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The rise of a quieter British patriotism

A new generation is averse to forms of patriotic expression which are either too demonstrative or too angry. But there is no shortage of pride in British identity. 

A new generation is averse to loud forms of patriotic expression.
A child waves the Union Jack as runners pass during the London Marathon yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images.

Most people take a quiet pride in their British identity, being more likely to say that they are "somewhat proud" to be British, while the number of people who say they are "very proud" to be British has fallen over the last decade, according to new data from the 2013 British Social Attitudes survey. 

Eighty two per cent of people are at least somewhat proud to be British, with the number saying they are "somewhat proud" to be British (47 per cent) overtaking those who are "very proud" (35 per cent) over the last decade, signalling an apparent preference for softer forms of patriotism over noisier versions of it.  As the "very proud" figure has fallen eight points in a decade, from 43 per cent to 35 per cent, the "somewhat proud" statistic has risen by a similar margin, up from 39 per cent a decade ago. 

Being "somewhat proud" to be British would feel to many people to be a rather British way for many people to express their sense of national pride. Many people see saluting the flag or pledges of allegiance as perhaps a little bit American, yet most of us enjoy putting out the bunting for national celebrations like the Olympics and the Jubilee. (Even the republican minority held a dissident street party of their own to protest it.)

The Sunday Times report revealing the findings suggests the survey shows British pride falling to an "all-time low" for British pride, but the findings certainly don’t suggest any crisis of pride in British identity.  The findings do capture several ways in which national identity is changing in a multinational United Kingdom, but they show that a healthy degree of British pride and patriotism remains in place across England, Scotland and Wales. Just 10 per cent say they are not proud to be British, compared to 12 per cent a decade ago, with 2 per cemt saying they are no proud at all, and 8 per cent declaring themselves "not very proud". Young people were particularly likely to prefer being "somewhat proud" to being "very proud", suggesting that they are more comfortable with a quieter form of national pride. 

Perhaps it is a generation which could recognise a warm sense of national pride in Danny Boyle’s story of what makes us British but tends to see the flag-waving as something for high days and holidays. They may perhaps see being "very proud" as being a little over the top, and have an aversion to forms of patriotic expression which are either too demonstrative – such as wrapping yourself in several flags and a union jack top hat at Last Night of the Proms – or which can be associated with being angry at change. Their generation which finds little sense in the claim that Britain has become unrecognisable – in fact, large, robust surveys show our sense of belonging, both to Britain and to local areas have increased over the last decade so it may be that younger people find that declaring themselves to be "somewhat proud" feels more comfortable.

But the BSA figures also show that there is certainly still quite a lot of pride left. Eighty seven per cent are proud of Britain’s history – with most (53 per cent) being very proud. Fifty three per cent are very proud of the armed forces, with another 30 per cent being somewhat proud. Eighty six per cent are at least somewhat proud of Britain’s sporting achievements, with 35 per cent being very proud of this, and 11 per cent not very proud or not proud at all (2 per cent). 

Sixty seven per cent are at least somewhat proud of Britain’s "fair and equal treatment of all groups in society", though the "very proud number" falls to 19 per cent, and 26 per cent are either not very proud (21 per cent) or not proud at all (5 per cent) of this. Perhaps surprisingly, 69 per cent say they are at least "somewhat proud" of the way democracy works, with the 17 per cent who say they are very proud of this being not much smaller than the 22 per cent who are not very proud (20 per cent) or not proud at all (2 per cent).

This has been a decade in which Scottish and Welsh identities have become more prominent, with people in England responding by being increasingly likely to see themselves as more English too. Being British is the shared civic identity of a multi-national state - and the drop in being very proud reflects that it is often the secondary identity, rather than the primary one. However, the scale of pride in British identity picked up in the BSA survey shows that most people do not see their national and British identities as a zero sum choice.

The BSA found that Scots in 2013 were a little more likely to say that they were "very proud" to be British than the English or the Welsh. The proportion in Scotland saying they are very proud, at 38 per cent, had not fallen since 2003, and so was no higher in 2013 than the proportion saying this in either England (35 per cent) or Wales (34 per cent). The sample sizes are small, so caution is advisable in making much of narrow differences in the national scores. What can be said with confidence is that the proportion saying they are at least somewhat proud of being British is broadly similar across the different British nations: 76 per cent in Scotland, 74 per cent in Wales and 73 per cent in England. 

The referendum choice may have led many Scots to value their British identity strongly, perhaps precisely because the independence debate feels to them as though it puts that into a question in a way that isn't currently the case in England and Wales.  Almost all of those voting Yes and No on independence this autumn will have an equally strong sense of Scottish pride, while British identity is more politically contested. 

The BSA findings again capture the breadth of engagement with some form of British pride in Scotland – which is why it certainly makes sense for Scottish nationalists to talk about their committment to a "social union" and an independent Scotland retaining its Britishness, even if this matters least to the "Scottish not British" core among pro-independence activists. However, many among the third of Scots who are "very proud" to be British would still fear that their Britishness would be diminished if the nion were to be rejected this autumn.