Who do we really think we are? On national identity and the census

The publication yesterday of the second tranche of results from the 2011 Census in Scotland caused a certain amount of excitement.  What caught many an eye was the finding that no less than 62% said that they were Scottish and nothing else, while only just over a quarter acknowledged being British, either alone (8%) or in tandem with being Scottish (18%).  As The Scotsman noted, this low level of reported Britishness could be regarded as a ‘boost for the pro-independence campaign’.

The low proportion of people saying they were British should not, however, have come as much of a surprise. The findings are in fact almost a perfect mirror image of the results obtained by the equivalent question on the census in England. There, no less than 60% said they were English and nothing else, while only just over a quarter (29%) acknowledged being British in some way. The only difference from Scotland is that rather more people said they were just British (19%) than said they were both British and English (9%).

So should we conclude that the days when a common sense of British identity provided the emotional glue required to keep the Union together are well and truly over? Certainly that is the conclusion to which some have been drawn on the basis of that earlier evidence from England.  However, a closer look at how the census on both sides of the border actually collected information on national identity suggests that the results may have more to do with the limitations of the methodology adopted by the census than with the reality of the pattern of national identity on either side of the border.

On the census form that every household in Scotland was required to complete over two years ago, people were asked, ‘What do you feel is your national identity?’. Note the use of the singular form, potentially leading people to give a single answer. True, underneath the question respondents were instructed ‘To tick ALL that apply’, but this was the first (and one of very few) question where more than one answer was permitted. So we should not be surprised that many a respondent felt that all that they needed to do was to tick one box and move on – which is what no less than 78% actually did.

The boxes themselves offered five possible responses, plus an ‘Other’ category. At the top of the list –  ‘Scottish’. At the bottom, ‘British’. So if respondents were going to tick one box and move on, then the odds were that they were going to choose Scottish and not British, even though they might in practice feel a bit of both.

The format was much the same in England. The national identity question was the first and one of very few where respondents were invited to tick more than one box. Here English appeared at the top of the list, while British again came in last, in fifth place.  The wording of the question was (curiously) a little different, that is, ‘How would you describe your national identity’, but again it was phrased in the singular. In short, it was all too easy for people say they were English and move on to the next question.

Contrast this approach with that used on the Scottish and British Social Attitudes surveys. They ask their respondents, ‘Please say which, if any, of the words on this card describes the way you think of yourself. Please choose as many or as few as apply (emphasis added).’ In short the wording points as much to the possibility of giving multiple responses as it does to a singular one.  And since 1999 on average 40% of respondents in Scotland have said they are both Scottish and British while almost as many (38%) in England have said they are English and British.

Now, none of this is to suggest that the census should have uncovered a Scotland in which people are just as likely to say they are British as to claim they are Scottish.  That clearly is not the position. The 2011 Scottish Social Attitudes survey found that no less than 85% said that they were Scottish, either alone or in combination with another identity – very similar to the 83% who identified themselves as Scottish on the census. In contrast only 53% claimed to be British.

Nevertheless that 53% British figure is still roughly twice that reported by the census. The emotional glue of Britishness may not be as prevalent or as strong north of the border as many a unionist would like, but the limitations of the census seems to have left it ill equipped to detect the feelings of Britishness that do still exist.

Topics: National identity & cultural issues

About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen, and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.