A Country Divided? Polarisation and identity after Brexit

Lead Research Organisation: London School of Economics & Pol Sci
Department Name: Government


The EU referendum left Britain a politically divided country: 'Leavers' and 'Remainers' became new political and social identities that still shape how people view politics, and each other. Research over the last few years has demonstrated large social divisions along Brexit lines and a partial realignment of British party politics. Yet we still know very little about what shapes and reinforces these new Brexit identities: why are these identities so central for some people, but tangential for others? And are these identities fading, or changing in nature, now that Britain has left the EU?

Understanding and addressing the consequences of Brexit polarisation requires knowledge of its foundations. The greater the resilience of these identities, the greater the potential negative effects on democratic dialogue and legitimacy. To the extent that Brexit identities are rooted in a deeper societal divide about cultural values, such polarisation may persist far into the future, even as the meaning of the labels grows ever more obscure. Equally, now that Britain has left the EU and other issues have grown in importance, it also seems reasonable to expect that these identities may become less important to most people. Either way, we need to understand how these identities change, and crucially we need to know who remains attached to their Brexit identity.

As little is known about how new political identities emerge and evolve, Brexit provides an important case for understanding the development of political group attachments. Ultimately, we therefore want to provide new fundamental insights into the nature of political identities and how these identities change. Our core argument is that to understand the long-term impact of Brexit divisions on British society, it is not sufficient, although it is clearly necessary, to simply track how many people identify as 'Leavers' and 'Remainers'. Knowing the size of these groups is important, but we also need to track the strength, and emotional intensity, of these identities, and assess what affects how these identities alter over time. First, we are interested in how material self-interest affects identity change. To this end, we want to examine how real-world changes, specifically focused on people who we know are better off or worse off because of Brexit, affect political identities. Second, we want to apply insights from social psychology about the role of fundamental personality traits in shaping identity attachment and resilience. We do not intend to use personality traits to explain who is on one side or the other, but rather we will use these traits to explain identity retention and identity strength. Finally, we know that affective polarisation is related to 'filter bubbles' and 'echo chambers' as people become unwilling to engage (in person or online) with people from the other side. We therefore also want to explore how identities are retained, and again become entrenched, via the homogeneity of social, geographical and social media networks.

Empirically, we plan to answer these questions using a wide variety of state-of-art methods, including survey experiments, lab experiments, repeated cross-sectional surveys and panel surveys. Our results will contribute not only to the discussion about British society and politics after Brexit, but also to more fundamental debates on political identities and democracy. In terms of the 'Governance after Brexit' Call, our project directly addresses two of the Priority Areas, primarily (2) 'UK economy and society 'after Brexit' (Leave/Remain identities)', but also (3) 'The constitution, politics and policy 'after Brexit' (impact on political parties and democracy)'.


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Hobolt S (2021) The Polls-Trends in Public Opinion Quarterly

Description Chapter "Do 'Remainers' and 'Leavers' still exist?" in report 'British Politics after Brexit' 2022 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact The title of this report - 'British Politics after Brexit' - invites a simple question: are we really living through a 'post-Brexit' era in British politics? James Tilley and I contributed to with a chapter entitled "Do 'Remainers' and 'Leavers' still exist?" on how identities have evolved and with what consequences.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
URL https://ukandeu.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/UKICE-British-Politics-after-Brexit.pdf
Description Presentation at British Politics after Brexit Conference 2022 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Presentation of project findings at major conference, which brought together some of the best academic experts on public opinion from across the UK, senior politicians and journalists to explore the key questions facing British politics - including the current strategies and prospects of the political parties, and the way in which political identities and attitudes have changed in the last half-decade. The conference coincides with the launch of our new report 'Brexit and party politics in the UK'.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
URL https://ukandeu.ac.uk/events/british-politics-after-brexit-conference-2022/
Description Presentation at Research Insights event. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Presentation in the public seminar "Research Insights: providing insights from the best social science for those who want to dig a bit deeper into what the research says."

The process of leaving the EU polarised public opinion across Britain. 'Leave' and 'Remain' became strong identities that exercised a powerful influence on political attitudes and choices. Do these identities continue to shape British politics after Brexit? How do they exercise their influence? Are they fading? Faced with new choices after leaving the EU and the trade-offs inherent within them, what package of options do people in Britain prefer. How do people want Britain to use sovereignty it has regained after Brexit?

The event built on two ongoing ESRC-funded research projects:

Professor Sara Hobolt will present on 'A Country Divided? Polarisation and identity after Brexit'.
Dr Ceri Davies will discuss qualitative research findings from 'How Does Post-Brexit Britain wish to Exercise its Sovereignty?' and Professor John Curtice will analyse results from that project's deliberative polls.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
URL https://ukandeu.ac.uk/events/research-insights-public-opinion-and-brexit/