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.

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