The lesson of 2016 is that identity matters – even for white people

Talking about being white American, or being religious, isn’t considered "identity politics". But that doesn't mean people don't identify with those traits.

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How do white people feel about being white? It’s a difficult question. First, majority identities are rarely as deeply ingrained in our psyches as those that make us feel threatened, or different from the norm. “The more power an identity carries, the less likely its carrier is to be aware of it as an identity at all,” Gary Younge wrote in his book Who Are We. “Those who have never been asked: ‘How do you manage childcare and work?’ or ‘How can you prove that you will return home after this holiday?’ are less likely to think their masculinity or Western citizenship and the privileges that come with them are anything but the normal state of affairs.”

For most of the 20th century, to be white in Britain was to be utterly unexceptional. In many places, it still is: Worcester, where I grew up, is 92.4 per cent white. There, white people are just people.

Second, for pollsters there is a huge roadblock when it comes to surveying our attitudes to race: “social desirability bias”. Before answering the question, we do a mental check. Will this make me sound racist?

Yet we must investigate majority identities, simply because so many of those who hold them do feel under threat. The election of Donald Trump was powered by white voters who were concerned about immigration, about jobs going overseas and about becoming a minority in the US by 2045. The places in Britain with the strongest concerns about immigration are those where the demographics have changed most quickly. In Boston, Lincolnshire, where 75.6 per cent voted to leave the EU, the migrant population increased by 460 per cent between 2004 and 2014. And as I have written before, Ukip has its strongest support among those who feel “English, not British”, even though England utterly dominates the UK in terms of population.

Enter YouGov. The polling company offered to work with me on questions that would tease out attitudes to race, and asked them of 1,632 adults (online, to reduce social desirability bias to a minimum).

In total, 46 per cent thought Britain was a “Christian country”, against 35 per cent who did not. There was a split between Remain and Leave voters (only 42 per cent of the former said it was, compared to 54 per cent of the latter). The numbers grew with age, from 19 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds to 65 per cent of over-65s. There was no real class, gender or geographic divide.

The figures for whether Britain is a “white country” told a similar story: 40 per cent overall said it was, while 42 per cent said it wasn’t. Leavers were more likely to say it was, by six points, but the real split was by age (50 per cent of over-65s said it was, compared to 31 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds) and geography, with London showing the lowest level of agreement.

“It’s not as big a difference as we see in other things between Remain and Leave, which is a story in itself,” said Adam McDonnell of YouGov. He pointed to a whole range of issues, such as the death penalty, benefits and immigration, where there is now a stark “Brexit divide”. (Since the referendum, the firm has added EU referendum vote to its crossbreaks, along with age, gender and class.) One reason for the relatively small split on whiteness might be that voters often adopt the positions held by their favoured parties, “but the idea of Britain being a white country was not brought up explicitly by Leave or Remain”.

YouGov also asked respondents how important eight factors were to their identity: job, parents, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, religion and where they lived. The most important were parents and nationality: 88 per cent of Ukip voters said the latter was very important or quite important. Other results were more surprising. “Ethnicity is a more important part of people’s identity than religion, with 54 per cent saying it is very or fairly important,” says the researcher Chris Curtis. “Among Leave voters this rises to 65 per cent.”

Looking at the figures, it becomes apparent that older voters are much more socially conservative than Generation Z, and they have a stronger feeling that Britain is a white, Christian country. Because their turnout rates are so much higher, that matters. Any party that wants to win over older voters will need to speak to their sense of patriotism and national identity.

This course will be contentious. In the US, the academic Mark Lilla caused a storm just after the election when he called for the end of “identity liberalism”. Recognising and celebrating difference was “disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age”, he argued. Reading closely, Lilla’s problem didn’t seem to be so much with the concept of identity politics as with the right being better at them. He argued that the next decade “will be dominated by whoever best captures Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny” and urged the media to “begin educating itself about parts of the country that have been ignored, and about what matters there, especially religion”. Got that? Talking about being American, or being religious, isn’t identity politics. Only talking about being a woman, being black or being transgender is.

Unsurprisingly, many read Lilla as saying that feminists and minority activists need to pipe down, as it means white men feel neglected. I don’t agree with the prescription but the diagnosis is not absurd: even progressive men often complain to me that left-wing discourse treats them as villains.

The lesson of 2016 is that even those with majority identities now feel under threat – and, as a result, they experience those identities more keenly. And if more white people feel white, that changes politics.

YouGov surveyed 1,632 adults online from 22-23 November. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18-plus)

Helen Lewis is associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage