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Approaching the break up of Britain?

Updated Wednesday, 28 February 2018
What does the geography of the referendum vote tell us about the (increasingly dis-) United Kingdom? 

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A referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union was held on 23rd June 2016. That day, 52% of those who voted recorded a vote to leave, with 48% voting for the UK to remain a member. The result came as a shock to governing elites both in the UK and Europe - leading to the resignation of the previously unassailable Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, both of whom also soon stood down as MPs. 

Political debate around the nature of the campaign (the promises made and the strategies employed) and about the implications of the vote have remained fierce in the period since it was held. But it has as much to tell us about the contemporary UK as it does about Europe or even the UK’s relationship with Europe. The fault-line between remainers and leavers is one that reflects different conceptions of the UK and its possible futures. 

The overall UK vote to leave masked significant variation not only between the component parts of the UK as a state made up of four distinctive territorial government units (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) but also within those units – within the nations and territories that make up the UK. 

There was a substantial vote for leave across England – over 53% of those who voted recorded a leave vote. And some have suggested that the vote can even be understood as an expression of English nationalism, perhaps 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, the vote masked significant geographical variation. In London nearly 60% voted remain and in the South-East of England only 51.8% voted leave. Every other English region recorded solid leave majorities. This led Anthony Barnett (in his book, The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump), to argue that the vote revealed that ‘There are five parts to the UK: Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, London and England-without-London’, and he went on to conclude that ‘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’.

The Square Mile - The City of London The City of London is the ancient heart of the capital

By contrast, Scotland (62%) and Northern Ireland (55.7%) produced remain majorities, while in Wales the leave vote was a relatively modest 51.7%. This confirms, if confirmation were needed, the extent to which the nations 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.


Differences Within Nations


But these aggregate figures also mask more subtle variation. As well as London, a majority in several other big (and some not so big) cities voted to remain – Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, Newcastle, Leeds, Cambridge, Oxford, York, Exeter, Brighton. And even as most of the suburban Home Counties of the South East (Oxfordshire, Surrey and Sussex) voted remain, other parts of that supposedly prosperous region (including much of Kent and Hampshire) voted to leave. Even in London, several of the boroughs on the outer East of the city (including Barking and Dagenham) voted to leave. 

In other words, it looks as if neither London nor England-without-London are quite such unified categories as initially appears, even if, in broad terms the outcome in England was relatively clear-cut. In the older industrial – or increasingly post-industrial – regions there was a vote to leave, in the more cosmopolitan urban areas, there was a vote to remain. In some of the prosperous suburban areas around and connected to those cities, remain votes were also high; but the traditionally conservative (and Conservative-voting) shires tended to vote leave. 

A similar pattern of division was apparent in Wales: Cardiff voted for remain and in the older industrial regions of South Wales there was a strong leave vote. But the remain vote was also higher in parts of the country (such as Gwynedd and Ceredigion) where the Welsh-speaking population was greater. In Northern Ireland, the differences seem to have owed more to continuing, and deeper, divisions within the electorate. Although there was an overall vote for remain in Northern Ireland, the largest unionist party (the Democratic Unionist Party) campaigned for Brexit while Sinn Fein was strongly remain. In the end, 70% of DUP voters voted Leave and 86% of Sinn Fein voters voted Remain. Only in Scotland was there a remain vote across all of the electoral and local authority areas - although there was a similar pattern of higher support for remain in the main urban centres, where  Edinburgh and Glasgow both recorded Remain votes higher than the national average. Only in Moray, where just over 50% voted remain, was the outcome relatively close.

What are the implications of this for our understanding of the UK as a shared political space – a genuinely united kingdom bringing together an increasingly disparate set of nations, territories and regions? The dynamics set in motion by the Brexit vote and its underlying drivers remain uncertain. But they do not just concern the relationship between the UK and the EU: they also highlight some of the tensions, divisions and possibilities within the UK.

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 as a national formation?

There are no simple answers to these questions. But it is important to ask them and to critically reflect on some of the tensions that were revealed by the vote.


Professor Allan Cochrane is the author of the free course From Brexit to the break-up of Britain? 



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