A child waves the Union Jack as runners pass during the London Marathon yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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. 

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.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Felipe Araujo
Show Hide image

Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.