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Brexit : Territorial Politics, Territorial Processes and Narratives of Territorial Identities

Brexit : politique territoriale, processus territoriaux et récits des identités territoriales
Clifford Hague


Il existe plusieurs définitions de la cohésion territoriale, mais définir spatialement les idées de souveraineté, de juridiction, d'administration et de citoyenneté devrait être au cœur de cette définition. Un territoire institutionnel (l’UE, les nations, les régions, les départements…) est défini par ses caractéristiques, par le pouvoir qui s’exerce en son sein et par son identité. Les questions du développement des territoires et des identités territoriales ont influencé le référendum sur le Brexit. Les crises financière et économique de 2007/2008 ont amené des gouvernements à adopter des mesures d’austérité qui ont affaibli la cohésion territoriale à tous les niveaux. Le référendum de 2016 a mis en lumière ces inégalités : la plupart des grandes villes ont voté pour rester dans l'UE et la plupart des plus petites villes et les campagnes ont voté pour quitter l'UE. La majorité des Ecossais et des Irlandais du Nord ont voté pour rester dans l'UE mais la campagne référendaire a alimenté la nationalisme anglais qui, jusque-là, s’exprimait en marge du débat politique. Si les inégalités territoriales ont eu une influence sur les électeurs, ces derniers ont également étaient influencés par la mobilisation des identités territoriales. Cet article étudie la manière dont les identités territoriales ont été mobilisées lors de la campagne référendaire qui a conduit à quitter l’UE. L’UE a été présenté comme une organisation hostile aux territoires qui pâtissaient d’une trop grande ouverture européenne aux réfugiés et aux migrations. Ce registre a trouvé un écho particulièrement fort chez les habitants des plus petites villes et des campagnes. Par ailleurs, le référendum a alimenté des visions très différentes des identités nationales au sein du Royaume-Uni. Ceci constitue aujourd’hui un défi quant à l’unité de la Grande Bretagne. La controverse sur le sens du territoire est au cœur du projet européen. Il y a donc aujourd’hui un besoin urgent de recherche sur l’économie politique de la cohésion territoriale.

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1The 2016 referendum in which a majority voted for the United Kingdom (UK) to leave the European Union (EU) represents the most significant event in the territorial politics of the EU since the major enlargement of 2004. Orthodox political scientists, have analysed Brexit and the referendum extensively (see, e.g. the special issue of the British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 2017, or Matthijs and Toenshoff, 2019). Rather than repeat familiar commentaries, this paper seeks to interpret Brexit through a territorial perspective, and in particular the notion of territorial cohesion. This reveals that there were important geographical differences within the UK in the Brexit vote, and that these in turn were shaped by austerity measures, but also by differing senses of national identity. This leads to the conclusion that the contested nature of territory is now a critical factor for the future of the European project, and that concepts of territorial cohesion should address the politics, institutions and constructions of identity related to agglomeration.

The EU and Territorial Cohesion

2The term “territorial cohesion” is not used in political or scientific discussions in the UK. It is the language of the EU, which UK policy makers have made no attempt to adopt, or perhaps even to comprehend. Yet it is central to understanding Brexit. A. Faludi (2004, 2006) pointed to the French ancestry of “territorial cohesion”. Perhaps this explains British disinterest ! The idea of territorial cohesion emerged slowly, was constructed from different perspectives and interests, and has continued to contain ambiguities which facilitate political support by allowing it to mean different things (Abrahams, 2013 ; Böhme and Gløersen, 2011 ; Waterhout, 2007 ; Jones et al., 2019). E. Medeiros (2016) provided a good overview of the differing interpretations.

3The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and its hold over its Central and Eastern European satellite states in 1989 dramatically changed the territories within Europe. Through the 1980s the then European Economic Community had successfully absorbed new members (Spain, Portugal, Greece), with the help of European Regional Development Funds (ERDF) targeted at poorer regions. Though the European Commission remained highly sectoral in its operation, the fall of the Berlin Wall forced greater territorial awareness, because of the wider disparities between future EU territories, and the new era of globalisation. This combination of opportunities and challenges triggered the path along which the milestones were Europe 2000 (CEC – Commission of the European Communities - 1991), Europe 2000+ (CEC 1994) and eventually the European Spatial Development Perspective (CEC 1999), though the latter document, a product of inter-governmental working, only used the term “territorial cohesion” once.

4The emergence of the concept of territory was accompanied by a diversification of regional policy instruments, e.g. the INTERREG programme, as the Cohesion Fund was created. However, when “territorial cohesion” was included in Article 7d of the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty (European Union, 1997) it was narrowly focused on services of general economic interest. In contrast, J. Robert (2007, p. 28) argued that territorial cohesion was a “multidimensional” concept, encompassing “promoting territorial capital and regional identities, increasing the propensity of regions to anticipate asymmetric shocks and to face successfully the challenges of globalization, providing services of general interest, and promoting intraregional integration.” Robert continued by noting the need to tackle the disadvantage of regions handicapped by their geography or other factors, including cross-border regions.

5The Treaty of Lisbon (European Union, 2007) made territorial cohesion the third component of EU cohesion policy, alongside economic and social cohesion. Article 158 was amended to require attention to be paid to “rural areas, areas affected by industrial transition, and regions which suffer from severe and permanent natural or demographic handicaps such as the northernmost regions with very low population density and island, cross-border and mountain regions.” Although the Treaty explicitly linked the three forms of cohesion to solidarity among Member States, its approach to territorial cohesion was notably more limited than that of J. Robert. A Green Paper (European Commission, 2008) opened up possible definitions, without leading to a conclusive answer.

6While words like “harmony” and “balance” are frequently used when defining territorial cohesion, “competitiveness” has also been inserted (European Commission, 2008 ; ESPON INTERCO, 2011 ; Böhme and Gløersen, 2011). This enduring lack of clarity partly reflects different languages and practices, but also political contestation under changing material circumstances. More specifically, I would argue that :

  • The long period of growth, before the financial and economic crises of 2007/2008, created a political climate conducive to acceptance of “territorial cohesion” as an aim of the EU. The general growth dynamic made economic growth an attainable aim even in poorer or disadvantaged regions, in the same way that endogenous growth was then a feasible path advocated by the OECD (2006) in their place-focused new rural development paradigm. “Growth” was not a zero sum game : “balance” did not imply meaningful constraints on the continued growth of economically favoured regions.

  • After the crisis, the EU prioritised “competitiveness” and protection of the banks. This was evident in the 2020 Strategy (European Union, 2010), the Stability and Growth Pact, and the measures imposed on Greece in particular. Territorial cohesion was marginalised : seven years after the crisis began, the 6th Cohesion Report (European Commission, 2014, p. 202) had a one page summary of action on territorial cohesion which covered access to services (digital and transport), sustainable development (support for renewables), functional geographies and territorial analysis. Worthy as these were, they scarcely amounted to a serious response to a crisis that had strong territorial aspects.

  • E. Medeiros (2016, p. 6) reminded us that the meaning of “territory” fundamentally is about spatially delimiting sovereignty, jurisdiction, administration and citizenship. With territory come ownership, power and identity. As G. Di Méo (2004, p. 359-360) noted “La construction identitaire, surtout lorsqu'elle est gérée par le pouvoir politique, est capable d'investir l'espace géographique d'un sens collectif très puissant….création d'un cadre territorial légitime, commode pour exercer un contrôle sur les hommes, les gouverner dans leurs espaces, prélever et gérer les ressources environnementales, etc. ”

  • While E. Medeiros revealed the many interpretations of territorial cohesion, this multiplicity and his aspiration to develop indicators deflected his subsequent argument from the fundamental meaning of cohesion in relation to the idea of territory as defined in point 3 above. While polycentric development, sustainable development, good governance etc. are all worthwhile concerns, and may open the way to proxy indicators for trajectories to, or away from, territorial cohesion, the most fundamental measure of the cohesion of a territory has to be the simple, binary one – does the territory hold together as a unit, socially, economically, culturally and politically, or does it fragment ? Is the ownership, identity, and sense of citizenship accorded to a particular spatial unit stable or fragile ?

Territorial processes and the political response

7The significance of agglomeration economies has been well documented (Glaeser, 2010 ; Burger and Meijers, 2016 ; McCann and van Ort, 2019), and increasingly grasped by policy makers. The ESPON CAEE project (Harding et al., 2010, p. 12) advised policy makers that “whatever form a ‘post-financialization’ growth model takes in Europe, it is likely to be more dominated by a smaller number of key metropolitan areas and city-regions than was the case during the late industrial era”. The authors highlighted the tensions that this was likely to create between “non-spatial, competitiveness-based policies” and cohesion policies (p.13). The opening chapter in the 6th Cohesion Report was titled “Smart Growth”, and included a two-page box explaining the benefits of agglomeration and large cities : “As a result of their high levels of productivity and their sheer size, large urban agglomerations contribute substantially to national growth” (European Commission, 2014, p. 19). Similarly, “Europe’s competitiveness depends greatly on its global cities and metropolitan regions, where enterprises can benefit from agglomeration economies and networks linking global market places” (ESPON Co-ordination Unit, 2010, p. 6).

8A post-crisis agglomeration-led recovery strategy thus made sense at EU level. Growth in the capital cities of the countries joining from 2004 could be seen to boost Europe’s competitiveness as a whole, and to close the economic gap between newer and older member states. For example, in the capital city region of Romania, Bucureşti–Ilfov, GDP per head in 1995 had been below 50 % of the EU average, yet by 2011 it was over 120 % (European Commission, 2014, p. 7). So at the scale of the EU, agglomeration growth and competitiveness could be equated with increasing territorial cohesion. However, national governments were more exposed to the tensions that the CAEE project had anticipated. Boosting big cities to enhance competitiveness meant widening the development gap between them and the more peripheral, more rural regions and deindustrialised smaller towns. In 2011, in rural regions in the 15 pre-2004 member states GDP per head was 90 % of the EU average, but in urban regions it was 124 %. In the other 13 member states the gap was even wider : 46 % compared to 108 % (European Commission, 2014, p. 21).

9Furthermore, recovery from the crisis was predicated on saving the financial institutions, which were headquartered in the capitals or major agglomerations. So these were the places that most directly benefitted in terms of retaining jobs and sustaining incomes, and so also wider local economies. The borrowing to bail out the banks was paid back through austerity, which involved taking money from people across the country as a whole, and cutting back on universal public services. For example, across the UK, total identifiable public expenditure per capital on services fell in real terms from £ 9,451 in 2009/10 to £ 8,936 in 2013-14 (H.M.Treasury, 2014, p. 14). However, there were significant geographical differences in the way that the UK government cut its financial support to local authorities in England. The Centre for Cities (2019) found that places least able to absorb the loss of central government money (e.g. by growing other sources of income) were the hardest hit. The largest real-term fall in local government spending between 2009/10 and 2017/18 – a staggering drop of 40 % - was suffered by Barnsley, once at the heart of the Yorkshire coal mining industry. Cities in the North of England on average saw their spending cut by 20 % compared to 9 % for those cities in the South West, East of England and South East, excluding London (Centre for Cities, 2019, p. 16).

10Across the EU, austerity saw public investment cut from 3.4 % of GDP in 2008 to 2.7 % in 2016 (European Commission, 2017a, p.xxii). This came at a time when globalisation was already widening the gap between places. As the European Commission (2017b, p. 9) commented, “While some are well positioned to take advantage of the new opportunities it offers, others are hit by job losses, stagnating wages and shrinking market shares due to low-cost competitors moving into more technologically advanced sectors”. Yet austerity was generalised across Europe, ensuring a combination of circumstances that were inimical to economic, social and territorial cohesion. C. Hadjimichalis (2019) notes how austerity contradicts solidarity and cohesion. Austerity reduced secure, public sector jobs ; this was particularly damaging to the places which lacked the economic advantages of agglomeration and a strong private sector. Public investment in infrastructure would bring a higher return in terms of tax revenue if directed to the most competitive places – the main agglomerations. So, for national governments too, fiscal recovery also had an agglomeration logic.

11The financial crisis was itself a diseconomy of agglomeration, as banks gorged on mergers and became too big to be allowed to fail. Spatially blind, orthodox economic policies did not address this issue. Rather public policy has sought to sustain urban agglomeration by managing its negative aspects such as urban congestion and pollution. Meanwhile, urban local governments grasped that their cities now mattered more for national and European competitiveness than they had previously realised. Eurocities, a network of urban municipalities with six original members when it was set up in the late 1980s, now has 140 of Europe's largest cities and over 45 partner cities as members, that between them govern 130 million citizens across 39 countries (Eurocities, 2020). Through its office in Brussels it works closely with EU institutions, as “a political platform for the large cities of Europe” (European Union, 2020) : “We aim to shape the opinions of Brussels stakeholders and ultimately shift the focus of EU legislation in a way which allows city governments to tackle strategic challenges at local level” (Eurocities, 2020). After years of hesitation, the EU adopted an Urban Agenda in 2016, and DG Regio became DG Regional and Urban Policy.

12The UK has long been a country with high levels of spatial inequality, and the inequalities have been widening. P. McCann (2019, p. 14) found that across 28 indicators the UK is now more inter-regionally unequal than 28 other high income OECD countries. He observed that “The UK is one of the most interregionally unequal countries in the industrialised world and on many levels the UK economy is internally decoupling, dislocating and disconnecting, a reality which the UK’s highly-centralised, top-down, largely space-blind and sectorally-dominated governance system is almost uniquely ill-equipped to address” (McCann, 2019, p. 3).

13The spatial consequences of the financial crisis and the opportunity it created for austerity policies has been particularly marked in the UK. London, home to the global finance houses which created the crisis, was barely affected by the 2008-2010 recession (UK2070 Commission, 2019, p. 17). However, though the gap between London and all the other regions is very wide, there are some significant differences also between other cities. Martin (2019) looked at the trajectories of 85 UK cities from 1971 to 2015. Their research divided the cities into three bands in relation to their average growth rates in Gross Value Added (a better measure of local productivity than GDP) and employment compared to the national average : those above the national average, similar to it, or below it. The “pulling away” cities were generally in the south of England, and thus within the orbit of London ; the 23 “falling away” cities generally were old industrial centres in the North of England, Wales and Scotland. A “geography of discontent” (McCann, 2019 ; Dijkstra, Poelman and Rodríguez-Pose, 2018) has been embedded, and would come to play a significant part in the Brexit vote in “the revenge of places that don’t matter” (Rodríguez-Pose, 2018).

14Discontent related to economic performance differences has been augmented by patterns of public spending. Public spending per capita in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales has consistently been higher than in England. This reflects the security situation in Northern Ireland and the geographies of the other two nations. However, there have also been differences between regions within England : since 1998, increases in absolute public spending were higher, on average, in southern English regions and lowest in northern regions. Indeed, three English regions – the North East (-2.7 %), the West Midlands (-1.3 %) and the North West (-0.5 %) – experienced an absolute decline in spending between 2009 and 2013 when all other regions and nations experienced an increase, the highest being in southern England (Harding et al., 2015, p. 19). Together with the data quoted above from The Centre for Cities (2019) these were UK government policy decisions impacting on territorial cohesion, but it was the EU which suffered the backlash in 2016.

Brexit – a fracture to the territory of the EU

15Brexit represents a fracture in the territory of the EU, after a long period during which that territory had been enlarging. Once we recognise the political and judicial dimensions to territorial cohesion, it is clear that the decision to leave the EU is the most complete negation of the cohesion of that territory. In leaving, the UK has asserted its sovereignty as a nation state and rejected sharing that sovereignty with the 27 other members. The UK seeks withdrawal from EU jurisdiction. It is asserting that its citizens are exclusively UK citizens, not sharing their citizenship with other European countries. It is rejecting the identity of the European territory in so far as that included the UK. Seen in this way, territorial cohesion is a much more significant concept than has been recognised in most of the academic literature, EU treaties and policy-making. By shrinking the meaning of territorial cohesion to access to services, sustainable development, functional geographies and territorial analysis, as in the 6th Cohesion Report, means have been conflated with ends, there are important omissions, and a deeply political set of relations have been converted to a technical check-list. By marginalising territorial cohesion, as the late-comer to the cohesion trinity of economic, social and territorial cohesion, and further marginalising cohesion itself, so that it became only an appendage to competitiveness, achievable by “smart growth”, the actual cohesion of the EU as a political unit was put at risk.

16Territorial identity is a “fuzzy concept” (Capello, 2018, p. 493) but it is important. The forging of identity with the territory of the EU, though flawed, is arguably the Union’s greatest achievement. The challenges were, and remain, immense. Identity is what melds diversity into coherence, allowing differences to flourish within a common purpose, vision or territory. The opening paragraph of the Green Paper captured the complexity of the European territory : “From the frozen tundra in the Arctic Circle to the tropical rainforests of Guyane, from the Alps to the Greek islands, from the global cities of London and Paris to small towns and villages dating back centuries, the EU harbours an incredibly rich territorial diversity” (European Commission, 2008, p. 3).

17As K. Eder (2009) argued, the greater the degree of difference within a society, the greater the need for a collective identity. In recognising this reality, the EU has sought, through its institutions and practices, to nurture and sustain multiple territorial identities, including importantly, identity with the territory of the EU itself. To do this while swiftly and significantly enlarging its territory was praiseworthy, necessary, but also ambitious, not least because there were countervailing forces, particularly, but not exclusively, in the UK.

18We have an EU flag. Within the Eurozone there is a common currency. Every five years citizens get a vote on who to send to the European Parliament to represent their region. Though only an advisory body, the Committee of the Regions was established in 1994 during that phase when territorial concerns were gaining recognition. Together with the European Regional Development Fund, it has connected local and regional institutions, administration and identities with their EU equivalents. The Council of the EU connects the governments of the Member States, where they negotiate on laws and the budget. Each country also appoints one member to the European Commission, the independent executive of the EU. However, this negotiated institutional architecture has its limitations in terms of building popular identity with the EU as a territorial entity. In particular :

  • The independence of the Commission leaves it open to the charge that it has power but is not accountable.

  • This weakness is compounded by the limited legislative power of the European Parliament, leaving many citizens feeling they have no say in how the EU can influence their lives.

  • The Member States, to different degrees, have been reluctant to concede sovereignty to the EU, and, in some cases, have had concerns about strengthening of the role of regions and local authorities who might begin to “by-pass” the national state in relations with the EU.

19These weaknesses, combined with the longer histories of Member State territorial identities compared with that of the EU, mean that the territorial identity of the EU is relatively fragile. There are even cognitive uncertainties about the geographical extent of Europe. A survey in 2005 of 116 researchers and policy makers who were involved in the ESPON programme, revealed that while the majority saw the Mediterranean Sea as a border (not a link) and there was no clear view about where to draw a border in the east of the continent (ESPON 2006 Project 3.4.1, 2007, p. 8). Two programmes in particular have contributed to building identity with the EU territory, and so to territorial cohesion. Six million young people have participated in the ERASMUS programme (ERASMUS, 2019), learning to live as, and with, citizens of other European states. However, C. Van Mol, (2018) surprisingly found only limited impact on participants’ sense of European citizenship and European identity. Similarly, the INTERREG programme has brought people together across borders. Perhaps more importantly, the budget airlines have fostered unprecedented levels of intra-European mobility, particularly amongst younger adults.

20The free movement of labour might be added to this list of practical measures and actions to bring people together, and nurture a European identity. In addition, the support for functional cross-border regions can be seen not only as an economic project, but also a step to building a story of a functional Europe of connected regional and metropolitan spaces. However, these networked structures are a necessary, but not a sufficient force, quickly to deliver a European territorial identity, not least because of the hegemony of long-established national identities. Furthermore, after the crisis of 2007/08, key aspects of the narratives building an EU territorial identity were diluted, even side-lined. The story of successful unification which had run from 1989 was damaged by the economic plight of not just some of the newer member states, but of Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, all traditionally viewed from the north of Europe as weaker economies. The social narrative of solidarity in a peoples’ Europe was eclipsed by the economic priorities and institutional procedures of the EU.

21The Standard Eurobarometer 89 (Kantar Public Brussels, 2018) across the 28 member states, the five candidate countries and the Turkish Cypriot community, found that while 56 % of respondents felt attached to EU, only 14 % felt “very attached”. In contrast, 93 % felt attached to their country, with 57 % “very attached” (p.5). In the UK, 33 % felt attached to the EU, 11 % “very attached” and 22 % “not attached at all”, though four countries – Netherlands, Czech Republic, Cyprus and Greece - recorded even lower levels of attachment (p.12).

22N. Carl, J. Dennison and G. Evans (2019) argue that a weak sense of European identity was a key factor in the Brexit vote, and a reason why the UK had long been one of the most Eurosceptic nations. They point to the UK’s “anomalously Eurosceptic political and media elite” (p.288). These authors draw on the Eurobarometer surveys to highlight the fact that “over the last 40 years a higher fraction of the British population has identified exclusively with their nationality, and a correspondingly lower fraction has identified as European” (p.289). The reasons N. Carl, J. Dennison and G. Evans put forward for the low level of European identity in the UK are Britain’s position as an island ; the contrast with the continental legal and constitutional systems ; a national church headed by a monarch, rather than the Roman Catholic Church ; continuing connections to the former British Empire ; and “pride and confidence in their national institutions” deriving from never having had to compromise national identity in World War II (p.297). They also point to four economic and political events that bolstered British Euroscepticism. These were : the UK’s exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992 ; increasing tension between European integration (Maastricht and Lisbon treaties) and British sovereignty ; the flaws exposed by the Eurozone debt crisis ; and, most importantly, the “influx” of labour migrants from Eastern Europe (p.297-298).

23By using data at the scale of the member state, N. Carl, J. Dennison and G. Evans fail to explore the territorial dimension within the UK of the Brexit decision and of territorial identities. They recognise that not all people living in UK are Eurosceptics, but a key conclusion is that Britons have a relatively deep-rooted sense of national (as distinct to European) identity (p.299). By ignoring the different identities within the UK these authors miss an important part of the story, and tacitly reproduce the narrative of the Eurosceptics, which interprets the 52 %-48 % referendum outcome as the unanimous “will of the people”.

The territorial dimension of the Brexit referendum in the UK

24The UK is not a federal state, but territorially it recognises four constituent nations. A devolved Scottish Parliament is elected by the people of Scotland and has law-making powers over many domestic matters (e.g. education, health, housing, criminal justice, etc.). Wales and Northern Ireland each have their own devolved Assemblies, though with less powers than in Scotland. These arrangements have operated since 1999. England has no Parliament of its own, but rather is governed by the UK Parliament, which includes members elected from constituencies in the three other nations.

25Scotland had its own Parliament until 1707. Since 2007, the Scottish National Party (SNP), which seeks independence for Scotland – i.e. to leave the UK - has been the largest political group in the Scottish Parliament, and formed the Scottish Government. The Scottish Greens also support independence. In Wales, the Welsh Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, stand for their nation’s independence from the UK. They won 12 of the 60 seats in the Welsh Assembly election in 2016. While seeking to leave the UK, all these three parties want their independent countries to remain in the EU.

26Voting in Northern Ireland has traditionally been dominated by attitudes to the territorial existence of the Province that was formed in 1920 when the rest of Ireland became an independent state. Unionists want to remain in the UK, while Nationalists favour the cause of a United Ireland. These divides stoked the 30 years of violence from 1969, until an internationally agreed treaty brought peace by consciously blurring and nuancing territorial identity, e.g. by allowing people in Northern Ireland to have an Irish passport, and by removing the infrastructure of the border between these two parts of the EU territory.

27Even this brief description demonstrates beyond doubt that the territorial cohesion of the UK is contested. Yes, the Kingdom has stayed United, but there are significant counter-narratives of territory. Only the asymmetry between the UK territories (in 2011 England had 53 million people, Scotland 5.3 million, Wales 3.1 million and Northern Ireland 1.8 million) and the peripherality of the three smaller territories, could blind politicians and academics to these realities. Austerity and economic decline, as outlined previously, stirred resentments – and strengthened a sense of English nationalism, both vis-a-vis Scotland (with its parliament, Nationalist government seeking independence, and its higher public spending per capita), and against the EU.

28In the 2016 referendum all 32 voting areas in Scotland had a Remain majority. In Northern Ireland, 11 of the 18 voting areas, including all areas bordering Ireland, had a Remain majority. In Wales only five of the 22 voting areas voted by a majority to Remain. In England, Leave had the majority in most of the 310 voting areas. Overall the voting by nation, and by region within England, is shown in Table 1. This reveals the extent to which the London region was out of step with the rest of England in voting for Remain by a substantial margin.

Table 1 : 2016 Referendum voting

Nation / Region

 % Remain votes

 % Leave votes




North East



North West



Yorkshire and Humberside



East Midlands



West Midlands






South East






South West









Northern Ireland



29Taking the geographical disaggregation further, the top Leave voting areas by percentage of the vote were all areas of small towns on the east coast of England around the Wash or the Thames Estuary, while the Remain vote strongholds were Inner London, Edinburgh and traditionally Nationalist areas in Northern Ireland. Remain also won in England’s bigger cities – Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Leeds (narrowly), Bristol, as well as in Cardiff the Welsh capital. In the cities of Birmingham and Sheffield, however, there were narrow majorities for Leave. Furthermore, the smaller urban centres within the functional urban regions of the big English cities voted to Leave. For example, while Manchester voted 60 % Remain, adjoining areas based on smaller post-industrial towns were for Leave - Tameside 61 %, Oldham 61 %, Rochdale 60 %, Bury 54 %, Bolton 58 %, Salford 57 %.

30Voting patterns are complex : E. Alabrese et al. (2019) found that voting Leave was associated with older age, white ethnicity, low educational attainment, infrequent use of smartphones and the internet, receiving benefits, adverse health and low life satisfaction. There were substantial numbers of Leave voters in Remain majority areas, and vice versa, as well as many non-voters. However, it is clear that there were significant geographical patterns. England and Wales were for Leave, Scotland and Northern Ireland for Remain ; London and the larger cities were Remain, but England’s coastal and smaller towns were Leave. This suggests the emergence of a political economy of agglomeration, but one that was mediated by forms of national identity and nationalism. In particular they point to the emergence of an English nationalism, which can be traced as a response not only to the EU, but also to the rise of Scottish nationalism. There have been demands for an English parliament, and “English Votes for English Laws” was championed by Prime Minister Cameron immediately after the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. A long established fiscal formula gives Scotland funding from the UK Treasury to support higher per capita public spending than deprived English regions, which then in 2016 voted to Leave the EU. The Leave campaign succeeded because it made the EU the cause of this regionalised sense of suppressed English identity and marginalisation. In contrast the Remain campaign simply failed to address these deeply territorial issues.

The territorial narratives behind the Brexit vote

31Millions of words and images, spoken or published in numerous places, were used to influence voters. To make analysis manageable I have looked only at campaign materials of Leave groups. My aim is to explore the content and significance of a territorial perspective within their campaign narratives.

32The Vote Leave campaign was founded in October 2015, and became the official lead organisation to advocate for Brexit. Its leaders included prominent Conservative MPs, notably Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, but also Labour MPs representing constituencies in Birmingham and Manchester, a Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP / former Lord Major of Belfast as well as the DUP’s Westminster chief-of-staff, and a former Conservative MP from Scotland, amongst others. There were several other “fringe” groups campaigning for Brexit, and the London School of Economics has compiled a valuable digital archive of materials produced by both Leave and Remain organisations (​collections/​brexit ). The main Leave themes were set out on the Vote Leave website ( ). There were strong territorial underpinnings.

33Identity with the UK as a territory was strongly affirmed. Images supported by text depicted money to be spent on the National Health Service, schools and housing. Along with a reference to “more jobs”, this represented an attempt to address cohesion issues within the UK after years of austerity, which had been particularly harsh in the north of England, as explained above. An image of the Union Jack reinforced the messages about the UK as a territory and asserted its internal cohesion.

34There were pictures and text promising free trade with the whole world, projecting the UK territory into a set of global networks : explicit mention of Australia and New Zealand references a former colonial presence, but selectively so, by highlighting majority white territories. India, China and Brazil were cited as emergent markets, but there was no mention of the USA, whereas since the referendum (and the replacement of Obama by Trump) a trade deal with USA has emerged as a pro-Brexit priority.

35Most strikingly, four of the ten Vote Leave themes were about migration. The statement that “Turkey is joining the EU” was not only misleading, but the graphic used depicted the movement of people from Turkey not to the EU, but to England. Images of a traditional British passport, and of sea beneath white cliffs, are evocative of territory ending unambiguously at the borders of the nation state. The “White cliffs of Dover” was a popular song during World War II ; so the use of this image signified Britain standing in isolation from a Europe occupied by our enemies, a recurrent, though inaccurate, trope (millions of troops from the British Empire fought too). Notably, it was this maritime border between England and the continent that was portrayed, not the land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland that had been heavily fortified for 30 years from 1969. Significantly, the official UK Government pamphlet on Brexit also failed to mention that Irish border.

36The sense of a war-like existential threat to the UK/England as a territory was augmented by a Vote Leave image of three people dressed in black trying to get through a barbed wire border. The text accompanying it stated that remaining in the EU would mean “Immigration will continue to be out of control”, and “Nearly 2 million people came to the UK from the EU over the last 10 years”. Juxtaposing this statement with the image of people trying to get through barbed wire implied that many of the 2 million had entered the EU illegally. These narratives were the substance to the slogan “Vote Leave : Take Back Control”, which implied that Britain stood defenceless, having been robbed of its territorial security. It was a call to anger and rebellion, simultaneously asserting the cohesion of UK/England while also destroying it.

37A leaflet published by the EU Referendum Campaign (2016) featuring a message from a UK Independence Party (UKIP) MEP also made a strong play on immigration : “The EU intends to … import millions more immigrants from Africa and beyond…they will have the right to come to Britain” along with the 75 million people of Turkey, a country whose “porous borders with the Middle East will mean even more illegal immigration to the UK”. Immigration was stated to be “the big issue” : “millions of people have flooded to the UK from poor European countries… If we stay in the European Union there will be millions more migrants to come.”

38A campaign leaflet from “Better Off Out” (2016a) also highlighted immigration. It pointed out that wages had fallen behind inflation since 2010, adding “The drop has been driven by new immigration from the European Union”, over an image of a woman at a supermarket checkout. It further added that “immigration held back wages of the lowest paid workers” below an image of a litter collector at work. It claimed that in 2014 “EU migrants found 3 jobs in the UK for every one that went to a UK citizen.” Better Off Out was a campaign started in 2006 by The Freedom Association, which describes itself as “a non-partisan, centre-right libertarian pressure group” (Freedom Association, 2020) ; it had previously campaigned against the imposition of sports sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa.

39This anti-immigrant / refugee ground had been well prepared by the newspapers, with headlines like “Migrants rob young Britons of Jobs”. From 2010 to 2016 the Daily Express ran 179 anti-immigration stories on its front page, and the Daily Mail ran 122 (Mehta, 2019, 10). Then, a week before the referendum, UKIP leader Nigel Farage released the dramatic “Breaking Point” poster, which depicted a tightly packed column of people, stretching as far as the eye could see, and walking towards the viewer. In fact, the line of hundreds of people was not of EU migrants entering the UK ; it was of non-EU refugees at the Croatia-Slovenia border. Most of them are young, black or Asian men. J. Morrison (2016) commented : “Its malice lay in the fact that it simultaneously suggested a threefold untruth : that the inward migration encouraged by our EU membership is a non-white phenomenon ; that it principally involves young, able-bodied males who can only be coming to steal our jobs and livelihoods ; and that it is a Trojan horse for importing Islamist (ergo ‘Middle Eastern-looking’) terrorists.”

40Another “Better Off Out” leaflet asked “Are you British… Or European ?” directly challenging people’s sense of territorial identity. The leaflet was built around images resembling picture postcards. On the front cover the British postcard had images of Big Ben, the Tower of London, Stonehenge and a Scottish castle, along with tea and scones, a red telephone box and a couple of guardsmen in red uniforms and their famous tall, black beefeater hats. The European card had the Eiffel Tower, the Coliseum, the Reichstag, and Gaudi’s famous Barcelona church, along with a plate of oysters, a dish that is expensive in UK and associated with more up-market restaurants. The picture postcards inside the pamphlet celebrated Britain’s cities, landscapes, culture and history. The accompanying text spoke of “our people, our islands, our lands”, and was particularly lyrical about the countryside : “a lush English meadow beside a medieval church… Britain’s landscapes define our nation”, while the castles were a reminder of “our unconquered military heritage”, an implicit contrast with other member states’ experience of occupation.

41Fundamentally then, the Brexit campaign built a narrative that, far from the UK being part of the European territory, the EU is a present and direct threat to the territorial cohesion of the UK. The EU was depicted as negating the territoriality of the UK, and in so doing enabling the destruction of its social cohesion (notably by taking money from the National Health Service), its economic cohesion (giving “British jobs” to migrant workers and facilitating relocation of businesses from the UK), and its cultural cohesion (through Islamic immigration). Furthermore, the Brexit narrative constructed an alternative form of supra-national territorial cohesion, through the Anglosphere, the countries around the world where English is the first language. This predominantly means the USA but also the “White Commonwealth” and especially Canada, Australia and New Zealand. This alternative cohesion comes through language, culture, history and, yes, for some at least, through race. The Anglosphere is the way that nationalism connects to globalisation, sidestepping the EU, while also reaffirming messages about Britain’s historical eminence as a (once) global power, able to define territories across different continents.

42The pattern of voting discussed above demonstrates that these narratives had more appeal in England than in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and in rural/small town areas than in the major urban centres. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, and to a lesser extent in Wales, nationalisms have long been espoused that negate the UK as a territorial unit. The 2016 referendum was the catalyst for what had previously been a hidden, even inchoate, English nationalism, which politically was proudly owned only by fringe extremist organisations like the English Defence League.

43Research by the Centre for English Identity and Politics explored how people in England balanced English and British identities. Around a third prioritised their English identity : “These are not, by and large, the people who hold power in England. They tend to live outside the cities and don’t go to university … working class voters… and those from the world of small business… Power in England now lies with the graduates, with those who lead corporate business and hold sway in culture and the arts, and in much of the media and academia” (Denham, 2019, p. 3). Denham (2016, p. 5) has also noted that in the 2015 UK general election “For the first time a distinct English issue – the so-called SNP threat – became a talking point for millions of English voters and may have tipped the balance in key seats. In the EU referendum, those feeling most intensely English were far more likely to have supported leave.” This was a reference to the Conservative Party alleging in 2015 that, in a hung parliament, the Scottish National Party could exert control by using their MPs to install a Labour government (rather like the DUP did for the Conservatives after the 2017 election). Furthermore, it was found that 73 per cent of English Conservative activists believe that the devolution settlement since 1999 has been 'harmful for England'. Nearly a third of English activists would welcome the break-up of the UK as “an end to unreasonable demands on England to provide ever greater financial and political concessions to Scotland” (Centre for English Identity and Politics, 2017).


44Territorial cohesion is interpreted in different ways, which often elude fundamental concerns with the competing identities, between nation states and the EU, but also within nation states. The divisions exposed by the 2016 Brexit referendum reveal the complexity of the processes at play. Market-based agglomeration economies within today’s knowledge economies have possibly strengthened territorial cohesion at EU level within cities, through freedom of movement, increased connectivity and economic opportunities. However, those same economies have undermined territorial cohesion more generally by increasing the differentiation between thriving cities and more depressed old industrial areas, small towns and rural regions. In pursuing austerity and competitiveness as a response to the financial crisis of 2007/08, policy makers at EU and national levels have exacerbated these tendencies. In general, EU citizens identify less strongly with the EU as a territorial unit than with their national territories. In the UK, the active agency of anti-EU campaigners using narratives that presented the EU as a hostile territory (particularly but not exclusively linked to refugees and international migration) found a receptive audience, particularly outside the main cities. However, the EU referendum also acted as a conduit for competing narratives of national identities within the UK, even to the extent of eroding the territorial cohesion of the UK itself.

45While the constellation of forces and narratives will be unique within each territory, the contested nature of territory is now a critical factor for the future of the European project. Geographers, regional scientists and policy makers need to focus research and policy on the political economy of territorial cohesion.

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Clifford Hague, « Brexit : Territorial Politics, Territorial Processes and Narratives of Territorial Identities »Géocarrefour [En ligne], 94/3 | 2020, mis en ligne le 21 septembre 2020, consulté le 08 février 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Clifford Hague

Emeritus Professor of Planning and Spatial Development, Heriot-Watt University

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