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Divided Britain? Polarisation and fragmentation trends in the UK

Research output: Book/ReportReport

Bobby Duffy, Kirstie Anne Hewlett, Julian McCrae, John Hall

Original languageEnglish
Commissioning bodyEngage Britain
Number of pages108
Publication statusPublished - 12 Sep 2019

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Abstract

As the results of the EU referendum were announced, political leaders were quick to say that the outcome had ‘revealed a divided Britain’, and have since asserted the need for politicians on all sides to unite and ‘bring the country back together, rather than entrenching division’. But the phrase ‘Divided Britain’ has taken root in our everyday lexicon and is now frequently used to capture a growing sense of social and political polarisation in our country, driven by the national split revealed and reinforced by the Brexit vote.

Headlines warn that we are seeing a ‘more tribalized Britain’, a nation more ‘bitterly divided’ than during the miners’ strike, the poll tax protests of the 1990s and the Iraq War. Politicians refer to ‘these increasingly polarised times’ with such frequency and certainty that it goes largely unquestioned.

In some ways this is not surprising. Division is very clearly suggested by a near 50-50 vote in the referendum, alongside even the most casual scan of the survey evidence and fractious discussion around Brexit and our current politics.

But there is far less serious analysis of the nature and scale of the problem, based on clear concepts and definitions. Too often, terms such as ‘division’ and ‘polarisation’ are used interchangeably, accepted as synonymous and universally understandable, when they are distinct, complex and contested concepts.

Encouraging more precision in how we define polarisation and the evidence supporting it, as this report attempts to do, is not an exercise in academic pedantry. Understanding the true position and trajectory helps point to actions and avoid risks, such as talking ourselves into problems we don’t have, or missing what’s really happening and therefore overlooking likely future trends.

This report outlines conceptual frameworks that are relevant to this debate – distinguishing, in particular, between issue-based and affective forms of polarisation, as summarised in Figure 1. Using these frameworks, we then review the available evidence of polarisation in the UK (including a comparison with the US and Europe) and reflect on what this may mean for the UK’s future.

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