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The Breakup of Britain: Devolution, the EU and Brexit

Questions to prepare for seminar:

  1. What held the United Kingdom together in the twentieth century; what divided it; at what point if any has it threatened to break up?
  2. To what extent has Britain become part of Europe since the Second World War? What has encouraged this process? What has held it back?

Core Reading:

  • Timothy Garton Ash, ‘Why Britain is in Europe’, Twentieth Century British History, 17 (2006), 451-63.
  • Stephen Howe, ‘”Internal Decolonisation”: British Politics since Thatcher as Post-Colonial Trauma’, 20th Century British History, 14 (2003), 286-304.
  • James Dennison & Noah Carl, ‘The Ultimate Causes of Brexit: History, Culture and Geography’
  • Gurminder K. Bhambra, 'Locating Brexit in the Pragmatics of Race, Citizenship and Empire’, in William Outhwaite (ed.), Brexit: Sociological Responses (Anthem Press, 2017).


Further Reading:

  • On the prospect of a break-up of Britain: Andrew Marr, The Day Britain Died (2000).
  • On the weakening of multinational ties towards the end of the century: Tom Nairn, The Break-Up of Britain (1977); Andrew Marr, The Battle for Scotland (1992); D. Marquand, ‘How United is the Modern United Kingdom?, in Grant & Stringer, Uniting the Kingdom?; Christopher Harvie, Scotland and Nationalism (2000).
  • On relations earlier in the century: J. Turner, ‘Letting Go: The Conservative Party and the End of the Union with Ireland’, in Grant & Stringer, Uniting the Kingdom?; J. Finlay, 'National Identity in Crisis: Politicians, Intellectuals and the "End of Scotland", 1920-1939', History (1994), 242-59; R. Finlay, ‘Pressure Group or Political Party? The Nationalist Impact on Scottish Politics, 1928-1945’, Twentieth Century British History, 3 (1992); C. Harvie, Scotland and Nationalism (1977); C. Harvie, No Gods and Precious Few Heroes: Scotland 1914-80 (1981); James Loughlin, Ulster Unionism and British National Identity since 1885 (1995); G. Williams, When was Wales? (1979); R. Merfyn Jones, ‘Beyond Identity: The Reconstruction of the Welsh’, Journal of British Studies, 31 (1992), 330-57; J. Ellis, ‘Reconciling the Celt: British National Identity, Empire and the 1911 Investiture of the Prince of Wales’, Journal of British Studies, 37 (1998). More generally: B. Crick, National Identities: The Constitution of the United Kingdom (1991); A. Grant & K. Stringer (eds.), Uniting the Kingdom? The Making of British History (1995).
  • On the hidden subject of Englishness: E. Evans, ‘Englishness and Britishness: National Identities, c. 1790-1870’, in Grant & Stringer, Uniting the Kingdom?
  • For a long term perspective on the ‘other’ as a unifying force: Linda Colley, 'Britishness and Otherness', Journal of British Studies, 31, 4 (1992); and focusing on an earlier period her Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (1994).
  • On the blending of cultures as a unifier: K. Robbins, Nineteenth-Century Britain (1988); also his ‘An Imperial and Multinational Polity, 1832-1922, in Grant & Stringer (eds.), Uniting the Kingdom?
  • On the European factor: Geoff Eley, 'Culture, Britain and Europe', Journal of British Studies, 31 (1992), 390-414; Stuart Woolf, 'Britain and Europe: Off-Shore or On-Board?', History Today (January, 1999), 8-15; J.G.A. Pocock, 'History and Sovereignty: The Historiographical Response to Europeanization in Two British Cultures', Journal of British Studies, 31 (1992), 358-89; K. Robbins, ‘Insular Outsider? British History and European Integration’ and ‘Images of the Foreigner in Nineteenth and Twentieth-Century Britain’, in his History, Religion and Identity in Modern Britain (1993); S. Greenwood, Britain and European Integration since the Second World War (1996); A. May, Britain and Europe since 1945 (1998); H. Young, This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair (1998); T. Kushner, We Europeans? Mass-Observation, ‘Race’ and British Identity in the 20th Century (2004).
  • The increasingly fragile United Kingdom of the end of the century has arguably had a major impact on the writing of our national pasts. For an overview: R. Samuel, ‘Four Nations History’ in his Island Stories, pp. 21-40. For case studies of the ‘Celtic’ parts of the kingdom: B. Bradshaw, ‘Nationalism and Historical Scholarship in Modern Ireland’, Irish Historical Studies, 26 (1989); R.J. Finlay, ‘New Britain, New Scotland, New history? The Impact of Devolution on Scottish Historiography’, Journal of Contemporary History, 36 (2001), 383-93; G. Williams, ‘When was Wales?’ in his The Welsh in their History (1982). Looking towards an ‘unravelling of Britain’ which extends to an English ethnicity: R. Samuel, ‘Unravelling Britain’, in his Island Stories, pp. 41-73. On the Irish in Britain (is Irish History part of British history?): R. Swift & S. Gilley (eds.), The Irish in Britain 1815-1939 (1989); and for the interconnectedness of Irish and English history: R. Foster, Paddy and Mr Punch: Connections in Irish and English History (1993). For attempts to recast British history accordingly: H. Kearney, The British Isles: a History of Four Nations (1989); and N. Davies, The Isles: A History (1999). How far however, is such a shift evident in the latest major history of ‘Britain’ in the twentieth century: P. Clarke, Hope and Glory: Britain 1900-1990 (1996)? For histories which focus on the other national histories: K.O. Morgan, Wales: Rebirth of a Nation, 1880-1980 (1981); R. Foster, Modern Ireland, 1600-1972 (1988).
  • There has been a spate of books about Brexit coming out over the last couple of years. Historians should approach them critically, not simply because of the strong partisanship that inevitably shapes all of them, but also because of the rapid pace of ongoing events which necessarily prevent a historical perspective. Your best bet is to look for books published by university presses such as Benjamin Martill & Uta Staiger, Brexit and Beyond: Rethinking the Future of Europe [UCL Press, online open access]; Tim Oliver, Understanding Brexit: a Concise Introduction (Bristol University Press, 2018); Harold Clarke, Matt Goodwin and Paul Whiteley, Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
  • There is also an important emerging literature on the "new nationalism" and it's complicated relationship to race and class: Gurminder K. Bhambra, 'Brexit, Trump and "Methodological Whiteness": On the Misrecognition of Race and Class', British Journal of Sociology 68 (2017), 214-232;Sivamohan Valluvan, ‘The Uses and Abuses of Class: Left the Nationalism and the Denial of Working-Class Multicultural’, The Sociological Review, 67:1 (2019), 36-46; Sivamohan Valluvan, The clamour of nationalism : race and nation in twenty-first-century Britain (Manchester University Press, 2019).