Empathy, Minorities, and Brexit

Some reflections on Brexit from Richard English, Queen’s University Belfast, written on St Patrick’s Day 2019. This article is part of an ongoing blog series ‘Brexit Countdown’ by the Political Science Association of Ireland (PSAI) and Political Studies Association (PSA).

Let’s start with the implications of minorities. Anyone who thinks about Irish history and its relationship to Britain knows something of all this. (Regrettably, of course, far too little thought in Britain was given to Ireland during the run-up to the Brexit referendum in 2016.)  Historically, Irish nationalists found themselves to be a minority within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; within Ireland, British unionists were a minority, except within the deliberately created Northern Irish context, within which northern nationalists were the ones outnumbered.  The outworking of all this has been relentlessly debated and addressed, with only very small minorities (Protestants in independent Ireland, for example) becoming politically insignificant.

Put another way, significant minorities and their political opinions are unlikely to evaporate, and their opinions and politics will need to be addressed serious-mindedly if collective progress is to be made.

Brexit again represents the politics of unfortunately-sized minorities. Across the UK in the 2016 Referendum, the size of the Remain minority was such as to make talk of ‘the British people having spoken’ somewhat crass.  Within each sub-UK national context (England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland) there were different contours to the minority – Remainer in the first two, and Brexiteer in the latter two.  Within the UK as a whole, one of the central problems for the UK since its foundation – the huge weight of English numbers as against those in the other three national arenas – made it all too easy for the English vote to decide issues for everyone, and for observers to confuse Brexit with English nationalism.

This latter issue is a crucial one. Clearly, in recent decades, a more pronounced sense of English national identity has become prominent. Equally clearly, there are some  whose politics are emphatically English-nationalist.  But the main vehicles for expressing Brexit politics – the United Kingdom Independence Party, for example – have not been English, but rather UKanian or British. And there have existed significant numbers of pro-Brexit voters who are neither English nor resident in England. In Northern Ireland, for example, the percentage of voters who voted for Brexit in 2016 was larger than the 2016 percentage of the northern population who said they sought a united Ireland. If, quite rightly, that latter view in favour of Irish unity is to be respected as serious, then the votes of pro-Brexit Northern Ireland people deserve equally not to be dismissed under a designation of Brexit as an expression of English nationalism.

One aspect of writing all this in Ireland is that, on this island, after many painful decades, it has become clear that victory in contexts of large minorities is likely to prove elusive. Instead, some form of dialogic compromise is almost certainly preferable to the rancorous and polarizing pursuit of clear victory for either side.

This is why – in Brexit Europe as in Donald Trump’s USA – what is required is far more political empathy than has been evident in recent debates. Understanding what the other person feels, and recognising an appropriate way of responding to that, does not require agreeing with that other person and their politics. But it does involve being more focused on understanding them than on refuting or dismissing or patronizing them. And it does involve a recognition that, in Oscar Wilde’s words, ‘Sooner or later in political life one has to compromise. Everyone does.’  Nobody in this Brexit imbroglio is likely to inherit the political world that they ideally want; the sooner that people begin to sketch out realistic ways of generating a jaggedly messy compromise, the better. And that involves listening to minorities.


Professor Richard English is Professor of Politics at Queen’s University Belfast.  Views expressed here are personal, rather than institutional.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s