Breaking-Up Britain? The dynamics of “nationalism” and Brexit

Breaking-Up Britain? The dynamics of “nationalism” and Brexit

This week, Dr Cathal McManus (Queen’s University Belfast) examines the EU referendum through a historical four nations approach.

The British referendum result on EU membership has raised important questions about the future of the United Kingdom.

In particular, it has again raised the possibility of a “Break-up of Britain”.[i] To analyse the potential for such a ‘break-up’ it is useful to assess what the referendum campaign tells us about the nature of contemporary nationalisms across the UK and Ireland.

Changing Face of Nationalism?

The referendum campaign has confirmed trends within Irish, Scottish and Welsh nationalisms to look more favourably on the EU. Even Sinn Féin, historically a vocal critic of the EU, came out in support of Britain remaining – an important contribution given the party’s influence in Northern Ireland. Although arguing the need for EU reform, the party claimed that European membership protected Irish businesses and trade.

This was an almost identical position to that of the SNP who, although similarly wary of EU imperfections and arguing the need for reform, stressed the benefits of membership for Scotland.[ii]

In Wales, Plaid Cymru maintained that the country was ‘stronger, safer and better off as part of the European Union’. It too, however, emphasised the need for reform.[iii]

A number of key points emerge from this.

Firstly, membership of the EU has facilitated a very definite shift away from the economic protectionism that characterised nationalism during the first half of the twentieth century. The three parties identified above see a value in European co-operation and believe that it can enhance the economic viability of the political independence they seek.

This suggests a growing realisation of the socio-economic priorities of their potential constituents and the need to provide a coherent economic blueprint. This realisation has helped to shape the nature of Irish nationalist parties such as Fianna Fáil since the 1960s and the SDLP since the 1970s. It has also influenced SNP thinking since the mid-1980s.

This, in turn, has had a significant impact on the type of nationalisms espoused. Scottish, Irish and Welsh nationalists are now less likely turn to patriotic sentiment or ideas of cultural homogeneity to rally the populace around a national vision. Slowly but surely, the insular, inward looking and ethnic interpretations that defined older notions of nationhood are being undermined. In their place, contemporary nationalist movements appear much more comfortable with their status in an international community and, in the main, open to the realities of cultural diversity.

This transition is, of course, far from complete. That each nationalist party emphasises the need for important reforms of the EU to better protect aspects of national sovereignty, demonstrates that all of the old tensions have yet to be fully ironed out.

Old Nationalism and the politics of “Othering”

Perhaps the most important aspect of the EU debate centred on the continuing growth, largely in England, of a politics resembling ‘old nationalism’. This was most clearly evident in the political campaigning of UKIP.

Several key characteristics marked it out as such.

Firstly, it was largely led by a political elite[iv] – primarily conservative in outlook – that sought to present itself as understanding the needs of “ordinary” people. In order to do so they sought to exploit the social and economic frustrations that have developed in areas of disadvantage. This elite, in order to mobilise popular support, presented themselves as an alternative to the “failed” establishment and expressed a desire to return the country to a ‘paradise lost’.[v]

Perhaps the most crucial element of their politicking, however, was the processes of “Othering” that they engaged in.[vi] This took the form of presenting Others – EU institutions and “immigrants” – as a threat to the British way of life and essentially blamed these Others for all of the ills faced by society. Whilst UKIP claim to be ‘a non-racist and non-sectarian party’ and describe themselves as ‘civic’ nationalists[vii], the language they used and the messages they espoused were designed to build barriers between “us” and “them” – a classic characteristic of “old” nationalism.

Towards the Break-Up of Britain?

Although the processes of “Othering” that characterised the politicking of the “Leave” campaign were primarily in relation to the EU and immigration, they have the potential for further ramifications. The development of an English nationalism that is insular in outlook and which is increasingly expressing itself in ethnic terms (look at the use of terms such as “we”, “us”), stands in stark contrast to the direction of the nationalist movements described earlier.

This could have implications for Scotland and Northern Ireland where the more outward looking and pro-EU stance of the nationalist parties has been shown to very much reflect the attitudes of the electorate they seek to represent.[viii]

The decision to vote for a British exit has reinforced an emerging political and cultural divide in the UK, with the populations of Scotland and nationalists/Catholics in Northern Ireland, increasingly taking a negative attitude to the politics of their English (and Unionist) counterparts. This has been evident in the numerous accusations of “racism” levelled against the “Leave” campaign, as well as the comparisons that have been made between Brexiters and Donald Trump in America. This “Othering” can provide a new boost to the nationalist movements of Scotland and Northern Ireland – movements that have, until now, struggled to sell their ideals to the electorate.[ix]

English nationalism, therefore, however unintentional it may have been, could help to make this sell easier as processes of “Othering” become further embedded.    

[i] Tom Nairn The Break-up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism (Illinois, 2015 [1977])

[ii] For further details see

[iii] See Plaid Cymru website

[iv] As it grows, it incorporates others from outside the elite.

[v] See Zygmunt Bauman, Community Seeking Safety in an Insecure World (Cambridge, 2001)

[vi] I have analysed “Othering” in Northern Ireland here:

[vii] Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, Revolt on the Right: Explaining support for the radical right in Britain (London, 2014: 7)

[viii] Unionists in Northern Ireland are more sympathetic to the rhetoric of English nationalism whilst the Welsh also voted to Leave.

[ix] I have explored such issues in relation to Irish nationalism here:

Dr Cathal McManus is a Lecturer (Education) at Queen’s University Belfast. His research interests are in nationalism and ethnic conflicts.


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