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Defining British identity

We assessed how people think of national identity by asking the following questions as part of the 1995, 2003 and 2013 British Social Attitudes surveys:

Some people say that the following things are important for being truly British. Others say that they are not important. How important do you think each of the following is?

To have been born in Britain

To have British citizenship

To have lived in Britain for most of one’s life

To be able to speak English

To be a Christian

To respect Britain’s political institutions and laws

To feel British

To have British ancestry 

We asked an additional question to assess the extent to which shared customs and traditions matter: 

Now we would like to ask a few questions about minority groups in Britain. How much do you agree or disagree with the following statement? It is impossible for people who do not share Britain’s customs and traditions to become fully British

National _identity _PQ_3

Table 4.1 shows the results. Of the nine attributes we asked about, six are seen as “very” or “fairly” important by around three-quarters of people or more. The most important factor is being able to speak English (which 95 per cent think is important), followed by having British citizenship and respecting Britain’s political institutions and laws (both 85 per cent). Around three-quarters think being born in Britain is important, but only half that having British ancestry matters. It is notable that only a quarter think that being Christian is important for being “truly British”.

If we look at the data from a historical perspective, it is clear that, despite little change between 1995 and 2003, there have been some major shifts since then. In particular, the perceived importance of being able to speak English has increased by nearly ten percentage points. There has also been an increase in the proportion who think it important that someone has lived for most of their life in Britain, up from 69 per cent in 2003 to 77 per cent now. 

National _identity _T_4.1

To understand how these results correspond to the two identity dimensions we mentioned earlier (ethnic versus civic) we used a technique called factor analysis (for more information about factor analysis please see the Technical details chapter). The results of this analysis are provided in the Appendix to this chapter and show that responses to the questions in Table 4.1 do indeed divide into two different dimensions, which correspond well with the differences between ethnic and civic conceptions of national identity. These are shown in Table 4.2.

National _identity _T_4.2

We then calculated an ethnic identity score and a civic identity score for each respondent, based on how they had answered these questions.[1] In each case, the closer the score is to 5, the more weight that person puts on the relevant dimension of national identity, and the closer it is to 0, the less weight. The results, presented in Table 4.3, show that the vast majority of Britons do not see whether or not someone is “truly British” as being down to solely civic or ethnic criteria – instead, many see both as playing a role. Those in this category can be found in the bottom right hand quadrant of Table 4.3. Another, smaller, group have an entirely civic view of national identity (they are in the top right hand quadrant). Almost nobody has an entirely ethnic view (bottom left hand quadrant). Finally, there is also evidence of a group whose views about national identity have neither an ethnic nor a civic component (top left hand quadrant).

National _identity _T_4.3

National _identity _PQ_4

These results are summarised in Table 4.4. It shows that the majority of people (nearly two thirds) attach importance to both ethnic and civic aspects of national identity while about one third tend to think of national identity only in civic terms. Six per cent do not appear to think of national identity in either ethnic or civic terms. Comparing these findings with those from earlier years shows considerable continuity, although there is the hint of a small increase in the proportion of the population with a civic notion of national identity, from 23 per cent in 1995 to 34 per cent in 2003 and 31 per cent in 2013.[2] There has also been a small change in the proportion who think that both civic and ethnic aspects of national identity matter: after a 4 percentage point dip between 1995 and 2003, by 2013 this proportion had returned to its 1995 level of 63 per cent. 

National _identity _T_4.4

Of course, these overall findings are likely to mask considerable differences between particular groups. An obvious starting point here is age; we know from earlier work that there are clear age differences in national pride, with younger groups being less likely than older ones to express pride in being British (Young, 2014). We explore this in Table 4.5. However, rather than focusing on age, we examine the views of specific generations as there are strong reasons to suspect that their different experiences during their formative years (particularly in terms of their exposure to war and conflict) will have had an impact on the way they think about Britain and British identity. 

National _identity _PQ_5

To do this we pooled together our 2003 and 2013 findings (to increase the sample size available for analysis) and then allocated people into one of three different generational groups: those born before 1945; those born between 1945 and 1964; and those born after 1964. The results show that there are indeed considerable generational differences; nearly nine in ten of the pre-1945 generation have a civic and ethnic view of British national identity, but the same is only true of six in ten of those born between 1945 and 1964, falling to five in ten among the youngest generation. Conversely, while 40 per cent of those born after 1964 have a view of British national identity based only on civic factors, this is true of just 13 per cent of those born before 1945.

National _identity _T_4.5

These findings suggest that, over time, the importance attached to ascribed ethnic factors in thinking about national identity may well decline, as older generations die out and are replaced by generations who are less likely to think of Britishness as dependent on factors such as birth, ancestry and sharing customs and traditions. 

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Notes
  1. To obtain each score we added up (summed) the values of the respective variables and then divided the resulting number by the number of questions, to produce a scale from 1 to 5.
  2. Caution should be taken when comparing the 1995 results with those for subsequent years as the construction of the national identity variable in that year was slightly different to the formulation used in 2003 and 2013. Specifically, it did not include “being Christian” but did include “feeling British”. 
  3. The scaled variable was obtained by adding up (summing) the values of the six questions for each respondent, having first reversed the order of the second and fourth questions in Table 4.6 so that for each question agreement indicated an anti-immigration position. The results were divided by 6 to obtain a scale which varies between 1 and 5.
  4. The summary variable was computed in the same way as is described in note 3 above. 
  5. Intriguingly, those whose conception of national identity is neither civic nor ethnic are even more likely to be internationally minded, supporting the conclusion that it is indeed seeing the ethnic component of Britishness as important that is more closely linked to being British-focused.
  6. The summary variable was computed in the same way as is described in note 3 above.
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  • Notes
    1. To obtain each score we added up (summed) the values of the respective variables and then divided the resulting number by the number of questions, to produce a scale from 1 to 5.
    2. Caution should be taken when comparing the 1995 results with those for subsequent years as the construction of the national identity variable in that year was slightly different to the formulation used in 2003 and 2013. Specifically, it did not include “being Christian” but did include “feeling British”. 
    3. The scaled variable was obtained by adding up (summing) the values of the six questions for each respondent, having first reversed the order of the second and fourth questions in Table 4.6 so that for each question agreement indicated an anti-immigration position. The results were divided by 6 to obtain a scale which varies between 1 and 5.
    4. The summary variable was computed in the same way as is described in note 3 above. 
    5. Intriguingly, those whose conception of national identity is neither civic nor ethnic are even more likely to be internationally minded, supporting the conclusion that it is indeed seeing the ethnic component of Britishness as important that is more closely linked to being British-focused.
    6. The summary variable was computed in the same way as is described in note 3 above.
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