Brexit’s Ethnopolitical Dimension

Guest post by Timofey Agarin, Queens University Belfast. This article is part of an ongoing blog series ‘Brexit Countdown’ by the Political Studies Association of Ireland (PSAI) and Political Studies Association (PSA).

The impact of Brexit continues to be furiously debated, but the future political unity of the country is rarely questioned. It is unforgivable: British interests are put centre stage of discussions, but ‘British’ does not distinguish the preferences of nations on these islands.

And thus, it appears the representatives of the ‘British people’ are taking the country out of the EU: The numerical majority of the votes was cast in favour of Leave across ‘Britain’. This means that the line is drawn between those who have passed the test of being British, and others, who have not. Those who see their interests best served by the ‘British’ state have used the referendum as a census on Britishness. At the same time, the devolved administrations frame the results as a test of Scottishness, Welshness, Northern Irishness etc. Both camps fence off those who are not British, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish enough from having a say on the future of ‘their’ country. And there is more than just patchy evidence that politicking before and after the referendum reflects the darker, xenophobic side of the all ‘British’.

Brexit offered an opportunity for non-elites, those who are not in the position to make the ultimate decision, to project their ethnocentric views publicly and stand their ground. Both the Leavers and Remainers have pursued the strategy of ethnic differentiation to further their group’s interests. All sides appeal to the shared interest of the ‘people’ to unravel the machinations of their national enemies presented as nemesis.

In the run up to the referendum, the principle of national representation has been central for ‘taking back control’, invoking the just cause for (ethno-)national representation. In Cardiff, in Edinburgh and in Belfast, the very same principle of (ethno-)national representation has been the driving force for the devolution decades earlier.

It is the belief that ‘like should rule over likes’ that provided the critical impetus for Brexit supporters. But now, ‘formal representation’, that is a seat at the table when decisions by the UK government will have such a profound impact, is not enough for the UK’s constituent peoples.

In pushing their line, political elites in constituent parts of the Kingdom craft their rhetoric and speak of their electorates as if these were homogenous subjects in cultural, ethnic, socio-economic and political terms. They mean that everyone is in this together now, but so do the Brexit advocates referencing the ‘democratic will of the British people’.

Brexit incentivised political entrepreneurs to emphasise their national rather than social credentials, creating a position of a minority. In order to convince their followers, it is the representatives of non-English nations in the UK who drive the wedge between the English and their own constituents.

Under these conditions, the higher levels of perceived inequality in decision making between the English and the rest, especially on the Celtic fringe, is likely to result in more, not less ethnopolitical agitation in UK politics. Highly salient, culturally marked and, in part, socially closed groups exist in abundance across these isles. Inevitably, those with dedicated access to resources of quasi nation-states in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland will have all incentives to work on their anti-English credentials to woe voters.

The uncertainty of Brexit gives way to those dejected from the British state to seek solace closer to home: The devolved legislatures in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland can easily become forums for ethnonational politicking against the decisions made by the British Parliament in which English seats dominate.

Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland each might have a semblance of a nation-state locked within the UK, but in the absence of dedicated legislature for the English part of the Kingdom, England MPs will have only one forum to debate their differences: Westminster. There, they drag the rest of the Kingdom into their debates, and have a good chance of imposing concerns of (part of) the regional electorate on the UK public at large. Thankfully, since DUP props up the Government, it will be hard to scapegoat the English for the consequences of Brexit once it comes.

But sure enough, the English votes have decided that every part of the Kingdom will leave. The fact that all three – Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – have their ‘own’ representatives in ‘their’ capitals, as well as in Westminster makes it particularly easy to claim that their ‘national’ interests have been underrepresented. Limiting the English tutelage over British and UK politics by turning to ‘English votes for England only laws’ would be a welcome step to assure the devolved nations.


Timofey Agarin is Lecturer in Politics and Ethnic Conflict, Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland. He is interested in relationships between the state and society, dynamics of ethnic conflicts across Europe, particularly in the impact of political institutions. He tweets at @T_Agarin

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