On Friday morning, Britons awoke to the realization—either devastating or exhilarating, but certainly shocking—that their country had voted to leave the European Union. Pervading the speeches of politicians and commentators on both sides was a sense that the decision was unforeseen and the consequences unknown. The nation’s understanding of itself had been upended. As an editorial in the Guardian put it, “Britain’s place in the world must now be rethought. . . Once again, the country’s very idea of itself will have to be reimagined too.” Yet the Brexit vote was consistent with a long pattern in the British national idea.
For centuries, Britain has defined itself in opposition to its Others. The practice of Othering is a universal component of nationalism, as populist movements across the globe have shown. Yet more than their European and American counterparts, Britons historically have been reluctant to proclaim who they are. This creates an even greater need to proclaim who they are not—through internal colonialism, through anti-European sentiment, through global imperialism. The Brexit vote is the latest manifestation of this. But it may also be its undoing.
Britishness began as a political idea to overcome racialized internal divisions. In 1707, the Acts of Union created a single polity from two nations: the English, conceptualized as Saxon, and the Scottish, conceptualized as Celts. Constructing a sense of unity required overcoming linguistic and cultural barriers as well as histories of violence. The elite achieved this through internal colonialism, with English political and cultural dimensions dominating their Scottish counterparts. Yet Britishness remained little more than a political union, lacking the visceral attachment of cultural nationalism, without a more alien Other to unify its constituents.
The French Revolution gave greater salience to the idea of Britain. As the French citizenry coalesced around a set of grandiose ideals that eviscerated the old order, the contrast with Britain could not have been more apparent. Reflecting on the Revolution across the Channel, Edmund Burke rejected what he deemed the anarchy of nationalism and celebrated the anti-nationalism of his own people—who revered tradition and embraced the continuity of history. Proclaiming that Britons were not French, not revolutionary, not universalist, not republican suddenly made it much more apparent what Britons were. And in anti-nationalism, Britain found a national idea that could unify its fragmented constituents. The nineteenth century provided waves of upheaval on the Continent against which Britain could measure itself—the Second Empire, the revolutions of 1848, the Franco-Prussian War—and Britishness gained ever more salience in opposition to its European Others.
Overseas imperialism extended Britain’s rivalry with European powers. In contrast to the French, the British Empire was flaunted as “liberal, Protestant, maritime, and free”. Even more significantly, imperialism created a powerful new Other in Britain’s racialized colonial subjects. Thus, as Ann Stoler recounts, Britishness was constructed in the Empire—in clearly defined gender roles, constricting clothing, and rigid rules for interpersonal interactions—and the Victorian values it produced were imported to the metropolis. MacKenzie and Devine point out that Scots were among the most loyal and brutal of colonial civil servants; the Empire had made them irrefutably British.
By the end of World War II, Britain was a cohesive nation with a discrete set of values that could be measured clearly in opposition to its enemies and allies alike. Yet the end of that war, and the reconfiguring of the world order, shook the foundations of the British idea. Decolonization destroyed its spatial dimension, and postcolonial migration its racial dimension. Meanwhile, Britain’s European Others were now allies in the UN, NATO, and—with decisive support in Britain’s 1975 referendum—the European Economic Community. Certainly, there was backlash: the National Front rose to prominence in the 1970s on a platform of excluding Britain’s old Others. Yet much more pervasive was what Gilroy terms postcolonial melancholia: a vague, abiding fear that Britons no longer knew who they were.
The tide began to turn again in 1989: with the Rushdie affair many white Britons determined that British Muslims of South Asian descent were an internal Other who could never be assimilated into the nation. The years that followed seemed to confirm their fear: four years after 9/11, then-Chancellor Gordon Brown called for a discussion of “British values” that could unify a fragmented nation. Only four months later, the 7/7 London transport attacks by four native-born British Muslims brought greater urgency to the debate. Brown’s specific proposals—for a pledge of allegiance, a patriotic national holiday, and citizenship ceremonies—seemed empty, and were mocked in the press. Yet the subsequent rise of the overtly racist British National Party (whose membership was open to whites only until this was changed by court order in 2009), the English Defence League (whose members marched to “take back” Muslim neighborhoods), and, finally, the anti-Europe party UKIP revealed the latent significance of Britain’s old Others.
The result of the Brexit referendum was unexpected. But there’s nothing new about the idea of Britishness that it reveals. Those who voted to leave the EU are appealing to a well-established tradition of proclaiming their identity in opposition to European Others, and—given the Leave campaign’s degradation of Syrian refugees—in opposition to non-European Muslim Others. The irony of the Brexit result is that embracing Othering, an old tradition of Britishness, may well destroy Britain as a polity: the vote and its aftermath revealed deep cleavages in British society based on race, class, and age. Further, the vote revealed that England’s Others are no longer Scotland’s Others, and the latter once again seems likely to hold its own referendum on independence. If this happens, what remains of Britain will need to forge a new national idea.
The Leave campaign has fostered internal divisions and advocated a narrower, more homogeneous understanding of the British nation. But elsewhere, in safety pins and coalitions, there are rumblings of an alternative. Perhaps, in the aftermath of the referendum, Britishness will be based on that which its citizens choose to share, not those whom they choose to exclude.
 The 1707 Acts of Union were the single most significant development in the political history of the United Kingdom because they bridged a racial divide and united the island of Great Britain. Wales was included through its administrative incorporation into England, and Ireland through the 1800 Act of Union. Irish independence in 1922 gave the UK its present form.
Meghan Tinsley is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Boston University. Her research concerns collective memory and national identity in postcolonial Britain and France. Her work has been published in Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism and Postcolonial Studies