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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > August 2016 > Who are we?

Who are we?

The “Remain” side thought the EU referendum was all about economics. It was really about how we define ourselves as a nation

The result of the referendum on the European Union was surprising, not only because the opinion polls and bookies did not predict it, but because the factors which gave rise to it have been held off the agenda for so long that hardly anyone was prepared to discuss them. Subsequent bitterness and disillusion have begun to bring those factors to the surface and it seems to me imperative that we discuss them now, so that we can go forward in a spirit of national unity.

I have already used two question-begging words, and indeed the very words that lie at the heart of the conflict between those who voted “remain” and those who said “leave”: the words “we” and “national.” It is we who made the decision, but who are we, and what justifies the use of the first-person plural? If we think of ourselves as a nation, then which nation do we have in mind, and how do we square the outcome of the vote with the fact that England and Wales chose “leave,” while Scotland and Northern Ireland opted for “remain”? Indeed, on some readings of the event, it is no longer possible, a er the vote, to think of the United Kingdom in national terms at all. Perhaps it is true that those who voted “leave” were expressing their attachment to an older form of collective identity—the “we” of the nation, shaped and hardened by European wars—while those who voted “remain” were identifying with a global, outward-looking project that has the abolition of nations as its dominant aim. But it has not been true for a long time that the UK is a single national entity: it is at best a group of nations under a single sovereign, now being pulled apart by Europe’s gravitational field.

Although the Scottish people voted to remain in Europe, the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon sees this as a vote for national independence rather than a vote to be governed from Brussels. And while it is true that the question of identity—of who “we” are—was at issue in all parts of the Kingdom, the “leave” vote was more about self-government and sovereignty than any articulate idea of nationhood. The English and Welsh have little desire to separate from the kingdom that includes them, or to make national identity into the source of government. Rather they objected to being bossed about by people whom they had not elected.

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In Prospect’s August issue: Rachel Sylvester argues that the EU referendum has started a re-alignment of British politics while Roger Scruton and Jay Elwes say that it has thrown Britain into a bout of self-examination with the fundamental question of who we are as a nation at its centre. In addition, Peter Mandelson says without reform the EU could fall victim to a populist uprising. Also in this issue: Philip Ball explores quantum entanglement, George Magnus looks at the political situation in Brazil ahead of the Olympics and Adam Mars-Jones unpicks the work of Steven Spielberg. James Cusick looks at the impact of the Chilcot report and Kathy Lette explains what the world would be like if she was in charge.