Understanding the origins of Brexit is vital to making a success of it

Understanding the origins of Brexit is vital to making a success of it

The period since the EU referendum has been marked by political turmoil and instability. The implosion of UKIP following the referendum has intensified tensions in the Labour Party and exacerbated long-standing divisions between libertarians and conservatives and Eurosceptics and Europhiles in the Conservative Party, leading to policy paralysis and the fractious in-fighting between advocates of a ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexit.

There has been a tendency to take the result of the referendum and the resulting turmoil at face value and to read these developments through the elite lens of debates on political and economic sovereignty and the impact of EU membership on the performance of the British economy. In the words of Theresa May, “Brexit means Brexit”: the British people have voted to exit the European Union and if cool heads and rational discourse prevail a satisfactory economic outcome will be achieved through careful negotiation with the EU and the forging of a global trading future.

In my recently published book, Understanding Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union, I argue that adopting such a position leads to a serious under-estimation of the social, cultural, economic and political significance of Brexit. The decision to leave the EU is the most visible tip of an iceberg of fundamental change that has been decades in the making. Hidden beneath the surface are powerful forces of emotional engagement and disengagement linked to post-imperial decline, the post-industrialisation and financialisation of the British economy, changes in British culture and identity and party political realignment. Digging deeper and wider for the origins and significance of Brexit is important if a viable post-Brexit future is to be achieved.

Brexit was the point at which four long-term trajectories converged and precipitated an event of seismic magnitude that disrupted decades of what seemed like inevitable transnational integration.

The first trajectory was the post-imperial crisis of the British state which fuelled a discourse of British exceptionalism and a range of contested interpretations of ‘Britain’, ‘Britishness’ and ‘Europe’ that attempted to maintain this ‘exceptionalism’ and the status of the UK as a ‘world power’ in the context of post-imperial decline.

This generated a range of Eurosceptical political discourses on the right and left of British politics that attempted to redefine the meaning of ‘Britain’, ‘Britishness’ and ‘Europe’ in ways that confirmed and re-affirmed this ‘exceptionalism’ and made the ‘Europe question’ the most contentious and divisive issue in British politics.

The second trajectory was the ‘financialisation’ of the British economy that created a tension between the global and European integration of the British economy and a pattern of de-industrialisation and economic insecurity that undermined the legitimacy of elites and elite projects such as the EU. London developed as a dynamic growth hub in the global financial system and this created an increasing tension between the European and global integration of the British economy.

The financialisation of the UK economy was also responsible for the de-industrialisation of the British economy and increasing levels of economic and social inequality and insecurity in the post-industrial heartlands. The 2008 financial crisis intensified inequality and marginalisation and, in the context of high levels of EU immigration, Eurosceptical attitudes intensified and provided the support base for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the Leave campaign and ultimately Brexit.

The third trajectory was a process of cultural decline resulting from immigration, loss of empire, the devolution of the United Kingdom and the transnational dynamics of globalisation and European integration. This encouraged the emergence of new popular nationalisms and sub-nationalisms and increasingly politicised and Eurosceptical forms of English identity.

The fourth trajectory was the de-alignment of party political representation and the increasing convergence of mainstream parties around an agenda of economic and social liberalism that alienated voters with conservative, nativist and communitarian values. This created a crisis of political legitimacy amongst the marginal and insecure that could be harnessed and articulated by UKIP and the Eurosceptic right in the Conservative Party.

A careful analysis of these developments highlights that Brexit means much more than Brexit and that even if a successful Brexit is achieved this may not necessarily assuage the tensions and contradictions that delivered Brexit. When Theresa May became Prime Minister, she promised to tackle both Brexit and the causes of Brexit. The concerns of the JAMs (Just About Managing) and the ‘left behind’ have become increasingly peripheral to the Government’s policy agenda as Eurosceptic tensions have re-emerged in the Conservative Party in the context of negotiations with the EU.

A successful Brexit in narrow ‘economic’ terms would most likely exacerbate the concerns, frustrations and marginalisation of the popular support base of Brexit and undermine the medium and long-term viability of a post-Brexit economic trajectory. This is why a broader and deeper understanding of Brexit is vital to the forging of a viable post-Brexit future.