New Series: Volume 1, Issue 2

9 June 2021

Editorial: Brexit and the (Dis)United Kingdom

John Holmwood

When the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community (as the EU was then called) in January 1973, it seemed to mark a new era of ‘modernisation’. A transition was underway from empire, through a system of Commonwealth preferences to a new transnational federation sharing sovereignty. This was a shift from directive rule within a political system of unequals, hierarchically organized, to cooperation among equals. The latter model has now been broken for an uncertain future as a sovereign state charting global waters on the basis of individually negotiated bilateral trade agreements. The watery metaphor is apposite and redolent of an imperial past, something echoed in the government’s announcement that it would commission a new Royal yacht to be the prow of its trade negotiations.

Tom Nairn first wrote of it as a ‘break up of Britain’ in 1977, but that ‘break up’ had begun with the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922

The process has not been without consequence for the domestic integrity of the UK. Tom Nairn first wrote of it as a ‘break up of Britain’ in 1977, but that ‘break up’ had begun with the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 severing a formal union with Britain that had existed since 1802. Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom with its own devolved government, but the denial of the civil rights of its Catholic minority population led to renewed conflicts in the 1960s and renewed calls for a united Ireland. Just as the United Kingdom was entering the EEC direct rule was imposed in Northern Ireland,

As a consequence of the political organisation of empire, the United Kingdom entered the EEC as one of its most centralized states. It did so alongside a new liberal agenda of increased market competition and privatisation, which did nothing to tackle political institutions. Alone among commentators on the left, Nairn perceived the EU to be an answer to the crisis of social democracy in Britain and not a threat to it. What he did not anticipate is that the fate of social democracy would be different in the different parts of the UK following membership. As Ben Jackson discusses in his article here, market-oriented public policy emanating from Westminster elicited opposition in Scotland and fed a revival and repositioning of the Scottish National Party (which, over time, displaced the Scottish Labour party, while Plaid Cymru failed to achieve a similar disruption of Welsh Labour).

The very nature of European institutions provided scope for small nations to have a voice

Nationalism in Northern Ireland – whether unionist or republican – was different from nationalism in Scotland, but it is significant that both were set in motion alongside Britain’s negotiation of its place in Europe. The very nature of European institutions provided scope for small nations to have a voice, contributing to pressures for devolution within the UK. At the same time, the devolution of powers to separate Welsh and Scottish assemblies in 1999 created a problem of their voice being mediated through a Westminster parliament and the vagaries of its politics dominated by the larger electorate in England.

Boris Johnson was recently reported as describing Scottish devolution to be a ‘disaster’. The disaster is much more plausibly that of his own failure to place it in the balance when considering which of his two statements – supporting Brexit or supporting Remain – he would choose. It seems much more likely that the EU was a constraint on separatist politics within the UK than an accelerant. After all, common membership of Ireland and the United Kingdom in the EU facilitated the Good Friday agreement, as Desmond King notes, and enabled the land border to be removed as a symbol of a divided island of Ireland. At the same time, while the EU as a ‘replacement’ transnational framework to the UK gave inspiration to the SNP – ‘Scotland in Europe’ – it was always more likely that membership provided the basis for ‘devo-max’ rather than independence, notwithstanding the rise of English ‘Euro-scepticism’. Now, the ‘economic argument’ for keeping Scotland in the United Kingdom (which succeeded in the independence referendum of 2014) has been exploded by the Brexit denial of an ‘economic argument’ for staying in Europe.

What the different contributions to this issue suggest is that the political currents in the UK are moving in different directions and potentially are set to be mutually reinforcing. Wales has moved toward a greater interest in more devolution (perhaps fuelled by a successful management of the Covid pandemic) as Richard Wyn Jones and Jac Larner discuss in their article. The Democratic Unionist Party – the ‘incumbent’ representative of unionism in Northern Ireland – shows itself willing to challenge the Northern Ireland Protocol and precipitate a land border in Ireland, as Desmond King highlights.

The recent elections in May were symbolic. There were assembly elections in Scotland and Wales conducted under proportional representation, no elections in Northern Ireland, and a scattered mix of elections in England, some under first past the post, some under proportional representation, for local councils, some metropolitan mayors and police commissioners. One response of the Westminster government was to propose legislation to put all elections in England under first past the post, in order better to secure conservative victories.

It is not simply that there was a failure to consider how devolution might be enacted in England, but there was an active decision to promote centralisation instead

This last response is symptomatic. As Ailsa Henderson shows, there is no settled, or consistent, approach to devolution in England – or in its relation to devolution elsewhere and this provides an impasse. It is not simply that there was a failure to consider how devolution might be enacted in England, but there was an active decision to promote centralisation instead. After all local authority powers were reduced through privatisation or the development of independent provision – for example, through academies and free schools. Powers over policing were transferred to separate Police Commissioners and in Metropolitan areas, elected mayors were invested with powers previously invested in councils.

These all represent populist measures designed to undermine local autonomy and align their incumbents with central government. In contrast, under the devolved assemblies, local authorities and local powers are retained in ways that reinforce the proportionate and participatory powers of the assemblies. It is not only ideologically, but also processually, that England is diverging from Scotland and Wales. The government’s commitment to first past the post is a commitment to a political system that delivers partisan minorities over a divided majority. As Sivamohan Valluvan suggests, this creates a series of ‘nationalisms’, ranging from ‘civic’ to ‘ethnic’ and ‘populist’. The ‘left’ which, had it heeded Nairn might have thrown itself behind an alternative internationalism through and beyond Europe, is now drawn onto that terrain.

Britain – England – has had serious problems of being one among equals, whether that is Britain in the EU, or England in the UK. Politics has been a matter of power over principle. Nowhere, is that most evident than when principle is most trumpeted. As Manuela Boatca sets out, Britain entered the EEC with colonial possessions and it leaves the EU with them. From the Falklands/Malvinas war in 1982 through to the present their sovereignty as part of the UK has been paramount. Yet as she shows, from Anguilla, St Kitts and Nevis to the Pitcairn Island and the Falklands, their interests have been sacrificed with a negligence that echoes the past, but has no grip on the future.

John Holmwood is emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham . He is the author (with Therese O’Toole) of Countering Extremism in British Schools: The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair (Policy Press 2018) and (with Gurminder K. Bhambra) Colonialism and Modern Social Theory (Polity 2021).

Header image credit: Broken in Blue’ Jelle Druyts


Holmwood, John 2021. ‘Editorial – Brexit and the (Dis)United Kingdom’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (2)

England and the Union

Ailsa Henderson

In the grand scheme of political cultures and attitudes in the UK, the study of English attitudes is one of two perennial silences.  Studies of UK politics are almost always studies of British politics and exclude Northern Ireland. The latter, by virtue of its parties, or the constitutional origins of its legislature, or the fact that it involves reading completely separate literatures on consociational democracies or conflict resolution, is seen as sufficiently separate that it is rarely integrated within analyses of political events across the rest of the UK. 

The second silence has been to exclude England, but the exclusion has been by default rather than design.  Indeed, data on British politics – whether parties or voters or attitudes – is almost always England-dominated but England’s role within it is rarely interrogated. The result is that ‘British’ explanations are proffered on the basis of England-only data with little thought to whether they hold in Scotland or Wales. That they don’t apply in Northern Ireland is usually precluded from the start.

Conscious efforts to study England as England obviously exist.  From Richard Rose’s analysis in the 1960s onward we see efforts to define the key themes and tensions in an English polity and markers of English national identity (Colls 2002).  These include the relationship between Englishness and Euroscepticism (Wellings 2012, 2019), the role of empire in English understandings of Britain and its place in the world (Kumar 2003, 2015), or how parties have reacted to a perceived sense of grievance (Kenny 2014). Many of these, however, explore what people have said about England (Aughey 2007, Mandler 2006), or what is being done about England (Kenny 2014), but little about what the English, as a population, were or are thinking. 

English identity is related to both Euroscepticism and devo-anxiety

It was in this context in which we established the Future of England Survey, conducting fieldwork for the first time in 2011.  Since then it has provided robust evidence that English identity is related to both Euroscepticism and devo-anxiety (Wyn Jones et al 2012, 2013, Jeffery et al 2014), that, London aside, there is little variation across English regions in terms of these relationships.  Englishness may now be considered a politicised identity that is changing British politics (Henderson and Wyn Jones 2021). Such claims are not without controversy. Data from the British Social Attitudes survey suggest English identity, although rising, is not rising to the same extent. 

The English Reaction to Devolution

The 1999 creation (or re-opening) of legislatures in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, which brought devolution in varying forms to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, was expected to prompt a reaction from an English electorate that lacked a legislature of its own.  Widely anticipated was that it would lead to the sort of ‘catch up’ instincts found in other asymmetrical states, where areas with greater autonomy are seen as examples for others to emulate. Surely, the thinking went, those in England would want something of their own – on a national or regional scale – when they saw how devolution operated in other parts of the kingdom?

The other anticipated reaction was that the English, not necessarily wanting an institution of their own, would become annoyed at the various inequities in the system. Not least of these was the fact that MPs from areas with devolution, could continue to involve themselves in English-only decision making at Westminster, when the same level of intervention was denied English MPs.  In short, we awaited an English backlash, borne on one hand by envy and on the other by frustration.

Writing in 2003, Curtice and Heath pronounced that no backlash had occurred.  True though this may have been at the time, we now see evidence of considerable English discontent: a deep frustration at the state of English governance as well as a level of dissatisfaction with the domestic constitutional status quo, perhaps best summarised as a sense of devo-anxiety.  In what follows we outline the nature of these two phenomena, as well as outline prospects for their resolution.

Attitudes to English Governance

In terms of attitudes to English governance, there is a widespread sense that the status quo is insufficient. Presented with a range of possible governance options, there is support for each possible option – a Minister for England, regional ministers for England, English Votes for English Laws, at times for the creation of an English Parliament, and an end to the centralisation of decision-making. One thing we know, therefore, is that there is an appetite for change. Within that, we know that the most popular option has been English Votes for English Laws (EVEL).

It might well seem counter intuitive that such an administrative and technical change would command such popular support but support for it has long outstripped other options. In addition, when we first started polling on different governance arrangements, support for an English Parliament was highest. When we added the option of EVEL, support for an English-only parliament dropped and support for EVEL was high. It was clear, therefore, that the introduction of EVEL would absorb rather a lot of the demand for more radical change and precisely because it allowed the English electorate to better conceive of Westminster as – at times – an English parliament.

Any sort of UK-wide constitutional change needs to accommodate England, but England is too large

The second thing we know is that there is a tension between the proposals for change that frequently surface and those that command popular support.  On the centre left, in particular, party elites tend to offer some form of regionalisation within England, largely as a way to deal with England’s disproportionate size within the UK. Any sort of UK-wide constitutional change needs to accommodate England, but England is too large and too unwieldy to accommodate on its own, so the solution is to break it into more manageable chunks, using English regions as the basis for further devolution that would impose a degree of symmetry on UK governance arrangements. 

However institutionally elegant such a solution might seem, it is an unpopular one. Since 2011 we have routinely found that the English electorate prefers England-wide solutions. This is true when we ask respondents to evaluate different options separately, but also when we force them to identify a single solution that they prefer.  And on the specific issue of keeping England whole or a regional solution, we put this specific issue to respondents and find that around three quarters want an England-wide solution. Critically, this is true of both of those who prioritise a British national identity as well as those who prioritise an English national identity.

Given that support for an English parliament, remains a minority concern, we are left with three seemingly incompatible facts: England is too big to accommodate by itself, the English want England to be accommodated by itself, but not necessarily with an English Parliament.  Little wonder that politicians find it difficult to identify solutions that resonate with voters.

English Devo-Anxiety

When the English cast their eyes beyond England’s borders we see a similar sense of dissatisfaction. Targets here include possible changes to the domestic union, the distribution of resources across it, as well as the level of influence that others wield within it.  English attitudes reflect a sense of devo-anxiety, or disquiet with the constitutional status quo. Within that there is particular frustration with Scotland, which manifests itself in two ways: as frustration with what is perceived to be undue access to resources and undue access to influence within Westminster.  Thus, support for English Votes for English Law can be viewed not just as a way of providing the English with an English-only forum for decision making, but also as a means of excluding others from decision making. It is important for who it excludes as much as the voice it offers to those who are included. 

one third of the English electorate believes that no Scottish MP should ever sit in government

After the 2015 election campaign in which the Conservative party portrayed the SNP as spendthrift Trojan horses at Westminster precisely because they knew that the English electorate viewed Scots with some unease, we polled to see whether English voters distinguished between the undue influence of Scottish MPs and SNP MPs. The results show that they do, but it is also the case that one third of the English electorate believes that no Scottish MP should ever sit in government.

On the issue of resources, the English electorate – admittedly much like the other electorates in the UK – believes that it gets less than its fair share of resources. Where the English differ is in the extent to which they believe that Scottish public spending should be reduced. The English are more likely to believe this than are, say, voters in Wales, but it is also true that Scotland is in England’s sights in a way that no other part of the union is.  Take, for example, attitudes to spending in Northern Ireland, where between 30 and 40% of English voters profess not to have an opinion at all.

If we think back to the two possible instances of an English backlash to devolution: a desire for governance solutions of their own and annoyance at the current situation, then it is now easy to find evidence of both in the available survey data on English attitudes.

Prospects for resolution

Notwithstanding these clear preferences within England, there are three reasons to suggest that the English question (or English problem) lacks an easy solution. The first is that previous attempts at constitutional change appear not to have satisfied pre-existing demand, even when that demand was considerable and obvious.  After the introduction of English Votes for English Laws we found that the English electorate was largely unaware that the changes had occurred, and to the extent that they are, they felt the changes don’t go far enough.  In short, the introduction of EVEL didn’t satisfy demand for EVEL. Admittedly this was an easy one to miss – the proportion of the general population interested in procedural rules of the House of Commons is not a large one, but more visible change – like, say, Brexit – brings little comfort.

Second, previous attempts at constitutional change reveal how conditional and ambivalent English attitudes to the union are.  Asked whether losing Scotland or a disrupted peace in Northern Ireland were prices worth paying for Brexit, around 80% of English Leave voters said yes. Asked whether the union was important, whether they wanted independence or whether, if one or more other parts of the union wanted to go their own way, we reach more than half the English electorate if we add together those who want indy and those with a more ambivalent attitude to the union. The English don’t want independence for themselves, but they wouldn’t mind all that much if they were left the union to themselves, Northern Ireland reunited with the republic, Scotland on its own, and Wales to keep it company.

Third, this ambivalence is entirely out of kilter with current government pronouncements about the precious union, with post-Brexit efforts to double down on a ‘take it, you can’t leave it’ state.  This tough love approach is part of why support for independence in Scotland now routinely touches 50%.  And yet the available public opinion suggests that the perceived alternative, efforts to appease Scotland, would only further annoy an English electorate that has a deeply ambivalent attitude to the union and an unambiguous dislike for Scottish spending and influence. The UK government is caught between a love bombing rock and a muscular unionist hard place, with seemingly zero sum choices over which electorate they seek to annoy/appease.

The Conservative party has done well precisely because it is perceived to be a party that stands up for England

What does this offer scholars of national identity and contemporary political attitudes to the polity, its members and governance arrangements?  Lots actually. The first is the clear political salience of English national identity to contemporary political attitudes. The second is the process of manoeuvring that political parties have undergone to communicate a sense of politicised Englishness to the electorate.  The Conservative party has done well precisely because it is perceived to be a party that stands up for England and –  this is an important distinction –  a party that is perceived by English identifiers to stand up for Britain.  Third, is the nuanced relationship of sub-state identities to Britishness, oppositional in Scotland and Wales, tangled together in England. 

While interesting in itself, the study of England as England offers much to those seeking to disentangle the overlapping demoi that exist within these islands.  It serves as a reminder that the territorial scale of academic pursuits matters.  Viewed through a British lens (specifically one that excludes Northern Ireland) the study of British politics leads us to make claims about a series of causal relationships that link contemporary attitudes, electorate behaviour and political events.  To view Brexit, for example, through a British lens is to identify the importance of tales about Britain’s past, its role in the world and its future given the chance to ‘take back control’. Shifting the territorial frame of reference to England, however, makes clear that this is a view held particularly strongly by those who prioritise an English – but not a British – identity in England.  English attitudes therefore tell us an awful lot about preferences in England and about tensions within the state. But they also offer us insights into how we can study social and political relations in a pluri-national multi-level polity.


Aughey, Arthur (2007) The Politics of Englishness. Manchester University Press.

Colls, Robert (2002) Identity of England. Oxford University Press. 

Henderson, Ailsa and Richard Wyn Jones (2021) Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain. Oxford University Press

Jeffery, Charlie, Richard Wyn Jones, Ailsa Henderson, Roger Scully and Guy Lodge (2014) Taking England Seriously: The New English Politics Edinburgh: Future of the UK and Scotland

Kenny, Michael (2014) The Politics of English Nationhood. Oxford University Press

Kumar, Krishan (2003) The Making of English National Identity. Cambridge University Press

Kumar, Krishan (2015) The Idea of Englishness. Ashgate

Mandler, Peter (2006) English National Character. Yale University Press

Wellings, Ben (2012) English Nationalism and Euroscepticism: Losing the Peace. Peter Lang

Wellings, Ben (2019) English Nationalism, Brexit and the Anglosphere: Wider Still and Wider. Manchester University Press

Wyn Jones, Richard, Guy Lodge, Ailsa Henderson and Daniel Wincott (2012) The Dog that Finally Barked: England as an Emerging Political Community London: Institute for Public Policy Research

Wyn Jones, Richard, Guy Lodge, Charlie Jeffery, Glenn Gottfried, Roger Scully, Ailsa Henderson and Daniel Wincott (2013), England and its Two Unions: The Anatomy of a Nation and its Discontents London: Institute for Public Policy Research

Ailsa Henderson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Edinburgh and co-author, with Richard Wyn Jones, of Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain (Oxford University Press 2021). Professor Henderson is currently leading the political behaviour programme for the Scottish Centre on Constitutional Change, which includes the Risk and Constitutional Attitudes Survey, has been a co-investigator for all three rounds of the Future of England Survey and is principal investigator for the 2014 Scottish Referendum Survey.

Header image credit: Drew Leavy


Henderson, Ailsa 2021. ‘England and the Union’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (2)

The Irresistible Rise of Scottish Independence? A Brief History of Scotland’s Constitutional Debate

Ben Jackson

While it is obvious that Scotland’s political trajectory has significantly departed from England’s, the explanation for this divergence is less straightforward. Social scientists have demonstrated that Scotland’s economy, social structure, and even underlying values are not in fact that different from England’s. To understand why Scottish electoral behaviour and public debate has followed a distinctive path, it is instead necessary to turn to the realms of politics and culture, where the same underlying socio-economic shifts that have transformed England’s political landscape over the last fifty years have been filtered in a different direction in Scotland.

As the leading sociologist of modern Scotland, David McCrone, has put this point, a distinctive Scottish ‘frame of reference’ became more prominent in Scottish public life from around the 1970s onwards. The rise of this framing was produced by, among other things, the paradox that the mid-twentieth century rise of a centralised UK state committed to promoting economic welfare also highlighted Scotland’s special status as a nation whose economy was managed quasi-autonomously by the Scottish Office, the arm of the state that had been established to govern Scotland in 1885. McCrone argues that the expansion of the Scottish mass media, notably the introduction of separate Scottish television news bulletins, popularised an understanding of Scotland both as a distinct economy and as a distinct polity gripped by its own particular political debates about how to address economic challenges (1).

The rise of this Scottish framing was deepened in the 1980s as deindustrialisation accelerated. A clear Scottish political identity emerged that focused on national autonomy and presented this objective as expressing left-wing opposition to the dominant Conservative government in London. Until the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, this leftist politics of national identity did not necessarily equate to support for the complete dissolution of the Anglo-Scottish Union. But, as I argue in my book, The Case for Scottish Independence, it is clear in retrospect that Scottish political discourse, as it developed across the 1980s and 1990s, had the effect of priming a large section of the Scottish electorate to support independence if faced with a choice between creating a new Scottish state and a Conservative government in London (2).

As the results of the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections show, Scotland is now a divided nation, with roughly half of its citizens supporting full independence and the other half in favour of the constitutional status quo of devolution. How did the rise of McCrone’s ‘Scottish frame of reference’ produce such a dramatic constitutional debate? (3)

the hegemonic view of the Union as a beneficial contractual arrangement was not placed under serious pressure until the late twentieth century

The durability of the 1707 Anglo-Scottish Union derived in part from its legitimation within Scotland as a voluntary contract between sovereign states, a bargain that was said to have preserved for Scotland its distinctive national religious, legal and educational institutions in return for merging its parliament with that of England and Wales (and later Ireland). Although Scottish culture did feature a consistent wistful romantic criticism of the Union as a bargain orchestrated by England using economic and diplomatic coercion, the hegemonic view of the Union as a beneficial contractual arrangement was not placed under serious pressure until the late twentieth century.

Economically, Scotland participated fully in the UK’s development into the leading industrial and imperial power in the world in the nineteenth century. At a political level, Scotland was integrated into the British parliamentary system. While culturally Scotland remained a distinct nation, as Britain democratised during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries each of the two major party systems that evolved (Conservative and Liberal; Conservative and Labour) bridged national distinctions between England, Scotland and Wales (the case of Ireland, of course, was very different). Within these integrative political and economic structures, space was also available for significant amounts of Scottish autonomy, notably (as we have seen) with the creation of the Scottish Office, which pioneered a form of administrative devolution long before its parliamentary counterpart.

More generally, Scottish identity in this period remained nested within a wider British imperial consciousness that transcended the islands of Britain and Ireland and thought of Britain not as a conventional nation-state but as an empire that linked the ‘mother nations’ of the UK to colonies around the world. As David Edgerton has argued, there is a sense in which Britain as a modern nation was a mid-twentieth century artefact, produced by the retreat from empire and global trade to the more autarchic, industrially-focused UK state of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s (4).

In these decades, a new form of British identity began to displace earlier connections forged around a shared Protestantism or imperialism as the main bulwark of the British union-state, namely an image of the UK as a social democratic state committed to economic planning and social welfare. The Scottish National Party (SNP), founded in 1934, was only a fringe presence in popular politics at this time, but styled itself as a libertarian defender of Scottish national interests against the rise of the large impersonal bureaucracies that now drove British industrial development and redistributed economic resources. It was not at all successful, but the mere fact that dedicated activists were able to keep the party alive as an organisation across many decades of electoral unpopularity ensured that it would remain a possible outlet for voters when external circumstances became more favourable to a distinctively Scottish political appeal.

in the 1970s, as an economic downturn and crisis-ridden Labour and Conservative governments drove voters to express their dissatisfaction via third party voting

Circumstances did change in the 1970s, as an economic downturn and crisis-ridden Labour and Conservative governments drove voters to express their dissatisfaction via third party voting. The SNP had by this time positioned itself as a modernising force that backed a more decentralised model of government in order to address Scotland’s economic challenges. Bolstered by the discovery of North Sea oil in Scottish waters, which significantly enhanced the economic credibility of an independent Scotland, the SNP soared to 30 per cent of the Scottish vote and 11 MPs in the October 1974 general election.

The rise in support for the SNP triggered a panicked attempt by Labour to introduce Scottish devolution, the first example of what has become a recurring pattern of the electoral threat posed by the SNP shifting the UK political elite (and in particular the Labour Party) towards supporting ever stronger forms of Scottish self-government. The attempt to introduce devolution failed in 1979, washed away in a referendum that stipulated that 40 per cent of the eligible electorate had to vote in favour for the measure to pass. This was a bar that campaigners for devolution could not clear in the face of internal divisions, an unpopular incumbent government, and a bleak economic landscape characterised by fractious industrial relations and high inflation (though of those who turned out to vote in the 1979 referendum a majority still voted in favour of devolution).

But the Thatcher and Major years forged a deeper political consensus within Scotland on the need for a Scottish Parliament. A crucial feature of this period was that voting in Scotland followed a markedly different pattern than in England, with Labour clearly winning in Scotland in 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992. Since these were also the decades in which rapid deindustrialisation occurred – with accompanying increases in unemployment, poverty and income inequality – the startling social and economic changes of the 1980s and 1990s became understood in Scottish political culture as an undemocratic imposition from outside, visited on Scotland by an illegitimate government.

The SNP did not significantly increase its support, but this was in part because the Scottish Labour Party adopted a quasi-nationalist rhetoric. Labour argued that the UK government lacked a democratic mandate to rule Scotland and presented itself as the guardian of Scottish national interests, which Labour maintained could best be advanced by a devolved parliament within the UK. Labour also pursued open dialogue with other parties and civil society organisations about the character of such a parliament through the Scottish Constitutional Convention (which the SNP chose to absent itself from because the Convention would not consider independence as a serious political option). Once Labour returned to office in 1997, devolution was duly delivered, ratified whole-heartedly in a successful referendum, and a new era in Scottish politics began with the first sitting of a democratically elected Scottish Parliament in 1999.

Devolution … represented an important staging post on the road to the creation of a new Scottish state

One important feature of the new devolved political system was that the SNP had clearly established itself as the second largest party (after Labour) in the 1999 Scottish Parliament elections. Although the SNP had supported the creation of the parliament, the party’s leaders were committed to what had become known as the ‘gradualist’ strategy for Scottish independence. Devolution in their view represented an important staging post on the road to the creation of a new Scottish state, a project that they would seek to pursue if they ever entered government in Edinburgh.

The defenders of the devolutionary settlement, notably the Labour Party, did not take the presence of the SNP as a competitor for government office as seriously as they should have. Labour’s years in control of the Holyrood parliament in coalition with the Liberal Democrats (1999-2007) were marked by a hubristic assumption that there was no need to continue, let alone deepen, their careful positioning in the 1980s and 1990s as the party best suited to advance the Scottish national interest. Indeed, it is striking in retrospect how dismissive of the prospect of Scottish independence the wider British political system was throughout this period. This was, after all, the New Labour era, in which a centre-left government had seemingly bound together Britain with a hegemonic electoral coalition that put them in office in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff. Tensions between the nations of the UK seemed to have been dissolved by the application of asymmetric devolution and a booming economy that in turn enabled a significant increase in the level of public spending.

This illusion was dispelled after 2007 on two fronts. Locally, it was in 2007 that the SNP capitalised on growing disenchantment with Labour in the wake of the Iraq War to emerge narrowly as the largest party at Holyrood and take office as a minority Scottish government. The SNP was elected on an appeal relating to governmental competence, with the question of independence parked as one that could only be resolved via a referendum at a later date. Globally, the financial crisis of 2007-8 transformed the terms of economic debate and eventually brought into power in London a Conservative-Liberal Democrat administration committed to a strikingly unequal distribution of the burdens of austerity. This new UK government elected in 2010 held twelve of the 59 Scottish seats at Westminster, only one of those won by the Conservatives.

The SNP was able to capitalise on Scottish opposition to this coalition to win a majority in the Scottish Parliament elections of 2011, significantly aided by the absence of any strategic purpose or strong leadership in the Scottish Labour Party. Independence was at this stage still an unpopular position in Scottish public opinion, favoured by perhaps only around a third of the electorate. Lulled into a false sense of security by this opinion polling, the UK government accepted that the 2011 victory granted the SNP a mandate to hold a referendum on whether to create a new Scottish state. Although supporters of the Union were indeed victorious in the 2014 referendum, the level of support for independence dramatically increased during the campaign, eventually finishing at 45 per cent of the vote on an exceptionally high turnout of 85 per cent of the electorate.

The referendum proved to be a moment of structural realignment in Scottish politics

The framing of the referendum by the SNP as a choice between Scottish self-determination and the continuation of an unpopular Conservative government that lacked democratic legitimacy in Scotland was an artful one, which drew on the arguments about Scottish self-government first developed in the 1980s and won over many Scots previously hesitant about independence. The referendum proved to be a moment of structural realignment in Scottish politics: pro-independence voters, many of whom had previously been Labour supporters, subsequently voted SNP, giving the party comfortable victories at the 2015 general election and then the 2016 Scottish Parliament election.

However, it was ultimately the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in 2016 that brought the debate about Scottish independence back to the forefront of political debate. A key argument of supporters of the Anglo-Scottish Union in 2014 had been that an independent Scotland’s prospects for membership of the EU were highly uncertain, so Scots might face exile from EU citizenship (even if only temporarily) if they voted to leave the UK. Of course, shortly afterwards the UK as a whole then voted to leave the EU, while Scotland registered a strong vote in favour of remaining (62 per cent voted for remain in Scotland as opposed to 48 per cent in the UK). The political significance of this vote was far wider than the specific issue of EU membership, since it provided another piece of evidence for supporters of independence that Scottish democratic preferences were doomed to be drowned out by a far larger English electorate.

In short, it provided a vivid illustration of the classic Scottish nationalist themes of the 1980s and 2010s, namely that the Anglo-Scottish Union was now a block on the democratic preferences of the Scottish people. The initial mobilisation of this argument by independence supporters was not as successful as they expected. Scots who voted for Brexit were still a large minority of the electorate, some of them SNP voters, and the 2017 UK general election in fact saw the SNP lose ground electorally. But support for the SNP was ultimately revitalised by the subsequent acrimonious debates over the details of Brexit, and then the high profile of the Scottish government during the pandemic, leaving the SNP unmatched as the dominant party in Scotland at the 2019 general election and the Scottish Parliament election in 2021.

Yet even then support for the SNP (or the SNP in combination with the pro-independence Greens) extends only to around one half of Scottish voters, with Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats splitting the other half between them. While Scotland is therefore now a nation broadly divided between two equally sized blocs of voters, recent opinion polling also suggests that some fluidity between the two positions is possible. In 2020, for example, there was a clear movement towards majority support for independence in the opinion polling, in reaction to the UK government’s initial maladroit response to the Covid pandemic, although this now seems to have unwound as vaccines are distributed and the economy reopens. But the very fact that public opinion can shift markedly in that direction indicates an underlying fragility to the Anglo-Scottish Union that was initially exposed in the 2014 referendum and has been exacerbated by subsequent events.

As long as Scottish nationalists can plausibly portray England as a conservative nation that thwarts the democratic will of the Scottish people, advocates of independence will have a resonant rhetorical frame at their disposal. They face from their opponents a barrage of detailed questions about the economics of independence and the transition to statehood, as well as a profound reluctance to entertain another referendum so soon after 2014. It seems likely that the next few years will become dominated by this latter, procedural question at the expense of the more substantive former ones. The danger for the advocates of the Union is that such a posture will merely strengthen support for Scottish independence.

The Anglo-Scottish Union has for centuries been legitimated as a voluntary contract. For the UK government to depart from that well-rehearsed line of argument by denying a referendum risks playing into the hands of Scottish nationalists, who have always suspected that behind the seemingly consensual façade of the Union lurks the coercive force of an undemocratic, quasi-imperial state. Scotland’s political future seems likely to hang in the balance unresolved for some time yet. But simply avoiding the argument altogether is a strategy that supporters of the Union will surely find has diminishing returns.


(1) David McCrone, ‘Cultural Capital in an Understated Nation: The Case of Scotland’, British Journal of Sociology, 56 (1), pp. 67-9, 76-9.

(2) Ben Jackson, The Case for Scottish Independence: A History of Nationalist Political Thought in Modern Scotland (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2020).

(3) This article provides a concise outline of a complicated history. Readers interested in the full story will find the following excellent books helpful: Catriona MacDonald, Whaur Extremes Meet: Scotland’s Twentieth Century (Edinburgh, John Donald, 2009); James Mitchell, The Scottish Question (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014); Tom Devine, Independence or Union? Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Future (London, Penguin, 2016); David McCrone, The New Sociology of Scotland (London, Sage, 2017); Michael Keating, State and Nation in the United Kingdom: Fractured Union (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2021).

(4) David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth-Century History (London, Penguin, 2018).

Ben Jackson is Associate Professor of Modern History at Oxford University and the co-editor of Political Quarterly. He is the author of The Case for Scottish Independence: A History of Nationalist Political Thought in Modern Scotland (Cambridge University Press, 2020) and co-editor of Making Thatcher’s Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Header image credit: Study for ‘Edinburgh (from Salisbury Crags)’, William Crozier. Courtesy National Gallery of Scotland.


Jackson, Ben 2021. ‘The Irresistible Rise of Scottish Independence? A Brief History of Scotland’s Constitutional Debate’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (2)

What about Wales? Brexit and the Future of the UK

Richard Wyn Jones & Jac Larner

Since the results of the 2016 referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union were declared, the fact that a narrow majority of the Welsh electorate voted alongside a similarly narrow majority of English voters to Leave (Table 1) seems to have provided succour to those who would reject the notion that Brexit was driven by English nationalism. Now that detailed statistical analysis has confirmed that English national sentiment was indeed very strongly aligned with Eurosceptic sentiment (see Henderson et al. 2017, 2020; Henderson and Wyn Jones 2021), this view is no longer tenable. English nationalism clearly was one of the key drivers of Brexit. This, however, leaves open the question: what about Wales? How do we explain the Brexit result in Wales? Moreover, in a context in which Brexit is clearly acting as a major centrifugal force within the UK, leading to renewed calls for Scottish independence and Irish unity, what is its impact of Brexit on Wales’ relationship with the Union?

 EnglandWalesNorthern IrelandScotlandLeave53.452.544.238.0Remain46.647.555.862.0Turnout73.071.762.767.2Table 1: 2016 Brexit referendum results by constituent territory of the UK (%)

To answer these questions, we will proceed in two steps. First, we focus on the Brexit result in Wales and, in particular, the way that it reflected the particularly heterogeneous nature of national identities in Wales. While, in the aggregate, opinion across the country was evenly divided, individual level data demonstrates the existence of very significant differences in attitudes within Wales towards the European project that were closely tied to different senses of national identity. Secondly, in the aftermath of Brexit, we examine the attitudes of these national identity groups to the constitutional future of Wales.

Brexit has … been accompanied by an increase in support for devolution across the Welsh population as a whole

Our argument is that Brexit has, unexpectedly perhaps, been accompanied by an increase in support for devolution across the Welsh population as a whole. But among that part of the population that was already most committed to autonomy, namely that group that in national identity terms regards itself as Welsh only, support for devolution has now tipped over into significant support for independence. Thus, even while the devolved election in May 2021 reaffirmed Welsh Labour’s very long-standing dominance of the country’s political landscape, even in Wales we find that, under the surface, the tectonic plates of the Union are shifting.

National identity and Brexit in Wales

The fact that Wales voted to leave the European Union despite being a net beneficiary from EU funding (Ifan et al. 2016) and being so dependent on the European single market appears to have come as a shock to many. But in Wales, as elsewhere across the state, the costs and benefits of European membership appear to have been viewed through the prism of national identity (see, for example, Henderson and Wyn Jones 2021: 80-102). What renders Wales distinct is that it is home to three different sense of national identity that, either singularly or in combination, play a significant role in shaping perceptions: Welshness, Britishness and Englishness.

Table 2 is based on individual level data from the British Election Survey and notes both the proportion of the overall electorate holding a strong sense of a particular national identity or identities (Welsh, Welsh and British, etc.), as well as the proportion of that group that voted Leave. With regards the former, what is immediately apparent is that no group is dominant. This contrasts sharply with both England where the English British (i.e. those who feel both strongly English and strongly British) make up 50% of the electorate, or Scotland where the Scottish only make up 44% of the electorate.

 Leave (%)% of Welsh electorateWelsh only2924Welsh British5827British only (not Welsh)626English only712English British6016British only (not English)449Other/None2116Table 2: 2016 Referendum Vote in Wales: Leave by Strong National Identity Data taken from British Election Study Internet Panel (Fieldhouse et al, 2020)

Also noteworthy is that only just shy of 1 in 5 of the Welsh electorate feel a strong sense of English national identity (be that English British or strongly English only), reflecting the large-scale population movement into Wales from England that has taken place in recent decades. Again, this contrasts with Scotland where the proportion of the electorate regarding themselves as feeling strongly English (in combination with Britishness or not) is around 5%. In England, the proportion of the electorate feeling either strongly Scottish or strongly Welsh is negligible.[1]

Turning to vote choice in the referendum, it is clear that those who felt strongly Welsh, but without feeling the same attachment to Britishness voted, heavily to Remain in the EU. At the other end of the spectrum, the substantial minority in Wales who feel both strongly English and strongly British (the English British) or strongly English only tended to vote to Leave. That is, they voted in the same way and in similar proportions to their equivalents in England itself. Another group that voted heavily Leave were the Welsh British – those who feel both strongly Welsh and strongly British. This underlines the fact that, on international matters at least, many of the same attitudes that align with Englishness in England (and indeed Wales) also align with Britishness in Wales and Scotland (as demonstrated in detail in Henderson and Wyn Jones 2021: 135-67)

Two other national identity groups require our attention. The first is that group of people with a strong claim to Welsh national identity but who nonetheless identify as strongly British only (as a proxy, the table includes those born in Wales who identify as strongly British only.) This group tends to be geographically concentrated in part of Wales such as south Pembrokeshire and parts of Monmouthshire as well as the old borough towns. Again, space precludes fuller consideration.

From the perspective of the current discussion, the point is that this group voted heavily to Leave. In complete contrast, we find a group with a strong claim to English identity but who nonetheless choose to identify as strongly British only (as a proxy here, we use those born in England who identify as strongly British only.) Like those in England who identify as British only, they also tended to vote Remain. In this way, Wales’ English minority is large enough to allow us to see the national identity patterns and attendant political differences that characterise English society being reproduced west of the border too.

What makes Wales different, is that the pattern of national identities found there are particularly complex and heterogeneous

In summary, therefore, as was the case in Scotland and England, voting behaviour in the Brexit referendum in Wales was also closely and significantly related to senses of national identity (for formal confirmation see Henderson et al. 2020). What makes Wales different, is that the pattern of national identities found there are particularly complex and heterogeneous.[2] This in turn clearly raises the possibility of very different responses among these national identity groups to the implications of Brexit, especially as it cannot be assumed that the views of these different groups align in the same ways on issues other than that of the UK’s membership of the UK.

National Identity and the Constitutional Future of Wales

The period since the 2016 referendum has been a time of almost unparalleled tumult in modern UK politics; with that tumult seemingly set to continue despite the Conservative party’s convincing victory (in England only, of course) in the 2019 general election and the UK’s exit both from the EU and subsequent transitional arrangements. Relationships between the UK’s constituent units has been and remains a central point at issue. In Scotland, supporters of independence have argued that the decision to leave the EU against the manifest wishes of the Scottish electorate provides grounds for a second independence referendum.

As predicted by Remainers, Northern Ireland’s relationship with both Great Britain and the rest of the island of Ireland has become an open sore. Meanwhile, intergovernmental relations between central and devolved governments within the UK have plumbed new depths with even the unionist Welsh Government warning that what is regards as Whitehall’s high-handed attitude is imperilling the Union.

The Welsh Government’s increasingly dire warnings are in part no doubt a response to the remarkable growth of the grassroots ‘Yes Cymru’ independence which, at over 18,000 members, is now second only to the Labour Party itself as Wales’ largest political movement. Given that recent opinion polls suggest that around half of Labour voters in Wales would vote for independence if a referendum were to be called, it is hardly surprising that the party is concerned. But the growing salience of and support for independence (the same polling suggests that around one third of the electorate would vote Yes if a referendum were to be called) is only one manifestation of the impact of Brexit on the constitutional debate in Wales.

So far as the UK government has been concerned, it is increasingly obvious that Brexit is viewed as a rationale or pretext (depending on one’s viewpoint) for recentralising power. This is perhaps most obvious in the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 through which the government has given itself the power to spend in areas that were previously considered the preserve of devolved governments. But from a Welsh perspective, it is also striking to note the extent to which the post-Brexit successors for EU structural funds (from which Wales was a major beneficiary) exclude devolved government from any meaningful involvement, all in the name of strengthening the Union. Indeed, it would appear that the Conservative government now regards devolution itself as a threat to the territorial integrity of the state rather than as a means of managing differences within it.

Figure 1: Change in constitutional preferences by national identity 2016-2021 Data taken from 2021 Welsh Election Study (Wyn Jones et al, 2021)

From the perspective of Brexit ideologues this may well make perfect sense. Devolution is clearly (almost) as offensive to the sensibilities of those who would champion untrammelled Westminster parliamentary sovereignty as was membership of the EU. It is also the case that, in England, Euroscepticism is closely tied not only to English national identity but also, relatedly, to a sense of what has been termed ‘devoanxiety’; that is a sense that devolution has left the Celtic periphery of the state in general, and Scotland in particular, unfairly privileged at the expense of England (see Henderson and Wyn Jones 2021: 103-23). But in Wales itself, things look rather different. As Figure 1 makes clear, the period since 2016 has in fact seen an overall increase in support for devolution across most identity groups – including some of those most supportive of Brexit.

Figure 2: Should Wales be an independent country (%)Data taken from 2021 Welsh Election Study (Wyn Jones et al, 2021)

As the same Table also makes clear, however, this overall shift in support for (more) devolution is from very different starting points. Attitudes to Welsh devolution have always been related to national identity (Wyn Jones and Trystan 1999). Indeed, what is striking is the extent to which that proportion of the population that has long been most supportive of home rule, that is the Welsh only, has now shifted decisively to supporting independence. This is demonstrated in Figure 2, which shows the response by national identity group to straightforward yes/no question on independence. It should also be stressed, of course, that the continuing overwhelming opposition to independence among other identity groups is a stark reminder of the scale of the challenge facing Yes Cymru and its supporters.


Five years on from the Brexit referendum, even if the question of the UK’s membership of the EU has been settled for at least the foreseeable future, it is surely undeniable that the Brexit has morphed into a wider state legitimacy crisis? While attitudes in England have been its motive force, it is a crisis manifested in the continuing strong support for secession in Scotland and the destablisation of the institutions established as a result of the peace process in Northern Ireland. Even if it is less dramatic, the story in Wales is nonetheless significant.

A majority of the Welsh electorate may have voted for Brexit, but there is no evidence that this was intended to take place at the expense of devolution. Yet that is precisely what has occurred as a result of the way that successive UK governments have chosen the interpret the referendum mandate. Their approach that has already inspired one of the unlikeliest unintended consequences of Brexit, namely the creation of powerful Welsh independence movement. While the country’s demographics significantly complicate the task facing those who would argue for greater autonomy up to and including independence, it would be unwise to assume that Wales will always be content to play the part of bystander.


[1] To simplify our narrative, while we include data on the Other/None category in both Table 2 and Figure 1, we do not include them in our analysis. Suffice it to say that this group would appear to be composed of (in the main) two rather different kinds of people: (1) cosmopolitans who deliberately reject all national identity labels; and (2) the wholly apathetic.

[2] Again because of considerations of space, we have omitted consideration of the role of the Welsh language in shaping attitudes towards Brexit. It is worth noting, however, that fluent Welsh speakers tended to be particularly Europhile. Thus, British Election Survey data suggests that only 16% of fluent Welsh speakers who identify as strongly Welsh only voted to Leave the EU, making this perhaps the most pro-EU demographic group in Britain.


Henderson, Ailsa, Charlie Jeffery, Dan Wincott and Richard Wyn Jones (2017), ‘How Brexit was made in England,’ British Journal of Politics and International Relations, Vol. 17, No. 4 (2017), pp. 1-16.

Henderson, Ailsa, Ed Gareth Poole, Richard Wyn Jones, Daniel Wincott, Jac Larner and Charlie Jeffery (2020), ‘Analysing vote choice in a multi-national state: National identity and territorial differentiation in the 2016 Brexit vote,’ Regional Studies DOI: 10.1080/00343404.2020.1813883

Henderson, Ailsa and Richard Wyn Jones (2021), Englishness: The political force transforming Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Ifan, Guto, Ed Gareth Poole and Richard Wyn Jones (2016), Wales and the EU Referendum: Estimating Wales’ Net Contribution to the European Union (Cardiff: Wales Governance Centre) Available at:

Wyn Jones, Richard and Dafydd Trystan (1999), ‘The Welsh Devolution Referendum’ in Bridget Taylor and Katarina Thomson (eds.), Scotland and Wales: Nations Again? (Cardiff: University of Wales Press) pp. 65-93.

Richard Wyn Jones is Director of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance and Dean of Public Affairs. He has written extensively on contemporary Welsh politics, devolved politics in the UK and nationalism and is considered to be one of the founders of Critical Security Studies. He is a Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales and the Academy of the Social Sciences.

Jac Larner is Lecturer in Politics at Cardiff University. He has been a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, a leading centre for survey research. His research interests focus on elections, political psychology, voting behaviour, national identity, and survey methodology. He has expertise in Welsh and Scottish politics, and sub-state politics more broadly and is a member of the research teams carrying out the 2021 Welsh Election Study and Scottish Election Study: the two largest sub-state election studies ever carried out in the UK.

Header image credit: Jo Dainty


Wyn Jones, Richard and Larner, Jac. 2021. ‘What about Wales? Brexit and the future of the UK’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (2)

Is Northern Ireland at ‘The Most Dangerous Situation for Many Years’?

Desmond King

The situation in Northern Ireland is deeply uncertain, as the quotation in my title indicates – it is from David Campbell, chair of the Loyalist Communities Council speaking in Parliament to the NI Select Committee. Unionism has mobilized against the Brexit NI Protocol, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has unexpectedly changed leadership to restore its conservative roots, various brands of politicians warn of imminent violence on the streets, relations with the Republic of Ireland – already poor – are deteriorating, and the United States recently elected president, Joe Biden, celebrates his Irish identity in his interest in Northern Ireland. In its briefings about the Protocol the UK government swings from stinging denouncements of EU intransigence to claiming signs of progress.

In some ways, of course, Northern Ireland is always in a state of uncertainty, its future haunted by its origin and history. A teleological perspective is dangerous for either unionists or nationalists. Its trajectory resembles a train journey with many stations to stop at, but whose final destination is undetermined.

For observers of Brexit, Northern Ireland is a vivid example of a wider clash between reality and rhetoric. The Protocol required contradicting all the statements and positions of the Tory government elected in December 2019 to ‘get Brexit done.’ In agreeing to these final terms with the EU, the Johnson government accepted the requirements of Brussels (deriving from its own treaty obligations to the Anglo-Irish agreement and its fellow member state, Ireland) and threw aside its own promises to Northern Irish unionists.

‘Getting so much better all the time. It’s getting better all the time.’ Isn’t it?

History, expressed in an obdurate and all defining sectarian division, dominates Northern Ireland in the hundredth year of its existence, as a self-contained unit constitutionally defined by the United Kingdom,[1] whose own conception of union is increasingly debated and queried.[2] The pace of Brexit and sectarian driven conflict, post-Brexit self-righteousness, and unionist and republican anxieties and calculations means NI now ensnares UK politics. Noise and petulance, however, does not necessarily mean change.

When Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997, his team were stunned to discover how much time NI and its politicians had consumed in the prime ministerial diary. No one had warned them!

Northern Ireland has never respected parliamentary niceties

That surprise is reverberating again in Downing Street. Johnson sits on an impregnable Conservative Party majority in Parliament and can be callously indifferent to or merely neglectful of events in the six counties. But Northern Ireland has never respected parliamentary niceties and the combination of an inherited dysfunctionality and Brexit has guaranteed its significance. It is un-ignorable.

Yet, the recent dark clouds are mildly unexpected. After the bloody wars of three decades costing three and a half thousand lives, the tense forging of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement in 1998 offered optimism. This Agreement – initially opposed by the DUP (more of whom below) – was bolstered in the St Andrews Agreement in October 2006 when the governing Northern Ireland Executive was put in place. The fervent enemies – Free Presbyterian Dr Ian Paisley and armed struggle Republican Martin McGuinness – formed a shared administration and remarkably appeared publicly together in congenial manner dubbed the ‘Chuckle Brothers’.

The Republic of Ireland dropped, by referendum, its long-standing constitutional claim that Ireland was a 32-county entity over which it claimed complete sovereignty. Elections ensued. Facilitated by common membership in the EU, the border faded as a physical infrastructure offering seamless passage North and South. Access to Irish or UK passports or both became the norm in Northern Ireland opening up identities.

The Queen as UK head of state made an official visit to the Republic, greeted warmly by all and sundry, and uttered a greeting in flawless Gaelic. But, most significantly, sectarian killing vanished.  

“Brexit means Brexit”

Brexit has of course destroyed these good times and fanned discord, or, at least brought to the surface, pre-existing bad tempered conflicts – for example, about the Irish language, how to deal with legacies of the killing years and more.

From the moment the long forgotten Brexiter Tory Northern Ireland Secretary in David Cameron’s government, Theresa Villiers, declared during the 2016 referendum campaign, there would be no need for a border with the Republic as an EU member if Brexit occurred, to PM Boris Johnson’s contradiction in January 2021 of his own Protocol agreement – dismissing the NI-UK mainland border checks as non-existent – so Brexit has not only not shifted but has in practice locked-in NI’s political, religious, identity and ideological fissures into a new phase.   Both sides have ratcheted up tensions: the mass attendance at the Sinn Fein Bobby Storey funeral prompted tough exchanges with the party’s DUP co-executive partners and unionist criticisms of the head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

But the Brexit fallout is even more significant. The Protocol has intensified the feeling of betrayal amongst unionists and intensified the will of loyalists to defend the promised ‘unfettered’ trade across the Irish Sea, liberated from forms, checks or barriers. It is now the most important priority for Unionists. The requirement of customs declarations on parcels from Britain to NI is a daily reminder of inequality of citizenship for NI unionists within the nominally co-equal UK.

In Northern Ireland Brexit support and its fallout falls unfailingly along sectarian lines

In Northern Ireland Brexit support and its fallout falls unfailingly along sectarian lines. The Unionist parties, including the UUP, DUP and TUV, each campaigned for Brexit as an eagerly grasped opportunity to deepen integration into the UK and to weaken the fragile ties with the Republic of Ireland, ties represented by the absence of a hard North-South border with checks and a North-South ministerial council put in place by the Good Friday Agreement; these ties were already weakened by the periodic collapse of the Northern Ireland executive.

Nationalist parties – Sinn Fein and the SDLP joined by the ever hopeful Alliance Party – opposed Brexit for the opposite reasons: Brexit would weaken North-South ties, probably result in a hard border and remove the extra-national state forum for civil exchanges offered by the European Union’s institutions in Brussels and Strasburg.   It would place their community at the mercy of a populist Brexit Conservative party led by Boris Johnson. A clear majority voted to Remain in the 2016 referendum.

The intention to get a border reinstated between the Republic of Ireland and the six county NI state was made explicit by the ousted DUP leader, Arlene Foster, in a genial ‘lunch with’ interview in the Financial Times at the end of May. Munching through their fish delicacies, Foster retrospectively berated to her host that the then PM, Theresa May failed to impose this agenda on the EU: “Foster exhales, and blames May for accepting there could be no Irish border checks. ‘All of the reasons I voted for Brexit are still good reasons. The difficulty has been the way in which the protocol has been worked through. And I think the Irish government has a lot to answer for.’”

By this stage on her way out of office, Foster took the opportunity to promote the anti-Republic of Ireland narrative as the source of the hated NI Protocol. Her successor to the leadership of the DUP – Edwin Poots – immediately declared upon election, that relations with the Republic had never been worse. Prime Minister Johnson’s promise of ‘unfettered’ trade across the Irish Sea within the UK is the goal of unionist antipathy to the Protocol.

As in Scotland, the majority of Northern Irish voters voted against the UK’s departure from the EU. The aggregate UK vote favoured leaving. Brexit first empowered the DUP into an agreeable alliance to prop up Theresa May’s no-majority Tory government, extracting funding for Northern Ireland and apparent vindication of their dismissal of the backstop treaty arrangement.

But the Tories’ whopping majority under Johnson in December 2019 eliminated the DUP’s political clout and influence. Johnson kept up his rhetorical fantasies denouncing the prospect of a border in the Irish Sea (most vociferously when addressing the DUP’s own national conference where the delegates credulously embraced him) – but, guess what? In practice, he did the opposite, agreeing to the very hated border checks as part of the withdrawal agreement, embodied in the Protocol Agreement. Northern Ireland is in practice remote from English electoral and day-to-day politics so interest in this new trade border is minute. Having expected Brexit to deliver closer ties to the UK, in practice it has done the opposite, delineating it from the Union more crisply and in ways which have no parallels in Wales or Scotland.

“The times are [not] a changing”

The discreet notice from Loyalist paramilitary groups issued through the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) – the hard men with access to violent means –  that the Good Friday Agreement is suspended, and the dangerous threats to workers at Larne port, should send a shiver down the spine of No 10’s Brexit visionaries. It is an unflinching message.  The DUP’s new leader, Edwin Poots, intones that relations with the Republic of Ireland have ‘never been worse’, and he apportions principal blame for the Brexit Protocol set of border checks across the NI-UK sea equally on the Irish government and the EU, not the UK government which negotiated and accepted the arrangement. The disdain is palpable and deep.

For the unionist community securing closer ties with the UK and limiting relations with the Republic of Ireland is elemental. A nineteen-year old LCC delegate told a subdued Northern Ireland Select Committee hearing that such was the level of anger about the NI Protocol that violence could result: “I am not sure if and when violence will be the answer. I am saying that I would not rule it off the table.”

The sentiment is unremarkable. What is disconcerting is the threat to the twenty-three years of peaceful co-existence achieved in NI since the Good Friday Agreement, and just how fragile that peace may be. Brexit has had a profound effect.

DUP reshaped

Turmoil in the DUP has thrown up Edwin Poots as the news DUP leader, after the un-ceremonial and brutal pushing aside of the ‘moderate’ Arlene Foster (who has promised to leave Northern Ireland were it to be unified with the Republic and has quit the DUP, the party she only joined after quitting the Ulster Unionists in 1998). The meeting on 27 May at which Poots’ narrow victory over Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was confirmed proved a bruising event with charges of intimidation of the failed candidate reported to the police.

Poots is cut from an altogether different cloth to the cosmopolitan Foster. Strengthened by his religious conviction, Poots’ unionism is indivisible. The DUP, recall, opposed the Good Friday Agreement forged by the Ulster Unionist Leader David Trimble, an opposition which meant they could welcome in Jeffrey Donaldson and Arlene Foster as new converts. The DUP’s opposition also paid handsome electoral dividends as their apparently deeper loyalism made them the largest unionist party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, dispatching 8 of the province’s 18 MPs to Westminster in the 2019 election based on 44% of the turnout. (Among the nationalist vote Sinn Fein – 7 MPs (38%) squeezed the SDLP to 2 MPs (11%), but their MPs abstain from Parliament; there is 1 Alliance MP (5%)).  But the pressure of the Protocol has now disrupted this largest unionist party. 

After watching how badly Foster has been bruised by the perfidious Johnson, Poots is unlikely to be assuaged by senior Tory claims, such as that from Jacob Rees-Mogg that the DUP are “the guardians of the union of the United Kingdom.” Poots does not want rhetoric, but measurable dismantling and elimination of Protocol checks. He is not an MP but can see in Lord Frost an ally willing to pull the lever down on Article 16 of the UK-EU exit treaty, not just to defuse but to blow up the Protocol.  Contradicting the longstanding position of the British government, articulated by the then NI Secretary of State Peter Brooke in 1990, Rees-Mogg recently suggested the UK had a strategic and selfish interest in Northern Ireland.

The unionist narrative, shared with Lord frost, cleverly reverses the previous understanding of the Protocol and argues that it undercuts the Belfast Good Friday Agreement (a position which David Trimble also promotes). The main constraint on a radical British unilateral initiative is the Biden presidency: Brexit politicians need a trade deal with the US and the president has repeatedly underlined his support of the Good Friday Agreement and warned against government actions disrupting it. He may appoint a special envoy to Northern Ireland.

Governing without agreement

The broader context is the history of the Northern Ireland state since 1921. Violence had declined dramatically, but sectarian division is higher than it has been for over three decades. Half of the 20 miles of peace walls separating nationalist from unionist communities in Northern Ireland have been built since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. These are 25 feet high and, in some places, three miles long. The gates in these walls – which are opened apprehensively – featured as focal points in the riots in Belfast and in Derry in April. The mass killings of the Troubles have ended, but the ease with which violence can spread in the streets was once again on display .  Whether unionist opposition to the Protocol can go beyond this is unclear: the type of protests – mass strikes by unionists – used to scuttle the Sunningdale Agreement (1973) and to oppose the Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985) are no longer viable.

The early stages of the Troubles involved the enforced relocation of perhaps as many as 15,000 families in Belfast

Close to 95% of children in Northern Ireland attend religiously segregated schools, catholic or protestant; a fraction attend multi-denominational schools. Churches, political leaders and parents collude willingly in this apartheid education system. It is not consociationalism.[3]  Sectarian embeddedness is visible elsewhere. The historian, Marianne Eliot, originally from North Belfast, describes the erosion of the sort of neighbourhood in which she grew up: “the kind of mixed-religion housing estate on which we lived is no more. The early stages of the Troubles involved the enforced relocation of perhaps as many as 15,000 families in Belfast. Those mixed estates were re-sorted into single-identity ones, as people were forced out. They have never returned.”  Divisions have hardened in many ways in the twenty-first century. One party – the Alliance – tries to bridge these divisions and increasing numbers of younger votes declare weaker allegiance for pure nationalism or unionism.

“A risky game”

The Unionists, as Jonathan Powell has argued, are playing a risky game. The pandemic has obscured the economic cost of Brexit and, therefore, a hard Brexit is now politically manageable: this will mean ditching the Protocol dramatically by exercising Article 16.  In any case, while the conflicts about the Protocol include economic dimensions, they are fundamentally political and more about identity. Division reproduces the conventional sectarian divide. One opinion poll reports that when asked about how they will vote in the 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly elections, 47% of respondents will only vote for those parties promising to uphold the Protocol while 42% of respondents will restrict their votes to candidates opposed to the Protocol.

Brexit and the Protocol layer onto the existing divisions and inter-community hatreds of the province. But there is a sting in the tail: the new DUP leadership, with support from other unionist parties, will present a tougher front against the Protocol and translate this into a withdrawal from power sharing and from North-South political relations. Where such intensification will lead is unclear. The TVU – which never accepted the Good Friday Agreement – might gain. Its leader Jim Allister left the DUP in 2007 when it agreed to work with Sinn Fein in the power-sharing executive.

The perennial question of whether unification of Norther Ireland and the Republic of Ireland may occur in the forseeable future seems misplaced and only dimly on the horizon in the current political context. A referendum on this subject is an option, which can be activated by the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, under the Good Friday Agreement. When and how this would occur is at the discretion of the Secretary of State, though scholars have given the issue serious attention.

there is a majority on both sides of the border – 70% – for setting a date within 5 years for a referendum

As Arlene Foster’s oft cited decision that she would emigrate were unification to occur reveals, this possibility of unification is anathema to the vast majority of the unionist community. Many commentators miss or underestimate this depth of resistance, a depth as strong in 1921 when NI was created, as it is in May 2021. A recent opinion poll found that a two-thirds majority of voters in the Republic of Ireland support a united Ireland, but there is no majority to pay any additional cost for unification. In NI the responses in favour of unification polled 35% with 44% opposed. But interestingly there is a majority on both sides of the border – 70% – for setting a date within 5 years for a referendum.  These findings are consistent with other polls.

The Census 2021 is eagerly awaited by both communities in NI. It is widely speculated that a catholic majority will be counted in the state’s 1.9 million residents. But demography won’t produce immediate changes. The short-term agenda will be dominated by unionist opposition to the Protocol, and the destabilizing effects of this stance on already frosty relations with its power-sharing partner – Sinn Fein. Northern Ireland’s power-sharing institutions are inherently fragile and their suspension could recur. 

We end where we started, and where Northern Ireland most commonly rests – at an un-named train station. Brexit has stirred up division and political instability in quite dangerous ways.  Will the Brexit waving Conservative government get away with both defying the EU by overriding the Protocol and the associated economic costs of its hard Brexit? Or will the government respect the legally binding Protocol and test the resolve of the unionist community?  It is hard to find an easy solution to the dangers Brexit poses for Northern Ireland. It is easier to imagine greater instability and conflict. The pursuit of an ‘English’ sentimental attachment to sovereignty is, in Northern Ireland, indeed a ‘risky game.’


[1] Brendan O’Leary, A Treatise on Northern Ireland: 3 volumes. Oxford University Press, 2020.

[2] Michael Keating, The Fragmented Union: State and Nation in the United Kingdom OUP 2021.

[3] Donald Horowitz, “Explaining the Northern Ireland Agreement: the sources of an unlikely constitutional consensus.” British Journal of Political Science 2002 32: 193-220.

Desmond King is the Andrew W Mellon Professor of Government at the University of Oxford. He is the author of many books including, Making Americans: Immigration, Race and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy (Harvard 2000), The Liberty of Strangers: Making the American Nation (Oxford, 2005), Separate and Unequal: African Americans and the US Federal Government (Oxford 1995/2007),  Still a House Divided: Race and Politics in the Obama Era with Rogers M Smith (Princeton, 2011), Sterilized by the State with Randall Hansen (Cambridge, 2013), Fed Power: How Finance Wins with Lawrence Jacaobs (Oxford, 2016/2021) and Phantoms of a Beleaguered Republic: The Deep State and the Unitary Executive with Stephen Skowronek and John Dearborn (Oxford 2021).

Header image credit: ‘Belfast Peace Wall’ Jennifer Boyer


King, Desmond 2021. ‘Is Northern Ireland at ‘The Most Dangerous Situation for Many Years’?’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (2)

(Dis)United Kingdom: The View from the other Europes

Manuela Boatcă

In a recent policy paper, ambitiously titled “Global Britain in a Competitive Age”, the British government states that, “as an open economy and a maritime trading nation with a large diaspora”, the UK is “a European country with global interests”. In the very next sentence, it posits that the country’s “future prosperity will be enhanced by our economic connections with dynamic parts of the world […] as well as trade with Europe” (UK Government 2021: 14). The geopolitically Freudian slip of identifying as a European country while professing a will to trade with Europe is revealing of more than one unwarranted shorthand in Brexit discourse and policy.

First, there is the conflation of Europe with the European Union. To be fair, using the former to refer to the latter is, in itself, not particular to Brexit discourse. Yet the monopoly that the economic and political project of the European Union has acquired over the historical and present meanings of “Europe” has gradually narrowed attention to, and awareness of, European affairs down to European Union member states. At the same time, candidate countries – from the ten Eastern European members that joined in 2004 to Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia, which joined in 2007 and 2014, respectively – were told to “Europeanize”; or were told off, as in the case of Turkey, which had first applied for EU accession in 1987. Framing Brexit, from the referendum to its current implications, in binary terms that pit “European membership” against a “Global Britain”, leaves out the UK’s manifold European ties – until they surface as tautological references to a Europe-not-in- Europe, as above. Not least, such framing (purposefully?) downplays European global ambitions and long-standing global entanglements.

This brings me to a second leap in meaning, constantly reproduced in Brexit discourse and beyond. Even when not directed specifically at the European Union, references to “Europe” in the singular obscure the multiplicity of unequal Europes resulting from the different roles that regions of Europe played in the global colonial enterprise (incidentally, at least as much of a “Competitive Age” as the one in which the “Global Britain” agenda is currently placed). What informed the reigning notion of “Europe” – and its corresponding claims to civilization, modernity, and development – was defined one-sidedly from positions of power mainly associated with colonial and imperial rule.

France and England, the rising colonial powers of the eighteenth century, self-described as the producers of modernity’s main revolutions –  the French Revolution and the industrial revolution –  and claimed the status of a “heroic Europe” as the norm. This self-serving narrative accordingly relegated the early colonial powers, Spain and Portugal, to a lesser, “decadent” Europe, while large parts of the European East, which had lost out of colonial possessions overseas during that particular competitive age, became the “epigonal Europe” perpetually trying to catch up (Boatcă 2021).

what does the UK look like when viewed from some of these other Europes?

Even more important for today’s definitions of Europe, however, is the fact that the colonial possessions, which were economically indispensable for these achievements and administratively integral parts of Western European states, played no part in the definition of Europe or its claims to modernity. To this day, many of these areas, which official language labels “overseas countries and territories” and “outermost regions”, are under the control of European states – from the Dutch Caribbean to the French Antilles and the British Virgin Islands. They are “forgotten” Europes: the geopolitically and discursively least visible group among the multiple Europes resulted from power shifts within and beyond the continent during the past five centuries. UK’s overseas territories, whose populations were unable to vote in the Brexit referendum and whose future status was largely neglected during Brexit negotiations, are themselves such forgotten Europes – and one of the reasons why the (Dis)United Kingdom has long been both European and global. So what does the UK look like when viewed from some of these other Europes?

Fig. 1. Map of the British Isles, as well as the various British Overseas TerritoriesImage Credit: MrPenguin20 Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Britain controls fourteen overseas territories with different forms of statehood and degrees of self-determination in the Caribbean, the Atlantic, the Indian, and the Pacific oceans, and in continental Europe (see figure 1). Before Brexit, the UK was the EU state controlling the most overseas territories – a total of thirteen that counted as overseas countries and territories (OCTs) within the EU framework – plus continental Gibraltar, by definition not “overseas”. The remaining twenty-two OCTs of the European Union are the result of the colonial involvement of five EU member states: Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain. Of these, nine are part of France, Portugal, and Spain and thus fully-fledged EU members; they are considered outermost regions (ORs) of the European Union and are subject to EU legislation.

According to official language, the remaining thirteen “are not sovereign countries but depend to varying degrees on the 3 Member countries with which they maintain special links” (European Commission 2020). These Danish, Dutch, and French colonies are not part of the single market, yet their nationals are EU citizens. In contrast, most citizens of British Overseas Territories before Brexit were British nationals holding British passports and subject to British sovereignty, but not full British citizens. They were also, therefore, not EU citizens with freedom of movement in other EU countries. Yet they were, and continued to be, exempt from obtaining a visa when traveling within the Schengen Area and had the right to apply for full British citizenship. After the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU in 2020, the thirteen British Overseas Territories no longer form part of the European Union’s OCTs. The consequences of this decision for individual territories not only differ widely, but have in the most cases not even been addressed in post-Brexit regulations and negotiations.

The programmatic forgetting of Britain’s other Europes was already apparent as Brexit negotiations at home vied with the urgent need for disaster relief overseas in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which had incurred considerable damage in Anguilla, Montserrat and the British Virgin Islands in 2017. While France and the Netherlands quickly dispatched taskforces and military personnel to the equally affected French and Dutch Caribbean territories, Britain’s slow response, described as “appalling” by the British nationals affected by the hurricane, prompted even conservative media to insist that “Britain must care for all its citizens” (The Telegraph 2017).

Although media and local overseas governments’ warnings and pleas have since increased exponentially, Britain had yet to systematically heed them. In the British government’s framework document on Brexit, released in 2018, references to the overseas territories are both scarce and vague. They range from “seeking specific arrangements for the Crown Dependencies, Gibraltar and the other Overseas Territories” through “ensuring an appropriate and beneficial future relationship across the UK family” and up to “upholding their British sovereignty” (UK Parliament 2018). They remain as vague as to only commit to “meeting the needs of the wider UK family, including the Crown Dependencies and the Overseas Territories”.

a solution for avoiding a hard border with the EU was negotiated only for Gibraltar

Crucially, the framework document makes no mention of their maritime borders with EU territories in the Caribbean – even as they are placed next to concrete plans regarding EU borders on the mainland, such as the plan to “protect the union, avoiding the need for any hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland” (UK Parliament 2018). After the last-minute Brexit deal, a solution for avoiding a hard border with the EU was negotiated only for Gibraltar (the only overseas territory located in continental Europe and the only full EU member among them): joining the Schengen zone. While ratifying this preliminary agreement as a treaty detailing the consequences for free movement, border control, and fishing rights is expected to take months, no such hope is in sight for the remaining overseas territories (Müller 2021).

Among them, Anguilla, the oldest British colony and a British territory since 1650, offers a striking mirror image of Britain’s political borders in the Caribbean. Just like Britain, Anguilla shares a maritime border with France through its own “English Channel” – the Anguilla channel – which separates it from the French “overseas collectivity” of St. Martin. Yet unlike Britain, Anguilla also borders the Netherlands to the south through Sint Maarten, a “constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands” on the same island as the French St. Martin. Anguilla is dependent upon both for trade and transportation: planes bound to Anguilla can only land on the Dutch part, Sint Maarten, while the only cargo port, through which Anguilla receives most goods, is located in the French part of the island, St. Martin. It has no access to postal services, fuel, basic medical services and educational special needs other than through the facilities located in the Dutch and French territories.

Anguilla still faces the prospect of harboring an instant refugee – or illegalized – population of British People of Colour

While Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU were ongoing, the Government of Anguilla published two reports signaling the urgency and importance of these issues, detailing Brexit risks and drafting possible avenues to prevent a mirror Brexit border in the Caribbean, such as a regional customs union and common travel area with the island of Saint Martin (Government of Anguilla 2017; 2018). At the time of writing this text, Anguilla still faces the prospect of harboring an instant refugee – or illegalized – population of British People of Colour in this forgotten Europe. In the meantime, Anguilla’s population decreased from almost 17,000 people in 2016 to 13,500 in 2018 as people migrated in search of a less risky future. Population numbers did rise again in 2020, yet this was mainly due to the worldwide restrictions on emigration during the pandemic.

An aspect that received little media and policy attention is that Brexit not only resulted in the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, but also of its Overseas Territories Association (UKOTA) from the rest of the Overseas Countries and Territories Association, the organization that regulates cooperation between the EU and the overseas dependencies of its member states (Grass 2021). The imposition of high tariffs on the squid and fish exported to the EU from the Falkland Islands, a British overseas territory that was explicitly excluded from the UK/EU Brexit accord, or on the honey produced only on the Pitcairn Islands, have received only scant attention despite the likelihood of momentous impact.

The Falkland Islands economy relies heavily on fish, of which up to 90 percent is exported to the EU. The Pitcairn Islands, Britain’s smallest and most remote overseas territory, exports one-third of its honey to the EU and had so far received around 2.4 million euros from the European Development Fund towards several building projects, including a school and a harbour (Connelly 2019). Post-Brexit concerns in both territories, which are of strategic economic importance to other EU countries, have prompted questions whether the Falkland Islands might ask for Spain’s intervention on the issue of the EU-imposed tariffs on squid exports and whether Pitcairn, currently facing depopulation, might soon be for sale – much to the interest of France.

Yet the most affected remains Anguilla, the island most dependent on the relationship with the European Union among the UK’s overseas territories. As an “internally self-governing British territory”, as the official language has it, Anguilla is ineligible for most British development aid. Yet before Brexit, in which Anguilla’s citizens didn’t have a vote, the European Union was the island’s main source of funding, especially for reconstruction projects after the hurricanes of the past several years. In the absence of clear post-Brexit provisions, it is likely that EU funding will be cut off. Blondel Cluff, until recently Anguilla’s representative in London, hinted at Anguilla’s location being a mirror image of Britain’s borders when stating: “Saint Martin is our backyard, and we are theirs. Everyone has family there too. If that border becomes like Dover and Calais, that’s going to make life very difficult for Anguilla” (quoted in Connelly 2019).

Anguilla is the only British colony that ever fought to remain British

Quite unlike other dependent territories across the world today, Anguilla is the only British colony that ever fought to remain British – rather than belong to an independent island federation together with St. Kitts and Nevis. The long-drawn process, known on the island as the Anguilla revolution, included a declaration of independence from St. Kitts and Nevis in 1967, two referenda in 1967 and 1969, in which over 99.7 percent of the population voted for secession from the then state of St. Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla. An infamous invasion of the island by Britain’s metropolitan police in 1969 was met with peaceful demonstrations by unarmed locals and ridiculed in the press of the time as the “Bay of Piglets” (Hannan 2019). Anguilla formally seceded from St. Kitts and Nevis in 1980 in order to remain a British colony.

Such decisions for a formal colonial status can be of strategic self-interest. They result from weighing the risks posed by political upheaval, the small size of island economies, and the additional management capacity necessary after independence against the advantages that the maintenance of colonial ties offers, and that in most cases include economic assistance, welfare provisions, as well as access to the citizenship of a EU member and the mobility benefits it guarantees. In view of the fact that none of several EU overseas territories with good prospects for independence at the end of the twentieth century have since chosen sovereignty, the authors of “The Ends of Empire. The Last Colonies Revisited” conclude that “Opposition to independence is not illogical. Brexit has shown how issues initially considered of no obvious relevance to OTs, and determined without reference to them can have powerful repercussions, ironically pointing to the virtues of an externally guaranteed security” (Connell and Aldrich 2020: 104).  

Despite the imperial rhetoric of global reach, the resulting picture is one of a fragmented, disunited Kingdom that has yet to take accountability for its imperial present

In a section titled “Our interests and our values: the glue that binds the Union”, the UK government’s policy paper on Global Britain indeed lists sovereignty, security and prosperity as “the shared interests [that] bind together the citizens of the United Kingdom” (UK Government 2021: 13). Yet, in claiming that, “it is as the United Kingdom that we boast armed forces with global reach”, in proceeding to advocate for “the” UK border as “the most effective in the world” by 2025 – “the gateway to Global Britain”, and in presenting the UK Global Tariff as a tool to maintain “an open and competitive UK market in the interests of UK consumers”, it systematically leaves out the concerns of its overseas citizens and other nationals from every single one of these shared interests. This is so, from Anguila’s EU border with St. Martin to the newly imposed tariffs for the Falkland Islands and Pitcairn and the renewed talk of sovereignty both in the overseas territories and in the British Isles themselves. Despite the imperial rhetoric of global reach, the resulting picture is one of a fragmented, disunited Kingdom that has yet to take accountability for its imperial present.

Manuela Boatcă is Professor of Sociology and Head of School of the Global Studies Programme at the University of Freiburg, Germany. She has published widely on world-systems analysis, decolonial perspectives on global inequalities, gender and citizenship in modernity/coloniality, and the geopolitics of knowledge in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean. She is author of Global Inequalities beyond Occidentalism, Routledge 2016 and of Laboratoare ale modernității. Europa de Est și America Latină în (co)relație, IDEA 2020, as well as co-editor (with A. Amelina, A. Weiß, and G. Bongaerts) of “Theorizing Society Across Borders: Globality, Transnationality, Postcoloniality”, Current Sociology special issue 2021. Her co-authored book Creolizing the Modern. Transylvania Across Empires (with Anca Parvulescu) is forthcoming in English, German, and Romanian in 2022.

Header image credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office – Flickr


Boatcă, Manuela 2021. ‘(Dis)United Kingdom: The View from the other Europes’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (2)

Nationalist Discontents and the Husk of Britain

Sivamohan Valluvan

Much has already been said about what made Brexit Britain possible. For some, Brexit was a ‘death-drive’ poetics of nationalism amidst the rupturing of 20th century social contracts, political ideologies and Establishment authority. For others, it revealed a postcolonial melancholia but also hubris, interacting in contradictory ways. For Brexit apologists, it represented a cultural backlash in the English provinces against shifting mores and demographics. More centrist-minded nostalgics framed Brexit as the consequence of a digital media era which finds it profitable to cynically amplify a politics of ressentiment. Finally, more economistic arguments saw Brexit simply as an attempt to reach for the ostensible certainties of nation amidst the wider dissipation of Western capitalism’s privileges as occasioned by the rise of China but hastened domestically by decades of market-economics evangelism.

However, whatever the key drivers, it remains commonplace to note that the resultant nationalist politics traded primarily in a register of demagoguery about those who do not belong. This involved multiple external objects of loathing, harm and corrosion against which English victimhood and identity could be staged. The cast here is broad, including of course the EU, the alleged liberal-internationalism of metropolitan cosmopolitans, the increasingly confident voice of Scottish distinctiveness, and, of late, the power of China and other 21st century arrivistes.

But it was still, as ever, the overlapping figure of the migrant/refugee, the Muslim, and racialised minorities and ‘multiculturalism’ more broadly, for which Brexit conservatism reserved its primary animus. Brexit acted as a proxy referendum on immigration and it accordingly won itself, in Priti Patel, a Home Secretary equal to the anti-immigration demands it championed. And yet, in spite of a political terrain consistently congenial to the political Right, we continue to hear in Britain calls for a left nationalism, elsewhere presented as a progressive patriotism or left-populism.  

Painting Nationalism Red

It is important not to bundle all prevailing left nationalist invitations into one entity. There are competing reasons why a popular left politics might be tempted today by nationalism. These range from perceived electoral pragmatism and expediency; to pseudo-Marxist readings of immigration and ‘multiculturalism’ as neoliberal; to a melancholic fetishization of the working class as exclusively white and as modelled in a post-war glow; and finally, leftist understandings of today’s nationalism as misdirected anti-capitalist desires which require careful harnessing.

And though such diverse leftist plays to nationalism might be exasperating for many, it is scarcely surprising that a left sensibility might be seduced by the nationalist wager. After all, as Benedict Anderson famously explained, it is nationalism that stages for modernity a sense of political community, a sense of collective identity that sits in an uneasy dialectical tension with the abstract and cold individualism of commercial modernity. As many contemporary observers of fascism dolefully observed, the awkward truth is that it was nationalism that popularly recalled, albeit in reactionary form, assorted pre-, or non-, economistic sentiments nominally antagonistic to capitalist alienation. Similarly, it was nationalism that cultivated what Anderson again calls a sensation of ‘deep horizontal comradeship’.

Nationalism … can create an intoxicating impression that we are united in our equal standing

Nationalism, then, can create an intoxicating impression that we are united in our equal standing, and even endow this common unity with a sacredness befitting an otherwise secular age. When seen like this, this sacralised sense of solidaristic sameness is, of course, vying for a similar sense of solidarity as the left. After all, does not any self-respecting left-wing orator also posit a horizontal comradeship. Do they not also speak in the idioms of collectives, the people, and solidarity.

However, that nationalism is, at best, only partially amendable to a leftist or Marxist appropriation is also well-understood. Nationalism ultimately reconciles the polity to class stratification and exploitation – where the realities of domestic class conflict are subsumed by the falsely unifying ethnic ecology of nation. Similarly, even if a nationalist orientation engages in some variation of capitalist reform, it is still easily critiqued for its intrinsic exclusions, not least on racialised terms – its scope of welfarist amelioration being indexed to a grid of national belonging and entitlement.

But it is also the case that the exclusionary limits of nationalism are not themselves fatal to it as a political project.  Whilst it fails to satisfy a more humanist conception of justice that many of us cleave towards, it might still appeal to others who are willing to sacrifice one expansive sense of justice in the interests of a more contained political possibility. After all, for a majority to stake a principle of belonging, sovereignty and perhaps even some putative material gain to an assertion of national identity will appeal to those ‘natives’ in whose image the nation is ostensibly forged.

Incidentally, a common habit of nationalists the world over is not to deride their critics as ipso facto villainous or wrong but as simply naïve and idealistic. It is argued here that critics fail to see that the nation, and the territorialised state it encompasses, is the only conduit via which a sense of political community, order and democratic justice can be realised.  Nationalism can seem, then, a rather grounded project and its intrinsic logic of exclusion, as regards citizenship and the cultivation of a common national identity, an acceptable and necessary price.

Nationalism and postcolonial lessons

It is in postcolonial theory, however, that we find the more enduring critiques of nationalism. Its broad archive has consistently shown that nationalism is not problematic simply because it is exclusionary, intolerant or violent. Though it is problematic for those reasons, too. It is also problematic because it is essentially de-politicising. As Paul Gilroy once framed it, nationalism is a politics that stalls at a level of ‘prepolitical uniformity’.[1] Specifically, the assertion of national identity becomes the primary locus of political desire itself.

Politics becomes overdetermined by an endless sequence of increasingly fervent assertions about ethnic and cultural integrity

Politics becomes overdetermined by an endless sequence of increasingly fervent assertions about ethnic and cultural integrity; about majoritarian entitlement or priority; about the symbolic flagging of the nation and its ethically consecrated history; and of course, various agonised laments about the presence of those who don’t belong. In other words, an endless impugning of minorities, migrant interlopers, and neighbouring countries to whom primary culpability for assorted hardships can be ascribed.

There is also often a preoccupation with those excessively cosmopolitan or leftist dissenters who require patriotic disciplining. As regards the latter, it is sobering that in today’s Hindutva India the principal political slur is that of being ‘anti-national’.  Whilst in China, bourgeoning netizen parlance has coined a wildly popular ‘baizuo’ neologism – which nominally reads as ‘white left’ but also speaks much more generically to the foolish idealism of those in China who advocate for both equality and compassion for the outsider. This is a foolishness that overrides the immutable truths of civilizational vitality and the necessity of tightly bound national collectives.

Amidst this context of nationalism’s destructive insularity, it was Frantz Fanon who presciently cautioned, though he is sometimes read otherwise, that the overriding risk for the original decolonial moment was that the new nation, in trying to stake a sense of national authenticity and historic entitlement, itself becomes committed to its own ‘ultra-nationalisms, chauvinisms, and racisms.’[2] Fanon becomes here, in Mahmood Mamdani’s insightful phrasing, both the ‘first prophet of decolonization’ but ‘also its first critic’.[3] And whilst such exclusionary animus, with all its visceral dehumanization, is already unconscionable from the perspective of those who are its object, it is also apparent that the political discourse of those who otherwise belong as the normative majority is also diminished.

the assertion of national identity, itself, becomes the political wager, the principal attachment of the state

Much postcolonial critique, working from this Fanonian impulse, has made it evident that nationalism is not just some instrumental premise, not just an expedient vehicle for some wider political principle or goal, as is often assumed. Rather, the assertion of national identity, itself, becomes the political wager, the principal attachment of the state. Or as Nandita Sharma recently argued, in her broad scan of the former colonized world,[4] much politics collapses into the rehearsal of the ‘ethnic question’ and little else – i.e. who belongs, who doesn’t, who is authentic, who isn’t, who is native and who is a guest. And so forth.

Of course, in the heady ferment of the initial decolonial era, this drive was tempered by the competing imperatives of the communist wager so central to the mid 20th century, alongside a ‘worldmaking’ sense of anticolonial global humanism.  Today, however, the nationalist compulsion acts with full autonomous abandon. Indeed, as regards China and to a lesser extent India, we see that these ‘civilizationist’ nationalisms have also found an elective affinity with what some call the state-managed or ‘authoritarian’ capitalism that has obtained particularly strong grounding.

Accordingly, whilst the earlier communist hypothesis represented a mitigating bulwark against the nationalisms of the postcolonial moment, we now see that the state capitalist imperatives of the contemporary period align particularly well with the nationalist terms of today’s hegemonic claims. And though this concept of state capitalism is subject to intense debate, there is a clear case to be explored about how and why do capitalist imperatives now draw such an easy affinity with nationalist-populism – an affinity that should give pause to those who continue to insist that the politics of nation is still available for a progressive form.

England, Scotland and the husk of Britain

Of course, it is still possible to ascribe distinctly progressive content to the nation in its more embryonic, resistant form, when it is yet to become a nation-state construed by majoritarian authority. From a British perspective, it is Tom Nairn who proves particularly relevant here.

Long deserving of his status as the public intellectual of Scottish independence, Nairn always understood the aforementioned predicaments of nationalism. His advocacy of a Scottish independence cautioned against romanticist ethnic claims, favouring instead a civic, left-modernist and international sensibility. Indeed, Nairn’s advocacy of EEC membership, unusual at the time for Left luminaries, puts his nationalism in a particularly complex light. A scenario where potential independence would actually see Scotland willingly pool its new-found sovereignty in the collaborative interests of a confederal EU project. The fact that Britain’s exit from Europe renders the cause of Scottish independence (and perhaps Irish unification too) even more attractive speaks to that distinctly open and pragmatic vision of a Scottish future that Nairn was envisaging.

Nairn was prefiguring – indeed, helping to bring it into being – Nicola Sturgeon’s later claim that theirs was a cause of independence tied to ‘social justice and democracy’, as opposed to nationalism per se. Or, to quote from the precocious SNP MP Mhairi Black, ‘nationalism [has] nothing to do with what’s happened in Scotland’.[5] And even if Brexiters or Trumpists also often disavow nationalism, in favour of motifs of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘control’, it is of course true that much of what is presented as regional separatism is routinely allied to a distinctly progressive ambition. (As is also partially evident in the not entirely quixotic arrival in English politics of the Northern Independence Party, who seem to be pressing an open if mischievous left-populist narration of their separatist ambitions.)

‘the very idea that one’s own nation has transcended nationalism is itself a kind of nationalism’

But if the very underlying imprimatur of that future is still the idea of nation, it is also easy to see that it might, in time, override any competing logic of state formation, once and if consolidated as an independent entity. Indeed, as was once noted in a different debate about civic nationalism, ‘the very idea that one’s own nation has transcended nationalism is itself a kind of nationalism’.[6] To acknowledge this, as Nairn himself does, is not to begrudge those who wish to escape, to realise an independence from all that is drab, boorish and ‘Blue Rinse’ reactionary. It is only to note that the authorising alibi of nation is no benign instrument, but sets in play a variety of future political moorings once one is fortunate enough to self-describe as a majority vis-à-vis the nation-state one wished into being. And particularly so when one encounters new stresses, often internal, to the democratic, welfarist and forward-looking aims first championed as the horizon of independence. In other words, in the wake of such separatist battles, it is not the cause of social democracy or some suitable equivalent that triumphs, but the nation. And it remains the case that the cause of nation appropriates, simultaneously, any number of wholly contradictory political stripes as convenient – a ragtag ideological cacophony that only coheres, as an active political demand, around the idea of nationhood itself. 

The wider British context of Nairn’s arguments opens up, however, other considerations regarding nationalism’s allegedly more protean possibilities. Decisive for Nairn was his understanding that the British state is in its very design pathological, forged as it was in the interests of an imperial project. The United Kingdom remains, in turn, irredeemably anachronistic to the possibility of a 21st century politics that reckons openly and fairly with the global at the same time as it roots itself in textures of local democracy.

a liberated Scotland would inadvertently liberate England too

A powerful plea is at work here, where Nairn spies the possibility amidst the dissolution of the Kingdom for its new nations to reconcile themselves to a humbled understanding of their place in the world. In other words, a political temperament that inveighs against denialist ‘world-beating’ hubris, trademarked today by Boris Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ jocularity, and instead, seeks out international collaboration from a healthy position of acknowledged modesty and cooperative sovereignty. Nairn’s parallel intimation is that a liberated Scotland would inadvertently liberate England too, where finally an English politics too might emerge that is free of the destructive imperial worldview that endures when England is still seen as a metonym of (Great) Britain.

I wonder however – as enchanting as the possibility of a humbled, contemplative and constitutionally reformed England otherwise is – if a more global critical lens is still required, lest we unduly provincialize its current problems. In other words, just as Brexit boosters are wont to exceptionalist cheerleading, so too its critics might be prone to an inverted exceptionalisation of the Anglo-British nationalist malaise. The very fact that jingoistic nationalisms abound all around us and across very different historical contexts, be it Italy and Hungary or Russia and Turkey, it seems instructive then to indict nationalism more expansively – as opposed to identifying only the England-as-Britain malaise as being chronically compromised.

It is another decolonial irony as regards Global South nationalisms that is again telling here. As the political theorist Chenchen Zhang captures so forensically [7], much of contemporary right-populist discourse in China is increasingly referencing the West as a cautionary tale about an allegedly excess liberalism; an allegedly excess tolerance of minorities, immigration and Muslims via which the West is perceived as undergoing a naïve and self-willed implosion from within. Zhang excerpts here a dizzying online discourse, culminating in one commentator’s claim that ‘It’s about the instinct of survival. The West has lost this instinct, but China has it’, whilst another observes that ‘Nothing can save Europe when she’s digging herself a grave through self-deception and giving up on cultural assimilation.’

the West no longer features as some sort of Eurocentric beacon of modernization

Whilst the context here is China, we could without much difficulty also extend such political trends to other less world-historical settings such as the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. In turn, from a contemporary postcolonial perspective, it becomes possible to note how the West no longer features as some sort of Eurocentric beacon of modernization that many early postcolonial nation-making leaders were reluctantly obliged to reference; and nor does it act as a reference of violent and hypocritical reaction against which postcolonial progressive politics might be pursued in contradistinction. But instead, in a sort of macabre decolonial reversal, the West is increasingly invoked as a salutary tale about the dangers of being inadequately nationalist, inadequately assertive about one’s cultural cohesion and ethnic integrity, inadequately anti-immigration and/or inadequately assimilationist.

And notwithstanding the ironies of Europe being construed here as insufficiently nationalist – doubly ironic for someone who has staked an entire book on saying otherwise – other instructive questions also arise then about nationalism’s sui generis limits. If the very countries that were once subjected to colonial domination can today assert themselves with such chauvinistic belligerence, it is no longer self-evident that the former colonizer’s attempt to fashion a postimperial, post United Kingdom nation-state design will summarily allow for a healthier orientation towards nationhood. I would instead venture that there seems to be something much more corrosively immanent about how modernity helps fix sovereignty and political community to a sense of national identity and belonging and the distinctly nationalist framings of political problems, anxiety and resolution that flow out of that very premise.

This is not to deny that other much more inviting political possibilities are also available to the new set of nation-states that might succeed any mooted break-up of the Union. In Scotland certainly, but also England, whole generations are taking shape that are much more assertive about a post-neoliberal political possibility – an economic sensibility that is also finding some diluted traction in the early months of Joe Biden’s U.S. administration. This is also a generational ethos that is being re-aligned to the more internationalist scale of their cultural imagination and as a practical necessity. This being a realism more open to a pooled sense of sovereignty and post-imperial global collaboration and accountability when contending with the planetary immanence of climate change, the fleet-footed global mobility of a predatory capitalism, and also just the borderless vectors of pandemics.

What Nairn calls the ‘maelstrom’ of generatively unknown possibility that awaits us amidst the dissolution of the United Kingdom is accordingly very inviting, given the impasse of a present political and electoral culture where the UK is staring toward a future of oligarchic one-party rule. I only note that much of this energy is likely to be frustrated if we continue to tie our demands to an underlying attachment to nationhood and national identity. This is a nationalist attachment that consistently bends politics towards its own autonomous imperatives as opposed to it bending towards politics.


[1] Gilroy, P. (2004[2000]) Between Camps, Abingdon: Routledge, p.8. 

[2] Fanon, F. (2001[1961]) The Wretched of the Earth, London: Penguin Books, p.125.

[3] Mamdani, M. (2002) ‘Making Sense of Political Violence in Postcolonial Africa’, Identity, Culture and Politics, 3(2), p.5.

[4] Sharma, N. (2020) Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

[5]  These quotes as well as some of the wider context about Nairn are sourced from Anthony Barnett’s Introduction (‘Tom Nairn is the One’) to the recent reissue of Nairn’s defining classic. Nairn, T. (2021[1977]) The Break-Up of Britain, London: Verso. See also James Foley’s (2021) recent ‘Scotland After Covid-19’.

[6] Read, J. (2004) ‘Writing in the Conjuncture’, Borderlands, 3(1), p.6.

[7] Zhang, C. (2019) ‘Right-wing Populism with Chinese Characteristics’, European Journal of International Relations, 26(1), 88-115.

Sivamohan Valluvan is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. He is the author of The Clamour of Nationalism (Manchester University Press) and has written widely on debates of race and racism, nationalism and multiculture, as well as postcolonial and social theory more broadly. He has also contributed to Salvage, Red Pepper, Renewal, Juncture, Guardian, and Fabian Review. 

Header image credit: Maggie A-Day


Valluvan, Sivamohan 2021. ‘The Husk of Britain’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (2)