National Identity and Brexit


This paper studies the relationship between inflows of migrants into local areas and the self-reported well-being of natives. We document a negative association between inflows of migrants and the mental health of natives, but we uncover no significant relationship for life satisfaction. We find these estimated population level impacts masks considerable heterogeneity according to patterns of attachment to national identity. For people with an ethnic form (here proxied by Englishness), we find the disutility associated with immigration can be substantive, whereas for those with a civic form (Britishness) the estimated impact on mental health is not statistically significant (or substantive) and for life satisfaction positive. Our proposed explanation draws on identity economics which suggests that people assign themselves into social categories (e.g. English or British) with each category having different norms relating to how people should look and act. We put forward subjective well-being and in particular differences in national identity across individuals as an important factor underpinning the sharp variation in public attitudes towards immigration. More broadly, our analysis suggests that focusing on objective indicators, as is the norm (e.g. wages, unemployment), may give a limited understanding of the consequences of immigration for the welfare of natives.

Keywords: mental well-being, immigration, national identity, social identity theory, immigration attitudes


Howley, Peter and Waqas, Muhammad (2021) National identity and Brexit. Leeds University Business School Working Paper Forthcoming. DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.3464210