Next week, on 23 June, British voters will go to the polls to make the biggest decision of a generation: the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Union (i.e. ‘Brexit’). The country is in a battle over its identity as a sovereign European nation, and both sides of the debate are earnestly seeking support for their respective positions. The opinion polls have consistently shown that there is all to play for, with support for both sides neck-and-neck, although there is some indication that the campaign for the UK to leave the EU is gaining momentum in the final week.
Issues pertaining to immigration and the economy have been very much at the forefront of the debate. The leave campaign, ‘Vote Leave’, has argued that the UK is unable to fully control its borders while still a member of the EU, and has made assertions that money currently being sent to the EU in the form of membership fees would be better spent at home on hospitals or education. Conversely, the campaign to remain, ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’, has focused on the benefits of EU migration and highlighted the fact that the UK is not in the Schengen Area. In addition, there have been stark warnings about the possibility of a recession in the UK following a vote to leave, and the campaign has argued that EU membership is value for money.
THE STRUGGLE FOR THE SOUL OF BRITAIN
Despite these serious and highly relevant issues, however, there is another battle being fought: the struggle for the soul of Britain. Arguments about sovereignty and the extent to which the country concedes autonomy in return for benefits of EU membership have struck at the heart of a much deeper identity issue, namely, the nature of what it means to be British and to be European. While the remain campaign has attempted to create a hybrid identity of a Britain stronger in the EU, Vote Leave has couched its campaign in terms of what it presents as ‘British’ values: democracy, strong leadership in global trade, and even a harking back to the days of empire with references to the positive role the Commonwealth countries can play in British society and economy.
In many ways, this sort of rhetoric has tapped into the nationalism that has been simmering for some time in UK politics. The last general election in 2015 saw a huge surge in support – primarily in England – for the nationalist right-wing populist UK Independence Party (UKIP), who won over 12% of the national vote (nearly four million votes), although the first-past-the-post electoral system resulted in the party winning only one parliamentary seat. Scotland has also seen a steady increase in nationalism, but of a very different kind to that seen south of the border. Despite being on the losing side in a referendum on Scottish independence a few months earlier, the Scottish National Party (SNP), a nationalist left-wing populist party, won huge support at the general election and returned 54 out of a possible 59 MPs to Westminster.
It is in this diverging nationalism that we see another layer of identity to the Brexit debate. It is not as simple as asking what it means to be British in a European context, because there is no consolidated view of Britishness. Rather, in a United Kingdom that seems to have become increasingly disunited since the process of devolution began in 1999, it is the home nations that are asking where they belong in a Brexit Britain.
NATIONALISM IN THE UK – UKIP
UKIP has seen electoral support steadily increasing since the party’s successful European election in 2004, where it won 12 seats. In 2014, the party won the largest share of the UK vote in the European Parliament elections, increasing its support by over 10% and returning a total of 22 MEPs. UKIP has also seen steadily increasing support over successive general elections, coming third in terms of vote share in 2015.
A ‘hard’ Eurosceptic party, UKIP has successfully exploited anti-EU sentiment in the British electorate and has capitalised on the growing unpopularity of the main political parties. UKIP’s commitment to UK withdrawal from the EU has found support among sections of the electorate and this, combined with its anti-party position, has resulted in greater salience amongst voters who have felt dissatisfied with mainstream British politics. Unsurprisingly, UKIP has consistently done better at European elections than it has domestically. This is, in part, due to the proportional system used for European elections, which makes it easier for smaller parties to win seats than the system of simple plurality used for general elections. In addition, the ‘second order’ model of European elections has seen UKIP receiving a greater protest vote than it has domestically, with many voters seeking to register their dissatisfaction with mainstream politics.
One would be forgiven for assuming that a party which has named itself as representative of the UK would find its rhetoric and policies equally as salient in all parts of the country. However, despite the veneer of ‘Britishness’, it is in reality ‘Englishness’ that has fed into the policy positions of UKIP and the result of this is seen in the party’s bedrock of support being found primarily in England. Of course, England itself is not a homogeneous entity, and support for the party has traditionally been concentrated in the south of England. However, along with a widening electoral appeal and a more comprehensive set of policies has come a broader base of support across the country and, even most recently, into Wales. Support in Scotland and Northern Ireland has been negligible, although UKIP unexpectedly returned one MEP from Scotland to the European Parliament in 2014.
Despite UKIP’s traditional position being one of unionism and anti-devolution, recent years have seen a shift in rhetoric to a specifically pro-English form of Britishness. Much of this has come from the strong English identity found among the party’s supporters, who are more likely to consider themselves English than British, and from a sense that England is getting an unfair deal in a Britain of devolved polities. The party has called for St George’s Day to be a national holiday in England, as the patron saints’ days are in the other home nations, and for a curb on the allocation of funds to the Scottish Parliament under the Barnet formula. These policy positions are less about homogenising the UK and more about placing a specific emphasis on England, the ‘put-upon’ home nation of the UK.
This English slant to UKIP’s Britishness, accompanied by their right-wing position, has caused the party to be profoundly unpopular in the more left-wing regions of the UK like Scotland and Wales (the 2016 Welsh Assembly elections welcomed its first group of UKIP members, but it is unclear whether this indicates a shift in support to the party or a reflection of Welsh sentiment about the UK’s membership of the EU).
NATIONALISM IN THE UK – SCOTLAND
North of the border, we see a very different political climate and nationalist sentiment from that propagated by UKIP in England. Scottish politics have long diverged from those in England, and left-wing sentiment has lingered on in Scotland while it has weakened in the UK as a whole. Since the late 19th century, Scotland and the social democratic Labour party were inextricably intertwined. Many influential Labour politicians, including the party’s first leader, hailed from north of the border, and the Labour cohort in Westminster was invariably supported by a group of Scottish MPs. The Labour party wielded significant political power in Scotland, nationally and locally, and cemented the devolved Scottish Parliament until 2011, when the SNP won an unexpected overall majority.
Since then, nationalist social democratic populists from the SNP have steadily increased their support, taking over the left-wing ground from the Labour party, their success culminating in an overwhelming result in the 2015 general election where the SNP returned 54 out of a possible 59 MPs to Westminster, leaving Labour with only one representative. Even with the left-leaning Jeremy Corbyn as party leader, Labour has failed to regain the socialist territory from the SNP. While the subject of Scotland’s changing allegiance from one left-wing party to another is a matter worthy of much commentary, suffice to say that Scotland has consistently remained faithful to its left-wing heritage, even when the home nations south of the border have seen a shift to the right.
Not only has Scotland diverged from England in terms of political focus, there has been a steady increase in nationalist sentiment that vastly differs in nature from that south of the border. The SNP cemented their popular status by calling a referendum on Scottish independence from the UK in 2014. The party’s raison d’être has long been to see Scotland break away from the UK and subsist as a fully independent sovereign state. However, before 2011, the party did not have a sufficient democratic mandate to call a referendum on the matter. Its overall majority in the Scottish Parliament allowed it to present the issue of indepence to the Scottish electorate within the same parliamentary term, with permission from the UK government at Westminster.
Despite a final result in favour of Scotland remaining part of the UK (55% to 45%), the SNP successfully negotiated further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament resulting in full fiscal autonomy, and cemented its position even further by increasing its share of seats in the UK Parliament by 50. Although the SNP lost six seats in the Scottish Parliament elections in 2016, its constituency vote share increased by over 1% and it secured a third term in government, indicating that its left-wing nationalist rhetoric is here to stay.
BREXIT – A NEW ERA OF NATIONALISM?
Not only do UKIP and the SNP sit on opposite ends of the left-right spectrum, and hold diametrically opposed views of British unionism, they are completely at odds on the issue of EU membership. While UKIP’s foundational principle is one of UK independence from the EU, the SNP is passionately in favour of a Scotland within the EU. It is this position that has led the SNP to campaign on behalf of the UK as a whole remaining in the EU, although the Scotland question has never gone away: in a debate which centres on sovereignty, it is impossible for the Scottish independence issue to be ignored.
Polls suggest that a majority of Scots want to remain in the EU, with some commentators suggesting the figure is as high as 76%. There have been suggestions of the possibility of Scotland clearly voting to remain in the EU while the rest of the UK, and England in particular, votes to leave (however, because the UK is voting as a whole unit, an overall majority in either direction would determine the result, regardless of regional variations). This hypothetical situation has raised questions as to whether a Brexit might trigger a second Scottish independence referendum and lead to the break-up of the UK. Nicola Sturgeon, SNP leader, has refused to rule out a second independence referendum and has, instead, argued that the Scottish Parliament should have the right to call another referendum in light of “material change in the circumstances”, such as a Brexit vote against the will of the Scottish people. However, there is no evidence that support for Scottish independence has increased in the 21 months since the first referendum, and there are legal issues with the Scottish Parliament calling another referendum without going through the appropriate legislative process and obtaining permission from the UK Parliament.
Nevertheless, nationalism is going to play a large part in determining the result of the EU referendum vote next week. With the leave campaign stirring up a sense of British pride and a nostalgic desire for self-determination – not to mention the undertones of ‘Englishness’ seeping through UKIP’s rhetoric – and the SNP’s warnings of a break-away Scotland, Brexit is looking a lot more complex than either campaign is letting on.