Image: Helen Hotson / Adobe Stock

With Brexit, British fishing grew from a tool of the political class to a determinant of constitutional and political affairs, suggests a new interdisciplinary paper by Aadil Siddiqi, current MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management student.

From the age of Selden and James I, fishing has been entangled with the UK's political elites, foreign policy objectives and constitutional developments. This enmeshing fostered a British fishing iconography of fishers as "dogged, self-sacrificing participants in the cause of island nation standing up to mainland [European] intrusion."

This iconography exacted substantial political costs for the EU, pro-EU British politicians, and, when it affected withdrawal negotiations at critical stages, pro-Brexit politicians as well. The links between fishing and Euroscepticism were established by the Cod Wars of the 1970s and the 1991 Factortame judgement, which, in determining a UK-Spanish fishing dispute, found that EU law held priority over Acts of Parliament.

During the Brexit referendum, the Leave Campaign made use of fishing iconography to advance their vision of an independent British utopia, for which the freedom of the seas was a powerful symbolic issue. By abstracting fishing into a romantic and nationalistic vision of plentiful industry benefiting from hard maritime borders, Leave cultivated a political myth rooted in fishing iconography as a proxy for communities "left-behind" in contemporary Britain. In truth, EU fishing subsidies inflated the British fishing fleet well beyond an economically or ecologically sustainable size.

For centuries, the fishing industry has enjoyed privileged access to marine ecosystems and their biodiversity, including the ability to bottom trawl within marine protected areas (MPAs). The British public and marine life have carried the costs of this. In the wake of Brexit, which will discontinue the Common Fisheries Policy (the subsidy regime that overcapitalised British fishing), the authors suggest that the UK cultivate an iconography of public goods at sea through rigorous environmental policies.

The paper, Splendid Isolation or Fish out of Water? Fishing, Brexit, and the Iconography of a Maritime Nation was published in the interdisciplinary journal The Cambridge Review of Law, Politics and Art. Other contributors include Jean Tirole, Yanis Varoufakis, Lord Rees, Lord Sumption and Lady Ardern.

Further information