Questions of Values and Identity

Today’s British Social Attitudes report contains two chapters of particular relevance to the subjects covered by this website. The first is a chapter  by Chris Deeming of Strathclyde University that compares attitudes in Scotland towards aspects of social justice and inequality with those in England on the one hand and those in the three Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, and Norway on the other. The second is a chapter by Alex Scholes and myself on attitudes towards how Britain is governed in the wake of the implementation of Brexit. Included in its analysis is an examination of long-term trends in national identity south of the border and in attitudes there towards the governance of both Scotland and England.

Scotland’s Values

One of the issues bubbling away in the debate about Scotland’s constitutional status is whether the values to which people in Scotland adhere are similar to those of people in England (as some unionists assert) or whether (as some nationalists argue) they are closer to those of the Nordic countries. This debate turns in particular on whether Scotland has a egalitarian, social democratic outlook that means it finds it more comfortable looking to the Nordic countries as a model to follow than it does the relatively liberal approach to welfare and public services emanating from south of the border. Using cross-national data collected in 2019 as part of the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP), including a separate survey in Scotland, Chris Deeming is able to bring systematic comparative evidence to bear on this debate.

There are two parts to his analysis. The first is to compare people’s evaluations of the status quo in their own country. Here we have to remember that the income distribution is less unequal in the three Nordic countries than it is in Britain (about which people in both England and Scotland were asked). It is thus not surprising that people in Denmark (38%),and  Norway (52%)  were less likely to say that the distribution of incomes in their country is unfair than are people in either England (65%) or Scotland (73%) (though in Finland the figure was still as high as 63%). Equally, it is not surprising that whereas hardly anyone in the three Nordic countries says they are living in a country with a small elite at the top and most people at the bottom, 17% of people in England and 25% of those in Scotland feel that they do.

But, of course, what we should note here is that although they were both being asked about the same country, Britain, people in Scotland are more likely than those in England to feel that the income distribution is unfair and that they live in a highly unequal society –  suggesting that they were more likely to be viewing the current situation from an egalitarian perspective.

That, however, still leaves the question as to whether Scotland is as egalitarian in outlook as the Nordic countries. This the chapter is able to address by looking at how people in the different countries respond to questions about access to public services and the role of government. The analysis suggests that Scotland is indeed somewhat more egalitarian than England – but not as much as the Nordic countries. For example, in each of Norway (70%), Finland (62%), and Denmark (60%) a clear majority say that it is unjust and wrong that people on high incomes can buy better education for their children. In England, in contrast, only 34% take this view. Scotland, proves to be in between these two poles, with 46% saying it is unjust and wrong. A similar pattern emerges on the answers people give to a question about being able to buy better health care. In short, it appears that unionists are at risk of exaggerating the similarity of outlook between Scotland and England and nationalists of exaggerating the affinity between Scotland and the Nordic countries.

English Identity

Much attention has been given recently to the thesis that the vote in favour of leaving the EU in England was driven by a resurgent English nationalism that is also resentful of the ‘privileged’ place of the devolved nations (and especially Scotland) within the Union. However, the chapter by Alex Scholes and myself raises some questions about this thesis.

There is no doubt that people who regard themselves as ‘English, not British’ (73%) were much more likely than those who consider themselves to be ‘British, not English’ (38%) to have voted to Leave the EU. It is also the case that by the time of the referendum people’s attitude towards the EU was more strongly related to how English they felt than it had been just a few years previously. The arguments during the EU referendum about sovereignty and immigration evidently resonated with a section of English public opinion that has long been both less comfortable with diversity and had a more Anglo-centric conception of Britain’s proper place in the world.

However, what is in doubt is whether there has been any long-term increase in the proportion who identify as English rather than British or that the arguments about how Scotland and England should be governed have come to have the same resonance for those with a strong English identity as have the arguments about Brexit.

In the first year of devolution – between 1999 and 2009 – the proportion who said that they were ‘English, not British’ or ‘More English than British’ was never less than 30%, peaking at 36% in 2003. Between 2012 and 2016 the figure slipped to between 25% and 30% – while since the EU referendum it has been below 25%. There is little sign in these figures of a growing sense of English identity – if anything, the opposite seems to have happened.

Meanwhile, in the latest BSA just over half (55%) say that England should continue to be governed from Westminster as now rather than by regional assemblies or an English Parliament – much as has been the position throughout the last twenty years. And while those who say they are ‘English, not British’ are somewhat less likely to back the status quo, at 47% the proportion who do so is only a little below that for England as a whole – as has consistently been the case since 1999.  At the same time, support for Scottish independence – which in England as a whole stands at 24% in the latest BSA – is only a little higher (30%) among those who say they are ‘English, not British’.

English identity might well have played a crucial role in the UK’s decision to leave the EU. However, this does not necessarily mean that it has come to pose any more of a challenge to the current arrangements for governing the Union than it has been during the last twenty years. So far as the future of the Union is concerned, it is the impact that Brexit has had on attitudes north of the border that seems to matter most.


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About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.