European? Not us Brits

Posted on 28 October 2015 by Rachel Ormston

As the campaigns to persuade Britain to remain in or leave the EU start to take shape, both sides will be looking for clues as to what might swing the argument for voters. There will, of course, be practical claims and counter claims about the economy, migration, jobs, etc. But what of more subtle appeals to matters of the ‘heart’? In the run up to the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014, there was much debate about whether voters in Scotland would be swayed by pragmatic considerations, in particular about the potential economic consequences, or whether feelings of identity and nationhood would be the real deciding factors. So far as the EU referendum is concerned, might more emotional attachments to the continent play a role in voters’ decisions, alongside more ‘rational’ assessments of the benefits or drawbacks of Britain’s membership of the EU?

In an analysis paper for this website, published today as part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s ‘The UK in a changing Europe’ programme, I examine data from NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey and from the European Commission’s Eurobarometer survey to assess what role, if any, feelings of national or ‘supranational’ identity might play in the forthcoming referendum.

The findings underline, first, how disinclined we in Britain are to view ourselves as ‘European’ at all. According to the latest British Social Attitudes (2014), when asked to choose as many identities as we like from a list of every national identity associated with Great Britain and Ireland, just 15% of us describe ourselves as ‘European’. Similarly, the most recent Eurobarometer (conducted in May 2015) shows that 64% of people in the UK see themselves as ‘British only’, rejecting any sense of European identity.

We clearly stand out from our continental cousins in this respect. While most people across Europe identify more with their national identity (German, French, Polish etc.) than with a ‘European’ one, in most other countries there is a much greater willingness to express this national identity alongside feeling European. For example, in France, just 36% say they feel ‘French only’, with the rest feeling either ‘French and European’, ‘European and French’ or (more unusually) ‘European only’. Britain sits within a small group of EU countries, including Cyprus and Greece, in which a majority of the population appear not to consider themselves to be ‘European’ at all.

These findings might suggest that those fighting for the UK to leave the EU will find it relatively easy to make their case – if very few of us even feel European in the first place, then perhaps there will be little enthusiasm for continued common political or economic union with countries with which (Ireland aside) we do not share a land border. However, examination of the relationship between ‘feeling European’ and attitudes to the EU suggests another conclusion. According to British Social Attitudes, among those who do not feel European as many as 51% would prefer Britain to continue in the EU, while just 40% say Britain should withdraw. Clearly, for this group, support for the EU has little to do with how European or otherwise they feel.

In contrast, people’s perceptions of the economic consequences of Britain’s links with the EU are a strong predictor of whether wish to leave or remain. Among those who think closer ties with the EU would make Britain economically stronger, 88% support Britain continuing in the EU. Among those who think closer ties would make Britain economically weaker, as many as 70% support withdrawing.

So should we conclude that identity is unlikely to matter at all in the debate about whether or not Britain should remain in or leave the EU? This might justifiably be thought to be an over-simplification. The debate has already been framed largely in terms of which option would be better for Britain. That in itself is perhaps an implicit recognition that too few voters have sufficient empathy with Europe or the European Union for anyone to be arguing that Britain should want to be part of a wider ‘European project’. Instead victory seems likely go to whichever side can persuade voters that their side of the argument represents the more ‘British’ path to take.

However, here our analysis paper notes an interesting and perhaps contentious additional layer to public attitudes. In fact, it is those who feel most strongly English (in England) or Scottish (in Scotland) who are most keen to leave the EU. In England, 39% of those who feel ‘English not British’ think Britain should leave the EU, compared with 23-29% of those who acknowledge any semblance of British identity. In Scotland, while support for leaving the EU is lower overall than in England, it is relatively higher among those who say they are ‘Scottish not British’ (23%) or ‘more Scottish than British’ (20%) than it is amongst those who think they are at least as British as they are Scottish (11-14%). But of course, appealing to people’s sense of English and Scottish identity as a way of bolstering the case for leaving the EU might well be thought by those campaigning for ‘Brexit’ to carry its own risks, not least in terms of the impact it might have on the long-term future of the United Kingdom.

Rachel Ormston

By Rachel Ormston

Rachel Ormston is Head of Social Attitudes at NatCen Social Research. She regularly writes and presents on social and political attitudes and has a particular interest in attitudes to UK constitutional change.

14 thoughts on “European? Not us Brits

  1. I think the EU should be more concerned on how to make Europe ‘safe’ again before they think about how to make it attractive again. Report

  2. Why is it I get this unpleasant feeling that Angela Merkel is succeeding politically and financially where Adolf Hitler did not. Perhaps Boris Johnson has seen the future.

    Where Adolf Hitler overran Europe by force and stole wealth and art to fund his enterprise, Angela by slow erosion of sovereignty and extraction of ‘club fees’ is attaining the same end.
    Der europäische Superstaat ………..and why is it Cameron wants so desperately to succumb?

    Its time to leaveReport

  3. Nobody knows what will happen in the future, IN or OUT.

    The only truth we have is the unmitigated incompetence that is the EU

    Do you really want to be part of it? Report

  4. “No legacy is so rich as HONESTY”
    So this won,t be Cameron’s or most of his cabinets.
    Britain once again being stitched up by the elites and the government machine.Report

  5. both labour & conservative MPs have lied to the people of Britain.from day one.about the common market ?
    how can any one believe what they say now.common market possible.united European union never?

  6. I have worked all over the world from the USA and Brazil to Iran and South Korea. The problem with the EU is more than the lack of democracy but the number of lies we are told.
    Like the Free movement of people. Such a thing in a global economy is meaningless.
    To the average person all it mean is when you go to an EU country you may get a stamp in your passport and only be able to stay for 28 days.
    The list of countries outside the EU you can work in without a vise is 170+ and if you do need a visa most can be obtained very easily at very little expenses.
    I don’t see how this would effect in a detrimental way companies’ ability to import workers to the UK just look a Scotland and Holyrood’s IT department. Normally all a company need to do is prove that the position can be filled to the required standard and so require so work permits, it’s very easy I have be the one asking and the one being asked many time. What is the problem, why is free movement so important?

  7. There’s a tendency to deliberately conflate Europe and the EU. They’re very different. I love Europe, I always have. I’ve lived there, worked there, had a second home there, speak some of it’s languages and regularly holiday there. But the EU is a different thing. It has a longer term agenda that fills me with horror, the the distinct whiff of a failing empire and a lack of democracy that wouldn’t be tolerated on a national basis. So I’m campaigning to leave the EU. But never Europe.Report

  8. I don’t feel that the EU is working as a political union. Free trade between any country should be what the UK should look towards as a future. No country should have to submit to a single currency or a single political union whilst loosing more and more ability to govern itself, loosing its own unique identity and sovereignty in order to access a closed group trading block of countries, that to me seems far more narrow minded and introverted in a modern global market that we are in.


  9. I am sure I would feel considerably more European if that did not involve being politically bound to the EU.
    It is the European Project that is repellant, not Europe or being a European.Report

    1. I agree . Their is a distinction . The EU was once good idea and a force for good, since it originally it was loose a association of nation states with similar incomes .This allowed national identity to be expressed and celebrated whilst It and encouraged free trade and voluntary cooperation . Now it has become a bureaucratic monolith , lacking democratic control and is a political project working words complete union [without much of any democratic consent and indeed overriding national opinion in many states ] .

      Moreover the UK a ever has declining influence on it nor need to be a member awe aren’t in the Euro. As others join our influence will decline more . If we had looser trading only arrangement with the EU [ as I believe the majority want ] I suspect many more would say they are both European and British [ or European/ British /English Scottish etc ].

      As for reform the EU has shown itself unable to do this and nor did ti offer a loosers arrangement to the UK. If it had i think most would have wanted to stay – The EU had their chance but they refused to be flexible and I suspect most will now want to leave as the pressure of migration and moves towards political union s just unsustainable .Report

  10. When will these Socialists stop blaming Maggie for everything? She’s dead.
    To paraphrase “The Life of Brian”, what have the Europeans ever done for us?Report

  11. It is hardly surprising that many English people do not have any expressed sense of European identity – since the British media (though much of it is not actually English or British in ownership) has been overwhelmingly fostering a hostile attitude towards both the EU and any sense of being part of a wider European cultural family since around the year 1979 when Margaret Thatcher came to power. It is actually more surprising that 35 per cent still feel such a connection. Report

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