According to the Economist, “English nationalism is the most disruptive force in British politics” (Bagehot 2021). While in a recent article in the Guardian, Peter Walker cites a report by the Constitutional Society which concludes that “an increased concentration of support for the two main parties into defined geographical areas means there was less and less direct competition between Labour and the Conservatives, negating a need to appeal to the middle ground (Walker 2020, Klemperer 2019). This report also argues that: the First Past the Post System (FPTPS) empower extreme voices within both the Labour and Conservative party membership; And if a more extreme group, such as one espousing “English nationalism “captures” one of the main political parties, FPTPS then cements their grip on power nationally. Our analysis below, shows that something like this appears to have happened. Recent events have highlighted the cleft opening between the level of popular support received by a party and the number of parliamentary seats it wins. In FPTP the evidence is that smaller parties with broader support do badly, and their opinions are excluded from national debate and from forming governments. This weakens legitimacy of the results of National UK wide general elections.
Differing colour of nationalism in the UK
Nationalism can be found in many different locations and in many different guises. Defining it is difficult, engaging the minds of many scholars, philosophers and analysts including John Stuart Mill, Rousseau, Herde, von Fichte to name just a few.
Eleven features of nationalism are shown in Chart 1. Some are closely related to each other, while others remain more distinctive. The ticks indicate areas where the features are found in the various nationalisms extant in the UK. The combinations of these features constitute social identity groups, groups of individuals who self-identify as having nationalist opinions. Nationalist groups frequently dislike each other, and group members tend to think in terms of “us”, the group members, and “them”, outsiders who often regarded as being inferior.
Chart 1 provides a schematic overview of the different types and views on nationalism in the UK. Nationalism evolves and changes its form over time. These changes are both the outcomes of complex social forces and at the same time help to shape them. For example, Scottish nationalist feelings are now broadly distributed across Scotland. Yet the results from two recent elections show how, in this case, the SNP has benefited from FPTP, and which exaggerates its position within the electorate. In the 2019 Westminster general election, the SNP, with 45% of the vote, gained 48 seats, or 81% of all Scottish seats. In the 2019 Holyrood election, the SNP with 40.3% of the votes won 49% of Holyrood seats, a result that more accurately reflects its share of the popular vote. The weakness of FPTP is that is less democratic. In Scotland Labour’s share of the Scottish vote in 2019 was 18.6%, resulting in winning a single constituency. In the 2021 Holyrood election, Labour’s 17.9% share of the popular vote resulted in it winning 24 seats – a more democratic result.
There are currently six different types of nationalism in the UK, sharing a number of features. Scottish nationalism is described as a civic form of nationalism. It is inclusive, and all are welcome to join and participate in civic life. Scottish nationalism is not ethnically based, and has a left-wing element in terms of enhancing social policies that are more collective and egalitarian than in England. (See LSE blog). Growing impatience with the slow pace of reform in Scotland led to a Scottish referendum in 2014 on Scottish independence, thus preceding the Brexit referendum. The referendum was won by unionists, those who wanted to retain the current arrangements with England. The victory by the unionists was assisted by a last minute effort by the leaders of the 3 main political parties in England to agree to transfer additional powers to the Scottish Parliament. While this was partially achieved with the Scotland Act in 2016, Scottish nationalists argue that the Act’s overall impact was severely reduced by the Brexit referendum result. Scottish nationalists point to a loss in Scottish sovereignty, since Scotland’s clear vote to remain within the EU was ignored by the overall UK decision to leave.
The Scottish referendum greatly influenced the rise of English nationalism, and the emergence of UKIP, who received nearly 4 million votes in the 2015 UK general election, without winning a single seat in the House of Commons, due largely to the biases involved in the FPTPS. As shown above, the SNP benefitted from FPTP.
Welsh nationalism is more focused around cultural and linguistic elements, and has an ethnic dimension. Support is more geographically dispersed than in Scotland, with Welsh Nationalism being stronger in mid and north Wales than in the South. Wales voted to Leave the EU.
Northern Ireland nationalism has two forms, NI 1, the Unionist group, and NI 2, the Republican group represented by Sinn Fein. Northern Ireland is unique in not having a nationalism that stands for the entire province. Tensions between the two forms of Northern Irish nationalism have led to violence, requiring military intervention to restore law and order. A new chapter of cooperation between the two nationalist groups emerged in 1997/8. After the election of New Labour, the new UK government quickly negotiated the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) signed between the two nationalist groups, the British and Irish governments, with the US and EU providing further encouragement. This “tranquil” period is ending, owing to Brexit related difficulties. Demographic changes in Northern Ireland mean that Republican supporters may now form the majority of voters. Since an aggrieved party to the GFA can call for a referendum about the existing land border it is distinctly possible that under some conditions Northern Ireland could, effectively, vote itself out of the UK at some point, effectively by-passing Westminster. The northern Irish nationalisms are ethnic and have cultural and linguistic elements.
Finally, there is English and British nationalism. It has arisen as a result of several factors. One of these has been a decline in the attractiveness of being British. In the 2011 census, 57% of respondents identified themselves as being solely English rather than British. The spread of English nationalism has been marked by a change in the cultural artefacts used to identify nationalist “belonging”. English nationalism has a strong ethnic element, and English nationalists are against immigration and immigrants, they are frequently bigoted and xenophobic. English nationalists are supportive of the idea of an English, rather than a British parliament, and are hostile to the financial support given by Westminster to the devolved nations. According to recent opinion polls, 2/3rds of self-declared English nationalists would be happy to see Northern Ireland leave the Union, and many would support Mr Farage’s contention that the Scottish tail is wagging the English dog, leading to unfair advantages for Scotland. English nationalists are strong Leave supporters and support English over British sovereignty. They express pride, and some nostalgia for the loss of Empire. English nationalists have a sense of grievance and of being “left behind” by the rest of English/British society. The areas of strongest support for English nationalism are often coastal towns and small towns that are in relative economic decline. Many English nationalists are drawn from the more prosperous elderly, and from those less well educated.
English nationalism is partially replacing earlier support for being British. In recent surveys around 1/3rd of those asked identified themselves as being English, compared with 47% who identified themselves as being British, British-ness is associated with support for the status quo, which is being challenged by English nationalists. Rising nationalism in the Devolved Nations then creates further tensions. British nationalism is closely identified with supporting the monarchy, the houses of parliament, the judiciary and other elements of the institutional status quo, including the Union with England. Support for these British elements is being questioned in the devolved nations.
While many acknowledge that the mixture of these various forms of nationalism creates a dangerous political brew, the impact of nationalist forces has affected the outcomes of general elections more strongly than many imagine. The rest of this paper examines the location and intensity of nationalist feelings.
Voting behaviour and nationalism
This section examines the fortunes of different nationalist social identity groups, and how they changed between 2010 and 2019. In summary, after a surge in nationalism in 2015, the conservative government changed policy to appease English nationalists, whose original political home was in UKIP. Despite changing policy (Brexit referendum), no further rise in English nationalism occurred. If anything, there was less support for English nationalism in 2017 (one year after the Brexit referendum) than there had been before it. The situation in the devolved nations varies.
Three aspects are considered:
- Analysis of the number of votes cast in each region and at each general election. The general election years are 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2019. The broad conclusion is that the number of votes cast increased from 2010 to 2017. There was a mild drop in overall votes cast in 2019.
- Analysis of the number of eligible voters, the pool from which election votes are collected. Trends in the overall number of eligible voters and the number of registered voters were examined. Both of these groups grew slowly between 2010 and
- Analysis of the size of the population over 18 who are eligible to vote. This grew at around 1.5% pa until 2017, and shrank to 2019. This may have been affected by post Brexit legal changes. This influenced the increase in the number of votes cast, and in the number of eligible voters.
Analysis of the degree and intensity of nationalist sentiment conducted in two stages. Stage 1: surveys conducted by British Social Attitudes and YouGov, were used to establish the average level of support for each nationalist category in the main political parties. This involved averaging the survey results from 2019 to 2021. The nationalist categories are Very Nationalist (VN), Quite Nationalist (QN), Not Very Nationalist (NVN) and not nationalist at all, (NN).
Stage 2 involved applying these proportions as weights applied to the number of votes cast for each political party in each constituency/region. This allowed us to estimate the numbers of party voters who belonged to the different nationalist categories, VN, QN etc. By summing all the voters of one of the nationalist categories, for instance the VN group, it is possible to establish how many NN voters there are in each region.
The nationalist categories highlight the depth and breadth of support for the different grades of nationalism across the country. For reasons of space only the results for the Very Nationalist (VN) group are shown.
Attitudes to nationalism changed over time, with some evidence of a slight fall in support for the two extremes, Very Nationalist (VN), and Not Nationalist (NN). The nationalist votes held firmer in 2019 than did the non-nationalist votes. Nationalist support surged more in Northern Ireland than in other devolved regions. Sentiment towards nationalism in Scotland remained relatively stable, in spite of the SNPs electoral success in 2019 and 2021.
Electorate Size and Votes Cast
Chart 2 shows the number of registered eligible voters collected by the ONS between 2010 and 2019. The overall pool of voters in the UK dropped after 2010, and only exceeded the 2010 level in 2019. This was largely led by changes in England. The level of political activity did not lead to an increase in the numbers of registered voters. One contributory factor is that FPTP suppressed the number of registered voters between 2015 and 2017.
Chart 3 ranks the regions by their growth of the over 18 population. The blue horizontal bars show the population growth rate between 2010 and 2015, and the red bars the changes between 2015 and 2019. 2015 marks a tipping point. Prior to 2015 the underlying population of eligible voters was increasing by around 1.5% a year. Regions such as London, the South West, South East, East and East Midlands all grew faster than the UK average. The size of the potential electorate grew more slowly in the devolved nations.
After 2015 the size of the over 18 population declined everywhere except in the South West and the Midlands meaning that between 2017 and 2019 the available pool of eligible voters shrank.
Chart 4 examines changes in actual votes cast. Between 2010 and 2015 there was slow but steady growth, after which the number of votes cast declined. The situation in the devolved nations is similar, with little evidence that political debate made the electoral process more attractive to voters.
Chart 5 shows how votes cast changed in the English regions as well as in the devolved nations. Here there is a tipping point in 2017. With votes cast growing prior to 2017, and shrinking afterwards, with some exceptions.
The fastest growing regions between 2010 and 2017 were London, Northern Ireland, the North West, Yorkshire and the East Midlands. Regions showing declines in votes cast post 2017 were the West Midlands, North West, Yorkshire and Humberside. There were also regions such as Scotland, the North East and the South West where votes cast increased over the entire period. Votes cast fell slightly in the South East over the entire period. Clearly the political messages were being received differently across the country.
Bearing in mind the momentous nature of the issues under discussion, Charts 4 and 5 suggest that FPTP is failing to appeal to a wider audience and is not attracting new participants.
How does this compare with the history?
The quick answer is that it compares badly with earlier periods. Chart 6 shows developments in the number of votes cast since 1997. As can be seen, the peak number of votes cast in 1997, over 31 million, was not overtaken until 2015.
And whereas this provided a hefty majority for New Labour in 1997, a similar number of votes was insufficient to buffer the Cameron government from the turbulence following the Brexit referendum in 2016. The absolute growth in the number of votes cast partially reflects a growing population.
Chart 7 below examines the voter turnout (number of votes cast as a proportion of the eligible voting population). As can be seen, voter turnout (or voting propensity) was much higher in the past. Voting propensities of over 80% were recorded in the early 1950s. Indeed, voting propensity remained at over 70% until 1997. Since then voter turnout has slipped into the 60 to 70% range. Voting propensity showed some recovery post 2001, but this too slackened off with turnout declining in 2019. The red dotted line shows a fitted trend line that clearly indicates a trend towards lower voter participation.
Charts 2 to 7 provide evidence that the FPTP system is not attracting many new voters, and that the propensity to vote has been in decline. This alone might ring alarm bells particularly since there are other serious deficiencies to consider.
Regional voting propensities
There are some interesting differences in regional propensities to vote, and these are shown in Chart 8, which shows the situation from 2010 to 2019. Generally, voter turnout rose slightly over this time, except in the East Midlands. Voter turnout was over 70% in London and the South of the country, while it lagged in the North of the country, and in Northern Ireland. Closer examination shows that 2017 represented another tipping point.
Chart 9 shows that voting propensity was generally lower in 2019 compared with 2017 except in London, the North East, and in Scotland, suggesting that the gravity of the political situation was clearer in these regions than elsewhere. Voting propensities have risen from 2010
Areas of relative strength and weakness in nationalist support
Chart 10 shows how the fortunes of the Very Nationalist group have differed by region and over time. It shows how the levels of support per region and year differ from the overall UK average. The Green cells indicate areas where very nationalist support is higher than the UK average, and the orange cells show where support is lower than the national UK average.
The areas of greatest and most consistent strength for the VN group, are the East Midlands, the East and the South East. These regions had above average representation for the VN group. The regions/nations where the VN group was under-represented were Scotland, and Wales, This is mildly surprising given other indications of very nationalist feelings, notably in Scotland. English regions where the VN group was under represented were the North East, the North West and Yorkshire/Humberside after 2010. London had below average presence of the VN group. English regions where the VN representation switched from year to year were the West Midlands, over represented until 2l019; Northern Ireland – mainly over represented with the exception of 2017. The VN group is generally over-represented in the South West, until 2019.
Chart 11 shows the number of regions where nationalist social identity group were over-represented in the various election years. As can be seen the relative popularity of the VN group declined from 10 in 2010 to 5 regions in 2019. The number of regions where the non-nationalist groups were over-represented peaked in 2017 (16 regions) and declined in 2019. Even so, in 2019 the non-nationalist “bloc” was over-represented in 13 regions, to the nationalist 12 regions.
The conclusion from this is that despite changing policy to appease nationalist sentiment, the analysis suggests that non-nationalist opinions got stronger, particularly in 2017. There is no sign of wider support for more extreme forms of English nationalism.
Support for English nationalism is stronger in the South than in the North, largely due to higher numbers of Conservative voters, who have more nationalist opinions. Nationalist opinions are quite divided in the Midlands and East. The situation in the devolved nations is also complex. In 2019 the non nationalists were under-represented in Scotland and Northern Ireland, while being higher than the national average in Wales. The combination of higher representation of the VN and QN group with an under-representation of the NVN and NN groups indicates an overall shift towards a more nationalist stance.
The politics of nationalism and the dysfunctionality of the Westminster FPTPS
The analysis in harts 9 to 11 shows how the size of the four nationalist intensity groups changed between 2010 and 2019. As the Brexit implementation phase approached, so there is no discernible surge towards more nationalist opinion and there is some evidence that support for the more extreme VN position receded in 2019. Lower voter turnout in 2019 than in 2017 also indicates a lack of enthusiasm for Brexit, in contrast to the surge in popularity for New Labour in 1997.
This section looks at the interactions between the forces of nationalism, and how they played out in the context of the FPTP Westminster System. The challenge came as a result of the convergence of English nationalism and Euroscepticism. A rise in Scottish nationalism, as demonstrated by the electoral success of the SNP and the effort to win the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence appears to have helped foment a wave of support for English nationalism, a force that became very disruptive.
Between 2010 and 2015 English nationalists votes more than tripled their votes from under 1 million to just under 3.8 million. However, the FPTP system prevented their main political organization, UKIP from winning a single parliamentary seat. In one sense these were “wasted votes” in 2015. In another sense this had serious repercussions. A second upheaval occurred with the decimation of the LibDems, the junior coalition partner with the Conservatives in 2015. The LibDems supported EU membership, and were hostile to English nationalism. The coalition government effectively prevented the Conservatives from reacting to the English nationalist challenge posed by UKIP. However, in the eyes of the electorate the LibDems were also associated with the harsh austerity policies sponsored by Cameron/Osborne that gutted public services and raised student fees. The rationale for this was to repair the financial damage caused by the Great Financial Crisis of 2008/9. In the 2015 election LibDem votes declined from nearly 7 million to just over 2 million. The number of seats won by the LibDems imploded, with many of them captured by the Conservatives.
The threat from nearly 4 million UKIP nationalist right-wing voters forced the Conservative party to adopt more English nationalist policies that were not congruent with all Tory supporters. Prime Minister Cameron conceded an advisory referendum on EU membership in 2016 as a sop to the English nationalist right. The Tory leadership in 2016 led an insincere effort to defend EU membership by appealing to “Project Fear”, rather than more robustly arguing for the many benefits enjoyed from EU membership. The referendum was won by the English nationalist “Leave” faction by a narrow majority. However, since the referendum was only advisory, the actual paving legislation needed to secede from the EU had to go through the House of Commons as the sovereign body ruling the UK. For this the 2015 arranged majority with support from Northern Irish unionists was too small.
The FPTP system in 2015 effectively excluded both English nationalist opinion, as well as more specifically pro EU, internationalist, opinion as represented by the LibDems. The Conservatives under their new leader, a ‘Remainer’, Mrs May, gambled on getting an increased majority when they called an election in 2017
This was prevented by resurgent left-wing Labour votes. Labour gained 3.5 million votes in 2017, greater than the additional 2.3 million gained by the Conservatives. This shift by voters back to the two main parties was a response to the biases in the FPTP system that effectively excluded two groups of voters. English nationalists against the EU, and English pro EU voters, favouring international policies. The extent of the changes in the absolute number of votes recorded by the main English political parties is shown in Charts 13 and 14.
It is very likely that voters realized that the only way of getting their opinions heard was by channelling their votes into one of the two mass parties, neither of whom were actually aligned to deal with the influx of nationalist and non-nationalist opinions. Both the main parties picked up votes from UKIP and the LibDems in 2017. However, this did not provide a resolution. The majority achieved by Cameron disappeared, leading to a period of 2 years of “parliamentary civil war”, as both sides of the Brexit divide fought to use Parliament to favour their cause while hindering that of the opposition. The FPTP system restricted the political choices available to the electorate, without providing mechanisms for resolving the situation. It was unable to widen the diversity of political interests existing in the country in a constructive way. Rather it favoured internecine warfare, as both the major political parties grappled with the EU issue around which neither had a firm consensus view within their own ranks. Chart 12 shows how votes were realigned in 2019. Although there was a small change in the votes received by the Conservatives, this was in STARK contrast to the substantial increase in the majority gained by the Tories.
It is instructive to compare the straight jacket imposed by FPTP with what proportional representation systems can achieve. The German political system also faces pressures for change, over issues of immigration. Yet their political system has evolved from representing three strands of opinion, Christian Democrat (CDU/CSU), Social Democrat SPD and neo liberal Free Democracy (FDP) and has since adapted to include 6 political strands. None of these parties, and particularly the two larger ones, the SPD and CDU, have been able to successfully adapt to challenges presented by environmentalists (the Greens), challenges posed by German reunification and demands for a more egalitarian society – die Linke, as well as demands for a more nationalist solution, the right wing Alternativ Fuer Deutcheland (AfD).
The Bundestag adapted to having 6 political parties, and in so doing remains more popular with voters. Voter turnout is in Germany is nearly 10% higher than in the UK. The Westminster system has remained stuck in the twentieth century. And, until the arrival of UKIP, the main challenges came from the devolved nations, whose role can only ever be a minor one within the UK context. As the English nationalist threat emerged, so voters switched to shoring up the old duopoly, without realizing that factions within the two biggest parties would permit the political assassination of one Prime Minister by the European Research Group, and the nullification of any advantage Labour might have achieved by its 3 million additional votes, as it too was fundamentally divided on the EU issue.
And it is this that undermines the credibility of the FPTP system. The addition of 329 thousand votes for the Conservatives, combined with a reduction of 2.6 million votes for Labour converted IN 2019 an absent majority to one of 88 seats. And this was achieved by political horse trading as UKIP votes morphed into Conservative votes, and some of the LibDem votes were spread across a range of smaller parties, who are discriminated against under FPTP.
The arrival of English nationalism as a political force has thrown up great questions about the sustainability of the FPTP in England. It is interesting that both Scotland and Northern Ireland changed to more proportional representation systems in their “local” national elections, and there are signs that Wales may yet follow in elections to the Senned.
Evidence presented here shows how widespread support for various kinds of nationalism is within the UK. These nationalisms are pointing in different directions. The Westminster system is becoming decreasingly relevant to those devolved nations seeking to secede from the UK. FPTP also causes serious problems facing new entrants into the cosy world of Westminster politics. Even with sizeable numbers of voters, FPTP discriminates against those parties that have broad cross regional support, and denies direct parliamentary representation to millions of voters who prefer not to vote for the two largest parties. This may yet lead to further tensions that could lead to the break-up of the UK.
The authors would like to thank Dr Grahame Fallon and Professor Ashley Braganza of Brunel Business School for their support, and Co-Innovate for their financial support.
There are three main sources of data used for this paper. These concern the size of the electorate, the number of votes cast and voter propensity, and estimates of nationalist opinions. The first section looks at developments in the size of the population. This uses ONS estimates of the annual population for the UK. It fills in the gaps between the census years, and provides a number of breakdowns. These include the number of over 18 year olds. These totals include the impact of both domestic and international net migration. The UK absorbs between 100 and 200 thousand immigrants a year. These were formed by immigrants from the rest of the world, notably the Indian sub continent (theoretically controllable), and from the EU. EU immigration was not controllable under EU rules, whose internal market is based around the free flow of both labour and capital. The majority of foreign immigrants come to London first, and then move to the Midlands and North. It was possible to match the size of the population and its growth to the various general election years. Population data is available for the Devolved Nations and English regions (NUTS 1). This source provides data on the overall size of the eligible pool of potential voters.
The size of the electorate was obtained from two sources. The ONS, using data provided by Local Authorities, shows the number of registered voters by region and devolved areas. These are based on information provided by households. This provides the number of eligible voters. We also have an estimate of the total eligible voters from the Electoral Commission, archived by the House of Commons library. These are figures at a constituency level. There is some variation in these two estimates in some regions. ONS figures were used as estimates of the size of the electorate (the denominator).
Number of Votes Cast. These figures were obtained for each election year based on constituency returns, available from the House of Commons library. These were organized into English regions (NUTS 1) and the devolved nations. Voting propensities and turnout were estimated as the number of votes cast / ONS estimates of registered voters. There are two success indicators for a democratic system, namely an increase in the number of voters, and a rising proportion of voters out of the total eligible voting population.
Intensity of opinion about nationalism. This was estimated by combining two sets of information. Firstly, the number of votes for the leading political parties across all constituencies was used. These numbers were organized on a regional (NUTS1) basis for each election year. The second source comes for opinion poll surveys conducted by YouGov and British Social Attitudes (BSA). Individuals who belonged, supported, or voted for a political party were asked to express an opinion as to whether they were Very Nationalist (VN), Quite Nationalist (QN), Not Very Nationalist (NVN), or Not Nationalist at all (NN). There were a series of surveys taken between 2019 and 2021. The results of these surveys were averaged for each party. This gave rise to vector of nationalist types per political party. Since we know the number of votes cast per party per region, it was possible to use the BSA figures as weights, to estimate the numbers of voters with particular opinions about nationalism across all votes cast in all regions. Thus, VN voters were added together in each region, for each election year. From this it was possible to calculate the average population of VN, QN, NVN, and NN voters across the country. This then enabled the identification of regions where nationalist were either over or under represented as compared with the national average for that election year.
The results of this analysis are shown in chart 10 above. One of the influencing factors is the underlying share of votes gained by each party. Thus, the over-representation of very nationalists in the South is attributable to the higher share of Conservative party votes there – who support more nationalist views.
Bagehot (2021) “The Disruptive Rise of English Nationalism”, Economist, 18 March 2021.
Green, E. (2014) “Scottish Nationalism Stands Apart”, LSE Blog 16 September 2014. Available at https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/scottish-nationalism-stands-apart-from-other-secessionist-movements-for-being-civic-in-origin-rather-than-ethnic/
Henderson, A. and Wyn Jones, R. (2021) Englishness, OUP.
Kenny, M. (2020) “English Nationalism, the 2019 Election and the Future of the British State”, Political Insight, 11(1): 24-27, available at https://doi.org/10.1177/2041905820911744
Klemperer, D. (2019) The Electoral System and British Politics, Constitutional Society.
Walker, P. (2020) “First Past the Post abets extreme politics” Guardian, 23 April 2020.
 Sinn Fein now has the largest support for a single political party in N. Ireland. It is currently the most likely to form the next government in Stormont after the 2022 Stormont elections.
 The results for all of the nationalist categories can be seen in Black (2021).
 As Chart 7 shows though, the 1997 election turnout was the lowest achieved in the post war period, even though it still looks relatively good compared to the even weaker years after 1997.