British Social Attitudes 31

Being British today

This British Social Attitudes report summary explores what Britain feels about itself – its boundaries, its identity, and its inhabitants.
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  • Authors:
    Sir John Curtice
    Alison Park
    Elizabeth Clery
  • Publishing date:
    17 June 2014


Identity, integration and inclusion have been at the forefront of public policy debates throughout 2014. This summary considers what Britain feels about itself – its boundaries, its identity, and its inhabitants – and the clues this gives us about Britain and its future.

Britain 2014

Identity, integration and inclusion have been at the forefront of public policy debates throughout 2014. The Scottish independence referendum, on-going rows about the implications of immigration, and the rise of the UK Independence Party on an anti-European Union (EU) ticket have made us think more deeply about the UK’s boundaries, where decision making about its laws should lie and who should be allowed to come and live here. Meanwhile, few weeks go by without discussion about whether and how Britain should ‘protect’ itself from the outside world, for example in relation to the role of foreign-owned firms in Britain’s energy market or the impact of foreign ownership on London’s housing market.  

In a few years’ time the UK as it currently exists could look very different. A Yes vote in Scotland in September will see Scotland leave the UK by March 2016, according to the Scottish Government’s ideal timetable at least. And if the Conservative Party wins a majority at the 2015 General Election, an in-out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU will follow by the end of 2017. A Yes at both referendums will mean a future Britain that looks very different to Britain today. 

In this summary we pull together key strands from the six chapters included in the 31st British Social Attitudes report to consider what Britain feels about itself – its boundaries, its identity, and its inhabitants. These raise important questions; people’s social identities, especially their national identity (or identities), are often thought to matter for both political legitimacy and social cohesion. People’s willingness to accept the right of a government to govern depends on their feeling that it represents and symbolizes the ‘nation’ to which they feel a sense of belonging. Their willingness to share social risks, for example via a common form of welfare, depends on a shared sense that they belong to the same (imagined) community. And people’s willingness to accept the right of others to come and live within their country depends on the degree to which migrants are regarded as ‘us’ rather than ‘other’, opening up the question of what features people think matter when defining who they think belongs.  

Being British?

A shared sense of Britishness is often seen as the glue that helps keep the UK together. But it coexists with other ‘national’ identities; Scottish, English, Irish, Northern Irish and Welsh. In England (and outside the UK) the terms ‘English’ and ‘British’ are often seen as synonymous – leading to their being called a distinction without a difference (Cohen, 1995; Kumar, 2003). But there is some evidence that devolution elsewhere in the UK has sharpened people’s appreciation of these differences, and led to an increase in the proportion of people in England who choose to describe themselves as English (Curtice, 2013). In 1992, 31 per cent described themselves as “English” when asked to choose which national identity best described them, now 41 per cent do so (47 per cent describe themselves as British, down from 63 per cent in 1992). However, this shift took place in the late 1990s, during the advent of devolution elsewhere in the UK; since then there has been little change.  

There is no doubt that a sense of being Scottish is more widespread and deeply held north of the border than are any feelings of Britishness. In 2013, only one in ten people say that they are either “British, not Scottish” or “More British than Scottish”. In contrast as many as a quarter (25 per cent) say they are Scottish and not British at all. That leaves a majority (62 per cent) however who acknowledge some combination of both identities. For many then, their sense of being Scottish sits alongside a complementary sense of being British rather than in opposition to it. 

So that is how people in England and Scotland would describe their own identity.[1] But what do they think matters when it comes to whether someone can be considered British? We first tackled this topic in 1995 by asking how important a range of different attributes were for a person being “truly British”. Now, as then, most people see Britishness as being determined by a mix of factors, some of which can be acquired over time, such as speaking English (seen as important by a near unanimous 95 per cent), respecting Britain’s laws and institutions or having British citizenship (the latter two both being chosen as important by 85 per cent). Others are largely determined early on in life and far harder to acquire (such as being born in Britain, chosen as important by 74 per cent). Earlier this year Sajid Javid MP, the UK’s first Asian secretary of state, was quoted as saying that migrants to the UK should learn English and respect Britain’s way of life; our findings suggest most see these as being fundamental aspects of being British.

As our National identity chapter describes, a key finding is that the threshold to being considered British has got higher over time. The proportion who think being able to speak English is important has gone up by ten percentage points, from 85 per cent in 1995 to 95 percent now. And whereas in 1995, 71 per cent thought having lived one’s life in Britain was important; now 77 per cent think this matters. But despite Prime Minister David Cameron’s assertions that the UK is a “Christian country”,[3] being Christian is only seen as an important element of Britishness by a minority, and a shrinking one at that – down from 32 per cent in 1995 to 24 per cent now. This no doubt reflects the wider decline in religious belonging in the UK over the period (Park and Rhead, 2013).  

Beliefs about immigrants

Discussions about what it is to be British and immigration often go hand in hand. In our Immigration chapter we dig beneath the surface of public opposition to tease out the perceptions that people have of migrants and the impact they have on Britain. It shows that there is considerable diversity of opinion about the impact that immigration has had on Britain’s economy and culture, with the most economically and socially advantaged being far more positive than other groups. So, while 60 per cent of graduates think immigration has been good for Britain’s economy (overall 31 per cent think this), this is true of only 17 per cent of those with no qualifications. Echoing the recent divide between London and the rest of Britain when it came to support for the UK Independence Party in the elections to the European Parliament in May 2014, London also stands out in its views on immigration. Over half (54 per cent) of Londoners think immigration has been beneficial for Britain’s economy, nearly double the figure (28 per cent) found elsewhere in Britain.  

Different sections of the population have very different mental pictures of migrants and the reasons they come to Britain. A quarter (24 per cent) put claiming benefits ahead of studying, working or asylum as the main attraction for new migrants, a view which is particularly strongly held among those who most disapprove of immigration. This perhaps helps explain the fact that 61 per cent think immigrants from the European Union should wait three years or more to be able to claim benefits – 83 per cent say they should wait for one year or more. In reality, a minimum earnings threshold came into force earlier this year which requires European migrants in the UK to show they are earning at least £149 a week for three months before they can access a range of benefits, demonstrating a considerable gap between public opinion and reality. Concern about access to benefits perhaps underpin the fact that, while in 2003 40 per cent thought legal immigrants should have the same rights as British citizens, just 27 per cent think the same now.  

As our National identity chapter shows, there is a close link between people’s views about immigration and what they think matters when it comes to being “truly British”. Those who emphasise a mix of civic factors (like speaking English) and ethnic ones (like being born in Britain) are far more likely to oppose immigration than those who think only civic factors matter. 

Issues such as immigration cause huge headaches for politicians, not least because party supporters are so divided on the issue. Any policy which satisfies those on one side of the debate will tend to infuriate those on the other. In the case of immigration, it is also evident that politicians and policy makers tend to be drawn heavily from the more socially advantaged and highly educated end of the spectrum, creating a potential for disconnect and distrust between a more liberal political class which accepts immigration and an electorate among whom many find it intensely threatening.