Nationalism, Nukes & Neighbours: The Nuclear consequences of Brexit

So, the day is Thursday 23rd June 2016 and Britain has voted to leave the European Union, a  large international organisation of 28 member-states, with which it has been a member of since 1973.

The event has been described as “historical” and as “important as the falling of the Berlin Wall”.[1] And yet, unlike the Scottish independence referendum, little has been discussed (as far as I can tell) about the nuclear implications of this dramatic, divided and historical exit. 

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First, foremost and generally, the Brexit referendum will change the outlook on ‘British history’ forever. For my entire academic career I have envisioned a new perspective on ‘generalised’ British history, following the suit of Hugh Kearney’s “four nation” theory.[2] The results of the referendum firmly demonstrate that the United Kingdom is united no more, and it must be seen as a number of nations, and cultures, that co-exist within the country.

Scotland and Northern Ireland have demonstrated completely different agendas to that of Wales and England. And within England, new divisions are becoming obvious.[3] Whereas many would split the country across the middle, dividing it as “South” and “North”, these two divides (usually disagreeing over Conservative or Labour) have come together against the British capital, London, which opted to ‘Remain’ in the EU.

Thus, perhaps historians must now look at the United Kingdom as at least five different individual cultures and “nations” with unique, fluid agendas, roles and communities: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Northern England, Southern England and London. 


This may also be the last few years in which historians may look upon Britain as multiple nations as it seems likely the United Kingdom may split apart in the wake of Brexit. With  resurgence of nationalism and the differing votes, division is the word of the hour, and it seems a second Scottish independence referendum will likely take place in the coming years, and Scotland will gain its independence.[4]

Furthermore, it seems likely Northern Ireland will consider leaving the UK, as talks for Irish reunification have resurfaced.[5] Perhaps most surprisingly however, London seems to have an agenda to separate itself from the rest of England to maintain European connections.[6]

Thus, as the United Kingdom is torn apart in the chaos of Brexit, the currently heavily generalised terminology of “British nuclear culture” shall also be subsequently torn apart in historiography.


The European Union was created in the aftermath of World War Two, designed to counter extreme nationalism, enforce unity and create beneficial trade.[7] While the EU was not created with military intentions, it was created from military intentions, and has forges strong alliances across Europe. Thus, it is likely that once Britain leaves the EU, and many trade agreements no doubt suffer, military strength will become more important for the island in order to maintain its global voice.

Nuclear bombs are still the language of the strong. Although this of course does not necessarily mean that Britain will suddenly start creating more nuclear bombs, but it does mean we may perhaps become more dependant on them in the future.

Other international organisations such as the UN, and more specifically NATO, will become more important to Britain in gaining an independent, global voice. As nationalism and anxiety continuously climbs in the wake of many terrorist and racial attacks in recent weeks, the need for military (and perhaps nuclear) strength will become more prominent. 

Furthermore, the EU will no longer provide nuclear security to Britain, in the form of other allies with nuclear weapons i.e. France and free movement for nuclear subs around Europe, and in nuclear industry as it is likely that Britain will no longer benefit from the European Atomic Energy Commission.[8] Although how this will effect British nuclear industry is yet to be seen.


Render of the proposed Hinkley Point C nuclear power station which now may not be able to go ahead in the aftermath of Brexit. [9]

As previously stated, with the British vote to leave the EU, it is now likely that Scotland will gain independence, and this has very real and dramatic implications for Britain’s nuclear weapons. Britain’s key nuclear weapons system, Trident, which is currently undergoing renewal, is stored in Scotland, Faslane.

During the Scottish independence bid in 2014, Scotland made it clear that they did not want nuclear weapons anymore, and intended to get rid of them. Nicola Sturgeon, leader of SNP, which politically dominates Scotland, is a supporter of the anti-nuclear movement.[10] Thus, England may find itself in the same situation it was in during 2014 – What do we do with our bombs if we can’t keep them in Scotland.

According to Hugh Gusteron, it is likely Trident will be placed in France, America or one of three locations in Britain.[11] However, with the stigma and tensions that have come hand in hand with Brexit, particularly with France, it may be more likely that England will have to keep its nuclear weapons on its own turf.

If so, we may see a resurgence in nuclear anxiety as communities, towns and villages campaign to protect their homes from being in proximity to the weapons. There was a great increase in nuclear anxiety in the 50s, and again, thirty years later in the 80s.[12] So perhaps it is only natural for there to be a resurgence another thirty years later in the  2020s, when Brexit will have likely completed it’s course.

In conclusion, Brexit does have some serious nuclear implications for the UK and it will be interesting to observe what effect, reaction and consequences it will inevitably lead to.



[1] Brexit ‘most important moment since Berlin Wall’: Le PenBBC News, 28 June 2016. [accessed July 2016]

[2] Hugh Kearney, The British Isles: A History of Four Nations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

[3] Brexit, the divide between generationsBBC News, 29 June 2016, UK votes to leave EU after dramatic night divides nation, The Guardian, 24 June 2016, Brexit: Just how divided is Britain? BBC News, 27 June 2016 and How would Brexit affect Scotland and Northern Ireland? The Telegraph, 20 June 2016 [all accessed July 2016]

[4] Brexit: Nicola Sturgeon says second Scottish independent vote ‘highly likely‘, BBC News, 24 June 2016 [accessed July 2016]

[5] Sinn Féin calls for vote on Irish unification if UK backs Brexit, The Guardian, 11 March 2016 [accessed July 2016]

[6] Petition for London Independence signed by thousands after Brexit vote, BBC News, 24 June 2016 [accessed July 2017]

[7] John McCormick, Understanding the European Union. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

[8] The Brexit effect on UK NuclearWorld Nuclear News, 24 June 2016. [accessed July 2016] 

[9] Brexit could mean cancellation of Hinkley Point nuclear power stationThe Independent, 28 June 2016 [accessed July 2016]

[10] Jeremy Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon  condemn Trident at rallyBBC News, 27 February 2016 [accessed July 2017]. On Anti-nuclear anxiety during the first Scottish referendum please see: ; Scottish independence: How would Scotland defend itself?The Guardian, 4 September 2014, Scottish independence: Trident relocation ‘very difficult but not impossible’BBC News, 14 August 2014, and Scottish independence: where might Trident go?BBC News, 30 June 2014. [all accessed June 2016]

[11] Hugh Gusterson, Nuclear Brexit, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 30 June 2016. Also see A UK Nuclear vote, as Brexit looms. [accessed June 2016]

[12] Jon Hogg, British Nuclear Culture: Official and Unofficial Narratives in the twentieth century. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

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