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HomeIssues XXVII-2The State of the Union 

The State of the Union 

L’État de l’Union - Introduction
Stéphanie Bory and Fiona Simpkins

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1The results of the June 2016 European referendum have presented the United Kingdom with a number of significant economic, political and legal conundrums which question both its constitution and the integrity of the British union. The process of leaving the European Union after over 40 years of integration involves a hitherto unique disengagement from a codified to an uncodified system and challenges the fundamental principle of parliamentary sovereignty with that of the sovereignty of the people. Yet the popular vote was itself marked by an almost mid-way split in the electorate as well as stark geographical differences between the UK nations and regions. Rather than expressing the settled will of the people, it has created a deeper divide within Britain among nations, social identities, generations, urban and rural areas. The expressed will of the people over Britain’s future has indeed been characterised by deep cultural, demographic, and social divisions which Peter Dorey analyses in turn. Notwithstanding the repercussions of the vote on the cohesiveness of Britain’s social fabric, the confrontations between Conservative governments and Parliament in the wake of the 2016 referendum have also brought to light the tensions inherent to the UK’s unwritten constitution which have been triggered by the withdrawal process. These include some of the most fundamental constitutional issues, including the separation of powers, devolution, and the protection of fundamental rights, as illustrated by the articles proposed by Aurélien Antoine, Damien Connil, Marion Del Bove, and Elizabeth Gibson-Morgan.

2With increasingly divergent political debates and campaigns in each of the four UK nations, this issue aims to reassess the unitary nature of the United Kingdom and explore the conflicting interpretations of the nature of the Union which emerged in 1707 and failed to be bridged by the introduction of devolution in the late 1990s. To what extent does the Westminster model advocated by Brexiteers today clash with a plurinational understanding of the Union in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland? How do unionism and European Union membership fit with a distinct Scottish tradition of shared and divided sovereignty? These differing visions of the nature of the state would appear to have found an echo in the debate over the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union and mirror the increasingly distinct political landscapes of each nation. These have led some political commentators to question the continued existence of British party politics in an “electorally disunited kingdom” and the future integrity of the United Kingdom, a topic dealt with by Philip Rycroft, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union from 2017 to 2019. Contributors including Edwige Camp-Piétrain, Juliette Ringeisen-Biardeaud, and Philippe Cauvet investigate to what extent the Brexit process could accelerate the centripetal movement of divergent electoral patterns as it threatens the current devolution settlements and the peace process in Northern Ireland. While control of competences heretofore held in Brussels is now contested between the UK government and the devolved legislatures, Brexit also questions the cross-border governance arrangements established by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Françoise Orazi’s article on the “the theoretical intangibility of nation and nationalism” allows readers to question the issue in the four nations of the United Kingdom while Alice Bonzom reveals that discourses of identity and otherness already pervaded Victorian and Edwardian Britain.

3British general elections in the past twenty years have been characterised by unprecedented levels of volatility and fragmentation. The 2010 and 2017 general elections both resulted in hung parliaments and only half of voters backed the same party in the three elections between 2010 and 2017 according to British Election Studies. With Brexit slicing through traditional political alliances, the left/right political spectrum has lost much of its relevance and the general elections of December 2019 were in turn marked by the ripple effects of the European referendum. Smaller parties seized on the polarisation of UK politics with the Liberal Democrats arguing in favour of revoking article 50 and cancelling Brexit, the SNP pledging to secure an independent Scotland in the EU and the Brexit Party calling to leave the EU without a deal. Yet, Dennis Kavanagh argues that the real significance of the December 2019 general election results was to reinforce electoral trends that had been at work for some years thus emphasizing the idea that Brexit is only a part of a package of traditional values and policy preferences. This issue will therefore seek to shed some light on the current divisions within political parties in Britain over policy and strategy and question the current polarisation and fragmentation of the British electorate. While Alma-Pierre Bonnet focuses on the impact of Brexit on the Labour party’s electoral results in the December 2019 general election, Youssef Ferdjani, Karine Tournier-Sol and Jeremy Tranmer analyse the rise of populism, the far-right and the far-left of the political spectrum in the context of Brexit.

4Policy remained on the forefront of voters’ preoccupations as they went to the polls in December 2019 with both main parties appearing reluctant to compromise. Labour campaigned on the most left-wing platform in a generation, pledging to reverse the Conservatives’ programme of fiscal austerity, proposing the creation of a “national investment bank”, bringing utility companies back into public ownership or abolishing private schools. The Conservatives on the other hand pledged to increase police forces and introduce longer jail sentences for convicted criminals, but also promised to invest in an “infrastructure revolution” with generous spending for transport, schools and the NHS. Raphaële Kilty-Espiet analyses the Conservative party’s pledge to unite the country by bringing opportunity and wealth in every corner of the United Kingdom through its Levelling Up strategy while Anémone Kober-Smith questions the future of the NHS and the social care sector in light of Conservative policy. After years of austerity, public services were therefore at the heart of the 2019 electoral campaign and this issue investigates approaches to public service delivery and their impact on the institutions which underpin the British Welfare state, one of the main pillars of the British union.

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Stéphanie Bory and Fiona Simpkins, The State of the Union Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique [Online], XXVII-2 | 2022, Online since 15 June 2022, connection on 27 September 2022. URL:; DOI:

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Stéphanie Bory

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Fiona Simpkins

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