THE majority of people identifying as “British only” in last year’s English census has been put down to a change in how the question was set out, creating a “public misconception”.

Political experts professors Ailsa Henderson and John Denham have both argued in an essay that an alteration in the way the identity question was presented significantly contributed to an increase in people identifying as British over English.

They have warned it could quickly become a “public misconception” when measures of national identity have “real-world importance”.

According to the Guardian, more than half of those who live in England identified as “British only” in the 2021 census but, as the Office for National Statistics (ONS) itself warned, this was the outcome of changes to the structure of the national identity question, with “British” listed as first among the options.

Just 10 years earlier when the ONS offered “English” as the first choice and “British” as the fifth, 60% of England’s residents appeared to be “English only”.

The essay states: “Changing survey questions can influence the results.

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“Those running social surveys know that there are multiple ways to ask about national identity. You can ask respondents to select any that apply (the question used in the 2021 census), or the single national identity that fits a person best.

“Others prefer the Moreno question, which asks individuals to indicate the relative weight of English and British identity: English not British, More English than British, Equally English and British, and so on.”

Henderson and Denham said the alteration has potentially created a number of issues for our understanding of how people identify south of the Border, particularly when surveys in other nations of the UK set out the question differently.

The pair have accused the ONS of “ignoring their own rules” by changing the question dramatically from one census to another.

The National: Professor Ailsa Henderson Professor Ailsa Henderson (Image: Newsquest)

They said: “Scottish and Welsh identity are listed first in the Scottish and Welsh census, so it is difficult for us to know if England feels more British than other parts of the state, or whether this is an artefact of the question.

“Response order also matters. We know on election ballots this works to the advantage of candidates with surnames towards the top of the alphabet.  

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“Research from both Quebec and the UK shows that changing the order of the Moreno categories, so that they run British not English, more British not English, rather than the usual English not British etc advantages the categories listed first. Mention English national identity first and the figures jump. Mention British national identity first and the figures jump.

“It’s easy to see where the ONS went wrong. They first ignored their own rules that questions should change as little as possible from one census to another. More important, they did not learn from 2011 that, unless explicitly offered mixed identities, most people will tick one box and quickly move on.”

Henderson and Denham have said the fact national identities of English and British are “more tangled” in England suggests changing the order of such words would have a stronger effect in England than it perhaps would in Scotland.

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The essay goes on: “This tangling effect, particular to England, suggests that any order effect of the question would be stronger in England than in would be in, say, Scotland, where respondents would be more likely to search further down the list to find the Scottish label.

“This doesn’t mean that the English are more British, but instead that the relationship between the two identities is different, something which the survey question does nothing to illuminate.”

In its criticism of the move by ONS, the piece argues national identity questions are vital in “understanding the dynamics driving our politics” and ideas of Britishness and Englishness are likely to become more important in the future.

“Our measures of national identity have a real-world importance” said Henderson and Denham.

“If, as the ONS headline figures suggest, there has been both a big shift from ‘English only’ to ‘British only’ we might assume that the political divides around Brexit and attitudes toward the union have been decisively resolved. If being ‘English and British’ is now a small minority identity it might also be assumed that ‘British’ and ‘English’ have now evolved as two, largely distinct, identities. Neither is true.

“The interplay between different ideas of Britishness, Englishness, and Englishness with Britishness are likely to be more rather than less important in the future.

“The problem now, as the Guardian report shows, is that the erroneous figure will pass quickly into public misconception.”