Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros28Brexit and the emergence of a new...

Brexit and the emergence of a new English identity

Youssef Ferdjani
p. 47-65


National identities change slowly but because of Brexit they are undergoing dramatic changes in the United Kingdom. This is particularly true for the English national identity. The report « Brexit and public opinion 2019 » by the UK in a Changing Europe shows how Brexit is viewed by British citizens. Among those who describe themselves as English, not British, there is strong support, not only for Brexit, but for « hard » Brexit. As a matter of fact, one of the consequences of the referendum result is that it has reinforced a feeling of national belonging among English citizens. They have the impression that their identity is threatrened by several factors: inequalities linked to devolution, the cost and terms of EU membership and above all the scale and impact of immigration. As a matter of fact, the leave campaign and the pro-Brexit press were focused on immigration and one of their main arguments was that the country had to tighten border controls. This reshaping of the English national identity is also linked to a context in which the elites and the media are not trusted any more, a context favourable to populist leaders. The impact of Brexit on national identities in the United Kingdom is tremendous: since it reveals the vacuity of British identity, it may hasten Irish unification and Scottish separation.

The final resolution of an identity crisis is the emergence of a new identity. With Brexit, we see the formation of a new English identity which is nationalist, anti-EU and which regards foreigners as a threat.

Haut de page

Entrées d’index

Haut de page

Texte intégral

  • 1 Gardner, A., 2017, p. 10-11.

1England and Wales are the two parts of the United Kingdom where a majority of the population voted for Brexit. These two countries are the founding union of the UK, they were for a very long time the ‘core’ of the British Empire and they have faced the biggest identity crisis since the collapse of that empire. Many voters in these regions blame the EU for the erosion of their identity, but it can also be the consequence of imperial processes (Colley, 2007; Ward, 2004) because over the long term, ‘Britishness’ came to be something defined as much from the periphery as the centre. The disappearance of the empire, combined perhaps with a failure to really deal with its legacy (Andrews), has created an identity vacuum in what was, 500 years ago, the place where it all began: “Brexit thus appears to be, at least in part, the latest symptom of the resurgence of pre-British (imperial) identities which are closer to the ancient British (ethnic) identity in form – i.e. it is a post-colonial process in the heart of Empire.” 1

  • 2 Marin, M., 2001.
  • 3 Marin, M., 2006.
  • 4 Scruton, R., 2004, p. 36-37.

2In this paper we will focus on the emergence of a new English identity and its relation to Brexit and we will see that the decision to leave the European Union was the result of a long process through which the English progressively felt that they were losing their country. This is confirmed by the Daily Telegraph columnist Minette Marin, who claimed in her reflections on William Hague’s ‘foreign land’ speech, that English people were “not really permitted to celebrate, or to mourn, the country that they have, metaphorically speaking, lost”. For those who valued the country’s institutions and traditions, “the present is indeed a foreign country, some of the time.” 2Moreover, one response has been the emergence of “a new and rather irritable sense of Englishness” fostered, she claimed, by the “traditional left-wing contempt for patriotism; by the resulting suppression of national history; by the suppression of national traditions for fear of giving offence to newcomers; by aggressive multiculturalism and by fast mass immigration.” 3Roger Scruton called this oikophobia, which involved the repudiation of inheritance and home, finding its niche in state institutions that offer oikophobes “the power base from which to attack the simple loyalties of ordinary people” 4, especially under the Labour government after 1997.

  • 5 Aughey, A., 2007, p. 114.
  • 6 Goodhart, D., 2017, p. 2.

3In 1999, two years after the election of Tony Blair, an editorial in the New Statesman asked its readers to spend “a morning at an English country house, move on to a Caribbean carnival, relax in an Irish pub, round off the day with a Chinese or Indian meal (bearing in mind that none of these will be nearly as “authentic” as they pretend), and then ask yourself what Englishness is supposed to mean, and whether you really need to know.” 5Twenty years later, this identity crisis had important political consequences. As a matter of fact, the Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump, the populist wave around the world are not just the resentment of the old working class condemned by deindustrialization: “Both Brexit and Trump’s election were unexpected victories given a decisive tilt by unhappy white working class voters – motivated it seems, more by cultural loss, related to immigration and ethnic change, than by economic calculation.” 6

4Even if the identity crisis became more visible in the first years of the 21st century its links with globalization are older because we can say that for more than fifty years now, the ruling class has tried to adapt British society to the demands of global economy and it has worked: the GDP is high, the big companies are very profitable and the number of millionaires keeps increasing. The success of globalization is visible in big cities, where the movement of people and consumer goods help create jobs. And yet, globalization has a blind side: the way in which the working class is treated in developed countries. As a matter of fact, the economic transformation of big cities has triggered a social transformation of the whole country. Today, the labouring classes mainly live in small towns and in rural areas, culturally in the margins and geographically pushed away from the big cities. They are the losers of economic and social liberalism:

  • 7 Winlow, S., Hall, S., Treadwell, J., 2017, p. 3.

They often see for themselves a life of unending struggle, a life in which the pleasures of community life have been withdrawn, a life of frustration, interrupted all too briefly by occasional flurries of consumerist hedonism. They can sense life only as a backward step, the loss of things deemed valuable and important. The benefits of our allegedly open, marketised society are the privileges of successful others. 7

5Therefore, globalization has changed the way societies function. Everywhere, it creates an identity crisis by modifying the way collective identities were previously defined. One of the most visible aspects of this change is that all societies used to define themselves in reference to their past. Nowadays, with globalization, societies do not rely on history anymore but on geography. This phenomenon can be studied thanks to ‘Border Studies’:

  • 8 Gardner, A., 2017, p. 13.

A relatively new interdisciplinary field drawing upon deeper traditions of enquiry into the nature of frontiers and boundaries. Encompassing the work of scholars in anthropology, sociology, international relations and other areas, this programme has arisen largely out of the realisation that far from generating an entirely ‘liquid’ world, globalisation has actually led to a renewed phase of national and regional identity formations, or ‘re-territorialization’”.8

6To understand the emergence of a new English identity and its relation to Brexit we can also use the concept of the geography of discontent:

  • 9 Jennings, W., Stoker, G., Warren, I., 2019, p. 54.

The road to Brexit was a product of economic disillusionment, political alienation and social changes that have created conditions ripe for the emergence of a politics of resentment[…]Stark geographical disparities in the experience of different communities provide a foothold for the politics of resentment, because groups who lack direct contact and knowledge of one another can be exploited to see ‘the other’ as a focus for blame and antipathy. 9

7In the first part of our paper we will speak of the specificity of English identity in the United Kingdom. Then, in the second part we shall try to show how English identity was recently reinforced by the political context. Finally, in the third part, we will describe how the Leave camp used the issue of identity to win the referendum.

English identity in the United Kingdom

A problematic identity

8The first thing that needs to be said about English identity is that it is very hard to define:

  • 10 Scruton, R., 2004, p. 1.

“What was England: a nation? A territory? A language? A culture? An empire? An idea? All answers seem inadequate…The English enjoyed the strange privilege of knowing exactly who they were, but not what they were.” 10

  • 11 Mandler, P., 2006, p. 229.

9It seems that in the other parts of Great Britain, Scotland and Wales, the situation is different as far as national identity is concerned: “The Scots and the Welsh are going their own way, leaving the English on their own and uncertain of ‘who they are’. Often it is said that the English have never had a very strong sense of ‘who they are’ because they have been hiding for so long behind these largely institutional constructs of ‘Britishness.’” 11

10This can be explained by the fact that English national identity was for a very long time absorbed into the empire:

  • 12 Mandler, P., 2006, p. 3.

The identification of an English national character has throughout modern history had to compete with other identities and loyalties that cut across divisions between the English and the rest. During this period England has lain at the heart of a multi-national federation – Britain or the United Kingdom – and a multi-ethnic empire. This position has given the English power but it has often also weakened their restrictive sense of self. 12

  • 13 Aughey, A., 2007, p. 133.

11An absorption which, according to some historians, has led to total destruction. Kumar, among others, argued that political expressions of English national identity had been suppressed by the structural location of England’s place at the demographic and political heart of the British Empire (Kumar, 34). For others, it is as if the English had forgotten that they had a country of their own: “The historical expansion of England meant that the idea of home has become lost.” 13

12Indeed, this position of England at the centre of the Empire meant that its population has always felt more British than English:

  • 14 Mandler, P., 2006., p. 4.

Today, at the time when some of the peoples of the United Kingdom are feeling less British, the English still feel the most British: only a third will say that they are more English than British. They are also more likely to say that their sense of self has nothing to do with England at all, but comes from individual values or other kinds of community.14

13The consequence is that there has always been a tension between English and British identities:

  • 15 Wellings, B., 2019, p. 93.

The important element here is that the sovereignty that ‘English nationalists’ chose to defend was always more geographically encompassing than the nation of England itself. The enduring political legacy of this historic development was that English nationalists could always – and had to – draw upon ‘wider categories of belonging’ than England itself to explain and justify England’s place in the world. 15

  • 16 Bragg, B., 2002.

14This tension can also be seen in the fact that English people have two flags, the Union Jack and the cross of St George. Billy Bragg, in newspaper articles and interviews, reflecting on the appearance of the cross of St George in many English streets invited readers of the Daily Mirror to ask themselves which flag, the cross of St George or the Union Jack, best represented the country as it is today. The first, he thought, symbolised the country as it already is “vibrant, multicultural and forward looking”. The second “always seems to be in the hands of those who wish to look back to our imperial past”. Britishness, this imperial construct, was an identity whose time has gone because the time for England had now come. “To my mind, British culture identifies too strongly with the monarchy, the Union Jack and the Empire. That narrow definition is mirrored in the Royal Family itself. Compare it to the England you see out there representing us in the World Cup. Which group best reflects the make-up of the country?” 16

15A few years later, there was a debate in England concerning the choice of a national day.

  • 17 Wellings, B., 2019, p. 46.

These two models of nationalism – independence and a transformative revolutionary moment – created important models for national days. England’s historical development did not provide such raw materials. For a long while this could be lauded as a constitutive element of English exceptionalism and that “merely” national commemorations were not necessary for such an expansive and trail-blaizing polity as England-in-Britain.17

Englishness and devolution

16England’s specific position in the Union is also visible in the devolution process:

  • 18 Bogdanor, V., 2019, p. 198.

England, by far the largest part of the United Kingdom, is the anomaly in the devolution settlement, the only part of the United Kingdom not to enjoy a representative devolved government and legislature. It is the only nation not represented in the British-Irish Council for membership of the Council depends on constitutional status and England seems to have no constitutional status.18

17In this context, the English identity is at risk unless the English decide to destroy the union and create an independent state:

  • 19 Bogdanor, V., 2019, p. 199.

Some critics argued that the devolution settlement imposed so much injustice on the English that they can no longer be expected to submerge their identity to hold the United Kingdom together. Devolution, on this view, means that the English will no longer be able to express their Englishness within the United Kingdom. So, if they wish to retain their identity, it is they who will need to burst the bounds of Union and establish an independent English state.19

  • 20 Aughey, A., 2007, p. 107.
  • 21 Wellings, B., 2002, p. 107.

18Because of the way devolution was implemented in the United Kingdom it was difficult for English nationalism to develop at first: “The Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have their own redemptive, devolved democracies. The English, on the other hand, are for the moment condemned to live in the rotting hulk of the old imperial system.” 20Post-devolution, “England’s governing institutions are Britain’s governing institutions, leaving expressions of English nationalism very little alternative but to remain within the previous discourses of empire and nation.” 21

19A few years later, it seemed, on the contrary that devolution triggered a new reflection on English identity:

  • 22 Bogdanor, V., 2019, p. 200.

The devolution settlement appears to have strengthened the feeling of Englishness which, until then, seemed somewhat dormant. It has not, admittedly, led the English to reject devolution for the non-English parts of the kingdom… Nevertheless, Englishness has caught up with the English, many of whom are now turning the mirror on to themselves and asking basic questions about English identity.22

  • 23 Cameron, D., 2014.

20This situation was taken into consideration by the country’s political leaders and in September 2014, the day after the referendum for the independence of Scotland, David Cameron said “we have heard the voice of Scotland – and now the millions of voices in England must also be heard”. He proposed that a “new and fair settlement for Scotland should be accompanied by a new and fair settlement that applies to all parts of our United Kingdom” and declared “I have long believed that a crucial part missing from this national discussion is England.” 23

  • 24 Birch, A.H., 1977, p. 142.
  • 25 Aughey, A., 2007, p. 2.

21In 1977, at a time when the Labour government had introduced proposals for devolution for Scotland and Wales, when the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland were at their height and concern about the ‘break-up of Britain’ was the topic of the moment, Birch wrote of England: “It should also be noted that the English pay little attention to national symbols apart from those which relate to the United Kingdom.” They did not celebrate St George’s Day and left that sort of thing to the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish. Significantly, they “rarely fly the English flag and it is not certain that most Englishmen would even recognise it.” 24Twenty years later, things changed suddenly when in 1996, “the flag of St George, for centuries confined largely to the spires of rural parish churches, flew from cars, pubs and shops. If the particular political occasion was support for the national football team, the political significance was the extraction of the English cross from the Union flag.” 25

  • 26 Bragg, B., 1995.

22Henceforth, it became important for the left to use the concept of Englishness and stop considering it only belonged to conservatives. Bragg said that by “attempting to distance ourselves” from Englishness, radicals only allowed the far right to dominate the debate. He asked: “Are we in England going to sit by and watch the Scots, Welsh and Irish struggle for devolution, unable to join in because we are squeamish about hoisting the flag of St George? We English “deserve our independence too, from the imperial state that we live in.” 26According to some commentators, English identity was also prevented from developing because of the post-colonial context:

  • 27 Marin, M., 1999.

There had been ‘a contemptuous repression’ of Englishness ‘within cultural studies, in politics and among the right-on intelligentsia’ and there had also been ‘a determined exploitation of post-imperial guilt among people who, in truth, are entitled to feel proud to be English.’ The English had been told that they must celebrate an identity that now resides in diversity and this is another repression of the truth: Diversity, by definition, is at odds with identity. 27

  • 28 Conway, D., 2004, 1-3.
  • 29 Minogue, K., 2005, p.XV.

23Multiculturalism started to be regarded as an officially imposed ideology which threatened the necessary “critical mass of sameness” that had made England what it was. Multiculturalism required “a radical cultural makeover in self-identity” but significantly it demanded that the majority relinquish “to the point of almost total evisceration, the salience their national culture and traditions have long enjoyed.” One consequence of this ideological strategy had been the undermining of traditional English liberties and the erection of a discriminatory bureaucratic edifice. 28According to Kenneth Minogue the fact that the English were not able to defend their identity more efficiently “reveals the extent to which multiculturalism arises less from love of others than from hatred of our own form of life.” 29

24The tension between British and English identities allowed people coming to England from former colonies to choose the identity that did not really correspond to the country in which they lived:

  • 30 Scruton, R., 2004, p. 4.

Only one group of Her Majesty’s subjects saw itself as British – namely, those immigrants from the former Empire who seized on the idea of British nationality as a means of having no real nationality at all, certainly no nationality that would conflict with ethnic or religious loyalties, forged far away and years before. There were black British or Bangladeshis, but not black or Bangladeshi English. 30

25The tension between the two identities did not disappear after the referendum and, in a way, we can say that it became even bigger: “Thus although the vote on 23 June 2016 appeared to resolve one of England’s dilemmas – the UK’s relationship to the EU – it exacerbated the question of England’s relationship to the rest of the UK. For the English, it seemed more important to leave the EU than to keep the UK together. Brexit started to look like a kind of ‘normal’ nationalism based on independence from a larger polity by recourse to popular sovereignty. The Brexit vote, however, had to be interpreted. Theresa May’s government interpreted it as not only a vote for “hard” brexit, but as a vote for the United Kingdom’s unity. May was explicit about the Britishness of this English moment. The UK’s Brexit governments, both before and after the general election of 2017, sought to take back control, not just from the EU, but also from the idea of England as a political community that the Brexit issue mobilised. The Brexit referendum may well have been about “independence” and “taking back control” but as the UK Government negociated to leave the EU, it was unclear what sort of control or independence was being won or taken back from whom. (Wellings, 150) Because Scotland and Northern Ireland had voted to remain in Europe, the stability of the union was jeopardized with many Scottish politicians asking a second independence referendum and possible problems at the border between the two parts of Ireland.

26For a long time, English identity was absorbed in British identity because of the central place of England in the empire. But things changed first with devolution because as the other parts of the union acquired new powers, England was forced to realize that it needed to express its identity in a different way. This process was strengthened by the political context which led to a reinforcement of the English identity.

The reinforcement of the English identity

A divided society

27Brexit is the decision taken by a majority of British voters to leave the European Union but it is also an event which reveals deep divisions within society. In 2017, David Goodhart introduced a concept which helps us understand why so many people feel excluded from their own country, the tension between the people who see the world from Somewhere and those who see it from Anywhere. The first generally belong to the working-class or the lower middle class and with globalization their life has become more difficult:

  • 31 Goodhart, D., 2017, p. 2-3.

Since the turn of the century western politics has had to make room for a new set of voices preoccupied with national borders and pace of change, appealing to people who feel displaced by a more open, ethnically fluid, graduate-favouring economy and society, designed by and for the new elites.31

28The referendum did not change anything and British society is more divided than ever. Some commentators even say that there is a “civil war” between two opposing visions of the country’s destiny, identity and sovereignty (Martin Wolf, Brexit has replaced the UK’s stiff upper lip with quivering rage, Financial Times 9 February 2018). On the one hand, there are those who have degrees or connections allowing them to occupy high profile jobs in big corporations. Because they have benefited from global economy most of them wanted the UK to remain in the EU. They generally live in metropolitan areas and sometimes abroad. On the other hand, you find people who work in small companies mostly in the service sector with part-time jobs or zero-hour contracts. Most of them live in small towns in former industrial regions. Over the last forty years their situation has gone from bad to worse and in a way it is possible to say that Brexit is the result of a deindustrialization process which started with Margaret Thatcher. As a matter of fact, the longest strike in the history of the UK, the Yorkshire miners in 1983-1984, ended with the victory of Margaret Thatcher’s government. It announced the progressive death of British industry but also the death of the working class. Indeed, little by little, the factories closed as companies relocated in countries with a cheaper workforce and unemployment increased. With globalization regarded as an unavoidable process, people felt that politicians were no longer able to defend the population’s interests. This feeling was strengthened by the fact that the differences between the main political parties tended to disappear. Moreover, the numerous scandals linked to the way public money was used by many politicians undermined trust in politics.

  • 32 Cameron, D., 2011.

29Apart from globalization and political corruption, there is another aspect of modern life which has had a huge impact on how the English see society, the development of multiculturalism. Progressively, ethnic minorities have become more visible and more vocal in England. It was first people from former colonies in Asia, Africa or the West Indies. Later, at the beginning of the 21st century, the government decided to allow citizens of the states of Central and Eastern Europe unrestricted access to the UK following their entry into the EU. No other major country in the EU did the same. Consequently, Britain received a historically unique inflow of migrants from the EU. A Home Office report concluded that net immigration from Central and Eastern Europe would be relatively small, between 5,000 and 13,000 immigrants per year. In 2013, the ONS estimated the actual figure to be in the region of 50,000. By 2014, there were nearly 1.5 million workers from Central and Eastern Europe living in the UK. Of course, with the difficult economic situation of the country it became more and more difficult for the working-class to find jobs. This situation triggered the emergence of angry patriotism and nationalism in England, embodied by an organization called the English Defence League (EDL). In this context, the failure of the system is generally attributed to multiculturalism, Islam and communitarianism. Multiculturalism was described as a failure by David Cameron himself in February 2011 at a security conference in Munich. He said that the UK needed a stronger national identity to prevent people from becoming extremists. He criticized state multiculturalism for encouraging different communities to lead separate lives. According to him, a stronger sense of national and local identity was indispensable to achieve social cohesion.32

Strangers in their own country

  • 33 Coe, J., 2018, p. 85.

30The situation of the white working-class and the debate on national identity and Brexit has been described by Jonathan Coe in his novel Middle England. As we said before, David Goodhart claimed that many people had the impression they lived in a foreign country. In the novel this is shown through the character of Helena, an old woman who complains because the employees of the village shop speak a foreign language and also because her new cleaning woman is not English but Lithuanian. 73 A few pages later, the author describes a riot in Birmingham: “the impression of a racial confrontation was overwhelming”. 33

  • 34 Coe, J., 2018, p. 213.
  • 35 Coe, J., 2018, p. 102.
  • 36 Coe, J., 2018, p. 154.

31In the novel, the identity crisis is felt more strongly by the older characters who criticize political correctness and the disappearance of traditional British culture. Helena says they live under the tyranny of political correctness. 34A tyranny symbolized by the BBC in the novel. According to Colin, the main character’s father: “It’s all been taken over by the political correctness brigade.” 35The corporation is perceived as “elitist, arrogant, metropolitan and out of touch.” 36Here, the writer is only expressing a feeling experienced by numerous people in England, especially members of the EDL:

  • 37 Winlow, S., Hall, S., Treadwell, J., 2017, p. 7.

They are angry because too little has been done to defend the economic and cultural entitlements of the white working class, and they are angry at the ‘political correctness’ they see as a means of systematically avoiding crucial debates about immigration, ethnic diversity and religious antagonism…and they are angry at what they perceive to be the gradual dilution of traditional English culture and society. 37

  • 38 Coe, J., 2018, p. 166.

32In the novel, another old character, Mr Wilcox, speaks about the impact of political correctness linked to immigration and sexual orientation: “People like Ian don’t get a fair crack of the whip anymore…We don’t look after our own anymore, do we? He said. If you’re from a minority – fine. Go to the front of the queue. Blacks, Asians, muslims, gays: we can’t do enough for them.” 38

  • 39 Coe, J., 2018, p. 261.

33Middle England also evokes deindustrialization and the way it has affected older people. The main character, Benjamin, takes his dad to the place where he used to work which has become a commercial centre. The old man thinks that man is defined by what he makes and does not accept the end of manual work: “We don’t make anything anymore. If we don’t make anything then we’ve got nothing to sell, so how …how are we going to survive?” 39

34The importance of manual labour for the identity of the working class is confirmed by specialists:

  • 40 Winlow, S., Hall, S., Treadwell, J., 2017, p. 84.

Those who worked in some manual occupations were accorded significant status. Skilled work often provided a sense of accomplishment and a sense that the product of one’s labour was genuinely useful and occasionally beautiful. Furthermore, the industrial working class was encouraged to believe that, in its daily labours, it was contributing to the nation’s progress. The products of their labour were once exported all over the world. They were the economic backbone of the country. They were vital and they were wanted. 40

35Because their jobs have disappeared, these men don’t fit in society anymore:

  • 41 Winlow, S., Hall, S., Treadwell, J., 2017, p. 107-108.

Ultimately, they felt redundant, and this was especially true of our older respondents. It is certainly true that, as a class of men, they are of little practical use to Britain’s high-tech, knowledge-based, post-industrial market economy.[…] They wanted to be producers. They wanted to work with their hands and apply their skills. But all of that was at an end. 41

  • 42 Coe, J., 2018, p. 202.
  • 43 Coe, J., 2018, p. 193.

36In its reflection on English identity and Englishness Middle England evokes the concept of “Deep England” and the difficulty to define what it is.42 One of the character also says how identity has been used by the prime minister and the risk it represents politically for the Brexit referendum: “If David Cameron has ‘turned on the tap of English nationalism’, will he be able to turn it off again, or will it continue to flow, with increasing and unstoppable force, during the EU referendum campaign to which he is now committed?” 43

37We now know what happened in reality with English identity and Brexit very closely associated. As a matter of fact, Englishness played an important role in Brexit:

  • 44 Bogdanor, V., 2019, p. 200.

English identity, however, may have been more strongly formed by resistance to Europe than by devolution to the non-English parts of the United Kingdom…in 2016, 64 per cent of those who felt ‘English not British’ believed that European Union membership was a bad thing, but only 28 per cent of those who felt ‘British not English’ believed it to be a bad thing. Brexit, therefore, was made in England. The greater the sense of Englishness, the greater the support for Brexit. 44

  • 45 Bogdanor, V., 2019, p. 201.

38And the referendum reinforced Englishness: “Brexit is likely to resurrect the English Question in British politics, strengthening the sense of Englishness but also the resentment of the non-English parts of the United Kingdom to the predominance of England which the Brexit referendum has emphasized.” 45

How the Leave camp used the issue of identity to win

Protecting English identity against the muslim threat

39In 2014, during the European parliament election, the most successful party was UKIP which won 27% of the popular vote, the first time a political party other than the Labour Party or the Conservative party had won the popular vote at a British election since the 1906 general election. Therefore, it is possible to say that the ideas developed in the party’s campaigns were accepted by a large number of people. And also it meant that the population was not convinced by the arguments of the traditional parties. The working classes had seen their life change dramatically and they did not understand that capitalism and globalization were to blame for that. Instead, following UKIP, they associated their social situation to mass immigration. The party insisted on the threat represented by immigrants, especially Muslims, on the nation, its culture and its identity. As a matter of fact UKIP:

  • 46 Winlow, S., Hall, S., Treadwell, J., 2017, p. 40-41.

rapidly shifted across the political spectrum as it learned to move beyond mere Euroscepticism to play on traditional concerns about nationhood, culture and the threats posed by immigrants. […] The number of immigrants coming in to the country had risen substantially, and many living in working-class neighbourhoods were keenly aware of this significant change and anxious about the future.46

  • 47 Winlow, S., Hall, S., Treadwell, J., 2017, p. 7.

40The EDL had the same preoccupations and the same wish to protect England and English identity from its enemies: “it maintains core principles founded on a dissatisfaction with immigration policies and a desire to mobilise against the spread of what it sees as the hostile and alien culture of radical Islamism. It hopes to defend the interests of the native population from the perceived threats posed by immigrants, multiculturalism and what it imagines to be the growing power and paramilitary forms of the Muslim faith in England.” 47

41Those who sympathised with the ideas of the EDL became UKIP voters so it is possible to say that the two movements were complementary. UKIP was popular and because of the insistence on immigration people did not realize that the party was not really defending the working class:

  • 48 Winlow, S., Hall, S., Treadwell, J., 2017, p. 148.

Many who supported the EDL but were unwilling to attend an EDL street protest made it clear that they would vote UKIP in coming elections because it was a party dedicated to putting an end to immigration. Few had any idea of UKIP’s broader policy agenda. Little knowledge was shown of its commitment to the neoliberal economic model or its desire to shrink the welfare state. In every case what mattered was its commitment to ending immigration. 48

42The working class has the impression that the EDL and UKIP speak for them because they are the only ones who fight against mass immigration and radical Islam:

  • 49 Winlow, S., Hall, S., Treadwell, J., 2017, p. 76.

The rapid rise of the EDL and UKIP appeared to suggest that things could actually change, and that political engagement might actually hold some interest after all. At last, they thought, men and women willing to disregard political correctness and interrupt the stultifying sameness of English politics were standing up and saying what needed to be said.49

The victory of communication

43The popularity of UKIP was also linked to the fact the party insisted on bread and butter issues, denounced the replacement of manual labour by new technologies, the rights given to ethnic and sexual minorities, multiculturalism and mass immigration. As far as the referendum was concerned, UKIP adopted a fusion strategy connecting the issues of immigration and EU membership. It is also interesting to note that in areas where the EDL was popular, support for the Labour Party has decreased significantly and UKIP has been the principal beneficiary of this shift. It seems that UKIP progressively replaced the Labour Party as the party of the working class and more particularly of the white working class. At the same time, a lot of right-wing conservative politicians used the notion of identity during the Brexit referendum campaign to seduce working class electors. They had understood that people were more liable to vote for candidates they feel close to. And to reach their goal they had a very specific communication strategy:

  • 50 O’Toole, F., 2019, p. 138-139.

It is striking that the two most crucial figures in the creation of Brexit, Johnson and Nigel Farage, are upper-middle-class men (one a well-heeled columnist, the other a stockbroker turned European political fat cat) posing through oral consumption as lumpen proletarian lads.50

44The Leave camp won because they managed to associate the Euroscepticism of a portion of the elite to the fear of immigration with its threats to English identity and traditional values experienced by the working class:

  • 51 O’Toole, F., 2019, p. 144-145.

Objectively, the great mystery of Brexit is the bond it created between working-class revolt on the one side and upper-class self-indulgence on the other. […]Brexit depended on an ostensibly improbable alliance between Sunderland and Gloucestershire, between hard old steel towns and rolling Cotswold hills, between people with tattooed arms and golf club buffers. 51

  • 52 Goodhart, D., 2017, p. 20.

45The fact that the issue of Englishness was crucial for the victory of the Leave camp is confirmed by a story told by Nigel Farage through which we clearly see the gap between those who felt that the country’s identity was threatened and those who are obsessed with political correctness and refuse to admit that immigration can be perceived as a danger by a large portion of the population, not just the working class: “The divisions can be seen in what we get angry about. When Nigel Farage complained about feeling uncomfortable in a train carriage with no English speakers in it, the outrage in Anywhere media reverberated for several days, but anecdotal evidence suggested that 60 or 70 per cent of the country thought what he said was just common sense.” 52

  • 53 Bennhold, K., 2017.

46On the whole, the Leave camp managed to be more convincing than their opponents because its communication was more present. First, people who were favourable to Brexit were more active on social networks and their message was very clear: get our country back. But Brexit was also won in the press and the issue of identity was central all along the campaign.53 Pro Brexit papers were more successful because they focused on emotions whereas pro remain papers insisted on the risks for the economy and relied heavily on experts’ opinions. Thus, voters, especially in the working class, could relate more easily to articles which associated the EU with open borders and massive immigration because for them more migrants meant fewer jobs and a stronger pressure on social services that were already struggling. During the campaign, immigration was omnipresent in the press with thousands of articles and many front pages, most of them in the pro Brexit newspapers. For a long time now, tabloids have used headlines focusing on immigrants and asylum seekers which were deliberately exaggerated in order to attract readers. Because they established a link between the EU and uncontrolled immigration, something which is not true, they encouraged the British public to vote for Brexit. The words and expressions used to describe asylum seekers presented them as dishonest people whose only objective was to benefit from the British public system: “asylum cheats”, “benefits tourists”, “scroungers”, “beggars”, “crooks”, “con”, “asylum rip-off”, “asylum gravy train”, “beat the system”, “milk the system”, “Britain is a soft touch”. Metaphors of flooding were very frequent: “flood”, “tide”, “tidal wave”, “tsunami”, “full to bursting”, “full up”. There were also terms from the semantic field of military operations such as “invasion” and “army of immigrants”.

47However, it is important to say that there is a disconnect between media coverage of immigration and objective figures because immigrants contribute more to the country’s economy with taxes than they cost in social help.


  • 54 Crick, B., 1991, p. 104.
  • 55 Crick, B., 1995, p. 180.

48In 1991, political theorist Bernard Crick said that the promotion of English identity had become an important political objective: “We English must come to terms with ourselves” and stop infusing “everything that is English into the common property of Britishness”. 54A few years later, in 1995, he said the answer was not less English nationalism but more. Like the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish, the English needed to develop “a self-confident and explicit national feeling”. 55We now know that with deindustrialization and unemployment English nationalism developed but maybe not in the way Bernard Crick suggested. As a matter of fact, English nationalism was mainly associated with a rejection of mass immigration especially in working class areas. This specific type of English nationalism played a very important role in Brexit:

  • 56 Wellings, B., 2019, p. 150-151.

The place of the Anglosphere in the referendum campaign illustrated the way that Brexit could be profitably understood as a nationalist project that sought to realign the United Kingdom’s place in the global order framed within powerful English national narratives. These narratives operated to legitimise a significant rupture in the British, European and global order and sought to provide a reassuring sense of continuity (in England).56

  • 57 Goodhart, D., 2017, p. 20.

49The referendum campaign revealed a country divided: over values, by class, generation, education and geography. And in a way, Brexit is the result of divisions that existed before and which had no link with the European Union: “The Brexit vote happened because over the past generation we have allowed ourselves to drift too far off into separate and barely comprehending cultural blocs – the two tribes that I have labelled Anywheres and Somewheres”. 57

  • 58 Groves, J., 2014.

50The disconnect between the population and the elites was used by the pro-Brexit newspapers to convince their readers that the European Union was depriving England of its sovereignty especially as far as immigration was concerned. 58

  • 59 Adams, R., 2018.

51The real culprit was economic liberalism but it was easier to blame foreigners who came to England and the pro-Brexit press never ceased to publish articles against mass immigration. Many working class people felt that their situation would never improve and that their children’s future was not really bright. As a matter of fact, the decline of the working class had been confirmed in higher education as early as 2013 when Universities minister David Willetts asked to treat white working-class boys like ethnic minority. As a matter of fact, they were less present in universities than the children of immigrants. Immigrants generally live in city centres, not far from universities, unlike white working class people who have been forced to move away. Statistics show that the situation has not really evolved for this group since 2013. 59

52According to some historians, Brexit is really a turning point in British history and corresponds to the real end of the empire. And for that reason, it will necessarily have an impact on the country’s identity:

  • 60 Gardner, A., 2017, p. 1.

Brexit can be seen as the culmination of the collapse of the British empire, and transformation of British identity […] so-called ‘peripheries’ can be more important than ‘cores’ in the creation of imperial identities and […] such identities can be simultaneously ideologically powerful yet practically fragile in the circumstances which follow imperial collapse. 60

Haut de page


Adams, R., ‘White working-class boys in England need more help to go to university’, The Guardian, 10 May 2018.

Andrews K., ‘Colonial nostalgia is back in fashion, blinding us to the horrors of Empire’, The Guardian, 26 August 2016.

Aughey, A., The Politics of Englishness, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007.

Bennhold, K., ‘To understand Brexit look to Britain’s tabloids’, New York Times, 2 May 2017.

Birch, A.H., Political Integration and Disintegration in the British Isles, London: Allen and Unwin, 1977.

Bogdanor, V., Beyond Brexit: Britain’s unprotected Constitution, London: I.B. Tauris, 2019.

Bragg, B., ‘Looking for a new England’, New Statesman, 17 March 1995.

Bragg, B., ‘Reclaim our flag’, Daily Mirror, 3 June 2002.

Cameron, D., PM’s speech at Munich Security Conference, 5 February 2011, <> (consulted 30 June 2021).

Cameron, D., In full: David Cameron statement on the UK’s future, 19 September 2014, <> (consulted 30 June 2021).

Coe, J., Middle England, London: Penguin, 2018.

Colley, L., ‘Does Britishness still matter in the 21st century – And how much and how well do the politicians care?’, Political Quarterly 78, 2007, 21–31.

Conway, D., ‘The Government’s new community cohesion and race equality strategy’, Civitas Review, 1:3, 2004, 1-3.

Crick, B., ‘The English and the British’ in Crick, B., (ed.) National Identities: The Constitution of the United Kingdom, Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

Crick, B., ‘The sense of identity of the indigenous British’ in Parekh, B., (ed.) ‘British national identity in a European context’, new community special issue, 21:2, 1995, 167-82.

Gardner, A., ‘Brexit, boundaries and imperial identities: a comparative view’, Journal of Social Archaeology, 2017, Vol. 17(1) 3–26.

Goodhart, D., The Road to Somewhere, The Populist revolt and the future of politics, London: Hurst & Company, 2017.

Groves, J., Britons 'too ignorant' for EU referendum: Top official says debate on Europe is so distorted that people could not make an 'informed decision', Daily Mail, 10 February 2014.

Jenkins, R., Social Identity, London: Routledge, 2014.

Jennings, W., Stoker, G., Warren, I., ‘Cities and towns: the geography of discontent’, Brexit and public opinion 2019, the UK in a changing Europe. <> (consulted 30 June 2021).

Kumar, K., The Making of English National Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Mandler, P., The English National Character, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

Marin, M., ‘The Englishness that dare not speak its name’ Daily Telegraph, 19 November 1999.

Marin, M., ‘It’s not just foreigners who find Britain a foreign land’, Daily Telegraph, 10 March 2001.

Marin, M., ‘England is waking up to the patriot game’, Sunday Times, 15 January 2006.

May, T., ‘Theresa May’s Keynote speech at Tory conference in full’, The Independent, 5 October 2016.

Minogue, K., ‘Introduction’ in West, P., The Poverty of Multiculturalism, London: Civitas, 2005.

Newman, D., ‘Borders and bordering: Towards an interdisciplinary dialogue’, European Journal of Social Theory 9(2), 2006, 171–186.

O’Toole, F., Heroic Failure, Brexit and the Politics of Pain, Chicago: Head of Zeus, 2019.

Scruton, R., England, An Elegy, London: Continuum, 2006.

Tournier-Sol, K., Prendre le large. Le UKIP et le choix du Brexit, Paris : Vendémiaire, 2017.

Ward, S., ‘The end of empire and the fate of Britishness’, in Brocklehurst, H., and Phillips R., (eds) History, Nationhood and the Question of Britain, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, pp. 242–258.

Wellings, B., ‘Empire-nation: national and imperial discourses in England’, Nations and Nationalism, 8:1, 2002, 95-109.

Wellings, B., English nationalism, Brexit and the Anglosphere, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019.

Winlow, S., Hall, S., Treadwell, J., The Rise of the Right, English nationalism and the transformation of working-class politics, Bristol: Policy Press, 2017.

Haut de page


1 Gardner, A., 2017, p. 10-11.

2 Marin, M., 2001.

3 Marin, M., 2006.

4 Scruton, R., 2004, p. 36-37.

5 Aughey, A., 2007, p. 114.

6 Goodhart, D., 2017, p. 2.

7 Winlow, S., Hall, S., Treadwell, J., 2017, p. 3.

8 Gardner, A., 2017, p. 13.

9 Jennings, W., Stoker, G., Warren, I., 2019, p. 54.

10 Scruton, R., 2004, p. 1.

11 Mandler, P., 2006, p. 229.

12 Mandler, P., 2006, p. 3.

13 Aughey, A., 2007, p. 133.

14 Mandler, P., 2006., p. 4.

15 Wellings, B., 2019, p. 93.

16 Bragg, B., 2002.

17 Wellings, B., 2019, p. 46.

18 Bogdanor, V., 2019, p. 198.

19 Bogdanor, V., 2019, p. 199.

20 Aughey, A., 2007, p. 107.

21 Wellings, B., 2002, p. 107.

22 Bogdanor, V., 2019, p. 200.

23 Cameron, D., 2014.

24 Birch, A.H., 1977, p. 142.

25 Aughey, A., 2007, p. 2.

26 Bragg, B., 1995.

27 Marin, M., 1999.

28 Conway, D., 2004, 1-3.

29 Minogue, K., 2005, p.XV.

30 Scruton, R., 2004, p. 4.

31 Goodhart, D., 2017, p. 2-3.

32 Cameron, D., 2011.

33 Coe, J., 2018, p. 85.

34 Coe, J., 2018, p. 213.

35 Coe, J., 2018, p. 102.

36 Coe, J., 2018, p. 154.

37 Winlow, S., Hall, S., Treadwell, J., 2017, p. 7.

38 Coe, J., 2018, p. 166.

39 Coe, J., 2018, p. 261.

40 Winlow, S., Hall, S., Treadwell, J., 2017, p. 84.

41 Winlow, S., Hall, S., Treadwell, J., 2017, p. 107-108.

42 Coe, J., 2018, p. 202.

43 Coe, J., 2018, p. 193.

44 Bogdanor, V., 2019, p. 200.

45 Bogdanor, V., 2019, p. 201.

46 Winlow, S., Hall, S., Treadwell, J., 2017, p. 40-41.

47 Winlow, S., Hall, S., Treadwell, J., 2017, p. 7.

48 Winlow, S., Hall, S., Treadwell, J., 2017, p. 148.

49 Winlow, S., Hall, S., Treadwell, J., 2017, p. 76.

50 O’Toole, F., 2019, p. 138-139.

51 O’Toole, F., 2019, p. 144-145.

52 Goodhart, D., 2017, p. 20.

53 Bennhold, K., 2017.

54 Crick, B., 1991, p. 104.

55 Crick, B., 1995, p. 180.

56 Wellings, B., 2019, p. 150-151.

57 Goodhart, D., 2017, p. 20.

58 Groves, J., 2014.

59 Adams, R., 2018.

60 Gardner, A., 2017, p. 1.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Youssef Ferdjani, « Brexit and the emergence of a new English identity »Observatoire de la société britannique, 28 | 2022, 47-65.

Référence électronique

Youssef Ferdjani, « Brexit and the emergence of a new English identity »Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 28 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 février 2023, consulté le 19 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Youssef Ferdjani

Université de Toulon

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Le texte et les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés), sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search