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.


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.


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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