John Curtice: Long-term prospects for ‘Britishness’ appear weak

“ARE you English or British?” “Why both. What’s the difference?” Such conversations about national identity are often thought to be commonplace south of the Border. Residing in by far the largest part of the UK, people in England often talk as though Britain and England are but one and the same place.

So should we take much notice when a YouGov poll discovers that three times as many people in England say they are “mainly English” than say they are “mainly British”?

Well, adherence to a common sense of “Britishness” is often thought to be a vital part of the emotional glue that helps keep the Union together. That glue has long since lost much of its strength in Scotland. If it has now been eroded in England too, the long-term prospects for the Union would seem rather bleak indeed.

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There are, though, some caveats about YouGov’s poll. When they try to find out people’s identity, polls typically ask how their respondents how they “think” or “feel” about themselves. After all, an identity is a label or badge that people apply to themselves and towards which they feel a degree of emotional attachment. Such a wording helps get at that.

In their latest poll, YouGov just asked people whether they were mainly English, British or whatever.

Such an approach might be thought to invoke a factual description rather than an identity. Yet if that were all YouGov’s poll was picking up, we would not anticipate that which description people chose would make much difference to the views they expressed on other subjects in the poll. But it did. Those who described themselves as English had a distinctly more “nationalist” outlook.

Fifty-seven per cent of them said they would vote in favour of leaving the European Union. So YouGov’s poll does seem to have picked up something of a genuine “little Englander” mood south of the Border – stimulated perhaps by the recent travails of the eurozone.

And if it is a mood that is willing to contemplate the “break-up” of the European Union, might it not be willing to consider the dissolution of the domestic Union, too?

• John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University