Britishness and Brexit

The surprise outcome of the EU referendum has exposed the extent of divisions within the UK. These differences are geographical with 62% of Scots voting in favour of Remain in contrast to 57% of the English electorate, outside London, favouring “Brexit.” Outcomes also vary by age, gender and level of education, with the paradigmatic Remain voter a young female Scottish graduate and the archetypal Brexiteer a 50 plus Englishman with less formal education and limited means. The disparity between these identities is clear. Yet more nebulous than ever is the cultural construct of “Britishness” which was mobilised in service of both the Remain and Leave campaigns.

‘It is perhaps a testament to the canniness of the Leave campaign that, despite leading on an anti-immigration platform, they were able to circumnavigate accusations of parochialism. Britain outside the EU, they claimed, would be one that could trade beyond the boundaries of what they argued was the dead weight of Europe.’

The Leave campaign – incredibly given their overwhelmingly upper middle-class leadership caste – self-styled themselves as a “people’s revolution” poised to “take back control” from oppressive, yet distant, elites. In their eyes, cosmopolitan London is a “bubble,” entirely out of touch with the views of “ordinary” folk. Arguably they had a point, with Londoners joining Celtic outliers in Scotland and Northern Ireland in expressing their strong preference to remain a member of the EU. By contrast the majority of English and Welsh voters opted to leave. Yet a blunt caricature of the millions of in voters as being supportive of globalising elites does not fit with the populaces of Glasgow or Belfast. In reality they share the political colours of many electorates of post-industrial cities of England and Wales. Other, more regional factors must therefore be at work in these voters’ calculations.

Both campaigns hinged on a particular vision of Britishness. In one of several televised debates, David Cameron declared the choice facing UK voters was between “Great Britain and little England.” Cameron distinguished between a country that was able to look out beyond its shores against one that looks inward on itself. It is perhaps a testament to the canniness of the Leave campaign that, despite leading on an anti-immigration platform, they were able to circumnavigate accusations of parochialism. Britain outside the EU, they claimed, would be one that could trade beyond the boundaries of what they argued was the dead weight of Europe. Prominent Brexiteers even talked vaguely about the possibilities of forging stronger ties with India and China. Through mentioning these partners they invoked memories of Empire, a territory that had spanned so vast an expanse that ‘the sun never set’. In this way the Leave campaign maintained an international outlook while tacitly upholding the monocultural English ideal so central to imperial discourses.

The Economist’s Bagehot columnist identified an anarchic streak in the British populace despite their traditionally deferential manner. Consequently the opinions of internationally-respected expert economists and political leaders, who universally urged Britain to remain in the EU, proved counterproductive. Indeed, they provided further targets for an opportunistic Leave campaign to argue that a vote for Remain was also a vote for David Cameron, the governing elite and the status quo. Consequently it is possible to interpret the Brexit outcome as a proxy vote reflecting the electorate’s increasing distaste for the (outgoing) Prime Minister, a politician whose standing quickly diminished after securing a majority government in the 2015 General Election.

The Conservative and Labour Party alike are now in a state of disarray while the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon raises a number of complex constitutional questions about Scotland’s position in both the United Kingdom and the European Union. This is a situation in which notions of Britishness and, perhaps more significantly, of unity have been radically destabilised. How these notions are resolved will be a question that preoccupies elected representatives and constitutional experts in the weeks and months to follow as Britain renegotiates its place in the world.