Media, politicians and academics must pay more heed to differences in national identity within UK says prof
The media, academics and politicians must pay more heed to differences in identity and politics across the different constituent parts of the United Kingdom, a professor of political science has said.
Writing in UK in a Changing Europe: British Politics after Brexit, Professor Ailsa Henderson of the University of Edinburgh said that of late even British identity meant different things in Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland.
She said that there was now “very real differentiation, not just in electoral preferences but in political ideals” across the four nations of the United Kingdom.
“Separate discussions in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and England often comprise four completely different debates, bearing little relation to any of the political
arguments occurring outside those borders,” she said.
“And on those occasions when we are having the same argument — over Brexit, for example — we often come to different conclusions.”
She said that part of the problem in recognising these different identities was that efforts to understand the British state were “serially Anglo-centric”.
“First, the very label ‘British’ politics is symptomatic of a series of other elisions and omissions committed within the Anglo-British state, where England is simultaneously the point of reference but largely ignored as a political community,” she wrote.
“Serial offenders here are UK ministers and government departments that routinely refuse to acknowledge when they are announcing policy developments for the state as a whole or England-alone.
“This is coupled with an Anglo-British media that sees little merit in clarifying these distinctions to its audiences (which has on occasional earned a warning from Ofcom).
“This is not just practitioners at fault here. Academics routinely plonk ‘British identity’ into regressions and find results (people who feel British think/do this) without ever acknowledging that British identity works in different ways in different parts of the state.”
The different political directions of travel within the nations of the UK are also noted by Professor Roger Awan-Scully in his chapter in the same volume on whether Welsh and English politics are diverging from English politics.
He noted that since 2015 a different political party had won in each of the four nations in the UK.
“But the story is not wholly one of divergence. Conservative general election underperformance in Wales compared to England has been diminishing in recent times, and the 2019 Welsh Conservative vote share of 36.1% was their best since 1900,” he said.
However, he questioned whether this trend could be maintained in the long term, pointing to the Welsh Labour comeback at the 2021 Senedd election.
“Brexit certainly appeared to contribute to the Welsh Conservative advance in December 2019 in places that had clearly backed Leave,” he said.
“This allowed the Tories to capture seats that were already quite marginal, including several in north-east Wales.
“But similar swings occurred in the south Wales valleys’ seats: longstanding Labour bastions with deeply-entrenched traditions of hostility to the Conservatives.
“The Tories had too much ground to make up to win any of these seats, but the direction of travel was very similar to that witnessed in other ex-industrial but pro-Leave communities in England.
“It remains to be seen whether, post-Brexit, such trends can be maintained. These are very different communities from more traditional Tory heartlands, and there
was little evidence in the 2021 Senedd election of continuing Conservative momentum in such places.”
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