By Bobby Duffy
It's difficult to escape the sense that Britain is a divided nation. Barely a day goes by without political leaders emphasising the splits in our society.
This isn't surprising: a near 50-50 vote in the 2016 EU referendum, a general election that produced a hung parliament, and now a bitterly divided House of Commons all suggest a lack of consensus in the country. But a new review of academic evidence and polling data by the Policy Institute at King's College London, supported by Engage Britain, questions whether we’re as divided as is widely asserted – at least not in the way it's often described.
First, it's important to clarify what we're talking about. There is a crucial distinction between what are known as 'issue polarisation' and 'affective polarisation'. The former refers to divides in attitudes towards specific issues or policies, while the latter refers to identity and emotional divisions.
There is strong evidence that Britain has become affectively polarised – particularly in terms of people's Brexit affiliations and identities. The proportion of people who say they have a 'very strong' Brexit identity (44%) is almost five times higher than those who hold a traditional party identity (nine per cent). And these identities colour social interactions. Even now, three years on from the referendum vote, you don't have to look far to find stories of Brexit splitting families, causing break-ups or ending friendships.
A 2018 review article found that these new Brexit identities now often supersede party identities that have been established for decades. For example, a majority of both Leavers and Remainers describe the other side as 'hypocritical', 'selfish' and 'closed-minded'. And this also translates to social interactions: just half of the population are now willing to talk politics with supporters of the other side of the Brexit vote, and only one in three would be happy with their child marrying someone from the other side.
But the extent to which we've become polarised on concrete issues is far less clear – and significantly under-researched, given the prevalence of the 'divided Britain' narrative. What is clear is that the electorate aren't split into simple, coherent opposing blocs: Leave and Remain identities represent coalitions of people with highly diverse views, just as party identities do.
Recent research has shown how Leave supporters are split roughly into thirds, between those who believe the UK should 'open itself up' to the rest of the world post-Brexit, those who think we should 'protect ourselves' from the rest of the world, and those in the middle. These are very distinct views of what Brexit is for and what it will achieve.
Similarly, on the Remain side, only half say they actively identify with Europe, with the other half more pragmatic and instrumental in their reasons for supporting Remain.
It's also the case that there are many aspects of attitudes and identity in the UK that are converging rather than polarising, such as views on gender equality, same-sex relationships and racial prejudice. There is also significant consensus on what government should be focusing on, with funding for health and social care and lifting families out of poverty key priorities for the public, regardless of party allegiances or Brexit preferences. And despite what we might think from the daily combative headlines, trust in other people is going up, not down.
Too often, terms such as 'division' and 'polarisation' are used very loosely and then accepted as synonymous and universally understandable. In reality, they are distinct, complex and contested concepts. The language of culture wars has started to creep into UK discussions from the US, but it's a model that translates poorly to our current situation.
Encouraging more precision in how we define polarisation and the evidence supporting it is not an exercise in academic pedantry. Understanding the true situation and trajectory helps point to actions and avoid risks, such as talking ourselves into problems we don't have, or missing what's really happening and therefore overlooking likely future trends.
The UK may not be composed of two blocs of opposing opinions and identities, but that doesn't mean we can't still end up with implacable conflict or political gridlock – as the past few weeks, months and years have proven. Our long-standing party-political structures are struggling to capture the diverse views among party supporters across new fault-lines.
How the differences between these varied positions can be resolved, particularly when we need to make a choice on our relationship with Europe, is the political challenge of our time.
Bobby Duffy is professor of Public Policy and director of the Policy Institute, King's College London. His book, Perils of Perception: Why We're Wrong About Nearly Everything, was published in September 2018 by Atlantic Books.
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