Reading Time: 9 minutes
Reading Time: 9 minutes

As I have outlined in my writing on the psychology of morality, I broadly subscribe to the idea put forward by George Lakoff, that the idea of a nation, and how one runs that nation (i.e. politics) is derived from metaphors that have their concrete roots in how one views oneself and one’s family. When times are tough, families pull together and help each other through, right? Well, sure, but are we talking a nuclear family, an extended family, or the brotherhood of man? (Apologies for the gendered nature of that particular metaphor.)

It would be helpful to know how people self-define. What is their relationship to the national boundaries? By what boundary do we define “our” country (which we have now, apparently, taken back), and thus “our” sovereignty? At what level of family unit does our discontent with the extended family exist? Is it just mum, dad, and the kids, or is it aunts, uncles, and cousins, too? Are all of the other reasons given for voting Brexit just post hoc rationalisations for feelings about family and country?

For this, we’re not concerned with the Geological Archipelago of the British Isles, and interestingly, we’re not even interested in the Socio-Political British Isles (residents of the Channel Islands could only vote in the referendum if they had been on an electoral roll in the UK at some point in the preceding 15 years, the Channel Islands are also not part of the EU[1]). We’re also not especially interested as to the (not so) United Kingdom[2] – to my knowledge no one refers to themselves as a UKer or a Great Briton.

The Northern Irish Identity

In the case of Northern Ireland we have British, Irish, and Northern Irish identities, but also English, Scottish and Welsh (see table 1). This is just the general feeling in Ireland as at the last census, with no particular political identities up for redefinition in a referendum.

All usual residents
All usual residents 1,810,863
British Only 722,379
Irish Only 457,482
Northern Irish only 379,267
British and Northern Irish only 111,748
Irish and Northern Irish only 19,132
British, Irish and Northern Irish only 18,406
British and Irish only 11,877
English only 10,931
Scottish only 6,771
Welsh only 1,171
Other British/Irish/Northern Irish/English/Scottish/Welsh only 9,815

Table 1: National Identity as at last Census (2011), from NISRA’s (Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency) Northern Ireland Neighbourhood Information Service.

The Scottish Identity

In the run-up to the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum it was found that, compared to the 2011 census, those self-defining as “Scottish” were 65% (down from 75%); “British” were 23% (up from 15%). When asked to select two identities 26% were “more Scottish than British”, but 32% were “equally Scottish and British.”[3] It should also be noted that Scotland is around 84% White Scottish, 9% White (English, Irish, etc.), and only 7% other ethnicities[4]. The final results in that referendum were 55.3% (remain) and 44.7% (leave)[5]. In the EU referendum, it was 62% (remain) and 38% (leave)[6]. Which suggests that the Scots are maybe voting more for inclusion in the EU, than for Britain, per sé. It IS of note that the turn out at the Scottish Independence referendum was 84.6%, even higher than the higher-than-usual BrExit turn-out.

The Welsh Identity

Unlike Scotland, according to a 2014 University of Manchester analysis[7], “In Wales, 1.8 million people identify only as Welsh (58% of the population) and 218,000 identify as Welsh and British (7% of the population).” In Wales the ethnicity picture is much starker than even Scotland, with around 94% being White British (of whom, therefore, 61% are Welsh, only), and 6% other ethnicities (of whom a small percentage consider themselves English, not Welsh or British). Leave got 52.5%, Remain 47.5% in Wales[8].

The English Identity

This leaves England, for whom the choice is English or British, a choice that to most of the world, is no choice at all; the two words are often used synonymously (a typical example, here[9]). ‘English or British’ is not a false choice – you’d hope that its inclusion in the census is for a reason – it says something quite particular about the person that identifies in that way.

An Institute for Public Policy Research survey (2013[10]), details, among many other things, the change in self-identification, from British, to English. In 1992 twice as many individuals identified as British than as English, but by 1999, and up to 2012, the difference has been less than 10%, and ‘English’ took the lead in 2006 (when data were collected during the World Cup), and in 2011.

Using other data from that same study, and putting the BrExit results[11] alongside is instructive:

Leave English Both British Neither Remain
North East 58 70 11 15 4 42
North West 54 66 10 17 7 46
Yorkshire and Humber 58 66 10 17 7 42
East Midlands 59 66 9 17 8 41
West Midlands 59 63 9 19 9 41
East 56 65 9 16 10 44
London 40 37 5 31 27 60
South East 52 62 10 18 10 48
South West 53 65 10 16 9 47
England 53 60 9 19 12 47

I am not, for a moment suggesting that the vote was as simple as the boxes with the coloured text, but I am suggesting that it is strongly indicative. The region that feels the most British (as opposed to English), or something else entirely, by quite some margin, is also the most pro-EU (in England, anyway), by quite some margin. Across the UK, however, 72% of White British people consider themselves English, only. Likewise, 68% of White Gypsy travellers. What is interesting is that 63% of Mixed White/Caribbeans, 41% of Mixed White/Asians, and 38% of Mixed White/Africans[12] do, too. Indeed, most established ethnic groups in the UK refer to their nationality as British, white and mixed white groups refer to themselves as English, unless they are ethnically European, and from a country outside of the UK (e.g. Irish, Polish, etc.).


London’s population by ethnicity[13]

The ‘But where were you Born’ Identity

The most obvious spanner in the works for this issue of identity, therefore, is the identity of ethnic minorities, i.e. non-white and/or non-UK-born individuals. Particularly as London has the highest rates of ethnic minorities in the UK, and it was this that was suggested by many Brexiteers as the driver behind Remain sentiment in the capital.

The key findings from a study by Runnymede Trust[14] is instructive (paraphrased):

From a focus group of multiple ethnicities it was found that, overall, immigration is seen as being of positive benefit to the UK, though there is some concern about pressure on public services, including benefits. There is discomfort about arguments relating to too much cultural change: discussions about immigration impact ethnic minorities, even when they were born in Britain. Long-settled migrants are more inclined to see themselves as British, but also feel that this aspect of their identity was hard-won, and that newer migrants have an easier time of it (though, presumably, this speaks well of increased tolerance of racial diversity, and improved representation in government). Ethnic minorities tend to view immigration as unfair and arbitrary, though this is more from having experienced the process first hand. Ethnic minorities seem to see the internationalist aspect of the EU to be a positive, a means to head off more racial or nationalist sentiment, but they are also less likely to engage with other, more explicit benefits of the EU, such as freedom of movement.

It may also be useful to look at another Runnymede Trust study[15], this time on the impact of Ethnic Minority status on general voting behaviours in the 2010 election:

“Direct experience of discrimination reduces Labour support (Labour was the incumbent government, so it was punished when the individual felt discriminated against).”

Ethnic minorities who feel that their ethnic group is discriminated against (as opposed to having personally experienced direct discrimination) are more likely to support Labour. Ethnic minorities that strongly value participation in British cultural practices are more likely to vote Conservative. However, engaging in these cultural practices and feeling discriminated against strengthens support for Labour.

All this being said, the MPs turned out to be woefully out of touch with their electorate’s sentiments:



Many people assume that London’s significant minority population is the reason why London voted overwhelmingly to Remain (and probably why MPs who spend so much time in London did, too). In Scotland minorities make up a mere 7% of the population, and Scotland voted to Remain even more strongly than London did, and Scotland has a great many people who consider themselves British, or British and Scottish. So minorities are getting a disproportionate amount of the blame for Remain sentiment.

As noted above, a great many long-settled migrants see themselves as British, not English. Being English is an identity mostly adopted by white people, and is distinct from being British. (Some mixed race people also identify as English, and that fact probably deserves a blog post of its own, but not by me.) It is of note (and I apologise, I can’t put my hand to the source just now), that those who voted leave were less likely to have used their British passport to leave the UK, assuming they had a passport at all. Obviously a passport is also a signifier of having the wherewithal to contemplate holidaying outside the UK, which points somewhat to social class, and education, both of which are known predictors of EU sentiment (and indeed travel is also known to reduce conservative sentiment, and presumably anti-EU sentiment).

So, whilst many Brexiters may well have other reasons for leaving, these reasons may be post hoc rationalisations for their feeling on the matter. And whilst they may not believe that calling themselves English has racist implications, choosing to make the distinction between English (an identity available to, or at least predominantly selected by, white British people) and British (an identity available to UK-resident people of all nationalities) is telling. This seems to reflect a similar mood in the US with regard to the co-opting of the word ‘patriot’ by a certain sector of society. The simple fact is that the 30 electorates with the most people identifying as English (rather than British) all voted to leave, and that was a stronger indicator than age or education, factors that we have been told for some time were the primary predictors of Brexit sentiment.


Final comments

On the right, there is a distinct difference between the politically ambitious, and the voter. As with work on Authoritarianism more generally (see Altemeyer, 2006[16]), education generally reduces conservatism. Conservative leaders (and conservative pundits) are, generally speaking, more educated than conservative followers, and more inclined to social dominance behaviours.  Conservatism generally increases with age, and this probably interacts with lower educational attainment – and both age, and low education attainment were factors in the Brexit vote. To see what happens in the case of age and, conversely, high educational attainment, see Bertrand Russell’s increasingly left wing stance as he got older. Becoming a parent also pushes people in a more conservative direction, mostly as a reaction to the perception of a dangerous world, and wanting to protect one’s children – an entirely understandable hyper-vigilance. Conservative leaders were less likely to back Brexit than their constituents, but they are also seizing the opportunity to maintain their social dominance in the chaos that has ensued, primarily by being seen to back Brexit, and mostly with the rhetoric of “British values,” such as ‘democracy’ and ‘rule of law’ (as if these are somehow uniquely “British” values).

The picture on the left is less clear. On the one hand London, a Labour stronghold, voted Remain. On the other hand, 70% of Labour constituencies voted Brexit[17]). Of course, in most constituencies, it only takes relatively small shifts in numbers to tip the balance one way or the other, and indeed, the Remain vote was larger than the Labour vote at the last election, but less than Labour and LibDem combined (though possibly not, if one takes into account the larger turnout). The picture is always going to be less clear on the left, because the left are much more inclined to individualism, so predicting behaviour is much more about what is going on for the individual, and much less about ideology.

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Were we to look at the results with reference to my take on the Schwartz Circumplex, I would suggest that, in general, Remainers were people whose values in general, and on this topic in particular, are squarely in the upper left (the embrace of universalising values, and greater opportunities for self-expression through travel and educational opportunities). The rest of the Remainers were likely to have been centrists from all around the political spectrum (as evidenced by the LibDems’ stronger showing for Remain). This being said, this is probably also where many of those that didn’t vote at all can be found.

The Conservative government is mostly centred around the ‘Power’ segment, as with most overtly political bodies (unlike conservative supporters, who are more interested in security). Those Conservative politicians closer to the centre being genuinely pro-Remain, those further out being genuinely pro-Leave, and those in the middle looking to see which seems more like a ticket to a front bench appointment in the aftermath.

The Brexit voters, as distinct from the politicians, were those further to the right, whether as Conservative voters, or UKIP supporters. These people consider tradition to be very important as a means of obtaining security, which is also a hallmark of the thinking of older voters. This is probably where a desire for “Englishness” was most strongly expressed, as can be seen with UKIP supporters voting 96% for Brexit.

Finally there were those on the bottom left, the traditional Labour supporters. Those who feel they’ve been let down by Labour, still looking for a route to earning (a feeling of achievement), but not finding it, due to the loss of primary production and manufacturing jobs under Thatcher. These people are also galled by not getting the Labour government they voted for with Blair (despite giving him three terms), and seeing Blairite problems with the neo-liberal movement in the current Labour party. The neo-liberals in the Parliamentary Labour Party are a sect that doesn’t see much expression amongst actual Labour supporters, as they are Libertarians in everything but name, and that is mostly why the PLP are anti-Corbyn, where Labour supporters are pro-Corbyn. I guess we’ll see how that pans out in the coming weeks.