Canute tried to hold back the waves; David Cameron tried to hold back the discontent within and outside his party. Neither succeeded. Will Jennings (University of Southampton) and Martin Lodge (LSE) analyse why the referendum was called and the often contradictory impulses it unleashed.
King Canute’s attempts to hold back the waves are a frequent allusion in debates as to whether individual political actors have agency, or are washed along by greater structural forces. It could also apply to the question of whether post-Brexit Britain can stem the tides of globalisation and regulatory interdependence, or if it will succumb to them.
However, the story of Canute raises another question: under what conditions are political leaders required to perform public displays regarding the (limits of) their power? Translated into our contemporary context, this means: what were the forces behind the decision to call a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU?
In our contribution to the Journal of European Public Policy, we were therefore not interested in the factors in voters’ minds in the ballot box (and indeed much research in the behavioural tradition would do well to reflect on the limits of survey data for identifying the ‘causes’ of the Brexit vote and what the ‘will of the people’ actually was). Instead, we are interested in the broader forces (what we call ‘mega-trends’) that might explain why the referendum was called. We distinguish between the influence of (1) electoral politics, (2) the breakdown of the dominant neoliberal policy paradigm and (3) contrivance of a spectacle of party management by a political class who now (pretend to) steer rather than row in the age of the regulatory state.
The decision to call the referendum can, firstly, be understood as an attempt by the Cameron government to manage the undercurrents of electoral politics: the party was faced with the growing threat of UKIP (and the defections of two Conservative MPs), rising public concern about immigration and its increasing connection to Euroscepticism (especially after EU accession in 2004), and deepening distrust of the political class – ‘anti-politics’. From this perspective, our modern-day Canutes sought to use a referendum to tame the challenge increasingly posed by anti-immigrant and anti-elite populism.
From the perspective of a collapse of dominant public policy approaches, or ‘policy paradigms’, the decision to call the referendum might instead be understood as a reaction to the exhaustion of the neoliberal policy consensus dating back to the 1980s – which promoted retrenchment of the state and deference to the logic of the market. This policy paradigm had been shaken by events of the global financial crisis, with its dominant assumptions increasingly questioned. In this regard, Brexit represented (at least in part) a protest against the ‘no alternative’ consensus offered by the main political parties. Most crucially, it meant that experts’ warnings about catastrophic economic consequences were widely ignored, while the repatriation of £350m spending for the NHS had particular appeal after years of austerity. From this perspective, the modern day Canutes sought to offer a ‘release valve’ to pent-up economic frustration, especially in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
Lastly, the referendum can be seen as a side-effect of the ‘regulatory state’ – that is, the shift of government away from direct intervention and delivery of services (such as through privatisation and contracting out), towards a regulatory mode of governing. This regulatory state was itself inextricably linked with the expansion of the European regulatory state. With reduced choice and discretion in policy-making at national level, political elites have increasingly turned to symbolic politics, not least blaming the EU for domestic policy decisions (such as on migration). In this fashion, the referendum can be viewed – like Canute’s attempts on the shoreline – as an attempt to resolve a major policy conflict through spectacle.
These distinct mega-trends, and the tale of Canute, provide an important reminder that the decision to call the referendum cannot be distilled down to a single cause or a necessarily linear chain of events. While predicting the future is a mug’s game, the three mega-trends do point to some of the potential futures for British politics and policy. In terms of electoral politics – aside from accelerating a tilting of the political axis that had been long in the making – the negotiation and realisation of Brexit offers the prospect of populism run wild, with deals framed as a ‘sell out’ or ‘betrayal’ and the EU continuing to be blamed for any national tribulations for the foreseeable future. For public policy, Brexit seemingly offers two contradictory futures: in one, Brexit results in a critical break from austerity and leaving the market to decide; in another, Brexit leads to neoliberalism-on-steroids, with a low tax Singapore economic model and shrunken welfare state.
For the regulatory state, the question is whether the political class, which for years has ceded control to Brussels, has the resources and skills to navigate the tricky task of exiting the EU and shape Britain’s new relationships and regulatory arrangements. The danger, which is seemingly playing out in negotiations to date, is of continued engagement of the ruling club in spectacle politics with limited capacity for resolving more practical questions of how Britain is to be governed after Brexit.
This post represents the views of the authors and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.
Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Southampton. Previously he was a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the LSE and a Research Fellow at the University of Manchester.
Martin Lodge is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the Department of Government, LSE.
This appears to be based on a popular misreading of the Canute legend. See
Noone knows what, if anything, really happened.
But who knows whether the real Theresa May is trying to achieve the impossible or to demonstrate that Brexit as promised simply can’t be delivered, as some observers suspected in 2016?
What a refreshing change to read an interesting and dispassionate article about Brexit on here.
Of course Brexit can be delivered as promised, if the EU doesn’t want to play ball with us, fine, we just walk away and take our business elsewhere.
Would that rather more people felt as you do Sir. Like him or no Donald Trumps unambiguous negotiating style is achieving rather massive results in Kirea as we endlessly debate the “Tax harmonisation( root vegetable) (swede/organic) regulation number 18407 within the EU
Mrs May is a teacher, she is almost axiomatically both a pragmatist and a didact. Can you but dream for a moment how these negotiations would have proceeded under Mrs T? It is yet possible that the poisonous Dominic Grieve and his colleagues will manage to abort our departure completely, more likely I fear is a departure in name only, a very British fudge indeed. Who knows? Mrs May was a remainer, perhaps this was the plan all along.
Incomplete history lesson.
How come you didn’t mention that Nick Clegg walked out of the House of Commons on 26 February 2008 after the then speaker, Michael Martin, refused to call a Lib Dem amendment demanding an “in / out” referendum.”
…and the fact that both Blair and Brown promised an EU referendum.
I was bemused to read the comment that described this article as “interesting and dispassionate”.
My impression was that the article is in danger of giving a very inaccurate impression in some areas. It rehashes a version of “backlash theory” i.e. the public backlash against immigration. This is the idea that the masses have turned to Conservative politics because they were unhappy with being propelled too far and too fast towards liberal reforms. I think Joseph E Lowndes (From the New Deal to the New Right – 2008) gives a far more plausible critique of these ideas and points out that efforts to stoke up and channel fears, anger and resentment far better explains this phenomenon. Brexit is a perfect example.
Reading the history of modern Conservatism (for want of a better term – i.e. US and UK radical Conservatism that started to come to come to public attention in the US in the 1950’s and UK in the 1970’s) also undermines the idea that neo-liberalism and neo-nationalism stand in mutual opposition to each other, their histories have always been intertwined from the outset as the new radical US Conservatism of the 1950’s (which Mrs Thatcher imported to Britain) started out its political rise by backing (although sometimes not explicitly) the white supremacist segregationist movement in the Southern United States in opposition to the Civil Rights movement. Daniel Stedman-Jones (Masters of the Universe – 2012) an excellent and informed account of neo-liberalism, describes Enoch Powell, a man famous for having been expelled from the Tory Party as a racial agitator, as the “proto-thatcherite unifier of anti-immigration, neo-imperialism and free market tendencies.” (p137). Enoch Powell was uniquely respected by the US modern Conservative movement as a fellow traveler although he showed no sign of reciprocating any such feeling towards foreigners.
There were a number of groups within this loosely affiliated US Conservative movement that were mutually supporting including Business Conservatives, Neo – Liberals, Libertarians, Segregationists, Social Conservatives, Religious Conservatives and later Neo-Conservatives. These movements, then as now, have massive ideological differences and internal power struggles but unite in the common cause that they often hate those who oppose them and what they stand for more than they hate and oppose each other.
The article separates UKIP and public concern about immigration as if the two were unconnected. Playing the race card has been shown time and time again to be an easy route for right wing populists. It is relatively easy to stoke up fears and anger by scapegoating and framing issues for uncritical and poorly informed voters. It is easier to tear a society apart and feed on the resulting carnage than to hold it together as moderate politicians right across most of the political spectrum have always tried to do. What is claimed to be inevitable, like the tide coming in, has more of the character of a self fulfilling prophesy that will harm us all if it is comes about. It is a chicken or egg argument as to which came first between concern about immigration and those indulging in political agitation about it. But this leaves political commentators a free choice as to which narrative to follow and what impression that may leave on the reader.
Parts of the article (intentionally or unintentionally) give another telling of modern Conservatism’s creation myths as it explains itself to itself. Brexit is another staging post on modern Conservatism’s lurch towards the far right. Brexit is Britain’s Dixiecrat revolt which, if we follow that path, will send us even further down the road of the American right and even further away from our Liberal Democratic tradition. The separation of the UK from European political pluralism (for all its many failures and faults) and towards American radical Libertarianism is as much an ideological crusade on the part of the political right as their political objective of Brexit.