School of Architecture, Planning & Landscape

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Drs Loes Veldpaus and John Pendlebury feature in the latest edition of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies' newsletter

Special Interview: Heritage and Brexit

March 29, 2019 is fast approaching as the date for the divorce between the United Kingdom and the European Union. We were able to take some time to interview Dr. Loes Veldpaus and Dr. John Pendlebury of Newcastle University, currently in charge of the research project 'Heritage and Brexit', about the deep heritage implications of this complex political discussion.

ACHS: The 2016 Brexit Referendum was loaded with memory and historical implications. What in your opinion are the major heritage narratives that clashed back then in the polls?

Veldpaus and Pendlebury: We feel that the divide Brexit is bringing to the fore is not new, but is intensified and made more visible by Brexit. So we organised a series of workshops, interviews, and debates around how in the debates around Brexit the past is mobilised to create future imaginaries. The answers below, are based on a comment piece on heritage and Brexit, (Pendlebury & Veldpaus, 2018), as well as more recent discussions with practitioners and academics working on heritage and Brexit. More of this work can be found on our website
We argue that the vote highlights deep cultural schisms within the UK that are rooted in very different imaginaries of the past and their uses in the present. Brexit is therefore very much a heritage project, as it is using the past for contemporary purposes and as a future-making practice. That has implications for what heritage ‘is’ and what it does, in a post-Brexit country. As Flatman (2017, p. 184), an officer for Historic England (HE) states, ‘some people seek to see HE reinforce established cultural orthodoxies; others for it to actively challenge these’ and others have worried about the role of heritage professionals in supporting the conditions for a Brexit-vote (see e.g. Spanjer, 2017).

The Brexit process has generated a series of clichés that can be considered both vacuous and difficult to pin down. Nevertheless, like most clichés they perhaps contain some kernel of an issue that is worth interrogating. Brexit clichés that have been widely reproduced include ‘we want our country back’ and ‘our once great country’. These are highly emotive and contentious phrases. They suggest a nostalgic social conservatism encompassing a sense of loss and a sense of place (Clarke, 2016). They relate to a wish to recover an imaginary of a past that celebrates a de-problemitised national identity of ‘great’ Britain. Thus, Brexit presents potential implications for how heritage might be defined and used in the future. Brexit-supporting politicians have sought to overtly mobilise heritage in Brexit politics, playing upon old referents in engendering new nationalisms, and reinforcing nostalgic social conservatism. Right-wing commentators aim to give a respectable sheen to this insular and rather xenophobic construction of national identity by calling up a mythic past (e.g. Murray, 2017). References are made to the Roman Empire and the Commonwealth (even, absurdly, to ‘Empire 2.0’) as well as war-related tropes such as the Blitz, Nazis and so on as part of constructing an island nation identity. There is some very interesting and more detailed work on this coming from research led by Chiara Bonacchi (e.g. Bonacchi, Altaweel, & Krzyzanska, 2018).
For heritage, this can be seen as taking things back to their roots. The rise of heritage is closely linked with the development of the modern nation state; heritage was part of the apparatus of defining national identity through a project of belonging and ‘othering’. Heritage is an integral part of what Benedict Anderson (1983) termed ‘Imagined Communities’ and the overt use of heritage in nation-building and nation-destruction has continued on the global stage through to modern times (e.g. Bevan, 2006).

Brexit can be seen as a culmination of a number of processes which are not necessarily unique to the UK, but which combined with the specific historical and political situation in the country, particularly in England, resulted in the referendum outcome. Globalisation, de-industrialisation and associated narratives of loss around ‘place’ and ‘community’ combined with an imperial past contributed to the effectiveness of the leave campaign in operationalising nostalgic narratives of the past to successfully ‘sell’ a vision of an alternative future in England. The past was used in the Brexit campaign to further ideological notions of the future by both sides. Heritage practices through their focus on dominant, traditional narratives which elevate aspects of Britain’s ‘sovereign’ past, may have contributed indirectly to the climate that made a leave vote possible.  

ACHS: The Referendum results showed a strong support for ‘remain’ in Scotland and Northern Ireland. To what extent has the popular adhesion to the EU in both territories fuelled nationalist discourses? 

Veldpaus and Pendlebury: The relationship between nationalism and attitudes towards EU-membership is complex. Nationalism, as in the sense of Englishness, Scottishness, Welshness and (Northern) Irishness can be found in all the constituent nations of the UK as well as an enveloping Britishness. We have worked on this a little bit, in relation to England and Scotland, but not the other nations in the UK; we held a workshop with practitioners and academics working in and on heritage in the North of England and Scotland and undertook some supplementary interviews. There is also important, relevant and interesting work done in the Irish context, albeit a bit more focussed on the Museums sector, as obviously the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is one of the most contentious issues in the Brexit negotiations (Crooke and O'Kelly, 2018)
The distinction in terms of the identities and experience of those participating in the workshops was not as clear as we anticipated and many researchers in English and Scottish universities are from other European or International backgrounds and as such brought those (wider) perspectives to the table, rather than a specific sense of English- or Scottish-ness. Practitioners too, have often worked on both sides of the border and find it difficult to exclusively align themselves with one or other place. The value of ‘wider’ perspectives was promoted at the expense of the provinciality or ‘narrowness’ of views rooted in a specific locality.
In the discussions, the comparison with the campaign for the Scottish Independence referendum was made. Scotland’s ability to use its history successfully and build a positive narrative for change reaching across a broad social spectrum was seen as a key difference between the Scottish Independence debate and Brexit. Scotland’s relationship with England was considered a key driver in defining its national identity, with England standing as the problematic ‘other’, rather than the EU. Taking on the position as ‘colonised’ rather than ‘coloniser’ also meant Scotland has sidestepped (or conveniently forgotten about) a lot of the negative connotations associated with an imperial past. . In contrast there is much less sense of an agreed English nationalism, with some social groups identifying with this as a cause to rally behind as part of resisting a perceived European federalism and others seeing it as a xenophobic and reactionary misplaced nostalgia.

Ultimately, to turn the question around, it is perhaps more the case that reinvigorated nationalist support, in Scotland at least (Northern Ireland presents a whole series of other complex issues), fuelled pro-EU discourses as part of imagining a modern, social democratic and, perhaps, ultimately independent country.

ACHS: The 2016 Referendum and the discussion about a second vote have raised the debate about expert knowledge and lay knowledge in the political field, which could also be extrapolated to the heritage field. What lessons can we extract from it?

Veldpaus and Pendlebury: Critical heritage studies has been a useful corrective to the dangers of paternalistic (and worse) expert-knowledges and their exertion of power over wider populations. However, the discourse around Brexit, alongside many other populist phenomena, shines a light upon the consequences of a loss of faith in professional expertise. We might hope that the alternative to professional expertise, in heritage or any other field, wielded to, for example, enforce an Authorised Heritage Discourse, is better, more engaged participatory processes. But the results are uncertain. The loss of faith in expertise opens up a power vacuum, this could be used to leverage a more inclusive and equal debate, accepting of multiple ideas and knowledges and for example different conceptualisations of heritage. However, populists and others using ‘fake news’ have shown their quickness to exploit these opportunities to produce ‘fact-making opinions’, mobilise the past in very reductive if not inaccurate ways, and refuse to accept pasts that do not fit their ideas of the future.

ACHS: Brexit is approaching with a complete indeterminacy on its terms, with a no deal as a possible scenario. How would a no deal affect ongoing cultural heritage initiatives shared with the European Union?

Veldpaus and Pendlebury: As mentioned previously, heritage has always been given a significant role in Nation-State building projects, and has an increasingly important position in ‘project Europe’ too. Reflecting on the role of heritage in the context of this, combined with the current trends of populism and neo-nationalism, is important, necessary, and for us Brexit has made the need for such questioning of heritage more obvious. The role of heritage as a tool for reproduction of societal biases, and the heritage of Brexit in itself, need to be explored and debated further. Brexit might be unique as an event, but it is rooted in a much wider set of global forces.  The questions mentioned above about what heritage does, we feel are important to address in the context, with or without Brexit. These are questions that should be addressed in discussions that cross both borders of countries and disciplines.  

Of course a practical issue in this respect, for academia and practice, is the loss of (match) funding. This concerns direct funding to heritage projects and research under a wide diversity of EU programmes (e.g. CAP, ERDF, H2020), including many projects with heritage benefits but where heritage is not directly identified as a beneficiary. Moreover, repair and maintenance of historic buildings directly generated £9.7bn in construction sector output in 2015. Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that about 10% of the UK construction industry labour force is from outside the UK (The Heritage Alliance, 2017).As it stands, the UK hasn’t trained enough people to fill the gap EU workers across the heritage sector might leave. So both education and skill building and the details of the future visa system (e.g. keeping in mind that high-skilled jobs are not always well remunerated) will have significant short and long term impacts.

Moreover, the heritage experts we spoke with, see Brexit as a potential loss of influence of soft power. The UK, through individuals, has been invested and involved in the development of documents by the EU and CoE on heritage related topics. The opportunity to express and develop such perspectives and reflections on heritage could get lost in the process of disentangling legal structures. In this context, it was felt that the impact of civil society, third sector organisations, industry, to bend political will and create (inter)national platforms for idea-development will become more crucial for the UK heritage sector.  More positively, Brexit was also seen as a possible incentive to become more open to what can be learned from other situations and practices.
More broadly we feel personally that the debates stirred up by Brexit should be used to renew our critical perspectives upon ourselves, our work, and generally the work of the heritage sector. We argue for more focus on questioning what heritage does. Upon which pasts do we build our future, and how consciously do we address, discuss, and reframe historic inequalities and social structures in these processes? If we acknowledge the role of heritage in the process of imagining and negotiating the future, what role do we want it to perform?  

Anderson, B. (1983) Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (London: Verso).
Bevan, R. (2006) The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War (Reaktion Books).
Bonacchi, C., Altaweel, M., & Krzyzanska, M. (2018) The heritage of Brexit: Roles of the past in the construction of political identities through social media, Journal of Social Archaeology, 18(2), 174–192.
Clarke, A. (2016, December 7) ‘We want our country back’. Available at  (accessed 11/03/2019)
Crooke, E., & O'Kelly, G. (2018). Brexit and the Museum Sector in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The potential impact and recommendations for the future.  Online via (accessed 11/03/2019)
Flatman, J. (2017) Identity, Value and Protection: The Role of Statutory Heritage Regimes in Post-Brexit England, The Historic Environment: Policy & Practice, 8(3), 181–187.
Murray, D. (2017) The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam (Bloomsbury Publishing).
Pendlebury, J., & Veldpaus, L. (2018) Heritage and Brexit, Planning Theory & Practice, 19(3), 448–453.
Spanjer, M. (2017) The Happiness Machine, or How to be an Archaeologist in a Changing World, The Historic Environment: Policy & Practice, 8(3), 206–211.
The Heritage Alliance (2017) Brexit and Heritage Briefing. Online via (accessed 11/03/2019)

The ACHS Executive Committee sincerely thanks Dr. Loes Veldpaus and Dr. John Pendlebury for their generosity and time. Interview conducted and edited by ACHS Executive Committee member, Plácido González Martínez.

Association of Cultural Heritage Studies

published on: 1 April 2019