Forget Remainers – Brexit will never satisfy the Leavers, either

Westminster Parliament. Picture: Ged Carroll (CC BY 2.0)

Ifan Morgan Jones

Brexit is ultimately driven by British nationalism and therefore a look at the multi-faceted character of this kind of nationalism can tell us something about where Brexit is likely to end up.

There are five elements to any nationalism:

  • Sovereignty – who has it?
  • Territory– is it under threat or is it secure?
  • Borders – where are they and who can cross them?
  • Culture – is it under threat?
  • Hard and soft power – who holds the whip hand?

Nationalist sentiment is satisfied when people feel that their preferred ‘national unit’ – be it the UK, Ireland, Wales, etc – has control over these five elements.

British nationalists voted for Brexit because they were told by the Leave campaign that the UK is losing its grip on all of them.

That the EU has taken away their sovereignty, that they have no control over their borders, and that their culture is being eroded by immigration.

Leavers also feel that, as part of the EU, they are just one voice among many rather than the dominant voice as they were in some as yet undefined golden age.

Plan

The problem for British nationalists, and why the Brexit negotiations have stumbled, is that Brexit simply can’t satisfy all five of these elements.

By seeking to satisfy some of them they must cede ground on others.

The biggest problem is the territorial element. Northern Ireland and, to a lesser extent, Scotland, could be cut adrift by Brexit.

To maintain Northern Ireland, they could also lose sovereignty. They have a choice between:

  • The UK remaining in close regulatory alignment with Brussels (and so the British state has less power)
  • A hard border between Britain and Northern Ireland (a compromise on the border and territory of the state)

They can maximise the power of the state or keep all their territory, but they can’t have both.

The same goes for the UK’s power abroad. Brexiteers dream of reclaiming the UK’s place as a big player on the world stage.

But everything we know about economics suggests that the UK will be poorer after Brexit, and its influence diminished.

This is ultimately Theresa May’s headache. It’s not a straight fight between Leavers and Remainers, because the choice there would be easy.

The problem is coming up with a plan that satisfies the Leavers. Because every option requires them to cede as well as gain power.

She simply can’t satisfy British nationalist sentiment, one way or the other.

Ultimately, the UK Government will have to decide that one or two of the above elements are less important than the others.

Establishment

However, May’s choice is made easier when you recognise that there are ultimately two kinds of British nationalism.

There is the British nationalism of the (ultimately expendable) UK periphery and the British nationalism of the establishment – which might be better termed ‘Westminster nationalism’.

The British nationalism of unionists in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales is a contributionist nationalism – they (wrongly, in my opinion) believe that we really are ‘stronger together’.

But there is also a Westminster nationalism which adopts the guise of British nationalism in order to strengthen its grip on the peripheral territories which it can then exploit for resources.

This ‘Westminster nationalism’ only serves the establishment, as it is the main beneficiary of the way that political power and economic might have been centralised on these islands.

And these are the ‘nationalists’ ultimately in control of the Brexit negotiations.

So, which of the five elements might Westminster nationalists be willing to compromise on?

The power of the state itself is, of course, of utmost importance, as is the global prestige and affluence of the ruling class.

What is less important is the territorial dimension. Northern Ireland, Scotland, even Wales, are assets but if push comes to shove their loss can be countenanced.

A border between Northern Irealand and the rest of the UK wouldn’t be the end of the world. A second, and successful, referendum on Scottish independence is a risk worth taking.

The contributionist British nationalists elsewhere on these islands will feel a sense of betrayal, but it’s one that they should perhaps have seen coming.

Whatever form of Brexit is decided upon, someone is going to lose out. It won’t be the British establishment.


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Simon G F
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Simon G F

I voted Leave in 2016 because I believe that sovereignty lies in the people, not in an anti-national technocratic governance from afar. According to Ifan’s analysis above, that makes me a British Nationalist. When I vote for Wales to leave the UK, will that also make me a British Nationalist? When the majority of Italians voted for parties unfavourable to the EU the other day does that make them British Nationalists too? The trick of applying unfavourable labels to people who differs in opinion is disingenuous. It no longer fools most people. As for the Irish question, that’s up to… Read more »

Ifan Jones
Guest
Ifan Jones

“According to Ifan’s analysis above, that makes me a British Nationalist. When I vote for Wales to leave the UK, will that also make me a British Nationalist?” Most people have overlapping nationalisms, and countries can have multiple nationalisms. For instance, I’d consider myself to be a cultural Welsh nationalist as well as a civic European nationalist. There are also spectrums between nationalisms where it’s difficult to tell if it’s one nationalism or another. For instance, if someone who wants to remain part of the UK genuinely believes that it is best for Wales, is that person a Welsh nationalist… Read more »

Wrexhamian
Guest
Wrexhamian

“…if someone who wants to remain part of the UK genuinely believes that it is best for Wales, is that person a Welsh nationalist or a British nationalist?” Clearly, that would make them a BritNat (e.g.. Dafydd Ellis Thomas), not a Welsh nationalist. “European nationalist” is an interesting concept. If the EU continues is policy of forming a pan-European super-state, then it will indeed be possible before long to speak of a “European nationalist”. Of course, thirty years ago, such a term would have been meaningless.

JD
Guest
JD

Beautifully put. The views of Ifan and his sort are becoming irrelevant. Many countries are now in a basic battle for survival both in economic and cultural terms. Idiots in Plaid Cymru moaning about having their European identity stripped from them make me heave. So Norwegian, Swiss or Ukrainian people can’t feel European? I’m elated that Plaid’s days are coming to an end. Ein Gwlad seems to be the only way forward.

CapM
Guest
CapM

“I voted Leave in 2016 because I believe that sovereignty lies in the people, not in an anti-national technocratic governance from afar. According to Ifan’s analysis above, that makes me a British Nationalist.” I don’t think that’s what is suggested. But your response suggests that you are, for whatever reasons, more accepting and comfortable (less uncomfortable) with an “anti-national technocratic governance” based in London than one based in Brussels. An “anti-national technocratic governance” in London in which one member out of four can by political weight of numbers dictate to the other three, none of whom have any right to… Read more »

Wrexhamian
Guest
Wrexhamian

Simon G F did say “When I vote for Wales to leave the UK”, so I don’t think his motive in voting leave was to allow Westminster to exercise more power over Wales. The desire of some Welsh nationalists to leave the EU makes it unavoidable that Wales puts up with Westminster rule for the foreseeable future, but Wales has been putting up with Westminster rule since well before the UK joined the EU. The fate of Catalonia shows what the attitude of the EU is towards Western European stateless nations who unilaterally declare independence. Wales may find it easier… Read more »

CapM
Guest
CapM

The effect of Brexit is most likely to be greater Westminster rule. Maybe an unintended consequence for those Welsh nationalists voting to leave the EU or maybe seen as resulting in the development of a greater desire for independence. The former indicates to me that they didn’t think it through but to be fair they’re hardly the only ones. The second is based on the hope that things get so bad that British nationalists who are Welsh become Welsh nationalists. The second is risky as every component of UK society that is currently promoting and securing British nationalism and identity… Read more »

Liberals Cymru
Guest
Liberals Cymru

An acquaintance of mine voted Brexit. He voted Brexit to destroy the British State, which i found completely revolting; this is peoples’ lives which are being and will be destroyed. But he understood that England is almost unique among EU nations: Across the EU it is liberation, peace and the refutation of the authoritarian force of socialism. %20 of Poland died in WW2, compare that with less than %1.5 of Britain. For Great Britain however, the glory of Empire is what came immediately before the EU and getting involved in Eurpean scuffles. So Wales needs new ideas. Because much of… Read more »

Edeyrn
Guest

Being a “centrist” (a relative term) … does not make you naturally correct…..being in the centre ground is not evidence for “the best system” ….. This is a logical fallacy my friend.

Lib-dems seem to be a soft form of the tories/economic right wing from my perspective….when are the liberals going to fight for workers to have ownership of their workplaces?

I agree with you state socialism seems to get hijacked by elites….but so has capitalism … at least…you didnt consider or label the libertarian nightmare of USSR/N Korea/ China as communist……a step up from many jornalists

JR Humphreys
Guest
JR Humphreys

Plaid (and not just Plaid!) should look at the ideas expressed on this site. Ben Gwalchmae (sorry if misspelt) and his explosion of ideas, like the WEC and rail plan, Vicky Möller and her intimate local community plan for the aged, Ben Gregory and Farmers coops and markets. N Bull and EOS talking about the WDA. There are people with brains and talent here! I wonder, actually, if our people wouldn’t mind taking the hit you are threatening us with, if it meant us all living in a Wales where the community pulls together and does the best it can… Read more »

James Morris
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James Morris

“The loss of Scotland can be countenanced”. Only by people who are ignorant of or in denial of the wealth of resources which are being plundered day and daily by Westminster from Scotland to finance their massive self indulgence and global status aspirations.

CapM
Guest
CapM

Differentiating British nationalists from Westminster nationalists is an interesting approach.
If Northern Ireland were to leave the UK I don’t think it would upset either.
If Scotland were to leave I think it’s the Westminster nationalists who would be most upset.
That’s because even amongst British and Westminster nationalists there is an acceptance, even if not revealed, that both those parts of the UK are definitely not parts of Greater England.
Cymru however is seen by both as being very much part of Greater England.

Benjiman L. Angwin
Guest
Benjiman L. Angwin

Justinian the 1st, 482 – 565 AD, is known for his partly realised ‘renovatio imperii’ (restoration of the Empire). He rewrote Roman Law, built the Hagia Sophia and conquered much of the former Western Empire.

But he also created a nationalism which shunned all that was not Greek and Roman, and several minority and emerging smaller nations were exterminated.

A formerly great Empire experiencing a brief nationalist Renaissance through which it seeks to re-assert military glory at the expense of smaller nations to solve its problems after a divorce from a Europe-wide Union has happened before. It can happen again.

Benjiman L. Angwin
Guest
Benjiman L. Angwin

Justinian the 1st, 482 – 565 AD, is known for his partly realised ‘renovatio imperii’ (restoration of the Empire). He rewrote Roman Law, built the Hagia Sophia and conquered much of the former Western Empire.

But he also created a nationalism which shunned all that was not Greek and Roman, and several minority and emerging smaller nations were exterminated.

A formerly great Empire experiencing a brief nationalist Renaissance through which it seeks to re-assert military glory at the expense of smaller nations to solve its problems after a divorce from a Europe-wide Union has happened before. It can happen again.

Aled Gwyn Job
Guest
Aled Gwyn Job

The first comment on here was spot on. Brexit was indeed a timely revolt against the technocratic governance of the EU and its hand-maiden, ruthless trans-national corporations, both promoting mass immigration to purposely weaken national identities in Europe. Five Stars’ amazing success in last week’s Italian Elections is further proof that Brexit was not some aberration, it’s a clear sign that the people of Europe have had enough of all this. As someone has said about it: ” Policies without politics in Brussels, and Politics without policies on national level”. It was bound to come a cropper sooner or later.… Read more »

JR Humphreys
Guest
JR Humphreys

Aled, but don’t a lot of these nations, Visegrad, Austria, and Italy, want to CHANGE the EU, and not LEAVE it?

That could be the way to go?