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  • 10th Sep 2021

British and European Values – are they one and the same?

Maps help us navigate and make sense of the world. However, geography can also constrain how we think about our relationship with other countries. For example, contrary to popular opinion, UK values are actually closer to the European average than any other European nation, and have been so for over a decade.

The European Values Study and the World Values Survey have for years been asking people all over the world questions about values. They include questions on topics running from religiosity and trust in others to the acceptability of avoiding fares on public transport and from euthanasia to the right work-life balance. This provides a rich picture of what people in each country think, believe and hold dear. It allows us to go deeper than geography to see how closely countries are connected by values rather than their relative positions on a map. 

We used a method taken from biology that measures the levels of genetic differences between species. Instead of looking at how single-nucleotide polymorphisms group different species together, we looked at how similar attitudes across a range of topics group countries together. This allows us to redraw the map of Europe based on values rather than geography. The results are striking: 

Within Britain, we find few differences between nations, which provides a striking contrast with the perceptions we have of our own identities. For example, while around 40% of Scottish people feel that English people don’t share their values, when we look at how people describe their values on specific topics – like the role of the state, importance of religion or trust in public services – we find almost no differences between Scottish and English people. 

We found that while the UK nations do have similar values to one another, they are also equally close to a cluster of EU nations that includes Germany, Austria, Ireland and Belgium. We also found no evidence of any one of the UK nations diverging from the others over the past 17 years. In fact, perhaps surprisingly, the values of the UK – particularly of Wales and Northern Ireland – are the closest to the European average than any other European nation. We also found that the UK has not over time diverged from the nations of the EU. This contrasts with, for example Hungary, which has moved away from other EU nations or Portugal which has moved closer.

So, what can we take from these findings that we’re quite similar to our European neighbours? From a UK perspective it certainly challenges views of “British Exceptionalism”, in particular that we’re substantially different from the seemingly more efficient Germans (discussed in John Kampfner’s book Why the Germans Do It Better for example). More accurately perhaps, German, Brits, Irish, Austrians and Belgians on average have more in common with each other than with other Europeans. But that’s admittedly a far less catchy title.

Ultimately the way we think about our cultural identity and values relative to other groups has important political implications – Brexit and the Scottish independence referendum being examples of this. However, this research suggests that there is a mismatch between the way we see ourselves and the way we see others. Whether this mismatch can be addressed is still an open question that we would like to explore in the future.

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