Richard English

Some reflections from Richard English on Brexit, written on St Patrick's Day 2019.

Let’s start with the implications of minorities. Anyone who thinks about Irish history and its relationship to Britain knows something of all this. (Regrettably, of course, far too little thought in Britain was given to Ireland during the run-up to the Brexit referendum in 2016.)  Historically, Irish nationalists found themselves to be a minority within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; within Ireland, British unionists were a minority, except within the deliberately created Northern Irish context, within which northern nationalists were the ones outnumbered.  The outworking of all this has been relentlessly debated and addressed, with only very small minorities (Protestants in independent Ireland, for example) becoming politically insignificant.  

Put another way, significant minorities and their political opinions are unlikely to evaporate, and their opinions and politics will need to be addressed serious-mindedly if collective progress is to be made.  

Brexit again represents the politics of unfortunately-sized minorities. Across the UK in the 2016 Referendum, the size of the Remain minority was such as to make talk of ‘the British people having spoken’ somewhat crass.  Within each sub-UK national context (England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland) there were different contours to the minority – Remainer in the first two, and Brexiteer in the latter two.  Within the UK as a whole, one of the central problems for the UK since its foundation – the huge weight of English numbers as against those in the other three national arenas - made it all too easy for the English vote to decide issues for everyone, and for observers to confuse Brexit with English nationalism.

This latter issue is a crucial one. Clearly, in recent decades, a more pronounced sense of English national identity has become prominent. Equally clearly, there are some  whose politics are emphatically English-nationalist.  But the main vehicles for expressing Brexit politics - the United Kingdom Independence Party, for example – have not been English, but rather UKanian or British. And there have existed significant numbers of pro-Brexit voters who are neither English nor resident in England. In Northern Ireland, for example, the percentage of voters who voted for Brexit in 2016 was larger than the 2016 percentage of the northern population who said they sought a united Ireland. If, quite rightly, that latter view in favour of Irish unity is to be respected as serious, then the votes of pro-Brexit Northern Ireland people deserve equally not to be dismissed under a designation of Brexit as an expression of English nationalism.

One aspect of writing all this in Ireland is that, on this island, after many painful decades, it has become clear that victory in contexts of large minorities is likely to prove elusive. Instead, some form of dialogic compromise is almost certainly preferable to the rancorous and polarizing pursuit of clear victory for either side.

This is why – in Brexit Europe as in Donald Trump’s USA – what is required is far more political empathy than has been evident in recent debates. Understanding what the other person feels, and recognising an appropriate way of responding to that, does not require agreeing with that other person and their politics. But it does involve being more focused on understanding them than on refuting or dismissing or patronizing them. And it does involve a recognition that, in Oscar Wilde’s words, ‘Sooner or later in political life one has to compromise. Everyone does.’  Nobody in this Brexit imbroglio is likely to inherit the political world that they ideally want; the sooner that people begin to sketch out realistic ways of generating a jaggedly messy compromise, the better. And that involves listening to minorities.


Richard English is Professor of Politics at Queen’s University Belfast.  Views expressed here are personal, rather than institutional.


This article is part of an ongoing blog series ‘Brexit Countdown’ by the Political Studies Association (PSA) and Political Studies Association of Ireland (PSAI).  


To read the entire series, please see below:

  1. What’s the likely impact of Brexit on Higher Education in Northern Ireland? by Cathy Gormley-Heenan
  2. Brexit and a second Scottish Independence Referendum: What happens next? by Margaret Arnott
  3. What's the difference? British and Irish attitudes towards the EU by Kathryn Simpson
  4. Brexit and devolution in Wales by Roger Awan-Scully
  5. The Backstop: a ‘flexible and imaginative’ solution? by David Phinnemore
  6. Culture, the arts and Brexit by Kate Mattocks
  7. Brexit and implications for Scottish Devolution by Nicola McEwen
  8. Is Brexit propelling Northern Ireland towards Irish unity? by Katy Hayward
  9. Blair and Brexit by John O'Brennan
  10. The looming possibility of a retaliatory relationship between the UK and the EU by Will Phelan
  11. Brexit: Ethnopolitical dimension by Timofey Agarin
  12. Irish-British relations: Preparing for momentous change by Paul Gillespie
  13. Brexit, gender and Northern Ireland: Changing the state-society relationship by Yvonne Galligan
  14. Beyond the backstop: the DUP’s role in Brexit by Jon Tonge
  15. Brexit, political parties & power-sharing in Northern Ireland by Sophie Whiting
  16. Brexit and devolution in England: What's at stake by Arianna Giovannini
  17. What do people in Northern Ireland think about Brexit? by Jamie Pow and John Garry
  18. Brexit, diplomacy and defense by Ben Tonra
  19. Empathy, minorities and Brexit by Richard English
  20. Young people and Brexit: Not all that we think by Emily Rainsford
  21. Is the Backstop a Red Line Too Far? by Etain Tannam
  22. The UK's view of the EU by Simon Usherwood
  23. The invidious impact of Brexit on Ireland's policy landscapes by Mary C. Murphy
  24. Looking into the abyss: A European perspective by Brigid Laffan
  25. Britain after Brexit by Anand Menon
  26. Brexit as Political Irony by Feargal Cochrane
  27. The Brexit Countdown Series: Some concluding thoughts, and an appeal by Muiris MacCarthaigh and Feargal Cochrane