Is Britain more divided than other nations?

Declining social cohesion is sometimes seen as an inevitable and lamentable side effect of modernization. Modern societies are more geographically mobile than in the past perhaps bringing about changes in the way people within neighbourhoods relate to each other. Growing economic inequality is thought to have brought about greater ‘social distance’ between groups. A separate but related issue is the perception that after the Brexit referendum British society is divided into two halves that have incompatible visions for the future of the country and little sympathy for each other. These two halves are sometimes characterised in economic terms (the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’) and sometimes in terms of culture and values (e.g. ‘liberal elites’ versus those with more ‘local-traditional’ values). The Brexit issue may well suggest that such divides are a particularly British phenomenon, though this is one of the assumptions we want to challenge. In our new briefing note, we aimed to show how Britain is faring compared to its ‘peer’ countries, which are those which we consider to be similar based on their level of wealth and size: France, Germany, Japan, the USA and Sweden. To be sure, the USA is much larger than the UK, and Sweden is smaller, but these make important points of comparison, being countries that are held up as ideals of a well-run society (Sweden) or one with deep cracks and inequalities (the USA).

Social cohesion is a rather complex idea, and to explore how cohesive British society is, we explored a range of indicators including national belonging, voter turnout, attitudes to immigration and more.

ISSP 2008 and 2014; estimates adjusted for age

A shared sense of national identity, and a sense of belonging and attachment to that identity, can potentially be a unifying force, uniting people in a sense of being part of a single community.  Nationalism can be a source of insider/outsider distinctions, too.  However, our inclusion of this indicator of cohesion rests on the assumption that a shared national identity may promote attachment to civic norms and a sense of responsibility to one’s fellow-citizens. By this measure, the UK has rather lower levels of cohesion than in its peer countries, with 78% feeling close to Britain. British society, however, does not appear to divided along educational lines by this measure: those with low qualifications are equally likely to feel close to Britain as those with high qualifications (See Fig 1)

In terms of attitudes to immigration (Fig 2) the UK stands out as being the least pro-immigration with an average of just 23% agreeing that immigration should stay the same or be increased. Japan is the most pro-immigration by this measure. Across all six countries attitudes to immigration are socially divided. This is most evident in the case of Germany (which has a gap of 41 percentage points) and least evident in the USA (15 points). The size of the divide in the UK, 27 percentage points, is similar to Sweden and France.

ISSP 2008 and 2014; estimates adjusted for age

We find that voter turnout in the UK is rather low with a large difference of 15 percentage points between the high and low educated (Fig 3). The size of the gap is very similar in Germany and the USA. Sweden appears to be doing the best of the peer countries in this regard with high voter turnout regardless of education level.

Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (UK 2015; France and USA 2012; Germany and Japan 2013; Sweden 2014); estimates adjusted for age.

Exploring a range of indicators has revealed that there is no simple ordering of countries in terms of how cohesive they are. We expected Sweden to be an example of a cohesive society and indeed it does well on turnout and trust in particular suggesting that its citizens of all levels of education are actively engaged in social and political life. The USA also lives up to expectations in some regards: trust, voter turnout, and levels of agreement with redistribution of income are all low and divided. Feelings of belonging to the USA are also divided by education, more so than elsewhere. On the other hand, tolerance is high in the USA and does not appear to be divided on immigration to the same extent as the peer countries. The UK is often in the middle of the pack by these indicators of cohesion and we look similar to Germany and France on several outcomes. Despite the predominating idea of the ‘divided nation’ in the Brexit discourse, our analysis suggests divides between liberal elites and more traditional non-elites are not a peculiarly British phenomenon.

Download the briefing note here.


Lindsay Richards and Anthony Heath. February 2018

This briefing note draws on research for a forthcoming book on social progress in Britain, to be published in the autumn of 2018.