Issues & Ideas | 25th September 2014

How many people think of themselves as "British"?

In the last weeks of the Scottish referendum, the campaigns fought a war over national […]

Photo: Getty


In the last weeks of the Scottish referendum, the campaigns fought a war over national identity. The unionists cast themselves as “patriots” in a bid to challenge the “nationalists” laying claim to every emblem of Scottish identity – from flying the flag to singing “Scotland the Brave”.

Those were the terms Labour’s Jim “Irn Bru crates” Murphy deployed to confront the waves of heckling Yes voters.

“In Bathgate, a man came out of a Poundland and placed a six-pack of toilet rolls on my crates, with a put-down of: ‘Big Man, yu’ve been talking shite for an hour, so here – that’s to clean yer mooth oot!'”

By doing so Murphy was trying to reach those who thought of themselves as more Scottish than British. These were the voters Salmond had to persuade to win independence. And at the time of the Edinburgh Agreement, when support for separation was dwindling in the low thirties, they were keeping the No campaign’s fears at bay.

They made up one of the three big blocs of Scottish voters. The other two were those who saw themselves as purely “Scottish”, and those identifying as equally British and Scottish. Half of the former already backed independence, while few of the latter were persuaded; the relationship was clear: the more Scottish a voter, the more likely they were to vote Yes.

By last month, Murphy was desperately trying to keep those who leaned towards their Scottish identities on his side. Too many voters considered themselves fully or mostly Scottish for the No campaign to confine their appeal to the British-identifying pre-disposed to favour them – they only accounted for a ninth of voters.

That is why Gordon Brown began his campaign-closing roof-raiser of a speech with the cry, “At last the world is hearing the voices of the real people of Scotland.” When he spoke of “The silent majority… proud of our Scottish identity”, he was talking about a people who mainly think of themselves as Scottish not British, and needed to be persuaded to not carry their national identity too far.

This week the debate has quickly turned to England, where identity is understandably far less nationalist. Being British means being 84 per cent English, which makes it a far more attractive label to an Englishwoman than a Scot.

As for the other Home Nations, the British identity is strongest in Northern Ireland, where around two-thirds of the country’s Protestants identify as British. About the same number of Catholics, who make up slightly less of the almost evenly split population, are likely to identify as Irish.

None of Westminster’s major parties organise in Northern Ireland, and only Labour has much of a presence left in Scotland. But the parties still account for more than 90 per cent of Welsh MPs, and 80 per cent of the Welsh Assembly. Is Wales a beacon for Britishness? The most recent British Social Attitudes survey does not even include separate identity data for England’s western neighbours.

But the Welsh identity is stronger than this suggests. The most recent available data showed that 6 in 10 voters consider themselves Welsh, while only a quarter would say they were British.

Nationalism west of the border is not yet nearly as strong as it is in the north, but the Welsh, as David Cameron put it on David Letterman last year, are “a very proud nation”, and quite distinct from the English.

The consequence of being a group of “proud” nations is that few of us identify with our collective identity.

In these surveys the Welsh and Northern Irish didn’t have the option to choose a British and a national identity, so if we just focus on those who chose described themselves as fully or mostly “British”, just 19 per cent of the UK subscribes to our collective identity.

In other words, 4 in 5 of us are at least partly nationalists.