The United Kingdom’s 2016 referendum on European Union membership ended with the shock decision to exit the EU and started the leaving process that has come to be known as Brexit. After over 40 years of membership and integration, this decision has had profound effects not just in terms of Britain’s relationship with Europe and the wider world, but also within British politics and society. The referendum results exposed deep fissures within the United Kingdom and led to profound political realignments, with the Brexit issue likely to shape Britain for decades to come. Once considered a bastion of stability, Brexit has instead illustrated the United Kingdom as a nation in flux and undergoing a deep crisis of politics and identity. This 101 series will first investigate the reasons behind the decision to leave the European Union, before analysing the effects that Brexit has had on British domestic politics.
British Politics and Brexit 101 is divided into six different chapters:
British Politics and Brexit 101: The Disunited Kingdom – Brexit and the Nations
British Politics and Brexit 101: Political Realignment
British Politics and Brexit 101: A Country in Crisis – The Future
The UK’s decision to leave one union of nations in the form of the EU has also had serious implications on the future of another century’s old union of nations — that of the United Kingdom itself. In all, a little under 52% of the UK-wide electorate voted for Brexit — meaning all four nations leaving the EU together. However, when broken down at the national level, whilst majorities in England (53.4%) and Wales (52.5%) voted to Leave, majorities in Scotland (62%) and Northern Ireland (55.8%) voted to Remain (BBC, 2021). With the UK having already witnessed the growing power of the Scottish independence movement, along with the ever-complex situation in Northern Ireland and growing feelings of English nationalism, the Brexit referendum has further fuelled these often-complicated national dynamics. This article will provide an analysis of the Brexit vote and its implications for each of the four nations.
The article will first investigate Northern Ireland. This will show how, despite Northern Ireland is almost totally ignored in the national referendum debate, Brexit has provided fundamental challenges to the basis of the Peace Process and acted as the most significant barrier to the UK exiting the EU. These processes have shown how the ambitions of hard-line Brexiters are incompatible with a peaceful Northern Ireland, ultimately precipitating Theresa May’s downfall as Prime Minister. The second section will examine the situation in Scotland. This will show how the independence movement has tried to use Brexit to distance Scotland from England and rally Scottish people in a renewed push for an independence referendum, to mixed effect. The third section will investigate why Wales was the only smaller nation to vote for Brexit and will then analyse the post-Brexit growth of Welsh nationalist sentiment. The final section will analyse England, to show how Brexit can be understood as an English nationalist movement. In all, it will be shown how Brexit has provided the biggest challenge to the unity of the United Kingdom since Irish independence in 1921. However, to contextualise these developments, there will first be a brief overview of the United Kingdom as a union of nations.
The United Kingdom and Political Identity: Centuries in the Making
England has always been the largest and most populated part of the British Isles, first becoming a unified entity in the 10th Century A.D, before becoming the dominant power in the British Isles after the Norman Conquest of 1066 (Kumar, 2000). Meanwhile, Wales had been ruled by England since a 13th-century conquest, before being formally incorporated into the Kingdom of England in 1535, to officially become the legal jurisdiction of England and Wales (Pryce, 2001). Later in 1603, the Scottish King James IV also inherited the English throne to become the first Monarch to sit on the thrones of both England and Scotland, marking the Union of Crowns. Around the same time, the Protestant reformation saw some of the ancient territorial English and Scottish monarchical allegiances break down in favour of cross-border religious loyalties (Colley, 1992). Simultaneously, the expansion of England and other European nations into mercantilist empires led the Scottish aristocracy and mercantilist elite to bankrupt themselves attempting to form a failed colony in Panama in the 1690s (Koditschek, 2002). With Scotland’s ruling class hoping to wipe out their significant debts to English banks, as well as sensing the opportunity to join England in sharing the wealth of its Empire, and to protect themselves from attempts by Spain and France to reimpose a Catholic monarch, the Scottish and English Parliaments voted to unify in the 1707 Act of Union (Koditschek, 2002). The United Kingdom was thus born. There soon developed a joint British national identity, based on the wealth, power and prestige of the Empire, along with a shared Protestantism, and the unifying effect of wars with foreign powers (Colley, 1992). These elements of joint British identity were later complemented by Britain as the world’s first industrial nation (Kumar, 2000). The final piece of the jigsaw was Ireland, which had its own long and fraught history with England, and later Scotland, which had attempted to subjugate Ireland and suppress its Catholicism and culture (Colley, 1992). The failed 1798 Irish rebellion in turn led to Ireland’s formal incorporation into the United Kingdom with the 1801 Act of Union (Brophy, 2016).
Nevertheless, in the 20th century, some of these historical bonds began to fray. The Irish War of Independence saw the last nation to join the United Kingdom become the first to break away in 1921, leaving a partitioned Protestant-majority Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom (Brophy, 2016). Later, the loss of the Empire and the growth of secularism saw some of the traditional unifiers of Britishness amongst the rest of the United Kingdom also begin to weaken (Colley, 1992). Whilst England’s national identity had become intrinsically tied to that of Britain, the other parts of the United Kingdom had always maintained their own distinct identities within wider conceptions of Britishness (Colley, 1992). The economic and social upheavals of deindustrialisation in Wales and Scotland, along with civil conflict in Northern Ireland, helped politically reignite these national identities and exposed Britain’s heavily centralised system of Westminster rule (Colley, 1992). To address this over-centralisation, New Labour introduced devolved assemblies via referendum in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1998 and 1999, which would hold their own elections and have a variety of legislative powers (Jeffrey, 2009). Consequently, whilst all four nations have continued to engage in Westminster politics at the British national level, the devolved assemblies have added a layer of complexity and illustrated alternative political dynamics within these nations.
Brexit in Northern Ireland: Threatening the Foundations of Peace
As shown in this 101 series, Northern Ireland was home to a thirty-year ethnonational conflict euphemistically known as The Troubles, between Irish Nationalists and British Unionists. This conflict only ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, after an incredibly challenging and complex Peace Process, with Northern Ireland’s divisions and potential for renewed conflict never having disappeared (Mars et al., 2018). The European Union has played a significant role in this Northern Irish peace for several reasons. The first is the increased integration of Northern and Southern Ireland, made possible by the EU Customs Union and Single Market (Mars et al., 2018). This has not only encouraged economic assimilation but also allowed Irish Nationalists to freely cross the invisible border without feeling like they are entering a different country. The second reason is the increase in political and economic cooperation between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, in which the European Union has acted as a useful vehicle (Mars et al., 2018). The final reason is the writing of the European Convention on Human Rights into Northern Irish law, acting as an independent third-party arbitrator guaranteeing legal equality between Northern Irish Unionists and Nationalists (Mars et al., 2018). Consequently, Northern Ireland is the part of the UK most adversely affected by Brexit and the biggest block in the formation of a UK-EU exit agreement.
Ultimately Northern Ireland voted almost 56% in favour of remaining in the EU (Moltmann, 2017). However, in common with most other political matters in Northern Ireland, the referendum results fell along communal lines. The DUP, as Northern Ireland’s largest Unionist party — which represented a traditionally belligerent form of British Unionism — actively campaigned for Leave in the belief that it would tie Northern Ireland more closely to the rest of the United Kingdom with a reinvigorated sense of Britishness (Moltmann, 2017). For Irish Nationalists, as discussed, the invisible border presents a major practical and psychological concession to their feelings of Irish unity, allowing them to live more easily within the United Kingdom whilst maintaining their Irish links. By contrast, the DUP were more relaxed about the possibility of the reimposition of a hard border with Ireland, which would act as a physical and psychological barrier towards the possibility of Irish unification (Moltmann, 2017). As a result, around 60% of Unionists voted Leave, in comparison to 85% of Nationalists voting to Remain (Moltmann, 2017). In the years before the Brexit referendum, Northern Ireland had been going through a period of unprecedented peace and political stability. However, these referendum results quickly reignited tensions.
Despite these high stakes, Northern Ireland represents the smallest constituent part of the United Kingdom, comprising less than 3% of the UK population at 1.8 million people, and accounting for little over 2% of the British GDP (Fenton, 2016). This, combined with a wider ignorance of Northern Irish affairs in other parts of the UK — with Northern Irish peace seemingly taken for granted — meant Northern Ireland received remarkably little attention in the national Brexit referendum campaign, or among the prominent voices pushing for Brexit (Moltmann, 2017). Yet as shown in the previous chapter, Theresa May’s 2016 announcement of Britain’s red lines for negotiating with the EU included Britain leaving both the Single Market and Customs Union, and raised even the possibility of crashing out of the EU with no deal. This, by default, meant the prospect of a so-called “Hard Border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic, in which border infrastructure would be needed for the processing of imports and exports to the EU (Mars et al., 2018). Nevertheless, the renewed threat of violence by armed dissident Republicans in the event of a reimposition of a hard Irish border, and the possible spiral back into wider violence, were very real (Moltmann, 2017). Brexit MPs claimed a Hard Border would not be needed as they would find an as-yet non-existent technological solution which would allow for the seamless processing of Customs duties on goods crossing the border, without the need for physical checks or border points (Mars et al., 2018). Yet this vague and seemingly unworkable suggestion was woefully inadequate to prevent the rapid reignition of political tensions in Northern Ireland. Despite the unwillingness of hard-line Brexit MPs to support a compromise on any aspect of the Customs Union, it was equally clear that no British Prime Minister, nor the EU, could risk a hard border and return to violence, meaning a solution would have to be found and compromises made.
The tensions of Brexit, combined with an emerging corruption scandal involving the DUP over largescale misuse of public funds, meant that by January 2017 the Northern Irish Stormont Assembly was suspended for the first time in ten years, as the nationalist Sinn Féin and unionist DUP power-sharing arrangement collapsed amid mutual recriminations (Mars et al., 2018). Meanwhile, the 2017 UK General Election in June resulted in the Conservatives losing their slim Parliamentary majority, with Theresa May instead falling nine seats short of being able to pass legislation, with the DUP simultaneously increasing their MPs to ten. With the Conservatives — officially known as the “Conservative and Unionist Party” — championing themselves as defenders of the Union, Northern Irish Unionists have traditionally sided with the Conservatives in Parliament. Consequently, the DUP suddenly found themselves in a position of unprecedented Parliamentary power as kingmakers, with their decision to back Brexit seemingly paying off (Mars et al., 2018). In exchange for a series of demands, including an extra £1 billion in funding for Northern Ireland, the DUP would allow Theresa May to pass legislation, including on her Brexit negotiations, with the slimmest and most precarious of majorities at just two MPs (Mars et al., 2018).
The outcome of Theresa May’s negotiated concessions with the EU on Northern Ireland was known as the “Irish backstop”, which illustrated how Theresa May’s red lines were ultimately incompatible with the Northern Irish situation and precipitated her downfall (Kingston, 2019). The Irish backstop proposed that the whole of Britain would remain in an indefinite customs union with the EU — albeit separate from the Customs Union to appease Brexiters — to prevent Irish cross-border checks, until an alternative future solution could be arranged (Kingston, 2019). Furthermore, the backstop proposed that Northern Ireland would retain some elements of the Single market that the rest of the UK would extricate itself from, to maintain the seamless Irish border (Kingston, 2019). The concession that the UK would remain in an indefinite customs arrangement with the EU was unconscionable for hard-line Eurosceptic MPs. Meanwhile, the suggestion of regulatory differences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK was unconscionable to the DUP, which withdrew its support from May to pass legislation (Hayward, 2021). As shall be seen in the next chapter, rather than gifting the DUP and Northern Irish unionism greater power and tying Northern Ireland closer to the rest of the UK, both Brexit and the subsequent decision to oppose the Irish Backstop in fact turned out to be a spectacular own goal. Instead, a de facto border has emerged between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, much to Unionist fury with renewed outbreaks of Loyalist violence (Hayward, 2021). This has in turn led to a substantial political realignment at the DUP’s expense, with Sinn Féin, the party once associated with the IRA, instead for the first time becoming Northern Ireland’s largest party, with the prospect of Irish unity closer than ever.
Brexit in Scotland: The Route to Independence?
Scotland is the UK’s second-largest nation, consisting of one-third of British territory, 8% of the British population at 5.4 million people, and around 8% of the British GDP (Smith, 2021). Traditionally the densely populated industrial central belt of Scotland has been an impenetrable Labour stronghold, while the Highlands were largely Liberal, and the rural Lowlands largely Conservative. Nevertheless, the 1997 election of Tony Blair’s Labour saw Scotland resoundingly turn its back on the Conservatives, instead becoming a centre-left Labour and Liberal Democrat bastion in General Elections (Erlanger, 2015). However, the biggest story in Scottish politics since the 1999 creation of the Scottish Parliament has been the spectacular growth of the Scottish National Party (SNP), as the spearhead of the Scottish independence movement (Flamini, 2013). The SNP had historically shifted its politics leftwards and rightwards to find nationalist support, earning a few rural seats in General Elections over the decades (Flamini, 2013). However, with Scotland’s wider shift to the political left in the 1990s, the SNP became a decisively centre-left party in pursuit of independence. With the national Labour Party focusing on competing for the centre-right votes of Middle England, the SNP was able to successfully portray Labour as taking Scottish support for granted, resulting in increasing SNP seats in Scottish Parliamentary elections (Erlanger, 2015). In 2007 the SNP for the first time became the biggest party in the Holyrood Scottish Parliament, and in 2011 it spectacularly became the first party to win an outright majority of Holyrood seats, leading to the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum (Erlanger, 2015).
The 2014 Scottish Independence referendum has become a seminal and defining moment in modern Scottish political history. The referendum drew praise for its widespread and passionate democratic engagement — including among Scotland’s youth with anyone over 16 able to vote — but it also proved bitterly divisive (Erlanger, 2015). The referendum ultimately ended with over 55% of Scots voting in favour of staying in the United Kingdom, with a turnout of over 86% (Erlanger, 2015). However, this was far closer than prior polls had suggested, with 2012 polls placing support for Scottish independence between 32-38% (Flamini, 2013). Most significantly, one of the pro-Union camps’ big claims to dissuade Scottish voters from independence was that Scotland would be out of the EU if they broke from the UK and would need to reapply to join (Erlanger, 2015). Furthermore, with independence support strongest in Scotland’s Central Belt, many traditional Labour supporters felt betrayed by Labour’s joint pro-Union platform with the Conservative Party (Erlanger, 2015). The following 2015 General Election, with Scottish independence supporters rallying around the SNP whilst the pro-Union vote, was split between the other parties, resulting in a stunning SNP landslide (Nicolson, 2022). The SNP went from just 6 Westminster seats in 2011 to 56 in 2015, winning in all but three Scottish constituencies; meanwhile, Labour was wiped out, losing 40 of its 41 Scottish seats (Nicolson, 2022). The independence referendum had been lost, but Scottish nationalist politics was stronger than ever.
The subsequent 2016 Brexit referendum saw Scotland vote with a 62% majority to Remain in the European Union, the most decisive majority of any of the four nations. The referendum campaign rhetoric in Scotland, in comparison to the divisive antagonism in England and Wales, had been notably more moderate and consensual (Bonacchi, 2022). Yet, with Scotland making up only 8% of the British population, their Remain vote was not big enough to swing the wider-British vote in favour of Remain, meaning Scotland being dragged out of the EU against the Scottish peoples’ will. This was a particularly bitter blow, especially considering it was only two years prior that Scots were being threatened with losing EU membership if they opted for independence. Now, by stark contrast and brutal irony, it seemed independence might be their best hope of returning to the EU. Indeed, the SNP sought in the first independence referendum to emphasise two main notions underlining a vision of Scottish civic nationalism within a European context, to distance itself from England (Nicolson, 2022). The first is the vision for an independent Social Democratic Scotland within the EU, through which they emphasise Scandinavia as their inspiration, in comparison to successive ideologically free-market Conservative governments whose votes are concentrated in England (Nicolson, 2022).
The second is the encouragement of immigration to Scotland — as opposed to anti-immigration politics in England — in which Freedom of Movement would help replace Scotland’s depopulated rural areas and ageing population (Nicolson, 2022). Scotland, in contrast to the notably more multicultural England, largely avoided both historical Commonwealth immigration since the 1950s and the large-scale immigration of the New Labour years (Shankley et al., 2020). Accordingly, in divergence from the fast-growing population of England, Scotland has in fact experienced some degree of population stagnation. As a result, anti-immigration politics holds less purchase in Scotland, providing an opportunity for the SNP to put forward a vision of a more tolerant and outward-facing Scotland in opposition to England (Nicolson, 2022). Both notions stand in clear contrast to, and seemed to be confirmed by, the England-focused Brexit campaign. For all these reasons the SNP took the Brexit vote as their cue to start agitating for a second independence referendum, stating that the political facts had now irrevocably changed from the first independence referendum just two years earlier. This seemed to signal the very real possibility that Brexit could act as the final and decisive blow to Scotland’s three-century-old Union with England and the rest of the United Kingdom.
However, this picture in favour of post-Brexit Scottish independence is not quite as clear as it first seems. As noted in the previous chapter, 36% of SNP voters also opted to Leave the European Union (Sampson, 2017). This would suggest that a significant minority of Scottish independence voters in 2014 also opted for Brexit in 2016, with some arguing the EU erodes Scottish sovereignty in the same way as the UK, thus muddying the outward-looking and pro-EU face of Scottish nationalism (Tannam, 2016). Indeed, polling also shows that Scottish public attitudes towards immigration are not much different from those in England, with large proportions of Scots viewing immigration negatively despite Scotland having far fewer migrants than England, further challenging the SNP narrative (Nicolson, 2022). Furthermore, the economic practicalities of Scottish Independence have possibly become even worse post-Brexit than in 2014. In 2019, 60% of Scottish exports went to the rest of the UK, representing three times the value of Scottish exports to the European Union, which would have severe negative implications if EU trade barriers and tariffs sprung up on Scottish trade with the UK (Murden, 2021). Finally, despite independence being the SNP’s raison d´etre, only 16% of Scots believe independence to be a top concern, far below the economy (54%), health (51%) and education (28%) (McDonnell, 2022).
For these reasons, despite the political injustices of Brexit for Scotland, Scottish independence is far from a foregone conclusion, with the reality more nuanced. The SNP has announced plans for a new independence referendum by the end of 2023, with the issue currently in the Supreme Court as to whether the Scottish Parliament has the authority to call this referendum without Westminster approval (McDonnell, 2022). However, with Scotland having already been through two divisive referendums in recent years, many Scots are reluctant to a third high-stakes referendum so soon, with 59% of Scots opposing a 2023 independence referendum (McDonnell, 2022). Furthermore, despite some post-Brexit fluctuations, support for Scottish independence in the polls is largely unchanged since 2014, remaining at around 45% (McDonnell, 2022). Consequently, it is likely that attempts for a new referendum will be deferred, with the loss of a second referendum likely ending the possibility of Scottish independence for another generation. Nevertheless, around 42% of Scots believe there should be a new referendum within the next five years (McDonnell, 2022). Meanwhile, with Scottish nationalist parties still holding a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament, and with the SNP still dominating Scottish seats in Westminster, it is clear the Scottish independence issue is not going away any time soon.
Brexit in Wales: Nationalism Brought in From the Cold?
Wales represents 4.8% of the UK population at 3.4 million people, and 3.5% of the British GDP (Jones, 2017). Yet, despite its small size and nearly five hundred years of formal union with England, Wales has always retained a fiercely proud and distinct national identity. The first pillar of this identity is a Welsh ethnic identity and folk memory as the last bastion of the Romano-Celts, who once covered all of England before being displaced by the Anglo-Saxons (Pryce, 2001). This aspect of identity is exemplified by the ancient Welsh language, which is still spoken by 30% of the population, including 14% who speak it daily — particularly concentrated in the sparsely populated North and West (ONS, 2020). The second pillar of this identity is the distinct geography of mountains and valleys, marking a definitive Welsh geological separation from England (Jones, 1992). The final and more modern pillar is a strong working-class industrial heritage, particularly in South Wales regarding coal mining (Jones, 1992).
Despite this strong identity, Wales has also historically been marked by low support for independence, rarely rising above 15% (Jones, 2017). Plaid Cymru is Wales’ main nationalist party, and despite holding a policy of seeking independence, its main campaign focus is on further devolved powers for the Welsh Assembly and measures to protect the Welsh language and cultural identity (Jones, 2017). Accordingly, its main base of support is in the North and West Welsh-speaking regions, with it consistently maintaining around 20% of Welsh Assembly seats since 1999 (Jones, 2017). Elsewhere, Welsh national politics follow broadly similar patterns to England. The densely populated and poorer ex-industrial South Wales is a Labour stronghold, retaining between 40-50% of Welsh seats (Jones, 2017). Meanwhile, the Conservatives dominate the rural and wealthier Eastern regions of Wales that border England and contain a more split English-Welsh identity, where the Liberal Democrats also find support (Jones, 2017).
However, the other factor that points to shared political dynamics with England is that, despite being one of the UK’s biggest per capita beneficiaries of EU funding, Wales was the only smaller UK nation to also vote Leave, with a narrow majority of 52.5% (Jones, 2017). Like England, this support for Brexit was concentrated in deprived ex-industrial communities — ironically the main beneficiaries of EU funding — who also shared strong anti-immigration sentiments, with some districts seeing a tilt towards UKIP (Jones, 2017). Meanwhile, as in England, Remain support was stronger in some wealthier areas of East Wales, along with the Welsh university city and capital of Cardiff (Jones, 2017). As a result, in illustrating political commonality with England, it may be expected that Brexit would have less influence in fuelling Welsh nationalism than in Scotland.
However, as with Scotland, Remain also found support from nationalist Plaid Cymru and the Welsh-speaking regions, who saw an opportunity to build their own outward-facing and modern image of Welsh nationalism in the style of Scotland (Jones, 2017). This rallying of nationalist support for the EU has combined with successive post-Brexit Conservative British governments — which are widely hated in South Wales following Thatcher’s policy of deindustrialisation — to lead to a backlash of Welsh opinion against British politics (Jones, 2017). This has led to some shedding of support for Welsh Labour, which ex-industrial voters see as an ineffective opposition against the Conservatives (Jones, 2017). Accordingly, this has allowed Welsh nationalism space to grow for the first time in the ex-industrial south. The result is that some 31% of Welsh people now want an independence referendum within the next five years, with some polls indicating as many as 30% of Welsh people would support independence (YouGov, 2021). Although still a minority position, this is a significant increase in support from the pre-Brexit period. It remains to be seen if this support for independence will be maintained or even grow, with Plaid Cymru thus far failing to capitalise electorally. However, it seems that Brexit has for the first time in modern history brought Welsh nationalism in from the fringes, with the opportunity to cement itself in the mainstream (Jones, 2017).
Brexit in England: Brexit as a Vehicle for English Nationalism
England is by far the largest nation in the United Kingdom, representing some 84% of the British population at 56.4 million people, and close to 86% of the GDP (Jones, 2017). In turn, England’s dominance within the United Kingdom has led to a different relationship with British identity than is the case in the UK’s smaller nations. For some people in England, and indeed much of the wider world, the terms “England” and “Britain” are used almost interchangeably — a misnomer that would never be made in Scotland or Wales (Kumar, 2000). However, far from being a simple matter of linguistics, this represents a deeper reflection of English identity and perception. Whilst Scotland and Wales have retained their own distinct historical national identities and narratives within Britain that have existed alongside a wider British identity, English identity has historically often blurred into British identity (Kumar, 2000).
This is perhaps unsurprising. Aside from England’s dominant size, the historical English Parliament in Westminster became the British Parliament, the English capital London became the British capital, and the British Empire was a direct continuation of the English Empire, with a national identity built around these institutions (Kumar, 2000). In practical political terms today, whilst Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have devolved parliaments governing specific national affairs, England has no devolved national parliament or even regional assemblies, meaning specifically English affairs continue to be dictated by the centralised British Westminster Parliament (Jeffrey, 2009). With English nationalism thus so heavily tied up with historical British imperialism, Kumar (2000) claims that the loss of the Empire has led to a crisis of modern English identity that contrasts with the UK’s smaller nations, whose national identities are more well-established independent of the Empire.
Simultaneously, as noted, England was also the country most in favour of Brexit, with 53.4% voting to Leave. England’s size meant this Leave vote ultimately decided the wider referendum result for the whole of the United Kingdom. Even breaking England down into regions, most of which are individually larger in population terms than the whole of Scotland, every single region except London voted by a majority to Leave the European Union (BBC, 2021). It is here that the differences between British and English identity become more significant. Around 44% of people in England state, they feel equally English and British, forming the most common identity (Ballinger, 2022). However, around 18% of people say they feel more English than British, and a similar amount state they feel only English (Ballinger, 2022). Only 5% state they feel only British. Within this, the claiming of an English-only or primarily English identity is much higher amongst the White population, and among lower socio-economic groups (Phillips et al., 2018).
By contrast, ethnic minority respondents feel a stronger sense of Britishness than Englishness, with only 1 in 10 ethnic minority respondents claiming a purely English identity, and a full 17% claiming only a British identity (Ballinger, 2022). Although England has a far more modern history of immigration than the other nations, with a much higher foreign-born population and a 21% non-White British population, the common parlance for ethnic minorities in England remains “British” — e.g., Black British or British Asian (Shankley et al., 2020). This reflects the historical arrival of immigrants from the Commonwealth nations of the ex-British Empire in which Britain — and not England — was the central metropolis and Britishness the imperial identity (Shankley et al., 2020). By comparison, ethnic minorities in Scotland, who often have a more recent history of familial immigration, are more likely to claim a Scottish and not British identity — e.g., Scottish Asian (Shankley et al., 2020). This has led to claims that the English national identity is seen as a more ethnic or cultural identity than a civic one, in comparison to a more inclusive, civic and multicultural British identity (Kumar, 2000). At a political level, a specifically English identity has at the extremes been historically adopted by far-right nativist and anti-immigration groups. By contrast, there have been fewer attempts to put forward a positive and inclusive civic case for political Englishness — as nationalists have done in Scotland and Wales — with civic multiculturalism in England instead still reflected through the wider language of Britishness (Shankley et al., 2020).
Perhaps it is unsurprising then that those who claim to hold a stronger English identity are also more likely to hold negative attitudes toward immigration and multiculturalism than those who hold a stronger British identity (Phillips et al., 2018). Simultaneously, those who claim an English identity are also far more likely to support leaving the EU, with 69% of respondents claiming an English-only identity voting Leave in 2016 (Phillips et al., 2018). By comparison, only 33% who held a British-only identity supported Leave, with the scale titling in favour of Leave the more strongly people feel their English identity (Phillips et al., 2018). This has led to claims that Brexit is primarily an English nationalist movement, which due to England’s dominance within the United Kingdom has had British-wide implications (Bonacchi, 2022). Indeed, except for some parts of South Wales, the pre-referendum rise of UKIP was confined to England and in particular those working-class areas that hold the strongest English identities (Bonacchi, 2022). Furthermore, all the top ten most pro-Leave voting districts were in England, and voter referendum turnout was higher in England than any of the other four nations — showing a greater degree of energisation over the EU issue (BBC, 2021).
As shall be seen in the next chapter, the Conservative and Unionist Party utilised these English dynamics to lead a major political realignment. Boris Johnson’s populist nationalism saw Northern England’s ex-industrial and previously impenetrable Labour ’Red Wall’ instead fall to the Tories, who increasingly resembled an English nationalist party. Nevertheless, these English nationalist dynamics regarding Brexit remain only part of the story. Being the largest and most culturally, ethnically, economically and regionally diverse of the nations, England contains not just all of the most pro-Leave areas, but seven out of ten of the most pro-Remain areas as well, with the biggest geographical variations in Brexit support (BBC, 2021). Whilst many Brexiters in England have rallied around an English identity, Remainers by contrast have been more likely to express a post-Brexit British identity, thus identifying common ground with the smaller and more pro-Remain nations of the UK and the civic, international and multicultural connotations of Britishness (Kenny et al., 2021). How these dynamics will continue to play out, and how those who adopt a British identity will react to the potential breakup of the United Kingdom, will help decide the future of English and indeed wider British politics.
Conclusions: Unprecedented Threat to Centuries of Union
As can be observed, Brexit has profoundly altered the political dynamics in all four of Britain’s nations. With many of the foundations of British political and national identity having already frayed in the Twentieth Century, in particular the loss of the Empire and deindustrialisation, Brexit has served to highlight the differing dynamics, divides and national identities within the United Kingdom to create an unprecedented threat to this centuries-old union. Northern Ireland has experienced the reignition of potentially violent political tensions with deep implications for its constitutional future. Scotland has demonstrated its very distinct political dynamics that have fuelled the continued energy of the nationalist movement, with independence a real possibility. Wales has seen significant nationalist sentiment emerge for the first time in modern political history. Finally, England appears to be undergoing a deep and fundamental crisis of national identity, which can help explain the existence of Brexit itself. As shall be illustrated in the next chapter, these dynamics have all helped lead to a major realignment in British electoral politics.
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Cover Photo: Brownlie, G. (2019). Glasgow, Scotland - May 4 2019: Pro Scottish independence supporters on Yes march in Glasgow city centre [Photograph]. Shutterstock. Retrieved from: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/glasgow-scotland-may-4-2019-pro-1388408129
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