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Religion Counts: National identity and Scottish Independence

Religion Counts: National identity and Scottish Independence

The Religion Counts team explore how religious people in Britain feel about their national identity, with a special section on Scotland casting light on attitudes towards independence. 26/06/2024

In our previous briefing papers in the Religion Counts series, we have explored turnout, voting intention, civic engagement, social and political values, and views on some of the most important issues facing the UK at this time, by religious identity. In all five, we have found that religion – and particularly religious practice – played a role in shaping behaviours. In this briefing paper, we explore how religious people in Britain feel about their national identity, with a special section on Scotland casting light on attitudes towards independence.

The analysis in the article integrates data from waves 23 and 25 of the British Election Study (BES). All the data presented here are predicted values which were estimated through a series of regressions, in which age, gender, education, religious affiliation, and church attendance were used as independent variables. More information is available in the notes on the data below.

What is national identity

National identity embodies the essence of a political community.[i] It encompasses elements such as trust in the nation’s political system, its laws, and its institutions. It permeates cultural and value systems, as well as the stories that individuals share about their origins, holidays, common historical experiences, and the criteria for being considered a member of the community.[ii]

National identities are complex and multifaceted. People disagree about what a nation is – whether, for instance, it is a “seamless, organic cultural unit”[iii], deeply embedded in a person’s identity, or a “rational association of common laws and culture within a defined territory”[iii] which one is free to embrace or reject. Consequently, individuals may vary in how they perceive the nation and the extent to which national identity influences their personal identity.

The UK itself is a complex entity. It is a single state under one central government, yet comprises the historically independent nations of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, each with distinct cultures and identities. These enjoy different degrees of self–governance ranging from substantial (Scotland) to none at all (England). Additionally, Britain’s European identity is also significant: though it may no longer be a member state of the EU, it has participated in all the key historic events that have shaped the European continent – from the Roman Empire to Christendom, from the Hundred Years’ War to the Industrial Revolution.

In the UK, therefore, national identities are particularly layered and fraught with political tensions: a single person may hold several national identities – e.g., British, Scottish and European – not to mention a range of regional and local identities within these.

How then do we measure national identity? 

Considering that the British hold within them complex hierarchies of national identities, we have sought to understand respondents’ position among multiple national identities. We have therefore calculated two different relative national identity scales, namely British vs. English, and British vs. Scottish. Each scale ranges from ‘Primarily identity A’ (–6) to ‘Primarily identity B’ (+6). We have not sought to gauge Welsh identity due to sample size, and Northern Irish identity was not available in the BES.

While such relative scales do not tell us how much someone feels they belong to a particular national identity in absolute terms, they do tell us how much they feel they belong to one compared to the other. So a score of ‘0’ on the British vs. English scale indicates that a person feels as much English as British, but not how much that is. They could either feel both very English and very British, or only somewhat English and somewhat British, in equal measure.

The case of Scotland

In Scotland, only Anglican Scots feel predominantly British

While British national identity in Scotland declined significantly between 1979 and the start of devolution in 1999, overshadowed by a growing Scottish national identity, the 2017 British Social Attitudes survey suggests a gradual resurgence of British national identity is taking place in Scotland. Scottish national identity also presents a unique case study, as Scotland has been particularly effective in fostering a civic national identity.

The spread of the Scots’ positioning among British and Scottish national identities is very varied, going from quite dominantly British to quite dominantly Scottish. It appears that Anglican Scots – i.e. members of the Scottish Episcopal Church – are by far the outliers when it comes to relative British/Scottish national identity. While the population as a whole tends significantly towards a more dominant Scottish identity (1.10), Anglicans in Scotland tend even more towards a predominantly British identity (–2.17).

It is not Presbyterians (1.19) – those belonging to the Church of Scotland and other reformed denominations – but Roman Catholics (1.86) in Scotland who feel their Scottish identity most dominates over their British one, followed by the ‘Other’ religious (1.74) and the non–religious (1.69).

Both the Episcopalians’ relatively greater Britishness and the Scottish Catholics’ relatively greater Scottishness lend themselves to a historical explanation. The Scottish Episcopal Church, a member of the Anglican Communion, has a special cultural relationship with England that would naturally tend to foster in its adherents a greater sense of Britishness. The Episcopal Church also has a history of association with the British Crown, as Scottish and British monarchs made repeated efforts over the centuries to resist the spread of Reformed theology and Presbyterianism in Scotland by imposing the episcopate and an oath of allegiance to the king.

In some ways the opposite is true of the Catholic Church in Scotland. Many Scottish Catholics are descended from Irish immigrants and Gaelic–speaking migrants from the Highlands and Islands. Disproportionately from manual working class backgrounds, there is little sympathy among these communities for unionism, which in Scotland is associated with Conservatism. Catholics in Scotland have also been the victims of sectarian violence, particularly from the Orange Order, whose anti–Catholicism is entwined with its unionism.

Weekly practising Presbyterians feel more Scottish than never–practising Presbyterians

As in our previous articles in this series, which have repeatedly stressed the importance and relevance of considering frequency of practice as a variable when discussing religion, attendance also has a meaningful impact on national identity in Scotland – particularly for Presbyterians and ‘Other Christians’.

As such, we find that Presbyterians in Scotland who attend church on a weekly basis identify as significantly more Scottish (relative to their British national identity) than do Presbyterians who never attend church. The effect is even starker for ‘Other Christians’: whereas never or infrequently practising ‘Other Christians’ have a dominant British identity, their frequently practising counterparts have a dominant Scottish identity.

The fact that attendance does not significantly affect the national identity of either Scottish Anglicans or Scottish Roman Catholics is not surprising given the very strong dynamics that underpin both and which have been explored earlier in this article. For both groups, their national identities are a function of centuries of history and the very complicated relationship between Scotland and England throughout much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and right up to the present day.

Scottish Christians are strongly against independence

Although on average the Scottish have a more dominant Scottish identity than a British one, in the BES data in May 2023 they were on average mainly against independence. The opposition is especially high among Scottish Christians, 3 out of 4 of whom would vote against independence if another referendum were held. Interestingly, the only two groups marginally – though not decisively – more in favour of independence in this data are the ‘Other’ religious (44% for independence) and the non–religious (44% for independence).

It is important to stress that these figures control for, among other things, age and educational attainment. So while Christians tend to be older on average than the general population the overwhelming Christian opposition to Scottish independence is not explained by the older age of this group. In fact, an even larger proportion of Christians believe their nation’s future to be within the Union when age is controlled for.


It is not a surprise to find that Anglicans in Scotland – Episcopalians – are, at 80%, the most opposed to independence. This coheres with their markedly dominant British identity over their Scottish national identity. Very marked support for the union, however, is more surprising coming from members of the Kirk – Scotland’s Presbyterian national church, the Church of Scotland. The Kirk’s national Scottish character aside, such unionism also seems to contradict Presbyterians’ dominant Scottish national identity, as we discussed before.

This may suggest that feeling more strongly Scottish than British is not an automatic endorsement of Scottish independence and that it is possible to have a dominant Scottish identity whilst also believing that Scotland belongs in the United Kingdom. It may also be that support for independence and support for the SNP are now closely conflated. Nevertheless, a strong sense of Scottish identity, and a commitment to a high degree of political autonomy for a devolved Scotland can, it seems, coexist with unionism.

Roman Catholics, of all Christians in Scotland, are the most supportive of Scottish independence, but still lean 5 to 4 in favour of remaining in the Union. This is somewhat at odds with other, older polls in which Scottish Catholics are a staunchly pro–independence group. Indeed, Scottish sociologist Michael Rosie notes in 2012 that Catholics are the religious subgroup most likely to support an independent Scotland.[iv]

Attendance has little impact on Scottish Christian unionism

Among the Scottish population as a whole, those who never attend religious services of any kind are more likely to support independence (40%) than those of any religious persuasion who frequently attend religious services (36%). The trend is reversed among Scottish Christians: we see that support for independence, very weak for the never–practising, rises somewhat with frequent practice.

For Christians overall, support for independence rises by a quarter, from 23% for the never–practising to 29% for weekly practising Christians. Support for independence remains very low among Episcopalians, though there is a slight increase of 2% between never and frequently practising Anglicans. Support is the highest among Roman Catholics, but frequent church attendance is not correlated with an increase in support for independence: weekly attending Scottish Catholics are 1% less likely to vote for independence than never–practising Catholics. Among Presbyterians, support for Scottish independence rises by one fourteenth, from 28% for the never–practising to 30% for those you attend worship weekly.

Ultimately, however, unionism in Scotland is not just the preserve of Scotland’s ‘cultural’ Christians. Church attendance does have some impact but the consensus across all frequencies of communal worship remains clearly in favour of the Union.

The case of England

Anglicans feel the most English

We now look at national identity in England. We immediately notice that, unlike for Scottishness, all data are gathered very close to the mid–point (0), occupying only a small section of the scale. This means that, overall, the population in England is not strongly divided between those who identify predominantly as British and those who identify predominantly as English. We also note that the centre of gravity is leaning towards the British side of things (–0.21) indicating that overall, people in England feel slightly more British than they do English.

Of all Christians, Anglicans feel relatively the most English (0.10) and ‘Other Christians’ feel relatively the most British (–0.47). Muslims feel relatively more British than English (–1.03) than any other group. Nones, though leaning towards a relatively stronger British national identity, are the second most English–leaning (–0.19) of any population group.

The results here are not surprising. First, while Anglicans are most likely to be English–born, Christians from many other denominations are more likely to have foreign origins or roots. Given the ethno–national ‘feel’ of Englishness as an identity it follows that Anglicans should feel more English than other Christians.

Britishness, by comparison, is a more capacious, civic identity designed to encompass several of the UK’s national groups. Given that half of all British Muslims were born outside the UK and only 6% are ethnically white (2021 Census), and given that a British identity is more flexible, it is not surprising that they are more likely to have a British identity than an English one.

Second, to state the obvious, the Church of England has a strong attachment to England in particular. It is the established Church of the English nation, and it has a special relationship with Englishness. In the 21st century, it is an institution that directly links England to its history and culture. It is so much a part of the English cultural heritage that many will continue to claim affiliation with the Church of England as a marker of cultural identity, even if they do not practise or necessarily believe in its teachings. Other Christian denominations are more likely root themselves in distinctive theological commitments, their own history, and possibly in the ethnic group whose spiritual needs they tend to serve. It is not surprising, therefore, that they feel more British than English overall.

A weak attendance effect on British/English relative national identity

While communal practice affected Scottish national identity and views on Scottish independence, we only found a weak ‘practice effect’ for identifying as British compared to identifying as English.

Although the small magnitude of the variations makes them statistically insignificant, we do note that there appears to be a consistent pattern in the data, with religious practice pulling away from Englishness. Never–practising Britons of all religious groups tend to have a greater relative English identity than their practising counterparts. Weekly practicing individuals of all religions, on the other hand, appear to be on average the most likely to have a stronger relative British identity. This is particularly striking for Anglicans: those who never or infrequently practise are on the ‘predominantly English’ side of the scale, while Anglicans who practise frequently (at least monthly) are on the ‘predominantly British’ side.

As Paul Bickley wrote in his recent blog on immigration, for those for whom Christianity is “about tradition, authority, culture, and overlapping identities of nation and perhaps western–ness”, it gives a “strong sense of ‘us’, but that us is not really the church but the nation.” This is in line with our earlier findings on never–practising Anglicans who see their Anglican identity as a cultural marker. Given the organic association between Anglicanism and Englishness discussed earlier in this article, it is not surprising that those who are ‘cultural’, i.e., never–practising, Anglicans also hold their English identity more strongly.

Notes on the data

Both the 23rd and 25th waves of the BES data were collected by YouGov from a representative internet panel using an online sample. Unless otherwise stated, all the figures in this briefing paper are standardised predictions estimated from a series of regressions using age, gender, education, religious affiliation, and church attendance as independent variables. Figures are weighted and variables are coded so as to be consistent with previous Theos research on religious voting patterns. Descriptive data are available for consultation on request.

For the first part of this paper on national identities, we looked at the national identity module in the BES, which began with the question, “Where would you place yourself on these scales?” Respondents could choose a value between 1 (Not at all) and 7 (Strongly) on the Britishness, Englishness, and Scottishness scales.

Instead of using these absolute scales, we calculated three different relative national identity scales, namely British vs. European, English vs. British, and Scottish vs. British. Compared to absolute national identities, these relative measures allow us to better understand respondents’ true positioning among multiple national identities. In practice, this has been achieved by dividing two original absolute scales and creating a new variable ranging from –6 to +6.

The data on Englishness relative to Britishness comes from a smaller English sub–sample, which omits respondents who are not from England. It also omits Presbyterians as a religious group, as they are almost exclusively members of the Church of Scotland and therefore not meaningful to analyse in an English context. Data on Scottishness comes from a smaller Scottish sub–sample, which omits respondents who are not from Scotland. Due to the smaller Scottish sample, ‘Islam’ has been included in the ‘Other religion’ group for the questions on Scotland.

In the second part of this paper, which explores Scottish attitudes to independence, the BES asks: “If there were another referendum on Scottish independence, how do you think you would vote?” Response options include “I would vote ‘Yes’ (leave the UK)”, “I would vote ‘No’ (stay in the UK)”, ‘Don’t know’, and ‘Would not vote’. The variable was recoded as ‘Yes’, ‘No’, and ‘Other’. For the purposes of our analysis, we have not analysed the ‘Other’ group, as it is an ambiguous category with a much smaller sample size.


On Theos’ ‘Religion Counts’ series

This blog is part of a larger body of work including briefing papers and articles exploring the impact of religion on voting patterns in the UK.

The first briefing paper: Do the religious vote? which examines whether voters from different religions backgrounds are more or less likely to vote.

The second briefing paper: Who do the religious vote for? looks at data on party preference – which parties are people from various religious backgrounds likely to vote for?

The third briefing paper: Do the religious feel like they can make a differencewhich explores political efficacy, social trust, and political trust amongst religious participants.

The fourth briefing paper: Economic and Social Values which maps the economic and social attitudes of religious groups in Britain.  

Learn more about our Religion Counts work here.

Could you help uncover the impact faith can make in this election year by giving to our Religion Counts election appeal?

[i] Biku Parekh (2000) “Defining British national identity,” The Political Quarterly 71 (1), pp. 4–14.

[ii] Francis Fukuyama, “Why National Identity Matters”, in Nils Holtug, Eric Uslaner (eds.) National Identity and Social Cohesion (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021), p. 22.

[iii] Anthony Smith (1992) “National Identity and the Idea of European Unity”, International Affairs, 68 (1), pp. 55–76.

[iv] Paul Gilfillan, “Nation and culture in the renewal of Scottish Catholicism”, Open House, September 2015, p. 8.

Photo by Wender Junior Souza Vieira on Pexels

Paul Bickley, George Lapshynov and Yinxuan Huang

Paul Bickley, George Lapshynov and Yinxuan Huang

Paul is Head of Political Engagement at Theos. His background is in Parliament and public affairs, and he holds an MLitt from the University of St Andrews’ School of Divinity. See more of his work here.

George is a Researcher at Theos. He holds degrees in International Relations and History & Politics from the University of Glasgow. See more of his work here.

Dr Yinxuan Huang is a Research Manager at the Bible Society. His main research interests are in sociology of religion, Chinese Christianity, East Asian diasporic communities, and survey methodology.


Watch, listen to or read more from Paul Bickley, George Lapshynov and Yinxuan Huang

Britain, Identity, Nationalism, Nationhood, Religion Counts


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