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Agnès Alexandre-Collier et Karine Tournier-Sol
p. 7-11

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1This special issue arose from a conference on “Identity divide(s) in post-Brexit Britain” held at the University of Toulon in March 2023. It was co-organised by the editors, with the support of the research centres Babel (EA2649) at the University of Toulon and Texte, Image, Langage (TIL, EA4182) at the University of Bourgogne, the MiDiB network and the Centre for Research in British Studies (CRECIB). Professor Maria Sobolewska did us the honour and pleasure of being our keynote speaker. She launched the conference, whose topic and theoretical framework owed much to the authoritative book she co-authored with Rob Ford, Brexitland. We were delighted with the conference, as the presentations proved to be stimulating and complementary, with the potential to form the basis of a future publication. We then looked to include additional contributions on areas which had not been covered during the conference. This special issue is the result of this collective work.

Theoretical framework

2Identity is everywhere and seems to have become the new buzzword in public and political debate in the UK (and beyond). The concept of identity encompasses various aspects such as cultural liberalism, ethnicity, territory, religion, gender or sexual orientation, hence causing conflicts and disagreements which encouraged scholars recently to suggest that British society had become the ground for new culture wars to emerge. This special issue aims to address this concept in its broadest sense and to embrace those different aspects together rather than separately, in order to examine how they complement, but also overlap and potentially collide.

3Recent academic and media interest has focused on the emergence of identity-based politics in the British political landscape, as blatantly illustrated by the 2016 Brexit referendum. The outcome of the referendum exposed and subsequently fuelled polarisation between two groups, Leavers and Remainers – two tribes with an irreconcilable world view, who seem to be divided along a new cleavage, defined by Sobolewska and Ford as an identity conflict between what they call “identity conservatives” and “identity liberals” (Sobolewska & Ford 2020). The divide between these two tribes, labelled by Goodhart as the “Somewheres” and the “Anywheres” (Goodhart 2017) revolves around specific values, as also reflected in the libertarian/authoritarian scale.

4Identity divides therefore appear as a new structuring factor, with values and cultural attitudes apparently replacing pre-existing traditional cleavages such as social class and economic redistribution (Norris and Inglehart 2019). The aim of this special issue is to explore these new divides, and the way they have affected public debate and restructured the British political landscape since 2016. The polarising dimension of identity politics, which divides society into in-groups and out-groups, also raises the question of its potential for disruption. Moreover, this identity conflict tends to play into the hands and fuel the rise of radical right parties and ideas. As it seems firmly embedded in British society right now, is this divide likely to be a permanent feature of the British political landscape?

Issue outline

5The special issue is divided into three parts, centred around various types of responses to the identity divide(s): first, party responses; second, elite responses; third, public attitudes.

6The first part explores the concept of identity and party responses to identity-based politics. The opening article by Françoise Orazi serves as a starting point for reflection, offering a solid exploration of the very notion of identity: this widely used term is a multifaceted concept, with conflicting definitions depending on the discursive contexts, four of which are examined in the article in order to delineate the concept of identity more precisely.

7In the following article, Emma Bell underlines the divisive dimension of identity politics and the need to think beyond the cultural divide to overcome this division. According to the author, focusing on cultural grievances alone will not be enough to address the demands for political and social recognition that drive identity politics. She looks into Conservative and Labour plans to address the underlying social and economic concerns that fuel what she sees as regressive identity politics.

8The third article by Karine Tournier-Sol explores how identity has been mobilised by the British right in recent years for electoral purposes. The whole Brexit sequence has brought identity issues to the forefront of the political and public debate, with right-wing parties as the main initiators and beneficiaries: playing the identity card turned out to be a successful strategy to mobilise voters across traditional party lines. She demonstrates that the current “culture war” narrative stimulated by the British right has to be seen as a mere continuation of Brexit, in a clear appeal to socially conservative voters.

9The second part of the special issue focuses on elite responses to the identity divide(s). Agnès Alexandre-Collier first narrows down the scope of analysis by focusing on the parliamentary elite in the Conservative Party. She studies the socio-demographic and ideological profile of the 24 MPs labelled as BAME (Black and Asian Minority Ethnic), elected or re-elected in December 2019, in order to understand the contradictory motivations of MPs who are torn between their belonging to an ethnic community, whose interests they are however not interested in promoting, and their ideological positioning in the party, which is generally pro-Brexit and anti-immigration. The article shows that most of these political actors, in responding to substantive (party values) rather than descriptive (their community) representation, find themselves at the heart of an identity dilemma between the image of diversity and inclusion that they tend to project, and the ideological uniformity produced by their discourse, ideas and values on the most dividing cultural and societal issues.

10In the following article, Jordan White draws on Rhetorical Political Analysis to delve into the rhetorical strategies employed this time by Home Secretaries Priti Patel and Suella Braverman. Building on Judi Atkins’ study of former Home Secretary and Prime Minister Theresa May, he identifies a common trend in the rhetorical strategies used by these three speakers. His study contributes to forming a clearer image of the in-groups and out-groups developed through their respective discourse. Opinion polls show that most of these policies seem to appeal to an important subset of Conservative voters, suggesting that both rhetoric and policies are tailored to a shrinking in-group of identity conservatives or “Somewheres”.

11The article by Annaëlle Prugneau offers a comparative study of governmental discourse between France and the UK. She analyses the way the French and British governments, from 2015 onwards, “renationalised” their approach to citizenship and the national community, in an attempt to respond to different crises, such as Brexit or terrorist attacks. The article compares the way France’s and Britain’s governments interpret, mobilise and respond to identity divides, through the analysis of their discourse and policies on citizenship, security and the fight against extremism.

12The third part of the special issue looks into public attitudes and voting behaviour. First, Donia Touihri-Mebarek focuses on Muslims’ attitudes towards Brexit, with the aim of trying to contribute to filling the research gap on ethnic and religious minority voters’ attitudes. She demonstrates that, despite being the religious group that was the most supportive of EU membership, the referendum has also created identity divisions amongst Muslims, with polarising factors such as their different perceptions of Europe and European identity, as well as issues pertaining to discrimination and Islamophobia, immigration and the economy. She argues that, beyond the divisions, Muslims’ attitudes towards Brexit were strongly correlated with the concept of ‘linked fate’, with the religious paradigm being an important predictor of Muslims’ voting behaviour. This tension between religious identity and attitudes towards EU membership reveals the extent of identity divides and the effect of multi-polarisation that it produces in British society.

13The article by William Allchorn then shifts the focus to the far-right, with the results of a pilot study designed to test counter-narrative effectiveness among far-right sympathetic audiences in the UK. As the author points out, the new identity politics has had the lasting effect of emboldening and mainstreaming radical right-wing tenets (namely, anti-migrant, anti-Islam and anti-multicultural) that were once fringe. Despite this renewed challenge and imperative from far-right extremist organisations and their concomitant attempts at inserting their viewpoints into the British political mainstream, there is a dearth of empirical data on what works and what does not to alleviate this divide. The research presented here by William Allchorn aims to address that: it was conducted to develop and test what messages, messengers and mediums work best to dial individuals back from hostile positions on Islam, migration, and multiculturalism.

14The following article by Nicolas Sigoillot looks into the role of social media in shaping and polarising public opinion. His study investigates the dynamics of political discourse and the perception of political caricatures within online communities hosted on, focusing on the subreddit r/PoliticalCompassMemes and its engagement with Brexit-related content. He examines the roles of various structural processes in shaping the cultural habits within these communities and how they shape political caricatures of Brexit identities. The political relevance of these caricatures is further explored via a comparison between field observations with surveys conducted within the communities. Finally, the article manages to unravel the complexity of online political discourse and demonstrate the potential for these virtual spaces to foster polarisation or reinforce existing ideological positions.

15In the last article, Mark Kay goes back to basics: he returns to one of the oldest divides, the rural-urban dichotomy from a local perspective. Using the city of Liverpool and its inhabitants as a focus of study, and building on field research, he considers the importance of place identity and place attachment in the 2016 referendum. The city is open to the world but with its resonant locale, it remains a ‘Somewhere’ place. That the people of Liverpool voted to remain in the European Union, that they did not vote for Brexit in the numbers that were expected should not be that surprising once local identity and sense of belonging have been taken into account.

16Observations made at the local level can finally be interpreted as a striking metonymy of the complexity and paradoxes of identity divides in post-Brexit British society that this special issue explores through different lenses.

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Goodhart, D., The Road to Somewhere: the New Tribes Shaping British Politics, Penguin, 2017.

Norris, P., Inglehart, R., Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit and Authoritarian Populism, Cambridge University Press, 2019

Sobolewska, M., Ford, R., Brexitland: Identity, Diversity and the Reshaping of British Politics, Cambridge University Press, 2020.

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Agnès Alexandre-Collier et Karine Tournier-Sol, « Introduction »Observatoire de la société britannique, 30 | 2023, 7-11.

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Agnès Alexandre-Collier et Karine Tournier-Sol, « Introduction »Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 30 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2024, consulté le 18 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Agnès Alexandre-Collier

Professeure de civilisation britannique à l’Université de Bourgogne

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Karine Tournier-Sol

Professeure de civilisation britannique à l’Université de Toulon

Articles du même auteur

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