The referendum question does not offer a clear choice despite the two seemingly simple alternatives. As a result, both sides of the divide try to fill the uncertainty with their own utopias and wild speculation. Mareike Kleine writes that these utopian visions of a post-Brexit Britain offer an interesting glimpse into what appears to be a deeply torn society in search of a common identity.
In 1516, statesman and poet Thomas More published Utopia, a description of an ideal island nation. Today, five hundred years later, utopias such as More’s are once again in fashion. The referendum has prompted both the Eurosceptics and the Europhiles to paint the wildest images of what the UK might look like outside of the EU.
Whether – and under what conditions – referendums are an effective democratic instrument is highly contentious among political scientists and democratic theorists. There seems to be consensus, however, that a choice between two clearly defined alternatives is a prerequisite for an informed decision preceded by an informative and inclusive debate.
Despite the apparently simple phrasing, the Brexit referendum does not offer such a clear choice. The question “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” requires citizens to choose between the status quo on the one hand, and a big unknown, on the other hand, for which there is no precedent and that itself depends on numerous contingent factors. Who is going to govern? How will the EU react? What will the US and other third countries do? How will the financial markets react?
Both sides are now trying to fill this gaping uncertainty with their own utopias and wild speculation. The Remain camp sees an opportunity to play on people’s fear of radical change and paint a frightening picture of the fallout from a Brexit. The Leave camp, on the other hand, imagine a fairytale world in which, freed from European shackles, the UK can resume an enlightened and coherent policy as it was last seen in the good old days of the empire.
These different utopias turn out to be less about the EU and more about what Britons want their country to be. They offer an interesting glimpse into what appears to be a deeply torn society in search of a common identity. To some, the UK is a liberal democracy that belongs firmly to the European liberal project that the EU represents. To others, the UK has always been at its best when it acted in isolation from Europe. Some believe that the membership threatens to destroy Britain’s social fabric by sucking it deeper into a globalisation maelstrom, while others believe that the EU has curbed Britain’s true potential in the global economy.
Despite contradicting claims even within the opposing camps, there is one thing that unites the Leave campaign in particular: it is the idealisation of the own nation (read: England) and a negative stereotyping of all that is not British (or English). This might be implicit or unintentional in some cases. It is open and rabid on the right wing and increasingly so among the Conservatives. This author, echoing the sentiments of many Europeans, was not amused by Boris Johnson’s Nazi comments, though they do not even come close to the agitation against citizens from Central and Eastern Europe. In this atmosphere, attempts of their compatriots to counter falsehoods with facts and thus question the Eurosceptic utopia are quickly dismissed as unpatriotic. Britons are called upon to “BeLeave” in Britain.
Ultimately, the Brexit debate has evolved more into a cacophony of utopias than an informed and participatory debate. It offers a glimpse into the state of the British society, and the picture that emerges is not pretty. The Brexit referendum, especially in this specific form, is clearly not an example to emulate.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of BrexitVote, nor the LSE.
Dr Mareike Kleine is Associate Professor of EU and International Politics at the LSE European Institute. @kleine_m
It is simply not possible to take seriuosly any supposedly balanced view of any subject where the author is demonstrably partial to one side.
Do you wish to elaborate with which parts of the article you disagree?
I think that it will be much more entertaining if you were to elaborate as to which parts of your article you consider is not demonstrably partial.
It is not my job as an academic never to voice an informed opinion. On the contrary. So let me hear why you think my argument does not withstand the test of logic?
When is an “informed” opinion a slanted, partial opinion is more to the point.
You say, inter alia….
“…requires citizens to choose beteen the status quo on the one hand, and a big unknown….”
I am puzzled.
Surely the future of the EU is also an unknown?
Your partiality & slant is to your own European approach to the entire debate here & is very different to that of most of the “natives”.
Where did I raise the issue of a test of logic? I never would do so because logic is not certainty & is therefore a waste of time.
Well, the future is always uncertain, so it’s a matter of relative rather than absolute uncertainty. The social science literature tells you that common institutions massively reduce uncertainty, especially about one another’s behavior, and thereby facilitates cooperation. Here’s an argument of how the UK w/o an institutional framework might look like, also embedded in current social science research: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2016/03/11/britains-role-in-world-affairs-will-dwarf-post-brexit/
So, you have admitted that your assertion about the “big unknown” was wrong.
You misunderstood my reply. Brexit is a Big Unknown relative to staying in the EU, given that more variables are unknown w/o a common institutional framework.
Having said this, uncertainty does affect the behavior of third actors in predictable ways: International investors abhor uncertainty and will leave the UK in troves. And that is only one example. For other examples, consult the opinion of circa 90% of all economic experts.
You have a report by circa 90% of all economic experts? How wonderfully immpressive.
I am overwhelmed by this.
I had imagined that you might be sensible. I was wrong.
I’m simply informed. A brief survey of what reputable economic institutes have to say about the issue should help you verify this statement.
No. You are pretending to be impartial – but are not.
That is sophistry not academic honesty.
Therefore your “views” are not worth considering.
You’re mistaking impartiality for having no informed opinion at all. I hope you have a different approach to evaluating medical advice, should you ever need any.
An “informed opinion” assertion by you is itself opinionated as you personally declare your self to be of an “informed opinion.”
Thank you for your “hope” on medical matters – as it happens yes I do need frequent medical treatments for my variuos illnesses but, with luck no more surgery will be needed & certainly no “informed opinion” from academics & their mutual admiration society will be sought.
Given my expertise, I doubt that you are informed enough to make an assertion like that.
In any case, get well soon.
You take the time & trouble to assert that circa 90% of economists support “remain” but aren`t these the same groups that stated that the UK would virtually collapse unless we joined the single currency?
As to your self declared expertise [I love your modesty] you are an expert on giving your opinion – not in doing anything.
As to my medical condition[s], no I cannot get well soon, or at all.
Look, if you think that you cannot trust experts, that’s very unfortunate. However, it’s not a reason for instead trusting people who neither have expertise nor the intention to tell the truth.
Unless you have anything more substantial to say that you do not agree with my opinion and therefore doubt my expertise, there is no point in continuing this discussion.
What exactly is an expert?
Now you seem to be saying merely that you are an expert. No continuing assertion to academic honesty then?
You disseminate papers that are crudely partial but you pretend otherwise. You are not to be trusted for that reason if you assert academic honesty..
I have several years of training in the analysis of qualitative and quantitative data. I am able to employ different methods in order to draw causal and empirical inferences. This is what makes an expert, not the content of the inference that I draw. It would be academically dishonest not to voice an opinion that is based on expertise. After all, universities have for the most part of history been the voice of reason.
I’m happy to talk to you in person and provide you more evidence. You might also want to consult http://ukandeu.ac.uk/ Now I have unfortunately more important things to do.
It is academically dishonest to know something pertinent to the delivered paper presented but not to disclose it.
To avere as you did that circa 90% of economists support “Remain” without also stating that the same stable of economists made similar pro EU claims about the euro currency is not honest.
I do not accept that that study gives anyone the right or expectation to be worshipped as “experts”. This is Britain not continental Europe.
You are perfectly at liberty to take any position you like – but not whilst pretending to be impartial. No amount of flannel gets you past that obstacle to honesty.
Thank you for so vividly demonstrating the points I’ve been making in this blog post.