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) https://doi.org/10.51428/dsoc.2021.02.0001