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British National Identity and Attitudes towards Immigration

Author(s): Anthony F. Heath | James R. Tilley

Journal: International Journal of Multicultural Societies
ISSN 1817-4574

Volume: 7;
Issue: 2;
Start page: 119;
Date: 2005;
Original page

Keywords: British national identity | immigration in Britain | nationalism

This paper explores the distinction between ethnic and civic conceptions of the nation in Britain and the implications for xenophobia and multiculturalism. There is broad consensus on the importance of civic aspects of the nation, such as respecting political institutions, whereas there is dissent on the importance of ethnic aspects such as the role of ancestry. We therefore distinguish three groups: those who believe that both ethnic and civic aspects are important to be truly British, those who believe that civic but not ethnic aspects are important, and a third group of the disengaged who feel that neither is important. People in the first “ethnic-cum-civic” group want to reduce the number of immigrants, remove illegal immigrants, are more likely to report that they are racially prejudiced, and are less enthusiastic about anti-discrimination laws. People in the “civic only” group tend to be more favourable towards multiculturalism. As previous research has shown, people who regard ethnic aspects of national identity as important tend to be rather older than members of our “civic only” group, whereas the “neither civic nor ethnic” group tends to be the youngest. From our data it is not possible to say whether these age differences reflect life cycle or generational factors. Our best guess is that the disengagement of the young may be more a result of their early stage in the life cycle, whereas the emphasis on ancestry of older people may be more a consequence of generational differences, reflecting the climate when they grew up. If this interpretation is correct, then we might expect to see Britain gradually shifting further towards a “civic only” conception of identity.
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