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Polarisation and Cultural Realignment in Britain, 2014-2019

CALDWELL, DAVID,THOMAS (2023) Polarisation and Cultural Realignment in Britain, 2014-2019. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

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Following decades of reduced ideological competition, mainstream party policy diverged in Britain after the 2007-2008 financial crisis. This is motivating renewed interest in mass polarisation, yet that concept remains understudied relative to the American political science literature. Almost all existing research is based in the post-Thatcher era of left-right convergence, leaving gaps in our understanding of cultural realignment during the Brexit period. I consider three perspectives on polarisation in this thesis: (1) sociological accounts claim that polarisation reflects changes in distributional properties of public opinion; (2) party sorting accounts contend that public opinion is not necessarily polarising so much as partisanship is more organised around issue positions; (3) elite cue accounts argue that partisanship causes polarisation and thus limits attitude change to politically engaged voters.

These accounts are tested using cross-sectional and panel data from the British Election Study, 2014-2019. I operationalise aggregate outcomes and individual-level mechanisms contested in the American case, examining the extent to which citizens are dividing through different variables (attitude versus partisanship change), via different voters (partisans versus non-partisans), and on different issues (cultural versus economic).

Little evidence is found for elite cue accounts throughout the thesis. Despite strong left-right policy divergence among Labour-Conservative platforms, I observe depolarisation in the distributional properties and partisanship of mass economic preferences. More ambiguous elite disagreements surrounding European integration, immigration, and broader social values are associated with escalating social division, meanwhile. I find liberal attitude change suggesting socio-demographic culture shifts, yet this trend is unfolding in conjunction with party switching mechanisms. The product of these changes drives mass polarisation from 2014 to 2019, indicating an overarching account of cultural realignment based on sociological and party sorting processes.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Social Sciences and Health > Government and International Affairs, School of
Thesis Date:2023
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:31 May 2023 09:27

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