My 350 on BREXIT: The break-up of Britain – finally

"How can the UK be kept together with this degree of regional/national polarisation?"

Atsuko Ichijo
5 July 2016

The largely unexpected result of the EU referendum on 23 June has been a source of deep anguish for those who wanted the UK to remain in the EU. While there was a big protest against the result in London yesterday, as Teresa May put it, ‘Brexit is Brexit’: the UK is going to leave the EU and whatever measures available to ease the pain have to be taken up.

There are reports that some UK nationals living outside the UK are rushing to obtain a passport of other EU member states in order to retain their rights to live and work in EU territories. Even before the referendum, it was reported that some UK nationals started to apply for citizenship of the Republic of Ireland on account of their ancestry because of the fear of Brexit.

The trend has apparently gathered such a momentum that the Irish foreign minister had to put out a statement asking Britons to stop applying for Irish citizenship. Are they all going to emigrate to Europe? Probably not, but this may turn out to be one solution for the ‘problem’ of immigration; the country may simply need more people to make up for those who have left.

From a more professional point of view, the Brexit vote has also shed light on the very quaint nature of the UK state. Of course, this realisation is nothing new: a long time ago, Tom Nairn described the UK state as an ‘archaic state’, a polity which had not gone through standard political modernisation in the form of revolutions or regime change which comes after losing a war, in his The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism (1977, New Left Books). While his prediction of the break-up of Britain made in 1977 was widely ridiculed as premature, the EU referendum result finally vindicates him: a second Scottish independence referendum is very likely and when it is held, most likely the SNP will win (and many remainers will go and apply for Scottish citizenship).

Northern Ireland will face turmoil if a hard border is erected between it and the Republic. London is going to be more and more alienated from the rest of the UK (or what is left of it). Will there be a movement to seek independence for London as a city state? A new Singapore in the West? How can the UK be kept together with this degree of regional/national polarisation?


The archaic nature of the UK state is reflected on the conundrum of putting Brexit in place. In the UK with parliamentary sovereignty, the referendum is not legally binding but advisory because sovereignty is vested in Parliament through the ‘Crown-in-Parliament’ with the monarchy, the sovereign, forming an integral part of the institution of Parliament.

In other words, in order to carry out the will of people, MPs have to legislate whatever is necessary to pull the trigger, to enable the Prime Minister to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

Given that the majority of MPs are remainers, there is a tantalising but highly unlikely prospect of Parliament’s refusing to pass the bill that is necessary to start the process of the UK’s exit from the EU. And it is reported that lawyers are looking into this prospect.

People have spoken but it might be contradicted by the institution (which is supposed to represents people’s voice) where sovereignty really resides. What an odd conception of popular sovereignty and democracy. The result of ‘evolution, not revolution’, of centuries of ‘muddling through’ and of the archaic nature of the UK state.

Is this the end of the archaic UK state? A long-overdue dismantling of the myth of the superiority of the UK polity? At least on the professional level, Brexit provides some exciting stuff to chew over. 

In the aftermath of the historic British vote to leave the EU, openDemocracy is asking for our readers' thoughts on Brexit and what needs to happen next in 350 words. We've had an extraordinary response and you can read them all here.

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