach.

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In the case of the Conservative Party, English Tories – like Scottish nationalists – have always possessed a strong sense of national identity, sometimes romantic, sometimes bellicose. At party conferences, Tories are unselfconscious about bellowing out Land of Hope and Glory in the way that Scottish nationalists are unselfconscious about Flower of Scotland. The leaders of the Tory party have also always known the power of English iconography – Stanley Baldwin used to talk about “the tinkle of the hammer on the anvil” and the call of the corncrake on a dewy morning – just as SNP leaders know the power, for some, of tartan and bagpipes.

Politically, Tory leaders – again, like leaders of the SNP – have also always been aware of the usefulness of national identity (we’ll talk about its limits later). Disraeli said he had “always considered that the Tory party was the national party of England” and a few years later leading Tories set up the Patriotic Association with a weekly paper called “England”. Some 150 years later, Boris Johnson tapped into exactly the same English patriotism to fuel support for the campaign to leave the European Union just as the SNP taps into Scottish patriotism to fuel support for leaving the UK.

The leadership of both the Tories and the SNP are also aware of the trick, because it works for some people, of using national identity to denigrate their opponents as un-English, un-Scottish, un-patriotic or un-something else. Disraeli said Liberalism’s aim was to “effect the disintegration of the Empire of England” whereas the leadership of the SNP frequently accuse their opponents of failing to stand up for Scotland or doing it down. It’s all the same kind of stuff really, whether it’s English or Scottish or British: nationalism as a stirrer of intense passions and a political recruiter.

But it only goes so far, because not everyone is stirred by nationalistic sentiments: some hearts soar but some hearts sink, and that poses a problem for politicians of a nationalistic bent. Strident types of English, or Scottish, nationalism have always been unattractive to many liberals and voters who occupy the crucial centre ground – the kind that the SNP in particular needs to recruit. More recently, some of the more liberal Tory leaders have also struggled; in 2014 for example, Alex Salmond showed no shame or embarrassment in his patriotism and nationalism, while for David Cameron it was all a bit squirmy and awkward.

What’s happening is that all of this creates issues for centrist politicians who oppose nationalism, like Cameron in 2014 or Keir Starmer in 2020, particularly when, in all its forms, nationalism appears to be on the rise. However, it also poses problems for English Tories and Scottish nationalists who seek to exploit it – and it may explain why support for Brexit and Scottish independence both hover around 50% but not much higher.

Take Nicola Sturgeon for example. She knows that sounding stridently nationalistic will attract some Scots to her cause but she also knows that sounding too nationalistic could turn off the centrists she needs to win over. Keir Starmer has a similar problem for Labour, only in a different direction. He knows that sounding more obviously patriotic could win back some of the support from English nationalists who’ve gone over to the Tories, particularly in the north of England, but he also knows that if he goes too far, he risks losing support from centrists, particularly in London and, crucially, Scotland.

To make matters worse in Scotland, there’s another problem here, which is that English nationalism may also be fuelling Scottish nationalism or at least support for the SNP. The most recent poll at the weekend confirms support for independence at around 51% and support for the SNP high enough to win them another election, and much of this has been fuelled by Brexit which in turn has been fuelled by English nationalism.

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The question is how resilient the centre will be in the face of all of this. Clearly, some of the centre ground in Scotland is being eaten away by the SNP, and in a UK context it’s left Labour in particular with a dilemma. On English nationalism, one of the solutions that the party’s election review considers is tacking to the centre on economic policy while talking up the party’s patriotic credentials; the push and pull of nationalism and unionism is also the reason Labour has been talking about the idea of “radical federalism”.

But will it be enough? The fear for centrists must be that as English nationalism closes in on one side and Scottish nationalism closes in on the other, like the walls of the trash compactor in Star Wars, the centre will get squished. In a constitutionally eccentric country like the UK, it’s also unclear what the centrists can do. One option is to sound more nationalistic, but that may hasten the crushing. The other is to continue to call for another way. But as the walls close in, they may not be heard over the noise.

All columnists are free to express their opinions. They don’t necessarily represent the view of The Herald.