THE “muscular Unionism” that has characterised much of the Tory government’s attitude to devolution since the Brexit referendum risks undermining support for the Union, according to new research.

The study from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) think tank found that even Unionist voters were likely to be put off by the sidelining of devolved governments.

Report author Ailsa Henderson, a professor of political science at the University of Edinburgh, said the findings showed there was an “ambivalent Union” where fewer than half of voters in the four home nations view maintaining the UK in its current form as a priority.

The term “muscular Unionism” came to the fore during Boris Johnson’s time as Prime Minister and describes politicians asserting a “might is right” rule of Westminster over the parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

READ MORE: Four times the Conservatives trampled over devolution

It is reflected in the legislation such as the Conservatives’ post-Brexit Internal Market Act, which gave Tory ministers new powers to spend in devolved areas, and the decision to replace EU funding – which was passed to and allocated by devolved governments – with centralised funds controlled by Westminster.

Johnson especially was seen to characterise the idea of muscular Unionism through comments such as devolution being a “disaster”. His Scottish Secretary and close ally Alister Jack is still in government and has also been accused of exhibiting the approach through moves such as his unilateral block of Holyrood's gender reform bill.

The new IPPR research, published on Thursday, found that public opinion is out of step with the UK Government’s hardline approach to governance.

The think tank's report said the approach risks “fuelling resentment” and undermining backing for the Union in its current form.

The authors of the report used the findings of a survey in 2021 to create a muscular Unionism “index” to gauge the strength of public opinion across the UK for and against the Union.

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On the spectrum between strong support and rejection for muscular Unionism, voters in all constituent countries were placed slightly off the centre away from muscular Unionism, with Scottish voters the most strongly opposed.

In addition, the index shows only Conservative supporters in Scotland and those who back Unionist parties in Northern Ireland lean towards a muscular Unionist approach, placing them at odds with the opinions of most supporters of the Union in England.

This suggests that adopting the rhetoric of muscular Unionism risks weakening already ambivalent support, IPPR said.

The survey also found a strong backing for common social and economic support across the UK, but voters were much less in favour of sharing tax revenues across the Union to make this happen.

The analysis found strong support for transferring money from richer to poorer parts of the UK to equalise the scope of public services, with 70% of voters in England backing the principle and 86% in Northern Ireland.

However, when asked about the more concrete idea of sharing tax revenue, support fell to just 41% in England while only 28% in Wales supported the approach.

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Support fell further when voters were questioned about specific nations, with just 15% of voters in Wales supporting sharing revenue with Scotland.

A third of voters in England backed sharing revenue with Wales or Northern Ireland.

The analysis also found widespread variation in what people in the UK’s constituent nations see as their “common British values”.

The report said British national identity aligns with constitutional attitudes, but does so in different ways in different parts of the UK.

“For example, in Scotland and Northern Ireland people who emphasise their Britishness exhibit similar levels of Euroscepticism to those in England who emphasise their English, but not their British, identity,” the IPPR said.

Also, people in England who emphasise their Britishness were more likely to be pro-European Union.

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Professor Henderson said: “Attitudes to the Union are typically understood as polarised between those who want its end and those who believe its benefits should be defended more assertively.

“Nowhere is that polarisation more obvious than in Scotland, but UK-wide there is also considerable ambivalence to the Union, with much support either muted or conditional on perceived benefits.

“In addition, the way Britishness coalesces around not just different but at times opposite values, preferences and attitudes across the UK must be seen as a considerable challenge to anyone hoping to identify a unifying narrative around what it means. The Union’s advocates might wish for a more muscular defence of its benefits, but the United Kingdom is, in many ways, an ambivalent Union.”

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Richard Wyn Jones. professor of Welsh politics and director of the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University, co-author of the report, said: “This new analysis suggests the idea that there is a single understanding of Britishness, held and cherished across all four constituent territories of the UK, is a myth.

“This suggests in turn that attempts by recent UK governments to champion a single version of Britishness, to buttress what some have termed ‘the precious Union’, are not only doomed to failure but are likely to be self-defeating.”

Philip Whyte, director of IPPR Scotland, said the analysis shows the rise of muscular Unionism alongside an undermining of devolved nations is “out of kilter” with public opinion.