There are lots of productive ways to analyse Brexit – why it happened, how it’s developing, and how it might turn out. One of the most interesting is to use the idea of an identity to understand both why the process is proving so painful for the UK, and also why the rest of Europe still seems so confused about why the UK is engaging in this process at all.
Identity is one of those concepts that we’re all familiar with on the surface, but would probably struggle to define. Here, we’re going to define it broadly as the image an actor has of themselves. We all imagine ourselves to be a certain person – an image we make up of lots of individual components. We are English, we are a Grimsby Town fan, a gamer, and so on. Those components are what we call roles, and together they create our identity.
Countries, such as the UK, have identities too. They imagine themselves to be some things, and tell themselves and others that they are those things. Comb through the speeches of any British politician and you’ll find an argument as to what the UK is, and what it can be, based on that imagined self. For example, see Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech in January 2017, where she laid out her plan for Brexit. She argued that the UK’s “history and culture is profoundly internationalist”, and that that positioned it very well to build a “truly global Britain”.