If we want a progressive future, we need to bust some myths about the causes of Brexit

Graham Taylor writes that if we want a progressive post-Brexit future, we need to cut through the confusion surrounding this messy, complex political moment.

February 27, 2018 · 10 min read

In the period since the EU referendum in June 2016, it has become increasingly clear that the decision to leave the EU has intensified rather than resolved the ‘Europe question’ in British politics. The ideological divisions over Brexit are particularly acute in the Conservative Party, where the zombie-like premiership of Theresa May clings to life only to prevent the mutual destruction of the opposing Brexit camps.

While less visible, enduring tensions over Brexit in the Labour Party continue to threaten the fragile coalition achieved by the Corbyn leadership. The decision to Brexit or not to Brexit was never going to resolve the tensions and contradictions that led to the question being put to a yes/no vote in the 2016 referendum. The ‘Europe question’ was always about more than the UK’s membership of European institutions – to contradict the now infamous phrase of Theresa May, Brexit means (more than) Brexit. Questions about the sovereignty of the United Kingdom were undoubtedly important during the referendum, and the question of national sovereignty provided the master frame for the Leave campaign — reflected in the campaign mantras of ‘I want my country back’ and ‘take back control’.

It has become increasingly clear, however, that the issue of sovereignty was a proxy for a range of economic, cultural and political concerns and insecurities that extended far beyond the constitutional and legal status of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the EU. The issues of immigration, political disengagement and economic insecurity were particularly important concerns that found expression in the referendum, and these were successfully harnessed and articulated by the Leave campaigns. The roots of Brexit can be traced back over many decades, and a detailed historical analysis of these roots is vital if we are to understand how and why Brexit happened and why it continues to generate acute levels of turmoil in British politics.  

The decision to leave the EU is the most visible tip of an iceberg of long-term social, political and economic change. Hidden beneath the surface of this iceberg is a matrix of economic, socio-cultural and political dynamics that have wrought fundamental changes to British state and society and the relationship between the United Kingdom, Europe and the rest of the world. In Understanding Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union, I argue that Brexit was the point at which four long-term trajectories of British development converged and precipitated an event of seismic magnitude that disrupted decades of what seemed like inevitable transnational integration and development. First, the post-imperial crisis of the British state fuelled a discourse of British exceptionalism and a range of contested interpretations of ‘Britain’, ‘Britishness’ and ‘Europe’ that attempted to maintain this purported exceptionalism and the status of Britain as a ‘world power’ in the context of post-imperial decline. This resulted in the United Kingdom being peripheral to the process of European integration and fuelled ambivalent and negative public attitudes towards European integration. In this context, a range of eurosceptical political discourses emerged 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’. These discourses framed the accession of the United Kingdom to the EEC and continued to frame the relationship between the United Kingdom and the EU throughout the following four decades.

Second, the ‘financialization’ of the British economy created a tension between the global and European integration of the British economy and a pattern of de-industrialization and economic insecurity that undermined the legitimacy of elites and elite projects such as the EU. The development of a dynamic form of financialized ‘Anglo-capitalism’ resulted in London becoming 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. This financialized trajectory was also responsible for the de-industrialization of the British economy and increasing levels of economic and social inequality and insecurity in the post-industrial heartlands. This consistently threatened the legitimacy of the British state and resulted in the ‘state projects’ of Thatcherism and New Labour, which attempted to encourage the dynamism of the UK’s financialized economy, while building the active consent to this ongoing accumulation amongst strategically important sectors of British society. The ‘organic’ patriotism of Thatcherism and the universal cosmopolitanism of New Labour both contributed to the accretion of Eurosceptical attitudes within British society and to the building of significant middle-class and working-class support bases for the radical right programme of populism that would culminate with Brexit. The 2008 financial crisis intensified inequality and marginalization in the United Kingdom and, in the context of high levels of EU immigration, Eurosceptical attitudes intensified and provided the context for a form of radical right populism that would develop into the support base for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the Leave campaign and ultimately Brexit.

Third, the secular decline in the strength and coherence of British culture and identity and a trajectory of cultural decline resulting from immigration, loss of empire, the devolution of the United Kingdom and the transnational dynamics of globalization and European integration. This encouraged the emergence of new popular nationalisms and sub-nationalisms and increasingly politicized and Eurosceptical forms of English identity. The impact of this process of cultural decline went far beyond the much maligned ‘white working-class’ that have often been wrongly scapegoated as responsible for Brexit according to the popular ‘two tribes’ culture war theory of Brexit. This theory has been favoured both by the liberal ‘losers’ of the referendum who have tended to scapegoat ‘stupid’ and ‘racist’ working-class supporters of Brexit and the paranoid ‘winners’ of the referendum and the right-wing Eurosceptical media who have used this position to argue that the will of the people is being subverted by treacherous and unpatriotic elites, and liberal Remoaners. The scapegoating of marginal groups such as the ‘white working-class’ ignores or downplays the real anger and alienation that underpinned support for Leave in marginal communities and the importance of older, middle-class supporters of Brexit who, in terms of absolute number of votes cast, were more significant than working-class supporters of Brexit. The ‘left behind’ Brexit supporter embodied a cultural disposition across sections of the working-class, intermediate-class and middle-class. This disposition reflected a resentful English nationalism that linked material and cultural anxieties about immigration, declining post-industrial communities and a post-liberal rejection of multiculturalism and ‘politically correct’ attitudes towards ethnic diversity, gender and sexuality.

Fourth, the de-alignment of party political representation in Britain and the increasing convergence of mainstream parties around an agenda of economic and social liberalism. This created a crisis of legitimacy amongst the marginal and insecure that could be harnessed and exploited by Eurosceptic movements and parties of the populist right. These dynamics were interrelated and mutually reinforcing and culminated ultimately in the ‘perfect storm’ of Brexit. The attempt by the 1997-2010 New Labour governments to depoliticise the ‘Europe question’ and to develop a technocratic approach to European integration fanned the flames of an insurgent radical right populism that harnessed concerns and grievances over EU immigration and the post-2008 austerity   programmes and pinned the blame squarely at the  door  of  the remote and undemocratic institution in the form of the EU. In the context of the declining support for the mainstream political parties, and increasing turbulence in patterns of political support and alignment, popular grievances and concerns found expression in forms of Eurosceptic populism that were successfully harnessed and articulated by UKIP and the Eurosceptic right in the Conservative Party.

The convergence of New Labour and the Cameron-led Conservative Party around an agenda of economic and social liberalism tended to make both the Labour Party’s traditional working-class support base in the post-industrial heartlands and the nativist middle-class support base of the Conservative Party in the South of England politically homeless. The elite-led and funded Leave coalition could effectively mobilise public support through a populist repertoire of contention focused on how the EU was a corrupt and undemocratic institution that protected the interests of rich and powerful elites, and how leaving the EU would enable ‘the people’ to ‘take back control’ of Britain’s economic and political destiny and protect the British way of life through the strengthening of borders and controls on immigration.

The irresolvable tensions generated by Brexit are highlighted by the economic, cultural and political developments in the period following the referendum. There has been a deepening crisis of free market neoliberal capitalism, which is reflected in the rhetoric and policy proposal of both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. However, this rhetorical embrace of ‘organised capitalism’ is not reflected in the negotiating position of the British government in the Brexit negotiations, and this has the potential to aggravate further the grievances and anxieties that underpinned support for Brexit. The populist forces associated with Brexit assaulted the longstanding liberal consensus from the right, and the heightened levels of ethnic, racial and inter-cultural tension and hatred that emerged immediately following the referendum continue to simmer away in British society.

In the face of insults, threats and intimidation, many EU migrants have left or are planning to leave the United Kingdom. This threatens the viability of several important sectors of the British economy such as agriculture, food processing and hospitality and poses a challenge for the long-term viability of social and health care services that also rely heavily of EU migrant labour – particularly the NHS that was promised a Brexit bonus by the Leave campaign. Brexit has emerged as the defining issue in British politics and the de-alignment of British politics has continued across a range of issues defined by Brexit. The resulting tensions have generated political paralysis in the Conservative Party and the inability of the Government to move forward on either its domestic agenda to assuage the concerns of the ‘left behind’ and ‘just-about-managing’, whose fear and anxieties underpinned support for Brexit, or make meaningful headway in the Brexit negotiations.

While a Brexit meltdown failed to materialise in the 2017 general election performance of the Labour Party, Brexit continues to generate turbulence in the unstable and ambiguous coalition between the Corbyn leadership and membership base, the ‘New Labour’ Parliamentary Party and the party’s working-class and predominantly pro-Brexit support base. Nevertheless, it is also clear that Brexit marks a serious, perhaps terminal, crisis in the neoliberal consensus that has dominated British state and society for the past four decades. Antonio Gramsci argued famously that a crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born and that during the interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. Perhaps the contradictions of Brexit are not so irresolvable as they appear if we look beyond the crisis-ridden remains of neoliberalism. With brave political and moral leadership and armed with a clear understanding of the dynamics and contradictions that led to Brexit, it remains possible for the left to forge a progressive post-Brexit future from the morbid context of post-crisis austerity and toxic nationalism.

Graham Taylor is author of Understanding Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union (Emerald Publishing, 2017)

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