Understanding Brexit: The Rise of English and Scottish Nationalism

Regardless of one’s political leanings, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) is undergoing a constitutional crisis. Yet, if we were to find a common denominator amongst all the political upsets that have occurred this decade, from the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum and the 2015 UK General Election, to the 2016 “Brexit” Referendum, and to the “snap election” to be held this June, what we are actually witnessing is a war between two nationalisms.

What is unique about this nationalist political climate is that the majority nation, England, and largest of the minority nations, Scotland, are both currently vying for increased sovereignty via referenda. Under current conditions, sovereignty, which is the political right to rule within one’s own borders without interference, is a zero-sum game when it comes to multi-national states such as the UK. For example, Scotland’s devolved autonomy has given rise to the “West Lothian” question in that Scottish MPs have had the ability to vote on bills that mainly effect England, and yet Scotland retains autonomy over its devolved matters; England’s desire to reinstate full sovereignty over its trade and immigration policies by leaving the European Union denies Scotland its perceived right to remain in the EU. Whenever one of these nations exercises its autonomy, it impedes the other’s sovereignty. This will, of course, breed resentment and dissatisfaction, which fuels one nationalist movement, and that nationalist movement’s momentum will intensify the other.

We must first understand the context surrounding the dueling nationalisms.  The nations that make up the UK each possess their own distinct territory, history, and language. The Scottish and Welsh in particular have had active nationalist movements—whether towards independence in Scotland’s case, or simply for more ethnic recognition and cultural autonomy, as was the case with the Welsh advocacy for language equality. In 1997, the British Government under Prime Minister Tony Blair began the process of devolution which is essentially the delegating of authority to the local or regional level. It is a calculated move towards federalization. The Northern Irish, Welsh, and Cornish were all granted councils or assemblies that would legislate devolved matters within their territory, and the Scottish were able to re-establish their Parliament which had been dissolved in 1707.

Originally, these nations were all defined by common ethnic roots. This 19th century concept of an “ethno-geographic” national identity, while convenient,  has not withstood the test of time, especially in Scotland. When surveyed, 83% of ethnic minorities living in Scotland (that is, non-Whites and their British-born children) claimed “Scottish” as one of their national identities, 20% of whom claimed Scottish as their sole national identity.[1]  While at first this may seem a small percentage, it must be considered in light of the fact that Scotland’s immigrant population has doubled within this decade. Just as the UK is a multi-nation state, each nation within the UK is multi-ethnic—and ethnicity does not necessarily determine national identity in the modern day.

Devolution aimed at a more federal union with regional autonomy for the Celtic minorities. However, rather than having the anticipated effect of mollifying separatists, it had the unanticipated  and unintended effect of creating a new “minority” nationalist—the Englishman. Recent polls conducted by the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Future of England Survey suggest that the culprit is indeed Scottish Devolution. That is, the legitimizing of nationalist groups and minority agendas in the UK perhaps shattered the illusion that there was one Britain. By creating an “other,” and by forming distinct regional and national governments, there was a perceived need by the English to defend themselves. There is a correlation between a rise in English identity and votes for far-right parties. When surveyed, a majority of English believed that the only parties accepting of the English identity were the anti-EU parties—so by default, those that felt cornered by devolution necessarily voted for the far right. When polled, English voters consistently felt that UKIP was the only political party that would look out for England’s interests.

The issue at hand is that the majority nation of this Union feels under-represented and denied self-determination, and the shift towards the right is not only an historical economic preferences, but also a reaction to the rise of the left north of the Border. It is not that so many English are far-right conservatives—but that there has been no other political party interested in cultivating a healthy support of English ethnic identity. According to a study conducted by Michael Skey at the University of East London, there is a perceived notion that English cultural activities and groups are “ignored or actively suppressed by government officials.”[2] It certainly doesn’t help that Skey and his colleagues also found that there is a broad consensus amongst English voters that there was an “infiltration of the government by Scottish elites” that relished the ability to “undermine Englishness.”[3] This fear was satirized, if not validated, by television shows such as “The Thick of It,” where there is constant reference to “the Caledonian Mafia” running Westminster.

This presents a legitimacy issue for Westminster, and that is something that cannot quickly be resolved with a new election. The only thing that appears to be common ground is that both nationalist movements in the UK share a lack of trust in Westminster to serve their needs. The results of the 2015 election has made the UK for all intents and purposes a two-party system, which in of itself, is not an issue. The difficulty lies in that these two parties, the Scottish National Party and UKIP are exclusive nationalists—the SNP cannot represent constituencies below the Scottish border and although UKIP claims to represent the UK including Scotland, it has policies that refer to England only and fly the English flag at their various offices.

There is no precedent for this situation—true, multi-national states have dissolved before, but it is usually the case that it is a weak or failing state, or a state that is at war. It is difficult to imagine the UK undergoing a situation such as that of Ukraine, or the split between Pakistan and India. It is a myopic tendency to compare this current rise of nationalists parties with what Europe experienced in the interwar period.There is a need to reframe nationalism and question the logic behind the current trend. If we can learn anything from the attitudes of the Scottish and English in the UK, it is that there is a desire to be heard. Therefore, Brexit, the offspring of English nationalism, was not necessarily won out of fear of the “other,” or limited tolerance, but perhaps from a fear of not having control over one’s destiny.


[1] Study: Dynamics Of Diversity: Evidence From the 2011 Census.

ESRC Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE). University of Manchester. August 2014.


[2] Skey, Michael. “‘Sod them, I’m English’: The Changing of Status of the ‘Majority’ English in Post-Devolution Britain.” Ethnicities 12(1), pp 106-125. 2011.

[3] Ibid.

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