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

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6 Drawing some conclusions

Here the intention is to reflect back on the course as a whole and seek to draw out some tentative conclusions about what the referendum vote has to tell us about the political geography of the UK and its future as a multinational state. You have been introduced to some ways of thinking and presented with a wide range of evidence to help make that possible.

Activity 1 The implications of Brexit for the future of the UK

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

What are the main conclusions you would draw from the course for the future of the UK?

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First, the vote highlights some real divisions across the component parts of the UK, between and within Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, London and England-without-London. These divisions are rooted in material experience. They cannot be dismissed on the one hand as the product of ignorance and a lack of education or, on the other, as simply reflecting privilege and cosmopolitan indifference. To that extent, it is an expression of the working out of uneven development across the UK.

Second, this is not a straightforward story of the break-up of Britain, both because the divisions do not neatly play across the territorial constitution of the UK, and because the national identities involved are more complex and ambiguous than any such conclusion would require. In one sense, the UK is more divided than the break-up story might suggest – ‘England’ is by no means a unified territory (or nation) and the tensions that cut across any attempt to define its national identity are deep. The vote in England clearly reflected those divisions, whether from the perspective of London (and most of the larger cities) or those of the ‘regions’.

However, the voting patterns also confirmed the changing balance between the different parts of the UK. Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales all have their own specific and distinct governing institutions, but it is equally important to recognise that the national understandings to which they relate and with which their citizens identify more or less clearly are rooted in their own histories and cultural formations. While they may all (alongside England) be located within the UK state, they have an existence that goes beyond that state. Instead of any clear-cut and sharp ‘break up’, the devolution process may simply continue in ways that mean there is a form of unacknowledged break up (or drifting apart) over time.

During this course you have been introduced to some important theoretical approaches around uneven development, and have drawn on survey and election data of various sorts. The course has explored how divisions apparent in maps of voting patterns may actually reflect the unfolding of deep-rooted social and economic processes. Maps (and tables of data) present snapshots of particular moments, but it is important to work through them, to use them as starting points in looking for explanations and identifying dynamics.

The dynamics set in motion by the Brexit vote and its underlying drivers remain uncertain. But they do not only concern the relationship between the UK and the EU and its remaining members: they also highlight some of the tensions, divisions and possibilities that are raised for the UK itself.

The question remains whether the UK will itself survive in its current form and, if so, how. Does the rise of a form of English nationalism (even if it is often framed through a language of Britishness) imply that a new settlement is required for England? Should London become a city state? Is Scotland on the path to independence? Are we on the road to a united Ireland? And what are the implications of all this for Wales?

There are no simple answers to these questions. But it is important to understand and critically reflect on the tensions that were revealed by the vote. The tools and ways of thinking to which you have been introduced in this course should make it possible to do so in ways that identify directions of change while acknowledging important continuities.

Other resources

If you want to know more about Brexit, from short articles to free courses, visit The Open University’s Brexiting Hub [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .