Why irredentism explains Brexit

IRREDENTISM is any political or popular movement intended to reclaim and reoccupy an area that the movement’s members consider “lost” or “unredeemed”. Most people know the concept, but not the word. It matters because it explains most, if not all, of the current Brexit debate.

The Balkans is the textbook example of the topic. Ideas of identity, nationality and language are emotional boiling points, as land taken, homes burned and ethnicities repressed happened within living memory.

Spain’s long-simmering claim to Gibraltar or the Troubles in Ireland are the irredentist issues most British people are aware of. Historical, legal, and ethnic issues form the basis of irredentist claims. Whatever one’s personal opinion, or indeed what the facts say, there is always enough subject matter to shape an argument any which way you like.

Brexit is very founded on the same logic. Even for the most devout Leave acolytes, it’s tough to paint the EU as a monster subsuming British land and interests. It ignores that Britain voluntarily ascended to the European Economic Community in 1973 under Conservative PM Ted Heath, and later held a referendum in 1975 under Labour PM Harold Wilson to decide if we wanted to stay.

Nevertheless, irredentism is the best mindset to understand and explain Brexit rhetoric which is so vitriolic as to suggest an outright occupation of Britain. ‘We demand our sovereignty back’ and ‘Berlin finally conquered us’ are all chants summoned during the referendum and in jubilation now.

What’s worse, is it’s impossible to call it a false narrative. Like nationalism, irredentism depends on interpretation to succeed.
It’s the primary reason that both can be so insidious in the hands of the wrong master and why there are very few resolved irredentist claims.

The hostility of some in the UK to the European Union isn’t British nationalism, it’s British irredentism. The EU may not have raped, murdered or plundered, but those who voted Leave are demanding comeuppance for lost British sovereignty that they feel was unfairly taken away.

If you’re trying to understand the levels of acrimony, irredentism is the best way to see and feel how the Brexit camp views the EU. Their argument is about much more than a desire for Britain to succeed, it’s founded on hatred on par for lost lands and a stolen future. And they won’t let go. All that can be done is to see past the rhetoric and find the motivations which govern their passions.

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Alastair Stewart 276 Articles

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer, journalist, and teacher based in Edinburgh and Almería. He regularly writes about politics, history, and culture for magazines across Europe.


He was formerly a press officer at the Scottish Parliament. He graduated from Edinburgh University with an MA in International Relations.


Alastair founded DARROW in 2013 to support new and emerging writing talent in Scotland around the world.

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