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Introduction : Can I stay or should I go ?

Timothy Whitton
p. 11-15

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1This aim of this issue of the Observatoire de la Société Britannique is to map out the state of the United Kingdom which Theresa May inherited when she replaced David Cameron in July 2016 following the Brexit referendum. There can be no denying that her main - if not sole – very unenviable task has been, and will be, to steer Great Britain through the negotiations that should lead to the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union in March 2019. Britain is the first country to leave the EU and given that few – if any – contingency plans were drawn up in the event of the victory of the Brexit vote, improvisation seems to be the name of the game. A majority of the authors writing in this issue point out the potential for this improvisation to breed division and Theresa May’s political future will indeed depend on her ability to face up to her authority being challenged from within her party, within the United Kingdom and during negotiations with her European partners. Even then, come March 2019, her party might be tempted to label her as the Brexit leader whose time is up.

2This is aptly summed up in the title of the first chapter Brexit, or Theresa May’s headache in which Pauline Schnapper analyses the divisions which the referendum has caused not only in the build-up as the two sides confronted one another in trying to convince the electorate to vote either Brexit or Bremain, but also in the aftermath. To the extent that the snap election called in June 2017 was meant to provide her with the political clout that she needed in order to give her a clear mandate for withdrawal in the face of a divided country and party where Euroscepticism is again rife and little in tune with the requirements of a peaceful departure from the European Union. Indeed, given that Brexit was quite simply not envisaged by the British government, the referendum has left a huge void in political debate making any consensus about the final outcome a pipe dream. The legal complexity of withdrawal is underlined in the second chapter in which Guillaume Clément opposes Parliamentary and government sovereignty in the decision-making process. Given that the Supreme Court has already ruled in favour of Parliament having the last word when it came to triggering Article 50, Clément underlines not only the divisive impact that Brexit has had within the country and the political parties but also on the British Constitution itself.

3In the third chapter, Thibaud Harrois examines Theresa May’s defence and foreign policy and the effects of Brexit on Britain’s role on the world stage. The British electorate is certainly fond of the Global Britain narrative which has been used unashamedly to flatter their ego both before and after the referendum. Yet, there is growing evidence that Brexit has added to Britain’s ever-growing state of isolation and that it is a pious wish to believe that future negotiations with her European partners will be able to reverse this trend. In the following article, Carine Berberi deals with the isolation that Britain could suffer when it comes to her own “internal” frontiers and most notably with Scotland and Ireland. Northern Ireland will indeed be the only country of the Kingdom to have a physical frontier with the European Union and despite wishes to create a “frictionless” boundary, historic tensions between the two countries could be revived. This would fly in the face of the almost constant peace process but also weaken the Brexiters’ claim that leaving the EU will enable the United Kingdom to easily reclaim customs’ and immigration control of its frontiers. The case of Ireland is discussed further in the article by Philippe Cauvet in which he contends that Brexit will most certainly exacerbate the democratic deficit that the Good Friday agreement only very partially addressed. The consociational and postnational innovations that the 1988 Agreement reached sowed the seeds of future failure and only an in-depth review of these will prevent Brexit from causing further confusion and thus political instability in Northern Ireland.

4The following three articles deal with post-Brexit and independence-referenda Scotland. Edwige Camp-Pietrain deals with the constitutional issues that Brexit has raised and describes the opportunity it provided for the defeated supporters of independence to envisage another referendum far earlier than imagined : should Scotland vote for independence this time round, it would then be entitled to ask to become part of the EU. Yet this initiative has only met with lukewarm approval, especially since the June 2017 elections and has forced the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to change tack and concentrate on reinforcing Scotland’s autonomy within Brexit Britain. Sturgeon’s strength stems from her constantly managing to maintain a clarity of vision. This not only reinforces the distinctiveness of Scotland thus keeping the perspective of independence alive, but also contrasts starkly with the confusion that reigns in Westminster. This, she has understood, will be her main weapon in keeping Scotland’s interests on the frontstage of British politics. Fiona Simpkins furthers this examination of Scottish politics and contends that the unexpected revival of the Scottish Conservative Party during the June 2017 elections is the fruit of their leader, Ruth Davidson’s, skill in combining conservatism and unionism. Simpkins suggests that she has been able to cut through both the traditional political fault lines that the country has been prone to and the new divisions brought about by Brexit to the extent that many see her as being a suitable replacement should Theresa May throw in the towel. It would remain to be seen, however, if her particular brand of politics and style work as well on both sides of the border. In the following article Gilles Leydier insists on the multidimensional aspect of Scottish politics in light of the consequences of the independence and Brexit referenda. Leydier somewhat nuances the previous author’s praise of Davidson’s leadership by contending that she banked too much on the potential for the Brexit referendum to bolster Scottish nationalism. The truth of the matter is that Brexit has not promoted the case for a new independence referendum in public opinion : even if there is widespread support for Westminster to devolve further matters to the Scottish Parliament, this should not be taken as a clear sign that independence is the next step down the road of Scottish politics. For the time being at least, “devomore” seems to be more popular, even among the nationalists, than IndeRef 2. Brexit negotiations will most certainly determine any major sway in the electorate’s motivation to support one or other of these options.

5In the next chapter, Marie-Claude Esposito examines the Brexit negotiations and underlines the different approaches chosen by Westminster and the 27 other European partners : whereas Theresa May is keen to devote time to Britain’s future within Europe, the 27 are adamant in their demand that divorce with the European Union should come first on the agenda. Once again, May is seen to be dilly-dallying, stalling in order to gain time which is slowly ticking away while a plethora of decisions remain pending. The hope that some 45 years of legislation covering customs, frontiers and law can be undone in record time is dwindling despite her claim that some sort of original deal can be brokered. Once more, improvisation born from a lack of preparation and a failed bid for political credibility in the June 2017 elections seems to be dictating decision-making causing divisions and uncertainties that can only fuel anxiety about “hard” or “soft” withdrawal from the European Union. Whichever option is finally chosen, Nicholas Sowels postulates in the following chapter that the financial services will ride the wave of Brexit despite losing their rights to operate within the EU. His detailed account of how the markets will operate once the United Kingdom has withdrawn from the EU lead him to suggest that this is one sector that could emerge fairly unscathed quite simply because it has the resources to adjust to the market economies of the EU. Most interestingly, and despite media fear-mongering, Sowels believes that London will maintain its international financial status.

6In the following chapter Raphaële Espiet-Kilty examines the recent evolutions in the Conservative Party’s social and welfare policies by comparing Cameron’s “Big” society to May’s “Shared” society, both influenced in many respects by Thatcherite ideology. May’s brand certainly has a more interventionist inclination, but Espiet-Kilty questions her ability to implement any such programme. The Prime Minister’s belief in “society” – similar to Cameron’s but unlike Margaret Thatcher’s – is patent but the leadership difficulties she is experiencing in post-Brexit Britain are hampering her ability to embrace the social policies that would help to reduce the inequalities that are anathema to her vision of “Shared” society. Continuity in the belief that the state does have a duty to protect the poor is one thing, but implementing the policies that correspond to this conviction are proving difficult in the austerity Britain that May inherited from her predecessor. In light of this, it should come as no surprise that a high proportion of those directly affected by poverty have little faith in government and perhaps expressed this by punishing them in the Brexit referendum. Given the constant rise in poverty including those in paid employment means that restoring trust will be a steep hill to climb. Education is perhaps one field where indeed, May’s vision of a “Shared” society could leave its mark. The final chapter of this issue deals with the world of education in Britain since the election of the coalition – but Conservative led - government in 2010. Françoise Granoulhac acknowledges the ever-growing imperative that governments have accepted to foster links between education and their “knowledge economies”. Granhoulhac suggests that priorities in the field of education in Britain have by and large been forged by the rhetoric of austerity and crisis and that cost-effectiveness is now the dominating dogma. This said, to what extent does this tally with Theresa May’s desire to increase equality and social mobility ? Discourse on education in the four countries of the United Kingdom is different and Westminster’s prerogative will be put even more to the test in the post-Brexit world. The author suggests that in the field of education, clear political direction will be the essential ingredient in rising above the tensions between the four countries. To achieve this, the very purpose and ambitions of education should be at the centre of debate rather than being relegated beyond the sphere of mere politics.

7Had Westminster seriously envisaged the possibility of a Brexit vote, then contingency plans could have been drawn up to stave off the quagmire of uncertainty, improvisation and lack of direction that currently engulfs British politics. There is definitely an ongoing and frantic search for a way back, to undo the decision to leave the European Union because that is where Britain belongs, even if in their heart of hearts, defenders of this policy must know that their quest is doomed to fail. The referendum has delivered its verdict and “leave means leave” whatever alternative interpretation might be fashionable. Theresa May has taken this on board but her ability to see through the plethora of other policy choices that befall politicians will continue to be dogged by the distinct lack of leadership that her government is showing in the process of withdrawal from the European Union. They will go down in history as the “Brexit government” for better or for worse, in the full knowledge that their greatest achievement will only be, no more and no less, ending a troubled relationship that Britain strove so hard to construct and will strive so hard to relinquish on all sides of the new borders – “hard” or “soft” - that will inevitably emerge from the new map of Europe.

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Timothy Whitton, « Introduction : Can I stay or should I go ?  », Observatoire de la société britannique, 21 | -1, 11-15.

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Timothy Whitton, « Introduction : Can I stay or should I go ?  », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 21 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2018, consulté le 09 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Timothy Whitton

Professeur de civilisation britannique à l'Université de Clermont-Auvergne

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