Will Brexit break Britain, and would England care?

By James Cook
Chief News Correspondent for The Nine

Related Topics
media captionEnglish nationalism: 'Jog on', Scotland

Sleepy Boston is Brexit country.

Three quarters of voters in this Lincolnshire town cast their ballots to leave the EU, the highest rate in the UK.

Now many are fed up.

"I just wish it would hurry up and happen," says Kelly Coombs, with exasperation.

The greengrocer is proudly hawking "English cherries" from her fruit stall in the local market. Her wares are sweet but mention Brexit and the mood turns sour.

"We've been waiting and waiting and waiting and it's demoralising," she tells BBC Scotland's The Nine programme.

Locals call this county the vegetable basket of England but since the EU enlargement of 2004, when eight eastern European nations plus Malta and Cyprus joined the trade bloc, much of the produce has been picked and packaged by immigrants.

image captionKelly Coombs thinks England should dabble less in Scotland's politics

Ms Coombs, who says she pines for the "halcyon days" of the 1940s and 50s, insists her vote for Brexit had "absolutely nothing to do with immigration", although she immediately adds: "We do need to have a limit on that."

She goes on to contrast skilled labourers who want to work with others who, she says "sleep rough, throw beer down [their] necks and just take money".

So why did she vote to leave?

"Purely so that we go back to ruling our own country," she explains.

Which country, I ask.

"England," she replies instinctively, before quickly adding "UK, UK". She feels the need to clarify because "I can hear your Scottish voice".

And what if Brexit led to independence for Scotland?

Ms Coombs says she is relaxed about that.

"I don't think we should dabble in your politics and your economy so much. Same with Northern Ireland," she says.

image captionA majority of Conservative party members prioritise leaving the EU over preserving the union, according to a poll

The result of the European Union referendum on 23 June 2016 highlighted stark differences between the four parts of the UK.

England and Wales voted to leave the EU while voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland signalled their desire to remain.

This has apparently led to some confusion, with one voter in Lincolnshire telling us he was under the impression that Scotland would be staying as an EU member while England left. In fact, the decision applies to the United Kingdom as a whole.

Polling suggests that a strong correlation between English national identity and support for Brexit lies behind the differences indicated by the polling.

"National identity mattered strongly in this referendum," observes Jan Eichhorn of Edinburgh University, who asserts in an article published by the LSE that it is "rarely talked about to the same extent as questions of class or even age, although the divide is much more dramatic".

Separately, a recent opinion poll for YouGov sent shockwaves rippling through the constitutional debate when it indicated that a majority of Conservative and Unionist party members prioritise leaving the EU over preserving the union.

Some 63% of respondents said they would rather Brexit took place even if it led to Scottish independence, and 59% expressed the same view about Brexit leading to Northern Ireland leaving the UK.

image captionBoston had the highest rate of Leave votes in the 2016 referendum

Paula Cooper embodies both of these positions.

She is a Conservative county councillor who runs Boston's bubble car museum, a curious collection of charming vehicles made by firms such as the very English Bond and Frisky, and the very German Messerschmitt and Heinkel.

There is an air of nostalgia here harking back to a time with less immigration and much less sensitivity to race, as the Golliwogs on display and on sale suggest.

'Jog on' Scotland

"I think the politically correct brigade has made us almost petrified to say 'well, I'm English' because then you might be offending somebody," she says, adding, "I think people could do with stiffening up a tad and not be quite so ready to be offended.

"You know, if you're nationalistic then, 'oh you're right wing, you're dreadful', and maybe we need a little bit more national pride and a bit more of actually looking after our own identity."

A bit more nationalism, I ask.

"I don't think it would go adrift," replies Mrs Cooper. "It's a word that's been much abused."

And would Scottish independence be a price worth paying for Brexit?

"I'd hesitate to say anything like 'jog on', but that would be my first thought," she replies.

Jog on, did you say?

"Yes I did. If they feel that's the best position for them as a nation, as a country then probably that's the best thing they could do.

"It would be an awful shame, but we haven't always been united in the British Isles."

image captionPete Lubrano thinks an underlying nationalism has been stirred up by politicians

Instead of jogging on, we took to the water for a trip on a tourist boat down the River Witham to the cathedral city of Lincoln.

Among the passengers enjoying a refreshing breeze and a bacon butty is Pete Lubrano.

Now in his 60s, he was born in India to Italian parents and has lived in London since the age of five.

Mr Lubrano voted to remain but now reluctantly accepts that the democratic will of the UK is to leave.

So does he think English nationalism has played a part in Brexit?

"Unfortunately, I think it was a big part of it," he says. "You know, I think the spin was on the foreigners, so-called, coming over here 'taking our jobs' and so on.

"In reality they're just doing a job and they're contributing to the wealth of this country and they're doing work that the British people don't want to do, basically.

"I suppose there's always been that underlying nationalism. I think it's come more to the front now because certain political figures have stirred that up."

More on this story