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Does Brexit Mean the Break-up of Britain?

16 Nov 2016
By Dr Ben Wellings
Ripped Union Jack. Photo Credit: Jamie (Flickr) Creative Commons

One of the paradoxes of Brexit is that what its supporters advocated as a strengthening of British sovereignty weakened the multi-national fabric of the United Kingdom. The pro-Brexit Conservative Government may feel that it successfully defended British sovereignty from the EU but as the de facto party of England, it has to preserve British sovereignty from secessionism in Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

One the notable features of June’s Brexit result was the different levels of support for Leave and Remain in the UK’s four nations. Whereas 54 per cent of the English electorate (including London) voted to leave the European Union, 62 per cent per cent of the Scottish electorate voted to remain. In Wales 53 per cent of voters wanted out, whilst 56 per cent of Northern Irish voters wanted to stay in.

But the future of the United Kingdom will not be decided in Scotland or Northern Ireland. Instead, it will be determined in the south of England.

Contrary to received wisdom, the result of the referendum was not brought about by a protest from those in the Labour heartlands of the North of England ‘left behind’ by globalisation; it was a revolt by the middle classes in the south.

The ‘left behind’ explanation owes much to the research of Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin. Their research showed that disaffected white, working class, middle-aged men underpinned support for the radical right in Britain.  This explained support for the UK Independence Party very well. But it is not so satisfactory when used to explain Brexit, which was a much broader phenomenon. To properly understand Brexit we need to cast our net wider and consider the nationalist politics of England.

The middle classes (those designated “ABC1” by analysts) were crucial to the outcome of the vote across the UK. It is true that those in the lower socioeconomic brackets voted overwhelmingly to leave. However, the disproportionate turnout among the better off meant the impact of the wealthy was greater. ABC1’s constituted two thirds of those who voted across the UK. Given their geographic concentration, this meant that most of those people who voted to leave lived in the south of England.

This insight matters because nationalism is not just about secession. It is about maintaining and legitimising an existing state too. This is why the politics of nationalism in England is so important for the future of the United Kingdom.

The current resurgence of nationalist politics in England began in the early 1990s. Just when Scots began agitating for independence in Europe, the English began campaigning for independence from Europe. Euroscepticism is a key driver and an expression of this resurgent English nationalism.

Yet the dominant version of this English nationalism is characterised by a desire to defend British sovereignty.  When Theresa May told voters that the United Kingdom was “precious” to her, this was a southern English Conservative MP instinctively defending Britishness.

Although we are accustomed to speaking of the four nations of the United Kingdom, there is another element in the mix that some have characterised as a fifth nation in its own right: the Crown-in-Parliament at Westminster.

It is constituted by what used to be called ‘the Establishment’ and was supported by political parties who were Unionist in their different ways. It has perhaps been most damaged by the politics of nationalism. The Labour Party collapsed in Scotland over 2014-15 and fell into internecine fighting in England in 2015-16. Labour’s difficulties weakened the two-party system, which is now dominated in England by the Conservatives and in Scotland by the Scottish National Party (SNP).

Until the High Court ruling that parliament must be consulted on the terms of Brexit, the Westminster parliament was looking like the greatest ‘left behind’ of all. Whilst Brexit was ostensibly designed to shore up parliamentary sovereignty, Westminster was effectively undermined by the popular sovereignty of the referendum device and the sovereignty of the executive government freezing it out of Brexit deliberations. This changed with the High Court’s intercession in favour of parliamentary sovereignty.

This is not to deny the significance of events in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The aftermath of the vote in Scotland has put independence back on the political agenda. Yet, should it come about, “Indyref2” will not be a repeat of 2014. Attitudes to Scottish secession have hardened among English Conservatives and this—along with the Brexit negotiations—will shape the demands of nationalists in Scotland.

The EU is very important for Scottish secessionists. For them, the EU enables independence in Europe, overcoming fears about the viability of a new, small state. But governments in other EU states are wary of being seen to encourage secessionism, often—notably in the case of Spain—so as not to encourage secessionist movements within their own borders.

One EU member-state is particularly important in the UK’s nationalist politics: the Republic of Ireland. Ulster’s fragile peace was built around cross-border cooperation with the Republic. This cooperation was greatly facilitated because the UK and Ireland were EU members. If negotiations between the Westminster government and the EU become acrimonious, peace in Northern Ireland could be the biggest loser.

One of the paradoxes of Brexit is that what its supporters advocated as a strengthening of British sovereignty weakened the multinational fabric of the United Kingdom. The pro-Brexit Conservative government may feel that it has successfully defended British sovereignty from the EU but as the de facto party of England, it now has to preserve British sovereignty from secessionism in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Sovereignty—popular, executive, parliamentary and national—is being challenged and asserted from many quarters and in differing and conflicting ways. How the south of England responds to these challenges will determine the future of the United Kingdom.

Dr Ben Wellings is a lecturer in politics and international relations at Monash University. He is an expert on the politics of nationalism, Euroscepticism and Brexit in contemporary Europe.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution