Campaign for Social Science Annual SAGE Lecture with Mark Easton

5 February 2020

The Campaign for Social Science Annual SAGE Lecture with BBC’s Home Editor Mark Easton speaking on identity took place on 4 February at RUSI.

Addressing an audience of academics, policymakers and interested general public, Mark’s lecture ‘Modern Britain’s identity crisis?’ was the 7th public lecture the Campaign for Social Science hosts with SAGE Publishing. Professor Maria Sobolewska from the University of Manchester delivered a response to Mark.

Looking at identity in the context of the Brexit referendum, Mark highlighted the role of social science in helping us identify and understand the core beliefs associated with people’s voting preferences, and in helping us to identify what ‘healing’ a divided nation could look like.

“If we can understand identity, the descriptors that show us how communities and societies label and think of themselves, we can use that information as an early-warning system for potential tensions in the social fabric before they tear.”

The Brexit debate forced people, often for the first time, to consider their core values and choose a side on the sort of the country they wanted to live in. Mark’s analysis based on new IPSOS Mori data found Leave voters more likely to value tradition and protecting the British way of live, whereas Remain voters were more likely to embrace and appreciate influences from other countries and cultures.

Also drawing on a 2018 YouGov survey commissioned by the BBC, Mark pointed out that when asking people whether their nation’s best days were in the past or still ahead, England emerged very differently from the rest of the UK. Half the country overall thought England was better in the past (64% of Leave voters and 35% of Remain voters) with only 17% thinking its best years lay ahead. Polling in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland found many more people who thought their nation’s best years lay ahead than were in the past.

The analysis of YouGov survey also highlighted the inclusive nature of the British identity and the more exclusive nature of the English identity. Stressing that feeling threatened can make exclusive identities become more attractive, Mark put forward the importance of nurturing and building inclusive identities for today. Mark’s engaging lecture concluded with a reminder that we all have more in common than what divides us.

Professor Maria Sobolewska delivered an insightful response to Mark in which she pointed to research showing that only a third of people have a strongly ethnocentric identity, but the so-called ‘red button’ response to supposed threats to our identities is given disproportionate air time in the current political climate. Maria also highlighted that social science is the key to reworking the focus of political narratives which exclude the quiet and inclusive majority of people in society.

Some glimpses of the lecture below: