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Brexit and the Myth of British National Identity

Abstract

In this paper we analyse Brexit in relation to changes in British national identity since World War II. We begin by analysing how the concept of “tradition” relates to “nation”, and then examine current discourses surrounding Brexit and national identity. We trace the ways in which British national identity has been renegotiated since World War II through contests over nationality, citizenship, cultural diversity, and Europe. Finally, we ask why British political actors have struggled to negotiate the dilemmas of post-Imperial British identity, and what lessons can be learned. We look at changing coalitions within British political parties, which we connect to philosophical tensions in their underlying intellectual traditions, and to changes brought about by globalisation. We conclude that Brexit and the broader crisis of liberal democracy of which it is a part have deep historical and philosophical roots, and that attempts to unite our policy through a single national identity will be unsuccessful.

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Notes

  1. For example by Herder, Benedict Anderson, and David Miller. The phrase “national identity” in the singular is therefore problematic, as it functions as a broad generalization of the beliefs of a vast number of individuals and thus risks losing empirical traction (Ashcroft and Bevir 2018b).

  2. For an account of “British exceptionalism” and its relationship to “Whig imperialism” see Ashcroft and Bevir (2019b).

  3. Churchill in the House of Commons after World War II (House of Commons 1945), as quoted in Marquand (1995).

  4. While historians still debate the precise impact of imperialism on British domestic culture, we believe it is clear that the Empire was a fundamental part of British national identity from at least the mid-Victorian period up until the mid-twentieth century. As well as Colley (1992) see MacKenzie (1999) and Catherine Hall (2001, pp. 27–39).

  5. The blueprint for the welfare state drew state on interwar developments in both liberalism and socialism (Backhouse et al 2017; Peden 2017) but it become a central part of the postwar “consensus” that included conservatives (Kavanagh 1992).

  6. The roots of postwar citizenship lay in the feudal concept of subjecthood, whereby individuals owed direct allegiance to the sovereign. Calvin’s Case (1608) established the principle of jus soli in the common law, meaning that those born with the dominion of the Crown naturally possessed all the rights and duties of subjecthood. The gradual expansion of individual rights over time meant, however, that while British law was still structured around subjecthood, it was common to refer to “British citizenship”.

  7. The Commonwealth vision was shared by both Attlee and Churchill, and its centrality is a commonplace. See Hansen (2000), Marquand (1995), Hampshire (2005), Spencer (1997), Ward (2001a, b, c), and Karatani (2003).

  8. See Karatani (2003, 40ff, pp. 76–90), and Hansen (2000, Chap. 2) for a fuller discussion.

  9. See Ward (2001a, b, c, 2007a, b) for series of detailed discussions.

  10. In particular, the “traditional” policy framework has been subject to widespread criticism that it has damaged social cohesion following race riots in Northern England and the fallout out from the “war on terror” in the early 2000s. While it is debatable whether British multiculturalism is currently undergoing a “retreat” or a “rebalancing” (Meer and Modood 2019), it is clearly currently subject to pressure from more homogenizing forms of liberal nationalism, “muscular liberalism,” and overt nativism. See Ashcroft and Bevir (2018a, 2019b), BBC News (2011, 2017), Croucher (2016), Mason (2016), Matthew (2016), and Rudd (2016) for illustrations of this point.

  11. See also Farage (2016), Mason (2016), Gove (2009a, b, 2010), Whale (2016) and May (2017).

  12. See Ashcroft and Bevir (2018a, 2019b), Goodhart (2006, 2014), May (2017), and Pitcher (2009) for examples.

  13. Save, perhaps, in that the collapse of their vote in favour of the Conservatives in 2015 meant that Cameron did not require them as partners in government, and therefore was not able to use them to block the referendum he had promised to his backbenchers from actually occurring.

  14. Many of whom benefited from Thatcher’s sale of former council properties in the 1980′s, another part of the key economic changes in the UK over the postwar period.

  15. See Costa and Brack (2019), Chapters 1 and 2, Checkel and Katzenstein (2009), Holmes (2009), Moravcsik (2002), Scharpf (2011), Schimmelfennig (2001), Hix and Bjorn (2013) for a series of useful discussions of European integration, the permissive consensus, and democratic legitimacy in the EU.

  16. The primary mechanisms for postwar European integration have been economic, with political and bureaucratic actors largely relying on spill-over effects to drive the process rather than democratic decision-making or shared cultural norms (Costa and Brack 2019; Checkel and Katzenstein 2009).

  17. Elements of universalism, internationalism, and cosmopolitanism can be found in each of conservatism, liberalism and socialism, yet all three contain countervailing strands of thought that emphasize ethical pluralism, national interests and obligations, and more local forms of culture and social organization (Bevir 2012).

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Ashcroft, R.T., Bevir, M. Brexit and the Myth of British National Identity. Br Polit 16, 117–132 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41293-021-00167-7

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Keywords

  • Brexit
  • Nationalism
  • Tradition
  • Decolonization
  • Multiculturalism
  • European Union
  • Populism
  • Globalisation