BREXIT and the Myth of National Unity

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A red Mini that can not move forward due to red traffic light.
(Photo: Leonhardt van Efferink, Newcastle upon Tyne.)

Simply put, geopolitics is about human rivalry over space. So political, economic and military resources matter in geopolitics. Such resources can be both instruments and objectives in spatial rivalry. The way people think about themselves and others is important as well in this context. This is why identity is a crucial concept in geopolitics.

People usually speak of identities in the form of a Self and an Other. A popular example is “The West” and “The Rest”. What is often left unmentioned, is that ideas about a national Self are often based on a myth. The myth of national unity. A short analysis of political news can be helpful in identifying the fractures in any national identity.

The BREXIT referendum in the UK is a case in point. On the one hand, the majority in favour of BREXIT highlights a widely supported perception of the EU as not being being part of the (national) Self. On the other hand, the result simultaneously highlights fractures within the British Self. Being close to 50%-50%, the result reflects particular dividing lines within the British population. It actually refutes claims about British national unity.

The following two quotes from an article in the EU Observer question this claim as well. They further underline the strong link between identity and the other geopolitical concepts territory and sovereignty.

Scotland, as expected, voted to Remain, by 62 percent. The result will raise again the question of Scotland’s independence.

This observation raises the issue of UK sovereignty. What does the Scottish majority against BREXIT imply for the authority of the British government over this British region? And how will this result change the views among Scottish voters on whether their region should remain part of the UK territory?

The UK-wide majority for BREXIT also resulted in questions about the authority of the London-based British government in Northern Ireland:

The republican Sinn Fein party, which is the second largest force in the region’s coalition government, reacted by saying that “the British government has forfeited any mandate to represent [the] economic or political interests of people in Northern Ireland.”

Let’s not forget that both quotes do not only apply to today’s BREXIT referendum results. They also reflect fractures within the UK that have already existed for many years. The European Championships Football offer a telling example. This tournament is for countries only. The UK however holds an exceptional position. Four of its regions can participate in the qualification rounds for these Championships. In fact, Wales, Northern Ireland and England all made it to the knock-out stage of this tournament in 2016.

Wrapping up, the national identity of all countries has always been fractured. People with different backgrounds can have different views on themselves and others. Such disagreement points at the existence of multiple boundaries between the (national) Self and the Other(s). As the BREXIT referendum makes clear, the UK is no exception.

In fact, looking ahead, the results could even lead to new cracks in the very fabric of British society. After all, national identity is always on the move. This is exemplified by today’s Facebook post of a London-based poet. She calls for the secession of the British capital from the UK:

Dear Europe. I am so sorry that my country has decided to shoot both itself and me in the foot with this idiotic decision. Please know that London still loves you very much. I have never been less proud to be British. London: please can we leave the UK and start our own state before Boris takes over?


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6 thoughts on “BREXIT and the Myth of National Unity

  • 2016 (June) at 19:29

    Leonhardt, GB is not the only country consisting of multiple football countries. The Kingdom of the Neterlands also has 4 teams ( one from each country in the Kingdom) present in the championship qualifying rounds. (Aruba, Curaçao, Nederland & St Maarten)

    • 2016 (June) at 08:09

      Thanks, Charles, I didn’t know this. Is the autonomy of these three overseas areas similar to that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

  • 2016 (June) at 10:36

    Also a large impact is made by our collective lack of understanding. Neither campaign or the media made any real attempt to educate the populace about the facts. I think that ‘The Self’ has become so important that a large number of people do not regard this sort of decision as important to them. I believe that they would consider a rise in rail fares or council tax as more immediate and important.

    • 2016 (June) at 11:38

      Thanks for sharing your views, Mark. With Self, you mean the narrow, individual self, instead of alternative, collective notions of the Self?

  • 2016 (June) at 21:40

    Leonhardt, In your analysis I think it important to point out that a slim majority of folk in the UK overall have not rejected Europe and being European but rejected the EU – a political organisation and governing construct which many in the UK do not find sufficiently democratic.

    • 2016 (June) at 22:02

      Hi Christine, thanks for this additional observation, very helpful. It supports my claim (that of course draws on ideas from others) that national identity is fractured “by nature”, and that references to national unity (as often heard in political speeches; in the form of stereotypes in other contexts) have no solid foundations. Kind regards, Leonhardt


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