Choosing National Identity

by Frank Bechhofer and David McCrone[1]
University of Edinburgh

Sociological Research Online, 15 (3) 3

Received: 11 Jan 2010     Accepted: 27 Jul 2010    Published: 31 Aug 2010


This paper examines national identity in England and Scotland, arguing that it is necessary to understand how people construe it instead of simply assuming that it is constructed from above by the state. It adds to qualitative data on this issue by discussing recent survey data, from the British and Scottish Social Attitudes surveys 2006, in which for the first time people are asked about their reasons for making a specific choice of national identity. In so doing it fleshes out the responses given to a well known survey question (the so-called 'Moreno' question) providing a greater understanding of what a large sample of people are saying when they make these territorial identity choices.

The English and the Scots handle 'national' and 'state' identities differently, but the paper shows there is considerable similarity as regards reasons for choosing national identity. Both English and Scottish 'nationals', those placing greater weight on their 'national' as opposed to their 'state' identities, choose to do so mainly for cultural and institutional reasons. They are not making a 'political' statement about the break-up of Britain. At the British end of the scale, there are patterns in the English data which throw into doubt easy assertions about 'being British'. Simply assuming, as some politicians and commentators do, that 'British' has singular meanings is unfounded.

The future of the United Kingdom as presently constituted may lie in the hands of those who describe themselves as equally national (English or Scottish) and British. Devolution influences which national identity people choose in all three sets of national identity categories but these effects are sociologically most interesting in this group. Devolution seems to have encouraged them to stress the equality of the two nations in the British state, recognising that they are equal partners, that one can be equally proud of a national and a British identity, and that it is not necessary to choose one over the other.

Keywords: National Identity Choice; Devolution; Moreno; England; Scotland; United Kingdom


1.1 Despite the many writings on nations, nationalism and national identity, we know far more about the first two than we do about the latter. When, in 1991, the doyen of nationalism studies, Anthony Smith, published his book 'National Identity', he observed that 'a nation can … be defined as a named human population sharing a historic territory, common myths and historical memories, a mass, public culture, a common economy and common legal rights and duties for all members' (1991: 14). In other words, he equates 'nation' at least partly with 'national identity'. In like manner, in his book 'On Nationality', the political philosopher, David Miller commented that 'to understand what we mean when we talk of someone's having a national identity, we must first get clear about what nations (our emphasis) are' (1995: 17). Here we have another nice example of someone prioritising the more familiar concept, the nation. And identity is confused with nationality when Miller goes on to observe: '… the attitudes and beliefs that constitute nationality are very often hidden away in the deeper recesses of the mind, brought to full consciousness only by some dramatic event' (ibid: 18).

1.2 There are echoes here of Michael Billig's celebrated 'banal nationalism', namely that nation and national identity are 'mindlessly remembered' (1995:144) such that nations are reproduced daily through routine and implicit 'flagging' of national symbols. He comments: 'The metonymic image of banal nationalism is not a flag which is being consciously waved with fervent passion; it is the flag hanging unnoticed on the public building' (1995: 8). National identity, then, 'embraces all these forgotten reminders … [and] is to be found in the embodied habits of social life' (ibid.). One might, of course, ask how, if 'flagging' is so implicit, it comes to have a powerful effect on processes of national identification, but his point about the frequently implicit nature of national identity is well taken. It does help to shift the focus on to how individuals 'do' national identity (as well, of course, various other social identities). As far as national identity is concerned, Eric Hobsbawm has made the important point that nations and nationalism are 'dual phenomena, constructed essentially from above, but which cannot be understood unless analysed from below, that is, in terms of the assumptions, hopes, needs, longings and interests of ordinary people, which are not necessarily national and still less nationalist' (Hobsbawm, 1990: 10). While we would question his emphasis on 'constructed essentially from above', we agree that the key empirical task is to carry out this analysis 'from below' to discover how Hobsbawm's 'ordinary people' construe who they are in national terms, and whether indeed it matters to them.

1.3 Over more than fifteen years we have developed our approach[2], both conceptual and empirical, to carrying out this 'analysis from below'. We take as our starting point the performative and presentational aspect of identity, and symbolic interactionism, especially as manifested in the distinctive and ground-breaking work of Erving Goffman which has long influenced us (Goffman, 1959). However, unlike Goffman who focuses on identity generally as a tactical issue designed to maximise player advantage, we have developed further the idea that national identity involves claims, the receipt of claims, and the attribution of identity characteristics to others on the basis of what the audience is able to perceive. Actors have considerable capacity to construct and negotiate national identities always having due regard to the context in which they find themselves. There is a complex matrix involving how actors define themselves, how they attribute identity to others, and how they think others attribute identity to them. This is not to imply that individuals freely and without constraint can make it up for themselves as they go along but rather that the process is a good example of the interplay of social structure and social action, the former emphasising the constraints on individuals in the interests of social order; the latter emphasising the capacity of social actors to shape the world around them – society as the creation of its members, as it were. The concept of national identity, therefore can be seen as the hinge between structure and action.

1.4 This approach to national identity should briefly be put in context. In referring to identity in general as the 'hinge' which connects structure and action, we seek to avoid two arguments: first that identities are essentially laid down by social structures such that the social actor has little leeway other than to act out the part specified. We might typify this approach as one deriving from classical structural functionalism. The second approach from which we seek to distance ourselves is one we might typify as 'post-modern', that the individual is able to choose who they want to be by giving off the 'correct' signs of identification. The comment by Zygmunt Bauman, whether or not one chooses to see him as a post-modernist, captures this well:

… it is the consumer attitude which makes my life into my individual affair; and it is the consumer activity which makes me into the individual … It seems in the end as if I were made up of the many things I buy and own; tell me what you buy and in what shops you buy it, and I'll tell you who you are. It seems that with the help of carefully selected purchases, I can make of myself anything I may wish, anything I believe it is worth becoming. Just as dealing with my personal problems is my duty and my responsibility, so the shaping of my personal identity, my self-assertion, making myself into a concrete someone, is my task and my task alone. (1992:205)

1.5 We do not see national identity as either set in stone, nor the plaything of the privatised individual. 'National' identity, differs in some regards from other forms of social identity in that it is conventionally seen as connected to citizenship or 'nationality', rather than something more 'intimate' and personal such as gender, 'race' or social class. Nevertheless, we have been able to show in our work that for most people 'national' identity is in many ways intimate and personal (Bechhofer and McCrone, 2008). One of the features it shares with other forms of social identity is its implicit character. This is reflected in the comment by Mercer: 'Identity only becomes an issue when it is in crisis, when something assumed to be fixed, coherent and stable is displaced by the experience of doubt and uncertainty' (1990: 43). This, we believe, captures well how 'identity politics' emerge, whether more generally as regards social identity, or more narrowly, national identity. Nevertheless, national identity is not freely chosen independently of structural constraint, most importantly the need to maintain, challenge and modify it in the processes of interaction. Our position is built from the ground up, based on and sustained by extensive empirical research, both qualitative and quantitative, rather than theoretical speculation.

1.6 In summary, our approach to national identity is much in sympathy with the work of Richard Jenkins who argues for a focus on processes of identification, and the production and reproduction of identities during social interaction (2008: 27).

1.7 We have called this paper 'choosing national identity' because, as we have just indicated, the issue is profoundly interactive, and yet we still know relatively little about the process of national identification. Consider this statement by another political philosopher, Margaret Moore, in a handbook on Nations and Nationalism (2006: 98):

It would not be devastatingly dislocational, in a cultural sense, to leave Canada and live in the United States, or to leave Scotland to live in England, and would not involve the traditional costs involved in learning a new language or new symbolic repertoires. But it may be profoundly difficult for the Scot to think of herself as an Englishwoman, or the Canadian to think of himself as an American.

1.8 In other words, while the migrants in question may find it straightforward to adapt to life in the new country, they are unlikely to wish to alter their national identity or, should they wish to, find it straightforward. In our own research on Scots who migrate to England, we find little evidence that they think of themselves as English, however long they have lived there, though the same is not entirely true of the English who migrate to Scotland.

1.9 In trying to understand national identity, we might consider it a formal matter, that is, to be equated with citizenship. You are British, French, German, American because the relevant state confers rights and duties, most notably a passport, upon you. The problems with such an approach are that not everyone understands citizenship in the same way, or is willing to have it conferred on others deemed by them not to be 'fit and proper persons'. Even if Margaret Moore's Canadian or Scot were taken to be American or English, why assume that that's how they identified themselves? A key difference of course in these cases is that whereas Canada and the United States are different states, England and Scotland are part of the same state, the United Kingdom (of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to give its full title). While it would be possible, but unusual unless you had two passports, for someone to be both Canadian and American, being a (British) citizen and an English or Scottish 'national'[3] is commonplace. Thus, we know that Scots have long been practised at being both (usually with 'national' a priority) and that English people have begun to distinguish 'state' (British) from 'national' (English) identity (Bechhofer and McCrone, 2008). Here, then, we have a research opportunity which treats national identity as possibly multiple, and hence open to explicit articulation.

Survey Data and National Identity

2.1 Until the last decade or so, it was assumed that national identity only mattered to the non-English people of the United Kingdom – the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish. Insofar as it ever impinged much, the English, it was alleged, used 'English' and 'British' interchangeably. The writer and campaigner Anthony Barnett once observed (1997:223):
The English … are more often baffled when asked how they relate their Englishness and Britishness to each other. They often fail to understand how the two can be contrasted at all. It seems like one of those puzzles that others can undo but you can't; Englishness and Britishness seem inseparable.

2.2 Certainly, when surveys began to ask people in these islands who they were in 'national' terms, it was the Scots at whom the question was mainly aimed. As far back as the mid-1970s, when devolution and self-government became a live political issue, they were asked whether being Scottish was more important than being British, and in the first of these surveys in 1974, almost two-thirds opted for Scottish and one-third for British. Not until 1992 was the question asked of the English, resulting in almost the mirror-image; twice as many said 'British' as said 'English' (see Bechhofer and McCrone, 2008: 94). These early survey questions were fairly crude, asking people to choose from a list of national identities (English, Scottish, Welsh, British – you could select more than one), and then to opt for the one which best described their national identity. Thus, you could say that you were English, or British, and even both, but you could not indicate just how English and/or British you thought you were, and in what mix of the two.

2.3 Since the mid-1980s a more sophisticated five-point Likert scale has been widely used. This has at each end two 'exclusive' identities, for instance Scottish not British and British not Scottish[4]. The mid-point would then be Equally Scottish and British with More Scottish than British and More British than Scottish on either side completing the scale. It was originally developed by the political scientist Juan Linz for use in public opinion surveys in Catalonia and Spain in the late 1970s after the re-introduction of democracy, asking respondents whether they thought of themselves as Catalans, and/or Spanish (Spanish Centre for Sociological Research CIRES).

2.4 The question was thus devised for situations of dual territorial identity, where there was reason to think that populations thought of themselves in 'national' terms (for example, as Scots or Catalans) rather than as simply citizens of the state (the United Kingdom or Spain). Scotland was an obvious comparator with Catalonia and the Linz scale was first used in Scotland in 1986 by the Spanish researcher Luis Moreno, and ever since Moreno's name is usually associated with it (Moreno, 2006). It was extended to England in 1997, and to Wales in 2001. When its use was extended to England there was an issue as to whether it would 'work' satisfactorily because England contains 85% of the UK population and, if Barnett is correct, the distinction between 'national' and 'state' identities may be far less meaningful. In practice the question has been used frequently and, on the face of it, successfully.

2.5 In broad terms, looking at the range of survey data, we can say that in England there has been a slow but significant shift towards people describing themselves as English, with a sharp jump in the mid-2000s. In Scotland, on the other hand, there has been no significant recent increase in people saying they are Scottish, but this is because such a shift had already taken place during the 1980s (Bechhofer and McCrone, 2008). In 2006, if we look at 'natives'[5] – those both born and living in England or Scotland – 37 per cent of the English said they are only or mainly English, 46 per cent equally English and British, and 13 per cent only or mainly British. The comparable figures for Scots are 73 per cent, 21 per cent and 3 per cent.

2.6 This leaves open, however, the question of what people mean by such territorial identity choices, why they make the choices they do, and indeed whether the data are meaningful at all. These survey data have considerable reliability and are good at capturing snapshot pictures of how large numbers of people describe themselves, but as such tell us nothing about what lies behind such choices, and their validity as measures of territorial identity. It could be for example that some or all respondents simply use a different label to describe the same thing, for example, saying they are English rather than that they are British but, if Anthony Barnett is to be believed, meaning the same thing by it. Perhaps people have learned to say England rather than Britain but have no clear justification for so doing; in other words, it might simply be a form of talk. Given the juxtaposition of these two descriptors in much of the (English) media where they are often treated as synonyms (Rosie and Petersoo, 2009), this is entirely possible.

2.7 In this paper we shall do two things. We shall discuss recent survey data which for the first time, to the best of our knowledge, specifically asks people partitioned according to their 'Moreno' choices about the reasons for making that choice[6]. In so doing we are able to flesh out the responses and gain a greater understanding of what a large sample of people are saying when they make these territorial identity choices. Our main aim is of course substantive. We wish to add survey data with its very different strengths and, admittedly, weaknesses to the considerable body of qualitative data on this issue (both ours and that of other scholars). Secondly, there is of course a potentially crucial methodological implication. Were it to be the case, and we are happy to reveal at the outset that this is not so, that these analyses suggested a serious lack of validity in data arising from the 'Moreno' question, the implications would be profound as it is widely accepted among students of national identity that the 'Moreno' question is to be trusted and broadly reflects what has been discovered by other techniques. .

2.8 Before we turn to the survey data, we shall look briefly at some of the information provided by qualitative data. The qualitative interviews from which the data come were part of a study of 'nationals and migrants' carried out in Scotland and England between 2000 and 2005, as part of a programme of research on National Identity and Constitutional Change funded by The Leverhulme Trust[7]. Lasting between 1 and 2 hours, the conversational interviews were open-ended and focused on respondents' sense of national identity and the criteria they used to define it, set in the context of constitutional change and devolution post-1999[8]. The research involved two groups of 'nationals' (people born in England or Scotland and living in the country of their birth), and two groups of 'migrants' (people born in England but living in Scotland and a group born in Scotland but living in England). There were between 60 and 70 in each of these four groups. The samples were divided, in each country, between people living in a large city, and people living in a small-town, rural area. The interviews in England were carried out by colleagues at Lancaster University. The study had a panel element in that respondents were re-interviewed a year or two later to pursue some issues which had arisen in greater depth and to see if and how their views had changed. The interviews were transcribed and, in our work, analysed using a 'hyperlink' facility which identified key topics and phrases whereby sections of text are tagged and coded[9]. The transcripts were also subject to in-depth reading and comparison both across time (the panel aspect), and across the four samples of 'nationals' and 'migrants'.

Some Illustrative Qualitative Data on Reasons for Identity Choice

3.1 In a great deal of previous work on people living in Scotland – both Scots- and English-born – we have used intensive interviews to get people to talk about their identity choices, and in particular to explore the reasons behind Moreno type choices. The following quotes give a flavour as to how people respond. Sometimes, especially among those choosing Scottish not British the replies are matter-of-fact, direct and non-elaborated:
RS1: Just because I was born in Scotland and I'm proud of my Scottish heritage really.

RS2: Because I'm Scottish not British. It just makes most sense; it gives me a point of origin.

RS3: It's got to be the first one, it's got to be Scottish not British.

3.2 Those who are Scottish more than British are more likely to weigh up the two terms more explicitly, sometimes referring to criteria such as birth, or the combination of their sense of national identity and what it says on their passport. But often the choice is still seen as fairly straightforward:

RS4: I would say that I'm a wee bit more Scottish than British but I still feel British…Because I am Scottish first and foremost, you know.

RS5: I would think of myself as Scottish first and British second.
I: And you would see both as happily co-existing together?
RS5: Well certainly co-existing, yes. Em, I wouldn't say Scottish not British, because I carry a British passport and everything else. That is, strictly speaking my nationality, British rather than Scottish.

3.3 For some respondents however, deciding what they are is a matter of some deliberation and occasionally indecisiveness. Contrast these more elaborated examples, the second one very much so, with those above:

RS7: No. 1 (Scottish not British) is out, 'cos I do think myself as British…. No. 3 (Equally Scottish and British) is out. I was looking at that one but I said I was Scottish first, and I stand by that. I live here, if I'd lived in England all my life I would probably have said 'More English than British'. But if I chose 'Equally Scottish and British' it would mean I would accept a British football team which I wouldn't, I want a Scottish one.

3.4 And even more elaborately, this English person:

RE5: So which of the following statements best describes how I see myself. English not British. Well I suppose I do see myself as being British. That's actually quite a difficult question in a lot of ways because I suppose it's how I see myself so I see myself as being British but then I can't say that I'm not English. Or I can't say that I'm English and not British because by being British I'm kind of English, because there really isn't any differentiation between being British and being English outside of England.
I: Okay
RE5: But I suppose I am.
I: So you can't be English not British?
RE5: I personally can't, I've always considered myself to be British but I do have a notion of Englishness. But my notion of Englishness is born out of my Britishness. It isn't something that is separate from my Britishness. It's kind of in there. I do speak the English language, well I try my best anyway. I've got the British passport. Can't really say English not British. I'll leave it. Oh, do I have to tick these?
I: Well, you just tick the one, or it could be that you can think of another one that might be more appropriate. Otherwise you just tick one that describes you the best.
RE5: So I don't tick the ones that apply
I: No, just the one
RE5: Just the one. More English than British, I don't see how I could be more English than British. That really doesn't make sense. So, equally British and equally English. To be honest I've got a similar point on this as to what I had on the other one, which was, because you're using the same notion of Englishness, if I was a black Afro-Caribbean doing this I don't know whether it would be a particularly fair question. I mean I'm having difficulty with it and I'm British, English? (laughs). I don't know what I am anymore. I think I just might emigrate and become something else. It might be a lot easier. Equally English and British, so saying I'm equally English and British would mean that I am equally both?
I: Yeah
RE5: Ah, so that might be me then. So that would seem to be, because by saying I'm more British than English that's actually denying my Englishness in spite of my Britishness. Right. Oh, British not English. But I am English, but I'm only English because everybody else tells me I'm English, but I'm British.

Survey Data on Reasons for Identity Choice

4.1 What these brief extracts from our large number of interviews suggest is that people talk through their national identity in quite diverse ways. For some, there's nothing more to be said once you have pronounced who you are; for others, it's a careful calculus involving different dimensions. For many Scots, it's a matter of fact; and for some English respondents, it's a matter of being able to talk about national (English) identity just like the Scots, Welsh and Irish. In an open-ended conversational interview respondents are diffuse and varied in their reasons for opting for one category choice over another, making it difficult to compare systematically the reasons which may lie behind such choices. Our interview data do, nevertheless, suggest that choices are meaningful. They also afford important clues as to the sort of reasons people might give if asked more structured questions developed from these accounts, and this is exactly what we have done in the 2006 British and Scottish Social Attitudes Surveys. On the basis of the interviews we identified responses frequently given by respondents in the five Moreno identity categories. We then turned them into a series of statements with which we asked respondents to agree or disagree on a 5 point Likert scale. This was done after they had indicated their choice of identity in response to the Moreno question.

Being 'National'

4.2 Let us first of all focus on those who give priority to being 'national', that is, they say that they are mainly or exclusively either English or Scottish. In England, 36% of 'natives', people born and living in the country fall into this category, compared with 73% of Scots. Why should people deny or downplay being British, given that they carry a British passport, and have conferred on them British citizenship whether they like it or not? Maybe that is the point; it's not a matter of choice. It could be that they are expressing distaste for the British state and its history, notably the British Empire. It might also be that they are making a different kind of political statement, namely, that, as far as Scots are concerned, they are expressing a desire for further self-government, and hence downplaying being British because they wish the UK in its present form to end. For some English people, on the other hand, there is the possibility that it is a reaction to devolution for Scotland and Wales, making them feel English because it is something which has happened without their consent and of which they do not approve. People may also be asserting their 'national' identity because they object, in the case of English people, to a perceived downplaying of 'being English' (on the grounds that: 'if it's good enough for the Scots, Welsh and Irish, it's good enough for us, the English'); and in the case of Scots, as a reaction to the confusion of Britain with England. These reasons see the assertion of 'national' identity as a reaction to something, but an equally valid set of reasons may arise from a positive identification with the nation: its history, traditions and culture, as well as its institutional features – law, education, community spirit. On the other hand, perhaps being national is simply an accident – of birth: that's what you are; it's a given, not a matter of choice. The statements presented to this group reflect these possible different reasons stated in different ways in our qualitative interviews.

4.3 Following a preamble which said 'I am going to read out a list of reasons people sometimes give for saying that they see themselves as English / Scottish not British or more English / Scottish than British[10], respondents were asked to say whether they agreed or disagreed (on a five point scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree, with a mid-point where they neither agreed or disagreed) to a series of statements:

Table 1. 'National' respondents responding agree or strongly agree to the above statements

4.4 If you hold to a 'national' identity, then regardless of whether it is English or Scottish, this is clearly not the result of an aversion to Empire. In fact, in England 6.9 times as many people disagree with the statement as agree[11]. In Scotland the ratio is 3.2 times as many. Rather, items (c) and (d) indicate that in both societies 'nationals' give this response because of a strong attachment to what the question offers as the substance of the respective national identities – history, tradition and culture, and education, law and community spirit. Our previous findings (McCrone and Bechhofer, 2008), have shown that being born in the respective country confers 'nationality' in a rather matter-of-fact way and item (e) reflects that. Less than a third (29%) of Scots attribute their sense of being strongly Scottish to the fact of a Scottish parliament, while slightly more, 35 per cent, of English respondents say devolution has made them feel more English. Again this item is consistent with previous research (Bechhofer and McCrone, 2007). A strong sense of Scottish identity formed the background to devolution and constitutional change which has had little effect since then on claims to a Scottish identity, whereas the sense of English identity has risen slightly since devolution. English 'nationals' are three times more likely to agree than disagree (63% to 19%) that being English tends to be wrongly downplayed by the requirement to be British; whereas Scottish 'nationals' are overwhelmingly more likely to agree than disagree (by 16 to 1) that being British is too often confused with being English.

4.5 In broad terms, what makes people who give priority to their national identity over their state identity respond the way they do? Above all, such people say they identify with their respective cultures and traditions, and their distinctive institutions. It's not a reaction to Empire, and not much to devolution in Scotland and Wales. Birth is a matter-of-fact criterion. In some respects, Scots are somewhat more assertive of national identity, but the surprising finding is that the English are not far behind. Any suggestion that 'national identity' does not matter to the English – at least those who put themselves at the 'national' rather than 'state' end of the scale seems to be wide of the mark.

Being National and British

4.6 What of those who say they are Equally English/Scottish and British? In England, these number 45 per cent, the largest proportion, whereas in Scotland it is half that (22 per cent). Why might people answer in this way? It might be, of course, that people in England are using British and English as synonyms, or perhaps, as Barnett suggests, see the terms as inseparable. Are then people in England who say they are Equally English and British implying that there is no real difference between the terms? Alternatively, they, and their comparators in Scotland, might have a sense of England and Scotland as co-equal – but distinct - partners both historically and/or today. They may then be expressing the view that terms such as British and English or Scottish ought to be used carefully and correctly, and on appropriate occasions. Has devolution in Scotland and Wales influenced people's propensity to say they are Equally English/Scottish and British? For example, it might be that devolution makes them aware of differences within the same state, or that concern that Britain may 'break up' makes them assert their dual nationality.

4.7 Accordingly, after a similar preamble referring to the reasons for thinking themselves equally English and British, or Scottish and British, we asked them to agree or disagree with the following questions, using the 5-point scale previously described:

(a1) For people living in England only: 'You can be equally proud of being British and of being English; it's not a matter of choosing between them.' (a2) For people living in Scotland only: 'You can be equally proud of being British and of being Scottish; it's not a matter of choosing between them.'
(b1) For people living in England only: 'It is important to me to recognise that England is an equal partner with the other countries in the United Kingdom.' (b2) For people living in Scotland only: 'It is important to me to recognise that Scotland is an equal partner with the other countries in the United Kingdom.'
(c1) For people living in England only: 'Sometimes it is more appropriate to say you are British and sometimes it is more appropriate to say you are English.' (c2) For people living in Scotland only: 'Sometimes it is more appropriate to say you are British and sometimes it is more appropriate to say you are Scottish.'
(d1) For people living in England only: 'Britain has an important history in which England played a significant part.' (d2) For people living in Scotland only: 'Britain has an important history in which Scotland played a significant part.'
(e1) For people living in England only: 'I feel English as well as British now that Scotland has its own Parliament and Wales its National Assembly.' (e2) For people living in Scotland only: 'I feel Scottish as well as British now that Scotland has its own Parliament and Wales its National Assembly.'
(f) (asked in England only) 'There is no real difference between English and British.'

Table 2. Respondents saying equally British and English / Scottish responding agree or strongly agree to statements

4.8 Unsurprisingly, almost all say it is not necessary to choose between being a 'national' and British, something also reflected in the very high proportions who agree that both England and Scotland are equal partners in the UK, and with important contributions to British history. Certainly, these findings do not suggest that many people in England confuse the national and state categories. Just over half of English people and two thirds of Scots are willing to agree that which descriptor you use depends on what is appropriate in any particular situation suggesting they are willing to pick and choose.

4.9 However, as many as two-thirds of these respondents in England say there is no real difference between English and British. This has from time to time been reported. For instance, John Curtice and Anthony Heath (Curtice and Heath, 2009: 41) observe:

As members of by far the predominant part of the Union, people in England can easily come to regard England and Britain as synonymous with each other. The remainder of the United Kingdom impinges little on their everyday lives or consciences. As a result they can happily and freely describe themselves as English on one occasion, British on another – and mean little or nothing by the difference.

4.10 We also have qualitative interviews in which something similar was occasionally said. Nevertheless, the size of the proportion of respondents agreeing is a quite surprising finding. It is however hard to know precisely what they mean by this. They may be saying that England is so large (85% of the UK population) that to all intents and purposes English and British are synonymous. On the other hand, they may be alluding to the frequent confusion in the media and elsewhere which simply equates the two, much to the fury of Scots; or of course it may be a combination of the two. Or they may accept that there is a difference but that it is of no practical importance – that there is no real difference.

4.11 Finally, there is the issue of devolution. And here the proportions agreeing are considerably higher than for the previous group. Indeed, it is among the English and Scots who see themselves as having dual and equal identities that one finds the greatest impact of devolution. In both countries around a half attribute their dual nationality to the fact that Scotland and Wales have devolved institutions. In the case of the Scots, the ratio of agree to disagree is 2.1 to 1, and among the English, around 3.7 to 1. Once more, one might ask whether this is the result of fear that devolution will break up the United Kingdom, or more optimistically from the point of view of devolution's supporters, that it is now accepted as a constitutional fact of life which confirms them in their chosen dual identity.

Mainly British

4.12 Finally, there are those who see themselves as mainly or exclusively British: the true Brits, as it were. The proportions are small: 14 per cent in England, and only 3 per cent in Scotland; the data for Scotland must be treated with due caution. Why, we might ask, do true Brits so describe themselves? Does it relate to pride in Britain's imperial past? A liking for monarchy, tradition and ceremony? Or perhaps it relates to fear that devolution threatens the future of the United Kingdom? On the other hand, is asserting Britishness a way of expressing a sensitivity to territorial and multicultural diversity within the UK, that is, a more liberal than a conservative response? Is saying you think of yourself as mainly or exclusively British deriving from a right-wing set of attitudes (anti-devolution, support for empire, tradition, monarchy and ceremonial) or from a left-wing liberal one (seeing being British as a loose concept implying territorial diversity and multiculturalism)[12]?

4.13 Once again, after a suitable preamble referring to the reasons for thinking themselves British not English or Scottish or more British than English or Scottish, we asked them to agree or disagree with the following questions, using the 5-point scale previously described:

Table 3. 'British' respondents responding agree or strongly agree to statements

4.14 First of all, the Scottish sample is too small to permit any solidly based conclusions. A very high proportion of English natives claiming a predominantly British identity feel that it is important that all the different parts of the UK are included in being British. There is pride in the past achievements of Great Britain among the English with the ratio of those agreeing to those disagreeing of just under 8:1. There is strong agreement with the role of being British as an inclusive identity, bringing together ethnic minorities and people of different cultures. While 64 per cent of the 'British' English identify with the monarchy, British traditions and ceremonies, a significant minority (about one-fifth) in England dissent, suggesting that some are using 'British' in a liberal-progressive way. Over half of the English British attribute their identity to the historic importance of the British Empire. Devolution has had very little impact.

An Underlying Structure: Factor Analysis

5.1 These results immediately raise the issue of whether the interpretation of the data can be made sharper by further analysis. The research question is whether there is an underlying structure which more economically summarises the variation in this set of variables. Factor analysis does this by fitting that variation to the smallest number of unobserved dimensions (or factors) which summarise it. Accordingly, we have carried out a factor analysis for each of the three Moreno categories in each country, the outcome of which is intuitively satisfying[13]. In all six cases we have rotated the factor components to maximise the variance within components, and we have retained three components[14]. The total variance explained lies between 74 per cent and 77 per cent; the first component explains around half of this; the second and third components each explain roughly half the remainder. We shall discuss the results for each Moreno group in turn. The rotated component matrices are shown in the Appendix and we shall of course concentrate on the items which are loaded heavily.


5.2 Overall, there are strong similarities in the reasons for choosing this identity in the two countries albeit this analysis does bring out interesting differences. The first and most important component shows high loadings on the two items which might generally be described as cultural and institutional identification, coupled with being born in the country which has a high loading in England (.727) and a more moderate one in Scotland (.451). The second component in Scotland (loaded .866) and even more strongly the third in England (loaded .992), which explain much the same amount of variance, emphasise that devolution has, for nationals, strengthened national identity. However in Scotland, unlike England, this tendency for devolution to strengthen the tendency to choose Scottish identity goes along with choosing Scottish identity because one is born there (loaded .610). In England, devolution has strengthened national identity for this group tout court. The third component in Scotland and the second in England strongly emphasise feeling uncomfortable with being British because of a wish to dissociate themselves from Empire (loaded .981 in England and .949 in Scotland). In Scotland this is coupled, albeit weakly with the impact of devolution (loaded .223) and negatively with birth (-.253).

5.3 What is perhaps most striking is the importance of cultural and institutional elements and thus the 'civic' nature of the reasons for this choice. Admittedly being born in the country, which is associated more highly with these elements in Scotland, can be construed as 'ethnic' but we have previously argued that as a marker of national identity it has a matter of fact, taken for granted quality. The other main reasons for this choice of identity are devolution, associated in Scotland with a sense that Scottishness is related to being born there, and feeling uncomfortable about the idea of being British because of a wish to distance themselves from the British Empire and all it stood for.

National and British

5.4 Although once again there are similarities in the reasons for choosing this identity in the two countries there are also interesting differences. The first component in both countries attributes the choice to the view that there is no need to choose, and that the respondent's country is an equal partner with the others in the UK, very much a pro-union view. However, in Scotland (loaded .735) this is coupled with a sense that Scotland played a significant part in British history which presumably bolsters the belief that Scotland is an equal partner. In England, the corresponding item, 'Britain has an important history in which England played a significant part', is only loaded .295 which is perhaps explained by it being taken for granted that England played a significant part in British history. The second component in Scotland and the third in England attribute the choice strongly to devolution which has made the respondents feel English or Scottish as well as British; these respondents seem to be unionists who have been encouraged by devolution to be nationals as well. The third component in Scotland and the second in England emphasise that it is sometimes more appropriate to be British and sometimes more appropriate to be English / Scottish (loaded .984 in Scotland and .862 in England). All the evidence tells us that Scots are very well aware of the differences between Scottish and British, but this group is sometimes pragmatically willing to choose one or the other depending on circumstances. In England this component is also more strongly associated with the view that Britain has an important history in which England played a significant part (loading .695 compared to .194 for the corresponding item in Scotland).

5.5 There is a real sense that this group chooses this identity because they are strongly pro-union. Thus, because devolution has strengthened this identity, as the process continues, this group may be the one which determines the future of the United Kingdom. It is important not to overplay this interpretation because survey evidence also shows that those in the 'national' group while approving of devolution are also more likely to say they want the status quo rather than independence. Their identity choice is also cultural and institutional which indirectly supports those data.

Mainly British

5.6 Because of the small sample size we cannot present the results for this group in Scotland. In England the first component shows high loadings on three items: the British Empire was an important part of our history (.841), identification with monarchy, British traditions and ceremonies (.840), and the wish to celebrate the past achievements of Great Britain (.792). These reasons for the identity choice seem to be classic 'empire loyalist' views. The sharply contrasting reason for the choice that it includes all ethnic minorities and people of different cultures is the most important element in the second component (loaded .810) along with 'being British is important to me because all parts of the United Kingdom are included' (loaded .750); this appears to be a highly inclusive dimension. The third component is overwhelmingly devolution (loaded .971), presumably arising from a sense that enough is enough and Britishness should be protected. The statement attributing British identity to the British Empire being an important part of our history also plays a modest part (loading .223) suggesting perhaps that some of this group feel there is a risk that an understanding of the Empire's role is diminished with devolution.


6.1 Having carried out this research on national identity, what conclusions can we reach? There are two main points we wish to make, one methodological, and the other substantive. As regards the methodological point, we are confident that it is possible to get at how people construe national identity by using a variety of research techniques, in other words, by adopting a triangulation of research methods (Denzin, 1970). As one of the authors has previously written: 'If we are in the happy situation of being able to base part of an explanation on unstructured interview material, on documentary evidence and on the results of a survey, our confidence in our findings is likely to be greatly increased' (Bechhofer and Paterson, 2000: 58). In this instance, the survey questions were designed by distilling how people talked about their national identity in previous intensive interviews. In this way, we were able to draw upon the strengths of different techniques: on the one hand, the more 'naturalistic' accounts which people gave at length in conversations, and on the other, the structured and systematic benefits of survey data. Straightforward analysis of the survey data suggests the questions were meaningful to respondents and gives us a good understanding of why they choose a particular Moreno category. As we said previously, to the best of our knowledge no-one has previously explored this in such detail. We have also been able to get an idea of the structure lying behind people's responses by using Factor Analysis to identify underlying dimensions. We are confident that these are techniques which work well in analysing national identity in England as well as in Scotland, and overcome the tendency of the English to be more reticent than the Scots to talk about such matters (Condor and Abell, 2006). English reticence to talk about national identity publicly does not imply that they cannot understand or hold clear views on the concept. Further, we do not find much evidence for Barnett's assertion that the English are baffled by the distinction between England and Britain.

6.2 Our second conclusion is a substantive one. The English and the Scots handle 'national' and 'state' identities differently with the Scots placing greater emphasis on the former, while the English do so less albeit somewhat more than they used to (see Bechhofer and McCrone, 2008). Nevertheless, the data in this paper show there is considerable similarity as regards reasons for choosing national identity. Thus, both English and Scottish 'nationals' choose to do so mainly for cultural and institutional reasons: matters of history, traditions and culture, of valuing systems of education, law and community spirit, and to a lesser extent in Scotland but quite strongly in England, because, factually, they associate the identity with being born in the country. Even for such people who downgraded being British, while one dimension relates powerfully to a wish to distance themselves from the idea of Empire, there is little evidence of wishing to see the end of the British state. In other words, while some are uncomfortable about British identity being associated with all the Empire stood for in the past, they are not making a 'political' statement about the break-up of Britain. Such a finding may seem 'obvious' to some, but there is a long tradition in social science of discounting, or testing out, the 'obvious' (see for example, the classic work of Lazarsfeld (1949), and more recently our own work on perceived conventional wisdoms about national identity (Bechhofer and McCrone, 2009a)). The factor analysis suggests that, for English nationals, the reaction to devolution is not associated with any particular understanding of what constitutes Englishness and in contrast to Scottish nationals, the natal definition of identity is not associated with reactions to devolution. Choosing English national identity because of being born there goes along with some very general sense of identification with culture and institutions. This association with the natal definition exists also in Scotland but is much weaker (loaded .451 as opposed to .727).

6.3 At the other – British – end of the scale, we find some interesting patterns in England which throw into doubt easy assertions about 'being British'. The tendency in recent times for politicians to make speeches about the desirability of being British, assuming that it is a straightforward matter with a singular set of meanings is, in our view, naοve, even somewhat misguided. For example, among 'English Brits' we find three distinct strains – one which we have characterised as 'empire loyalist', proud of monarchy, empire and tradition, and celebrating British achievements. This contrasts sharply with a liberal dimension, committed to including all parts of the United Kingdom and to multicultural and multinational diversity. The third dimension indeed does relate straightforwardly to devolution, to a strengthening of British identity as a result of the creation of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. The reasons given by this group for its choice of identity are very different from those given by either the nationals or those who equate their national and British identities. This implies that simply assuming, as some politicians and commentators do, that 'British' has singular meanings is unfounded.

6.4 One might argue, however, that the future of the United Kingdom as presently constituted lies in the hands of those who describe themselves as equally national (English or Scottish) and British. In both countries, such people are more inclined to say they feel English/Scottish as well as British now that Scotland has its own parliament and Wales its National Assembly (see table 2 above). The factor analysis shows that, for those describing themselves as equally English and British, the sense of British history is associated with a sense that different identities have their place in different contexts, which we might describe as a more 'instrumental' association between Englishness and Britishness. In Scotland, for those describing themselves as equally Scottish and British, the sense of British history is associated with the concept of the union as a partnership, and hence, for this group, Scottishness might be described as having an 'affective' association with Britishness.

6.5 While it is the case that devolution is seen as influencing which national identity people choose in all three sets of national identity categories – 'national', 'equally national and British' and 'British' - the national identity whose emphasis on devolution is perhaps sociologically most significant are those who say they are Equally English/Scottish and British. If anything, devolution seems to have encouraged them to stress the equality of the two nations in the British state, recognising that they are equal partners, that one can be equally proud of a national and a British identity, and that it is not necessary to choose one over the other. Furthermore, which identity is chosen may depend on which is the more appropriate in a particular context. In other words, what we seem to be uncovering is a post-devolution tendency to be more explicit about the national diversity of the United Kingdom, and, quite possibly for those who would wish to hold it together as a single state, to emphasise difference and unity on both sides of the Tweed[16].


7.1 We began this article by arguing that 'national identity', compared with 'nation' and 'nationalism' is the poor relation of this trilogy, more often than not seen as their derivative. We end by placing the methodological and substantive conclusions discussed in the previous section in the context of that introduction. Our evidence, drawing as it does on both qualitative and quantitative data, indicates that national identity has its own dynamic and momentum. Indeed, individuals have the capacity to choose national identity, especially in situations, as in England and Scotland, where 'citizenship' and 'national identity' are perceived as distinct. In the results presented here, but also in our wider work, one can see that individuals have considerable capacity to give meaning to national identity according to particular contexts, not in the sense that these are derived from 'society' or more commonly, 'state', but in a highly personal way. National identity then is certainly not to be seen as handed down from on high and equated with citizenship. Nor is it a trivial attribute adopted carelessly and without consequences from a range of options, much as consumers choose a brand of coffee in the supermarket. As the legal theorist Neil MacCormick (1996:566) pointed out, national identity is one of the most significant contexts for the 'contextual individual'. He observes: 'it is not theoretical imaginings but the facts of political life that give national identity a special place in the contextual definition of the contextual individual in her/his character as a political animal'.

Appendix: Rotated Component Matrices


rdistemp : 'I feel uncomfortable about the idea of being British because I want to distance myself from the British Empire and all it stood for.'
rldhist: 'I identify with English/Scottish history, traditions and culture.'
redlawc: 'the values of English/Scottish education, English/Scottish law and English/Scottish community spirit are important to me.'
rbrnthr: 'I was born in England/Scotland and if you're born in England/Scotland you feel English/Scottish.'
rdevol: 'I feel more English/Scottish now that Scotland has its own Parliament and Wales its National Assembly.'

National = British

reqlprd: 'You can be equally proud of being British and of being English/Scottish; it's not a matter of choosing between them.'
reqlpart: 'It is important to me to recognise that England/Scotland is an equal partner with the other countries in the United Kingdom.'
rappbr: 'Sometimes it is more appropriate to say you are British and sometimes it is more appropriate to say you are English/Scottish.'
rimphist: 'Britain has an important history in which England/Scotland played a significant part.'
rdevol2: 'I feel English/Scottish as well as British now that Scotland has its own Parliament and Wales its National Assembly.'


ralluk: 'Being British is important to me because all parts of the United Kingdom are included.'
rpastach: 'I think we should celebrate the past achievements of Great Britain.'
rethmin: 'Being British brings us together because it includes all ethnic minorities and people of different cultures.'
ridmon: 'I identify with things like the monarchy, British traditions and ceremonies.'
rbemp: 'Being British matters to me because the British Empire was an important part of our history.'
rdevol3: 'I feel more British now that Scotland has its own Parliament and Wales has its National Assembly.


1The article is the product of a collegiate form of working in which the data, the analysis and the drafts have been discussed by both authors throughout, and they are equally responsible for it. The authors are grateful to The Leverhulme Trust for supporting research on national identity since 1999, and in particular for their most recent grant enabling them to commission the National and the Scottish Centre for Social Research to ask the questions in the 2006 surveys. We are also grateful to Lindsay Paterson for his generosity with statistical expertise and to him and Michael Rosie for helpful comments on an earlier draft.

2An early account which set out our approach is 'The markers and rules of Scottish national identity' (Kiely et al., 2001).

3We have avoided the term 'nationality' as it is too often used as a synonym for 'citizenship' for it to mean 'national' per se.

4We have used italics throughout to indicate the points on the Likert scales.

5The justification for looking at 'natives' rather than residents is that both England and Scotland have around 10% of their populations born elsewhere, and that asking a 'Moreno-type' question involving national and state identities is not likely to be meaningful to people born elsewhere.

6The data come from the British and Scottish Attitude Surveys, 2006. For the details of these surveys see Appendix 1: Technical details of the survey, A.Park et al. (2008: 259-78).

7For further information about this programme and some of the results, see Bechhofer and McCrone, 2009b

8The interviews in Scotland were carried out and most of the analysis done by Richard Kiely.

9See Ian Dey Qualitative Data Analysis: a user-friendly guide for social scientists (London: Routledge, 1993)

10In each case the interviewer read out the Moreno choice the respondent had already made.

11 Except where otherwise stated, we have combined strongly agree and agree to give 'agree', and strongly disagree and disagree to give 'disagree'

12There is in the data set a small but statistically highly significant negative association between these two sets of values.

13Please note that in order to compare England and Scotland the items in the analysis have to be the same. Accordingly items (b1) and (b2) for the 'nationals' have been dropped from the analysis, as has the 'There is no real difference between 'English' and 'British' item in the Equally English and British group.

14We used the factor analysis programme in SPSS, varimax rotation and retained three components for three reasons. The eigen values are greater than 1.00 for the first two components in each case. For the third components the values are close to 1.00: .99; .93; .87; .84; .84. Including the third component improves interpretation considerably. Finally the scree plots do not show any sharp levelling after two components.

15It may be helpful at this point to remind the reader that this shorthand refers to those who say they are either more English/Scottish than British or not at all British

16The allusion is to a well-known song, a modified version of a much older song, by the veteran Scottish folk singer, Dick Gaughan (


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