The question of what it means to be British has been debated for centuries and remains a complex and sometimes contentious issue. From the rolling hills of the countryside to the bustling streets of London, the British identity is rooted in a rich and diverse history.

But what do the British public themselves think? The results might surprise you. With King Charles III’s coronation earlier this year, you would be forgiven for thinking the royal family would top our poll. But no, it is another institution that wins out. The symbol that the public associate with Britishness most is … the NHS.

Our national healthcare system is the number one symbol of British identity according to the public, beating off competition from the monarchy, the Union Jack and even the pub. So as the NHS marks its 75th anniversary, it can also celebrate its status as the nation’s number one British icon.

What’s more, the NHS is the most selected symbol of Britishness in all age groups except those aged 65 and over, where it trails the monarchy. It is an association made by both Labour and Conservative voters alike and is the top association for all social backgrounds, ethnicities, and nations. It is also an association that the vast majority (91%) say they feel positive about.

The significance of the NHS as an issue in British politics should therefore not be understated. Usually covered in the media as a debate about delivery, spending and strikes, the NHS is much more than a simple “transactional” public service. It’s core to our identity.

This presents a considerable opportunity for all parties to frame the political debate around the NHS not purely in terms of competence and delivery, but to harness the emotive power of national identity when pitching their policies and plan for our health service.

Nationalistic framing is something that left-of-centre parties are sometimes uncomfortable making. But the NHS offers a unifying issue allowing politicians to make an identity-based, patriotic message with broad appeal.

Given the media profile of challenges the NHS faces regarding staff shortages and waiting times, the poll also highlights the more general danger that perceived damage to the NHS presents to the Conservative Party’s fortunes. The Conservatives currently trail Labour by a margin of 20 percentage points when it comes to who is best on the NHS, a gap that Rishi Sunak must close at least a little to stand any chance of holding on to power after the next election.

Methodology, fieldwork dates, and a full breakdown of these results can be found here.

For a more detailed breakdown of results from this poll, or any other results from our polling series, please get in touch by email or phone.

Robert Struthers

Head of Polling at BMG

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