the north and south are further apart than Scotland and England
For many of us, a national identity is an essential part of who we are. For others, it is a source of division. National borders, like any border, imply that some lie outside. As long as there is an in-group, there must also be an out-of-group. But an important idea of national identity is that it provides a kind of “psychological glue” that unites the citizens of a country. This gives a feeling of moral commitment to our fellow citizens.
But it is feared that the psychological glue that holds the UK together has dried up and lost its sticky power. Gordon Brown, the former prime minister, recently argued that the UK risks becoming a failed state and breaking up. He warned that the coronavirus pandemic had revealed divisions between different parts of the UK:
You not only have the Scottish Prime Minister but the regional mayors say they are neither consulted nor listened to … you have no mechanism, no forum to coordinate regions and nations, and I think the audience is getting fed up.
These concerns have been boiling for some time. However, the problem is not only a lack of kinship between the different nations of the UK, but also between the people in England. In fact, the north / south divide appears to be deeper than the England / Scotland divide.
We asked a series of questions in a nationally representative online survey in 2019 as part of our ongoing research for an upcoming article. We asked if participants felt that people from other parts of the country shared their values. We found that the pattern of response was largely determined by national or regional identity. There was a marked tendency for what psychologists call “preference within the group” – a tendency to favor people whom we consider to be similar to ourselves.
Of those who consider themselves Scots, almost 90% believe that fellow Scots are people who ‘share my values’. Less than 60% feel the same about the English. People who describe themselves as English also show a markedly greater affinity with other English people than with members of the Scottish “out-of-group”.
In-groups and out-of-groups
This conforms to a a lot of research on how the English and Scots feel about their identity, their national flags and their national achievements. We also know that fewer Scots now subscribe to a common British identity than before devolution in the 1990s. Decentralization was, in many ways, a consequence of the rise of nationalist movements in Scotland, Ireland and in Wales seeking greater independence within or even from the UK.
What is perhaps more surprising is how the English feel about each other. One would have expected that decentralization had strengthened the sense of English at the same time as it weakened the British. But when we looked at the shared values in England, we found an even bigger gulf between Northerners and Southerners than we did between English and Scots.
Northerners and Southerners both showed substantial preference within the group, but unlike the Scottish / English situation, we also saw marked asymmetry. Northerners display rather positive assessments of their northerners, alongside surprisingly negative opinions about the former southerner group: more than 80% of northerners said they share values with their northerners, but to just over 30% felt the same about southerners.
North / South Division
It is possible that Brexit will further aggravate these centrifugal tendencies, making Scottish independence and Irish reunification more likely. Many Scots, for example, believe they have been dragged out of the EU against their will.
Brexit can also be a catalyst for fragmentation in England. There were certainly big divisions across England (bigger in fact than the divisions between the four constituent nations of the UK) in favor of Brexit.
Cold shoulder in Westminster
One explanation for these divisions may be related to the way people are treated or to the impression that they are treated. COVID provided an example of this in late 2020 when some northern mayors expressed anger not to have been consulted or even listened to by the Westminster government when decisions were made about the lockdowns.
Our data suggests that negative perceptions of the Westminster government may be widespread among the general public in northern regions, and not just among northern mayors. We asked, “In general, which regions, if any, does the government look after the best, and which the least?” We have found that when an area is more negative about how the Westminster government treats it, it is also more negative towards southerners.
Emotional Miles of Westminster
These results strongly suggest that it is fair to see problems in England, not just between the four nations of the United Kingdom. Future questions of national identity could therefore also apply to relations between the government of Westminster and the inhabitants of the northern regions as well as between the government and Scotland or other devolved powers. In fact, at least the divisions within England are larger than those between England and Scotland. Maybe it’s something the new Northern Independence Party can capitalize on.