KREMER October 2020

Territorial dimensions of Brexit

by Cliff Hague


Much has been written about Brexit. Surprisingly little has been written about it from a territorial perspective. In the period since the 2016 referendum, the professional land use planning community in the UK has focused mainly on what it all means for the statutory planning system, e.g. in relation to environmental measures that derived from EU Directives.  Perhaps this is not surprising, given that planners in the UK have never really embraced the idea of territorial cohesion and development. Minds have been shackled by the centrally driven statutory planning system and its procedures.

Nor has Brexit attracted as much attention as might have been expected from territorial researchers across Europe. For example, the ESPON programme led development of territorial impact assessment (TIA) methods, but has not commissioned a TIA of Brexit, or Brexit territorial scenarios. Following the referendum, there was no major European conference of territorial researchers to analyse what was certainly the most significant territorial event since the enlargement of the Union back in 2004. 


In a paper in Géocarrefour ( I have sought to analyse Brexit through a territorial lens. There are several strands to my argument that Brexit represents the outcome of failures to deliver territorial cohesion. The fact that territorial cohesion itself is poorly understood has not helped. The late Jacques Robert (2007, p. 28) argued that territorial cohesion was a “multidimensional” concept, encompassing “promoting territorial capital and regional identities, increasing the propensity of regions to anticipate asymmetric shocks and to face successfully the challenges of globalization, providing services of general interest, and promoting intraregional integration.” Medeiros (2016, p. 6) reminded us that the meaning of “territory” fundamentally is about spatially delimiting sovereignty, jurisdiction, administration and citizenship. However, many discussions of territorial cohesion have been narrower or so broad as to lack meaning, and/or have stripped the concept of its connection to political power. In my paper I assert that “the most fundamental measure of the cohesion of a territory has to be the simple, binary one – does the territory hold together as a unit, socially, economically, culturally and politically, or does it fragment?”


Of course, there is more to Brexit than confused (and confusing) terminology. The remorseless logic of agglomeration has been strongly embedded in territorial analysis, both as explanation and as policy prescription. After the financial crisis of 2008, it became harder to preach territorial cohesion as a form of “balanced growth”. “Competitiveness” was prioritised, e.g. in the 2020 Strategy, along with rescuing the banks, e.g. through the Stability and Growth Pact. Such policies and public investment favoured the capitals and major urban centres, which are the heartlands of the banking industry and of Europe's most competitive sectors and businesses. Austerity to pay for it took investment away on a broadly universal basis from across whole territories.


Britain’s Brexit vote reflected this territorial geography, but with some important exceptions.  In broad terms the big urban centres were for Remain, but rural regions and even medium-sized towns within conurbation were for Leave. However all 32 voting areas in Scotland had a Remain majority. In Northern Ireland, 11 of the 18 voting areas, including all areas bordering Ireland, had a Remain majority. In Wales only five of the 22 voting areas voted by a majority to Remain. In England, Leave had the majority in most of the 310 voting areas. This suggests that that national identities and territorial politics within each of the four administrations shaped voting.


To probe this further, my paper analyses the territorial narratives behind the Leave vote, which proved persuasive in England but much less so in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Images of the UK figured strongly: Union Jacks, the National Health Service, and iconic landscapes and buildings, for example. Images of men dressed in black cutting through a barbed wire fence were juxtaposed with the statement that “Nearly 2 million people came to the UK from the EU over the last 10 years”. These narratives were the substance to the slogan “Vote Leave : Take Back Control”, which implied that Britain stood defenceless, having been robbed of its territorial security. This anti-immigrant / refugee ground had been well prepared by the newspapers, with headlines like “Migrants rob young Britons of Jobs”. From 2010 to 2016 the Daily Express ran 179 anti-immigration stories on its front page, and the Daily Mail ran 122. It was a call to anger and rebellion, simultaneously asserting the cohesion of UK/England while also attacking it.


The Brexit campaign built a narrative that, far from the UK being part of the European territory, the EU is a direct threat to the territorial cohesion of the UK. The EU was depicted as negating the territoriality of the UK, and in so doing enabling the destruction of its social cohesion (notably by taking money from the National Health Service); its economic cohesion (giving “British jobs” to migrant workers and facilitating relocation of businesses from the UK); and its cultural cohesion (through Islamic immigration). The relative failure of that message in Scotland and Northern Ireland and the big English cities emphasises the extent to which the referendum was the catalyst for what had previously been a hidden, even inchoate, English nationalism. It carried less appeal in, but stoked antagonism towards, places seeing economic benefits from agglomeration economies.


In summary, market-based agglomeration economies within today’s knowledge economies have possibly strengthened territorial cohesion at EU level within cities, through freedom of movement, increased connectivity and economic opportunities. However, those same economies have undermined territorial cohesion more generally by increasing the differentiation between thriving cities and more depressed old industrial areas, small towns and rural regions. In pursuing austerity and competitiveness as a response to the financial crisis of 2007/08, policy makers at EU and national levels exacerbated these tendencies, and prepared the ground for a fundamental negation of the cohesion of the EU territory by one (divided) member state.



MEDEIROS E., 2016, Territorial Cohesion : An EU Concept, European Journal of Spatial Development, vol. 60, April 2016, 30 p. Available from [accessed 21 July 2019].

ROBERT J., 2007, The Origins of Territorial Cohesion and the Vagaries of its Trajectory, in FALUDI A., (Ed.) Territorial Cohesion and the European Model of Society, Cambridge, MA, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, p. 23-35.



About the author

Cliff Hague is Professor Emeritus in Planning and Spatial Development at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. He led the UK's ESPON Contact Point (2001-2014), co-authored a number of ESPON reports, and has been a consultant to several INTERREG projects. He is a Past President of the Royal Town Planning Institute and of the Commonwealth Association of Planners. He is currently Chair  of the Cockburn Association (Edinburgh's Civic Trust) and is writing a book about his collection of football programmes.


Vote Leave brochure from the referendum
Vote Leave brochure from the referendum