Nationalism, The Realignment of British Politics and the Future of the United Kingdom

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In this post, Brian Girvin University of Glasgow, argues that the 2014 referendum on independence in Scotland and the 2016 vote to leave the European Union has prompted a political realignment in Scotland and England, as well as destabilising the United Kingdom.

In just under a decade, British politics has been transformed. Nationalism and national identity have come to the fore or accelerated in the various United Kingdom (UK) nations. Two referendums have been the driving force behind this: the 2014 independence referendum in Scotland and the 2016 vote on whether to leave or remain in the European Union (EU). As a consequence of the referendums, political identity and party loyalty have been challenged in Scotland and England and this has had long term consequences in both nations. Another consequence has been the return of instability in Northern Ireland, exposing once again the salience of nationalist/sectarian divisions in the region. In Wales, often considered to be the nation most integrated into the British state, support for a referendum on independence has risen to thirty-one per cent while twenty-three per cent now support the independence option. Reinforcing these nationalist and secessionist attitudes is an increasing identification with the nation rather than the state. Majorities or significant pluralities identify with their respective nation rather than Britain (the state): England, Scotland, Wales or nationalist/unionist in Northern Ireland.[1]

At one level this might not appear surprising. Afterall, it has been well established that there are four distinctive political systems in the UK. Voting in each has local and specific characteristics and it is now rare for a particular party to dominate in more than one nation (Conservatives in England but not elsewhere; Labour in Wales but nowhere else). The notable feature in contemporary politics is the role that the nation plays, even if this is not the equivalent to secessionist nationalism. [2] Moreover, divisions within each of the nations now rest on constitutional questions, further emphasizing identity and nationality. While English identity remains more ambiguous, the strong trend over a thirty-year period had been for the erosion of British identity and its replacement with English identity as a core source of identity.[3]

But why did the two referendums have such an impact? Referendums are rare in the British political system, but not unknown. Both of these referendums were constitutional in focus. The outcome in each was zero-sum and the political consequences of each was destabilizing. In each case, the campaign provided the stimulus for nationalist mobilisation that had long term effects. Secession was the focus for both campaigns.

The two referendums have also prompted a realignment politically in Scotland and England, though not as yet in Wales or Northern Ireland.[4] The term realignment is used here to identity significant change in the party system, the emergence of new political cleavages and the appearance of a new dominant party in the system.[5] The most discussed example is the Roosevelt New Deal Coalition that appeared at the 1932 presidential election in the US, but other examples include Ireland in the 1930s, France during the late 1950s and more recently the BJP in 2014 and 2019 in India.

Realignment can also  be used in the UK without stretching its meaning or application. The most obvious example has occurred in Scotland. The Scottish National Party (SNP) won a majority at the 2011 parliamentary election, but this in itself did not constitute a realignment. It was always possible to see the Scottish electorate making complex choices in respect of different levels of governance within the UK. They could for instance vote for the SNP at Scottish elections, while voting for Labour or the Conservatives at UK wide elections (Westminster). The trigger for realignment was the mobilisation that occurred during the referendum on independence in 2014. While the secessionists lost the referendum, the mobilisation translated rapidly into enhanced electoral support for the SNP. The SNP replaced Labour as the dominant party in Scottish politics at every political level: state, national and local (the SNP was also the largest party at the European Election 2014). The party now attracts well over forty per cent of the vote at elections.

At the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections the SNP attracted 47.7 per cent of the vote and won 64 out of 129 seats. The once dominant Labour party now polls around twenty per cent of the vote, having lost voters to both the SNP and the Conservatives, reinforcing the sense that the constitutional issue is the major dividing line in Scottish politics. The 2021 elections highlight that Scotland is now fairly evenly divided between those who support independence and those who support the union. As might be expected the SNP receives little support from those who support the union, but what is most striking is that though the unionist camp is divided among three parties, their sympathisers voted strategically to deny the SNP an overall majority. [6]

A realignment is also taking place in England, although at an earlier phase. This realignment was prompted both by the Scottish referendum and by the 2016 vote to leave the EU. The 2014 referendum drew attention to what many English voters consider to be Scotland’s privileged position within the Union. The Conservative Party successfully warned voters at the 2015 general election that a minority Labour government would be dependent on the SNP, providing David Cameron with a majority in the election. Indeed, according to Henderson and Wyn Jones for many English nationalists Scotland was now seen as ‘other’ if not foreign.[7] Subsequently, Cameron introduced English Votes for English Laws to exclude non-English MPs from voting on laws that apply only to England. The outcome of the 2016 referendum also reflected a deep division between English voters, the majority of whom voted to leave the EU, and Scottish voters who voted overwhelmingly to remain.

The Conservative Party has benefitted significantly from these referendums and no where more so than in England. At the 2019 general election, which the Conservatives won handsomely, 94.5 per cent of the seats won by the party were in England. The party has also become the party of Brexit, especially since Boris Johnson became leader in 2019. Johnson fought the election with a commitment to ‘get Brexit done’, which had widespread appeal among English voters. A vote in favour of leave in 2016 remains a strong indicator for Conservative support in 2017, 2019 and in the local elections in 2021.[8] For example, the Conservatives in 2019 retained 92 per cent of those voters who supported leave in 2016 and voted conservative in 2017. Nor is the Conservative vote dependent on affluent and well-off voters any longer. This was certainly the case in the past, but the party now attracts voters across the various social classes and at the 2019 election outpolled Labour in the DE social category (semi and unskilled manual occupations and the unemployed). The English realignment is based on the Conservative Party’s national appeal and its emphasis on nationalist themes, such as sovereignty, the centralisation of political power, hostility to the EU and an emphasis on traditional cultural norms and values. While this may remake the Conservative Party, it also creates the basis for long term confrontation with Scotland, Northern Ireland and possibly Wales.

The nature of politics and political competition has changed significantly since 2014. Nationalism and national identity is varying forms have be come the main basis for mobilisation and political success. The Labour Party has been the main loser in England and Scotland. The Conservative Party in England and the SNP in Scotland now represent the main forces promoting nationalism in their respective regions. As a result, the future of the UK is in question not only from the secessionist SNP but from the reluctance of English nationalists to maintain it.



[1] The term four-nations is applied to the four main regions of the UK: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, Northern Ireland is complicated by two nations with distinct identities inhabiting the same territory.

[2] James G. Kellas, The Scottish Political System (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973); subsequent work by Kellas and others reinforced and expanded on this original insight; Laura McAllister and Roger Awan-Scully, ‘For Wales, Do not See England? An Analysis of the 2017 General Election’, Parliamentary Affairs 74: 1 (2021), 138-57

[3] Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones, Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 135-66 which compares the three nations and their differences and similarities. For a spirited defence of Britishness in the face of Scottish nationalism see John Lloyd, Should Auld Acquaintances Be Forgot (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2020).

[4] There is considerable uncertainty in Northern Ireland as a result of demographic and political change. It is possible that Unionism will become a minority force after the next election, with incalculable consequences; see Paul Nolan, ‘Running out of Road’ Dublin Review of Books,

[5] James L. Sundquist, The Dynamics of the Party System (Washington, D. C.: Brookings Institution, 1973)

[6] John Curtice, ‘The Constitutional Question Dominates: How Scotland Voted in 2021’, May 19, 2021 at; see also David McCrone and Michael Keating, ‘Questions of Sovereignty: Redefining Politics in Scotland?’ The Political Quarterly, 92: 1 (2021), 14-22


[7] Henderson and Wyn Jones, Englishness, 20-25

[8] John Curtice, ‘Its is not over yet – Brexit and the May 6 Elections’,

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