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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