That England (and Wales) voted Leave in the Brexit referendum of 2016, and that Scotland (and Northern Ireland) voted Remain is now a fact of political life. People resident in these different parts of the UK voted differently for Brexit. But what is going on beneath the surface is more complex. Recent research (reported in Scottish Affairs, vol. 26, 2017) shows unequivocally that the more you thought of yourself as ‘English’, the more likely you were to vote Leave. On the other hand, if you lived in England and considered yourself ‘British’, you voted Remain. However, this relationship between national identity and Brexit vote did not exist in Scotland. Roughly two-thirds of people who said they were ‘Scots’ and two-thirds of those who said they were ‘British’ voted Remain.
National identity is not a badge stuck on our foreheads at birth. Like all social identities, it is a social marker which we can use and manipulate according to our circumstances. In our book Understanding National Identity we explored what people living in Scotland and England meant by saying that they were Scottish, English or British. National identity is a variable prism through which we refract social reality; we interpret what goes on around us in terms of the salience (or lack of it) of the social identities available to us.
The crucial element of the ‘Brexit puzzle’ lies with the English because, over two decades, proportionately more people in England say they are ‘English’. In 2016, 28 per cent of people interviewed in the Social Attitudes survey said they were ‘mainly English’; roughly the same proportion (25 per cent) that they were ‘mainly British’, with the rest somewhere in between. More than half of Scots were ‘mainly Scottish’, only one in ten ‘mainly British’, with one-third in between.
Why is being ‘English’ associated with voting Leave, and being ’Scottish’ with voting Remain? It has to do with the perceptions and beliefs which, shaped by the wider political and cultural contexts, are associated with these two national identities, as with the state identity of being ‘British’. In our book, we wrote that people who claimed to be ‘British’ in England tended to have liberal and left-wing values, whereas in Scotland, being ‘British’ was more likely to thought of in conservative (and Conservative) terms. Claiming to be ‘British’ means different things in different contexts.
Saying you are ‘English’ encompasses an emphasis on being different from immigrants from Europe and a belief that they had a negative impact on our economy and welfare system; an assertion of the superiority of the English legal system; a desire to ‘take our country back’; and so on. It is a floating signifier which has acquired such meanings in the context of political and cultural debate. Being ‘Scottish’ is more strongly associated with ‘national’ political and ‘liberal’ meanings – and thus became more readily associated with Remain. These associated meanings are not immovably fixed, but caught up in everyday political and cultural discourses.
In Understanding National Identity we argue that ‘national identity’ matters. People reach for it to make sense of their lives, alongside other forms of social identity. The Brexit vote was different in Scotland and England precisely because national identity does matter.