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From Brexit to the break-up of Britain?
From Brexit to the break-up of Britain?

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2 The regional and national geographies of the referendum vote

The overall UK vote to leave masked significant variation between the component parts of the UK as a state made up of four distinct territories (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales). But it also masked significant variation within those units – within the territories and nations that make up the UK. The Electoral Commission reported the votes at a regional level in England and at the level of the nations and devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In some respects this is an unusual scale at which to report results in England, since the regions have no governmental status, but it does help to highlight the broad pattern of the vote across the country. And it also confirms, if confirmation were needed, that it is necessary to recognise the extent to which the other parts of the UK are quite distinct political entities. In other words, there is no longer – if there ever was – a unified UK-wide set of more or less shared political understandings.

Anthony Barnett has summarised the outcome as follows:

There are five parts to the UK: Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, London and England-without-London. Scotland, a self-conscious country with its own parliament, voted to remain in the EU by 62 per cent to 38 per cent, a hugely impressive majority of 24 per cent. Northern Ireland, a province with an electorate of only 1.25 million, whose domestic government is now established by international treaty, known as the Good Friday agreement, voted on a low turnout of 62 per cent for Remain by 55.8 per cent to 44.2 per cent, a comfortable majority of 12 per cent. Wales, a small, long-colonised and linguistically divided country, voted Leave by 52.5 per cent to 47.5 per cent, a narrow majority of 5 per cent, and the only part to return a close result, well below double figures. London, a global city bursting at the seams, populated by 8.5 million, of whom 3 million are foreign-born, with an electorate of 5.5 million, voted Remain by 59.9 per cent to 40.1 per cent, an overwhelming 20 per cent majority. England-without-London, by far the largest of the five, with 46 million inhabitants, and with the highest turnout, voted Leave by 55.4 per cent to 44.6 per cent, a decisive majority of close on 11 per cent. By doing so, England-without-London swung the outcome. It voted by a majority of over 2½ million for Leave, the other four parts of the Kingdom combined voted by just under 1½ for Remain.’

(Source: Barnett, 2017, p. 101)

In the referendum, there was a substantial vote for Leave across England – over 53% of those who voted recorded a Leave vote. Some have suggested that the vote in England can even be understood as a reflection of the development of a form of English nationalism, perhaps also reflected in the rise of the UK Independence Party as a powerful political force, at least in the years up to 2016. But even in England, this vote masked significant geographical variation. In London nearly 60% voted Remain and in South East England only 51.8% (close to the UK average and almost identical to the proportion in Wales) voted Leave. Every other English region recorded solid Leave majorities, as is confirmed in Table 1 below.

By contrast, Scotland (62%) and Northern Ireland (55.7%) produced Remain majorities, while in Wales the Leave vote was a relatively modest 51.7%.

Table 1 Votes in the 2016 referendum (Source: The Electoral Commission, 2017)
Region/nationNumbers RemainNumbers LeavePercentage Leave
East of England1,448,6161,880,36756.5
East Midlands1,033,0361,475,47958.8
North East 562,595 778,10358.0
North West1,699,0201,966,92553.7
South East 2,391,7182,567,96551.8
South West1,503,0191,669,71152.6
West Midlands1,207,1751,755,68759.2
Yorkshire and The Humber1,158,2981,580,93757.7
Northern Ireland 440,707 349,44242.2
Wales 772,347 854,57252.5

Activity 1 How people voted

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

The data in Table 1 make it easy to see how people voted in the area in which you live, and it is useful in that respect. Examine the table and consider the following questions. You may like to make notes in the answer box below.

  • How did your nation or, if you are in England, region vote?
  • Did the results of your nation or region align with the way in which you or the area with which you identify most closely voted?
  • What are the dangers of presenting data on the referendum in a table like Table 1?
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Answers will vary depending on the nation or region in which you live and your own experience. However, the figures remain at such an aggregate level that it may be difficult for you to fit your own experience or the experience of the area with which you identify most closely with that of the region or even nation in which you live. There may also be a danger that presenting the figures in this way implies a greater level of shared political identity than there is, and may even mask more significant forms of differentiation. One reason for this may relate to the cities and urban areas currently obscured in these figures, and it would be useful to see whether there are differences between them. And finally, aggregate figures like these may conceal other significant, community-based fault lines (for example, in the case of Northern Ireland).