Divining the UK's national interest: MPs' parliamentary discourse and the Brexit withdrawal process

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This article tracks, investigates and explains the discursive deployment of ‘national interest’ by UK MPs in parliamentary debates during the Brexit withdrawal process. Whilst the concept of ‘national interest’ has variously been dismissed as meaningless or devoid of substantive content, the discursive practices and deliberative contestations as to its meaning have been central to the historic role and purpose of the national legislature. Yet, the 2016 Brexit referendum, with its avowed intent of delegating the determination of the UK’s national interest to the electorate, in many respects short-circuited this historic role. Through a qualitative content analysis of the text of 122 distinct parliamentary deliberative occurrences over the period from June 2016 to January 2020 this article examines how MPs sought to reconstitute and recycle the notion of ‘national interest’ during the Brexit withdrawal process. It does so by examining discursive competition over ‘national interest’ in the issue arenas of constitutional process, representational mode, inter-institutional mode, and substantive policy. ‘National interest’ was invoked 640 times in Brexit-related debates with the expression of positive or negative sentiment found to be associated significantly with: the personal voting pattern of major party MPs in the 2016 referendum; party differences in the articulation of individualistic or party representational modes to reach Brexit decisions; differences between frontbench ministers and non-ministers; and party differences in assessment of the UK government’s iterated withdrawal negotiations with the EU.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)579-602
Number of pages24
JournalBritish Politics
Issue number4
Early online date3 Sept 2022
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2023


  • national interest
  • Brexit
  • parliament
  • deliberation
  • representation
  • discourse


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