Support for Brexit varied across the constituent territories of the United Kingdom. Majorities to Remain in Scotland and Northern Ireland contrasted with majorities to Leave in Wales and England.
This suggests that national identities, and the different nations’ perceptions of their group interests vis-à-vis the EU, might well have shaped voters’ decisions about whether to vote Leave or Remain.
However, UK national identities are complex. Separate British, English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, and Northern Irish identities – and combinations of dual or multiple identities – create a melting pot. It has been well established that these patterns of single and multiple identities are politically relevant.
For example, people with British identities (either alone or in combination with a Welsh, Scottish or Irish identity) are more likely to support membership of the United Kingdom.
Those with an exclusively Welsh, Scottish or Irish identity– who do not see themselves as being British – are, naturally, more likely to support Welsh or Scottish independence, or the reunification of Ireland.
People with a British identity (either as a single or dual identity) represent a substantial majority of the population, and can perhaps be regarded as expressing the voice of the ‘British people’. They are fairly evenly divided between Leave and Remain.
The relatively small minorities who do not subscribe to a British identity but describe themselves only as Irish, Scottish, or European are substantially more inclined to Remain. A substantial minority of people describe themselves as English not British.
This is the identity group most likely to favour Brexit, and to favour a hard Brexit.
In short, we can regard British identifiers as representing the mainstream of public opinion in the British Isles, while non-British identifiers deviate from this mainstream to greater or lesser degrees. English identifiers lie on the opposite side of the Brexit divide from Irish and Scottish identifiers.
Thus, there seem to be competing exclusive nationalisms – English set against Scottish and Irish – pulling in different directions over Brexit and the future relationship between the UK and the EU.
In our online panel study we asked representative samples of the population how they described their national identity. Respondents were allowed to choose as many options as they wished.
Figure 1 shows the overall relationship between the main national identities and Brexit preferences. We arrange them in order of support for Brexit.
Here we see that the British are rather evenly split between Remain and Leave. In contrast, the exclusively English voted by 2:1 for Leave. The exclusively Irish and Scottish were the mirror image, voting predominantly for Remain.
However, these latter two groups were greatly outnumbered by the exclusively English respondents, who thus tipped the balance in favour of Brexit.
The exclusively European were notable in their unanimous support for Remain, although very few did in fact vote (this group is likely to be overwhelmingly comprised of European citizens ineligible to vote in 2016).
In contrast, the exclusively Welsh tended towards Leave, although not nearly as strongly as the exclusively English.
We can also compare how far these different identity groups favour a hard Brexit. We asked our respondents which of the Prime Minister’s main negotiating objectives, as laid out in her Lancaster House speech of January 2017, they felt should be ‘red lines’ on which the government should not be willing to yield.
Of these negotiating objectives four – such as ‘control of our own laws’ – can be regarded as central to the Leave programme.
The other four – such as ‘maintaining an open border with the Republic of Ireland ’– can be regarded as maintaining key elements of the status quo, and in that sense akin to a Remain programme.
We can calculate the ‘net’ hardness of each identity group by calculating the net difference in support for the two sets of items.
Figure 2 shows that, among the exclusively English, there are majorities for whom ‘control of our own laws’, ‘freedom to make trade deals’, and ‘ending budget contributions’ were red lines.
In contrast less than a third of the exclusive English regard an ‘open border’ with the Republic, ‘maintaining scientific collaboration’ and ‘access to the internal market’ as red lines in the negotiations.
Overall, then, they have a high positive net score (+78) indicating support for a relatively hard Brexit. On the opposite side come the exclusive Irish and Scottish identifiers who both have negative net scores (- 21 and -16 respectively).
The Irish are notable for their emphasis on maintaining an open border while the Scots are notable for not sharing English concerns about the four key elements of the Leave programme.
The British identifiers fall in between, and can be thought of as representing the mainstream. Unlike the exclusively English, they do not have a majority in favour of any of the four key elements of the Brexit programme.
The modest net positive scores (+18) suggest that it might be fairest to count them as, on average, favouring a soft Brexit.
The will of the British people is then quite divided, but tilting towards a soft Brexit. Hard Brexit is much more evident on the part of those who describe themselves as English, not British.
By Professor Anthony Heath, and Dr Lindsay Richards, senior fellows at The UK in a Changing Europe. You can find a full copy of our ‘Brexit and public opinion 2019’ report here.