How would Britons feel if parts of the UK left?

Matthew SmithHead of Data Journalism
June 01, 2023, 10:45 AM GMT+0

We ask Britons about their views towards Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands

With the recent 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, YouGov asked mainland Britons whether or not they wanted to see Northern Ireland stay in the UK or leave, and if the latter were to occur, how upset by that they would be.

But Northern Ireland is not the only constituent part of the United Kingdom whose future is in question. Scotland’s government is controlled by that nation’s separatist party, and Wales likewise has a sizeable independence movement.

Further afield, the UK shares competing sovereignty claims over the British Overseas Territories of Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands.

To test how the British public* feel about maintaining the country in its current shape, YouGov ran two surveys – one giving a two-way question (plus a don’t know choice) asking respondents whether they thought that area should stay a part of the UK or whether it should leave. The second gave respondents a three-way question, identical to the first but with the addition of a further option to say that the choice should be up to the people living there.

We also asked Britons how pleased or upset they would be were each area to gain its independence or join with another country.

What do Britons want to happen to Scotland?

While Scots themselves might be relatively divided, the wider British public are much more likely to want Scotland to stay in the union. When asked the three-way question, 51% of Britons want Scotland to remain in the UK, compared to 14% who think it should be independent, while 29% expressed the opinion that it was for Scots themselves to decide.

When the option to say it was for Scots to decide was removed, and Britons more explicitly required to come down on one side of the line or the other, the public prefer Scotland to stay by 58% to 23%.

As English people make up the large majority of the British population, and therefore the sample, the results are effectively identical among English people specifically.

How much would Britons care if Scotland left the UK?

Britons would most likely be upset were Scotland to vote for its independence, with 43% saying so. One in six (16%) would be pleased, the highest of any of the areas we asked about. One in three say they would not be bothered either way.

What do Britons want to happen to Wales?

Wales is the nation Britons are most keen to see remain in the UK. Given a three-way choice, 53% say Wales should stay, while 11% think it should go and 31% defer the decision to the Welsh. In the two-way question 62% of Britons want Wales in the UK, compared to 17% who want it to leave.

How much would Britons care if Wales left the UK?

When it comes to Wales, again, the most common response to Welsh independence would be sorrow. Almost half (46%) would be upset were Wales to forge its own path, compared to 10% who would be pleased and 36% who wouldn’t care either way.

What do mainland Britons want to happen to Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland is the area Britons are least interested in holding on to. The predominant opinion on the three-way question is that it is for the people of Northern Ireland to decide whether to stay in the UK or join the rest of Ireland, at 44%. One in three (32%) want Northern Ireland to stay, while 18% think it should join the Republic.

Compared with the results of the three-way question, the results of the two-way question represent the highest shift towards ‘leave’ (as well as to ‘don’t know’), and the lowest shift towards ‘stay’. In this question, 40% of mainland Britons would want Northern Ireland to continue in the UK, compared to 34% saying it should go.

These three-way results are markedly different to those from April, when 53% preferred to leave the matter to the Northern Irish, 22% wanted them to remain in the UK and 13% said they should join the rest of Ireland.

It does appear from previous surveys that attitudes towards Northern Ireland can vary in a short space of time; it may be the case that the question is susceptible to ordering effects. Nevertheless, the results do consistently show a high level of apathy for what happens to Northern Ireland, with the main difference being to what extent the responses shift between sentiments of disinterest and desire to keep the nation within the UK.

How much would Britons care if Northern Ireland left the UK?

Unlike Scotland and Wales, the primary reaction to Northern Ireland leaving the UK to join with the rest of Ireland is apathy: 43% of mainland Britons* wouldn’t be bothered. Only a third (32%) would be upset, while 15% would be pleased.

Again, these figures are notably different to April’s poll, when 50% said they were apathetic, 22% upset and 11% pleased, likely for reasons already outlined.

What do Britons want to happen to Gibraltar?

Gibraltar is a small British Overseas Territory on the southern tip of Spain that the UK has held since the early 1700s. Spain continues to press the UK to return the territory to them, however, Gibraltarians overwhelmingly rejected closer ties with Spain in referendums in 1967 and 2002.

Britons are about as likely to say Gibraltar should stay British in the three-way question (35%) as they are Northern Ireland. They are, however, less likely to want to see Gibraltar go (10%), while 47% believe it is up to Gibraltarians.

On the two way question, 53% of Britons opt for The Rock to continue to be British territory, while 18% would rather it went back to Spain.

How much would Britons care if Gibraltar was no longer British?

As with Northern Ireland, Britons are not especially bothered about holding on to ‘The Rock’, with 48% indifferent. One in three (33%) would be upset were Gibraltar to return to Spain, while 9% would be happy.

What do Britons want to happen to the Falkland Islands?

While you might expect there to be a greater emotional connection to the Falkland Islands – given the war fought to recover them – this is not the case.

Britons’ opinions on the Falklands largely mirror those towards Gibraltar: 47% put the decision to the Islanders on the three-way question. One in three (34%) say it should remain British, while 9% would rather it went to Argentina.

On the two-way question, most Britons (52%) say the Falklands should stay as a British overseas territory, while only 16% think they should go to Argentina.

How much would Britons care if the Falkland Islands were no longer British?

Again, these results are essentially identical to those for Gibraltar: were the Falklands to join with Argentina, 35% would be upset, 9% would be pleased, and 46% wouldn’t care either way.

* this survey was conducted in mainland Britain, i.e. respondents are in England, Wales and Scotland only

See the full results here

Photo: Getty