This piece was first published in the Sunday Times on 13th April.
Over the last decade we have become less proud to be British. New findings from NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey, published today, show that there has been a marked decline in the proportion who say they are very proud to be British, down from 43% in 2003 when we last asked the question to 35% now – a fall of eight percentage points.
The change has happened across much of British society and it is only those who were the most fiercely proud in 2003 – the over 65s and the least well educated whose views remain unchanged. That is – perhaps surprisingly – with the exception of the Scottish, whose pride in Britain has held firm.
So what might explain some of this change?
We can’t be definitive from this survey about what has caused the fall, but there are probably a few things going on. First it’s revealing to look at what has been happening to some of the groups with the strongest views. For example, graduates have much lower levels of pride than non-graduates. The fact that there are more graduates in the UK now than there were 10 years ago (The UK Labour Force survey shows that the percentage of the population classed as graduates grew from 26% in 2003, to 38% in 2013) might explain some of the change. In addition, there may also be a form of cohort effect happening as one generation replaces the next. Two thirds of people over the age of 65 are very proud of being British, but all the generations coming behind them have much lower levels of pride.
It’s also important to examine what was happening in Britain in 2003 as opposed to 2013. Events often drive attitudes, as is clear from another question we asked about pride in Britain’s economic achievements. Between 1995 and 2003 pride went up as the economy boomed, but had fallen again in 2013 in the aftermath of the financial crisis and recession. Looking back to 2003 we see the start of the Iraq war, following 9/11 and the first few years of the “war on terror”. While there were extensive protests, we shouldn’t be surprised if the act of going to war sharpened some people’s patriotism. In 2013, few look back on the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan as something to be proud of, and the expenses scandal has undermined (and continues to shame) British politicians. The British public may just be a bit more cynical.
The demographic changes, a more educated population and younger people with less pride coming through suggests that pride in being British may continue to fall. But does falling pride in Britain actually matter?
The first important point to make is that actually we’re all pretty proud to be British. Although there has been a fall in the percentage who say they are “very proud” more than eight in ten still say they are at least “somewhat proud” to be British – the same as in 2003.
And to a certain extent it’s possible to imagine many of us, in an odd sort of way, being proud that we’re not all that proud of being British. It’s perhaps a peculiarly British thing to be reticent about expressing real pride in one’s country. How many of us have scoffed at overblown American patriotism, for example?
This is borne out when we take a look at some international comparisons. The questions we asked about pride in 2013 are being asked all around the world as part of an international social survey, but it won’t be until next year that we can compare our findings with data from other countries. It is possible, however, to look at global levels of pride in 2003 and what we see is quite revealing. In the UK, 43% of us said we were very proud, compared with 77% of Americans and 66% of Australians. Pride was especially high in South America: Venezuela, Uruguay and Chile all topped 70%. And especially low in Russia and some former Soviet countries like Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
So national pride varies right across the world. In 2003 it was lower across Scandinavia, in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, countries often held up as social and political panaceas, than in the UK. So should we be worried that we’re a bit less proud than we used to be? Probably not. In fact, we might even say that being a bit cool about patriotism is a matter of pride.