In the past few weeks, parliamentary Brexit procedures have moved into a state of high anxiety. In this blog, Graham Harrison (University of Sheffield) asks what remains of Remain and what’s left of Leave. He doubts that there will be a second referendum. But if there is, one should assess not only the politics of leaving but also the politics of remaining, which in his opinion have lost considerable value since the Brexit vote.
I flatter myself that I was the least enthusiastic Remain voter in the 2016 referendum.
My starting point was that, since the Maastricht Treaty, the EU has become predominantly a supra-national project of neoliberal regionalism. Currency union, the Fiscal Compact, and the increasing oversight of centralised regional bodies have aspired to make Europe in the image of capital. From 2007, the EU substantially failed to deal with the global financial crisis and indeed was central to its expansion and amplification, arguably doing a worse job to deal with it than the American government. From 2010 the economic crises in the Eurozone – especially in Greece – were dealt with through austerity measures that even had some in the IMF curling their toes.
So, if you are left wing and highly critical of neoliberalism, why vote Remain? For me, it was a marginal call. My view was that the referendum posed a depressing choice. I voted Remain because I judged that the concrete circumstances of British politics would make leaving more damaging than remaining. I judged that the weakness of the left, the lack of clear vision offered by the dominant parties, and the xenophobia ingrained in the Leave campaign made Remain a depressing necessity. I expected that a Leave result would bequeath either some kind of ersatz imperial-Britain makeover, or some form of free trade agreement roughly like Norway’s. I did also feel a ripple of affection for a Social Europe idea – an idea I grew up with, although I cannot see much of its vestiges in the present-day.
Thus, my balance of judgement was unenthusiastic Remain. Nevertheless, I was outvoted. Fair enough. So, I started to ponder what implementation of Article 50 might look like. What I did not expect was that I would find myself constantly vexed by the positions taken by public commentators and intellectuals within my own echo chamber of the broad left.
Having had a marginal preference to Remain, the political currents emerging over the post-referendum period – the interregnum – could have confirmed my weak Remain decision or moved me towards a stronger Remain position. It was also possible that I might be nudged into a Leave position.
Brexit interregnum and the poor peripheral working class
Since the referendum, and quite openly, there has been an intensified demonization of the working class. Transfigured into the single personage of a northern town fifty-something white man, the ‘Leaver’ has become the epitome of an uninformed and/or prejudiced political subject. The moral range in the articulation of this image moves from a patronising “duped” subject in need of education to something akin to fear and loathing. The patronising morality has tended to connect with notions of “ignorance” and the fear/loathing affect has connected with notions of racist recrudescence. In both moral registers, there is predominantly an exercise in caricature.
Did Leavers vote leave out of ignorance? No. They voted having processed and reflected on imperfect information imperfectly. So, like every voter. The implicit notion that Leave voters didn’t have the full facts is a fallacy in that the “full facts” do not exist. And, crucially, how facts matter depend on one’s social circumstances. Were Leave voters duped? To some extent of course, but it is not clear that Remain voters were any less susceptible to ideologically-loaded narratives about Remain. It was, after all, Project Fear, not Project Probabilistic Modelling.
Democratic politics is not a process in which people are expected to reach near-perfect consensus in conditions where all the facts are known and openly assessed. It is about the negotiation of strong differences in worldview and social condition that are managed through authoritative institutions. The referendum vote took place in an ideologically-charged and contentious atmosphere for everyone. However one feels about the result, it is undeniable that the decision generated a remarkable level of political energy and agency in which manifold and contested factual claims about the EU and speculations about the future were engaged with by a mass citizenry within social contexts that are radically differentiated. It was, then, somewhat disappointing to see a dominant trope emerge amongst Remain opinion that the northern masses were duped by false stats on red busses. Nor was there much awareness that Remain viewpoints – a minority viewpoint – might have their own social and political partialities, preferences… and ignorance.
The despicable spike in racist abuse and violence after the referendum galvanised an association of Leave with an enabling of wide-ranging racism in British society. Immigration was certainly a major influence on the Leave vote, but the relationship between anti-immigration values and racism is not self-evident. The question of the role played by racism in the referendum result was precisely that: a question. The extent and nature of racism and its interactions with anti-immigration sentiments and xenophobic nationalism are neither well measured nor assessed. Explanandum has become explanans. My understanding of racism has always been that it is a social construction, not an essentialising political identity. If it is a social construction, it can be unpacked, scrutinised, and discussions about how one might tackle it are enabled. If racism is seen as something essential to a political identity, we lose a sense of its weakness, cognitive dissonance, and the possibility that it can be defeated. We do not know how prevalent racism is amongst Leavers, how this connects to other facets of political attitudes towards immigrants, or moral economies of precarious life and hopelessness. The cavalier association of the decision to vote Leave with racism is, if nothing else, bad social science.
Thus, post-referendum, the master narrative from Remainers about Leavers has been to gloss them as an essentialised collectivity of duped xenophobes, to ask no questions about why Remain lost on its own merits, or to explore deeper or more nuanced questions about why people voted Leave.
I was struggling to maintain my lukewarm Remainer grip. Perhaps I needed the reassuring voices of experts.
Brexit interregnum and the authority of experts
There has been a persistent stream of blogs and articles about how damaging Brexit will be to the British economy. Clearly, this work should be taken seriously and it seems highly likely that leaving the EU will, at least in the short term, damage the British economy. The trade and investment effects of Brexit have been contentious but debate revolves around how damaging leaving will be not that leaving will be damaging. The effects on labour mobility and skills, firms’ supply chains, and the investment choices of transnational corporations will be negative for a Brexited Britain. The institutional costs of setting up new trading agreements are likely to be considerable, and to introduce short-term volatility. Maybe leaving will be economically disastrous.
Economically-focussed arguments against Brexit seem strong, and they played an important role in my own vote. But, post-referendum, I have become increasingly intrigued by the political relays they have generated.
The economic effects of Brexit on, say, GNP, foreign direct investment, levels and balances of trade, or the position of the City in the world of global finance will become real enough once Britain leaves. But, the negative effects on economic growth, trade, investment, and finance will not be neutral and as such they will be political. They will affect people differently, and politics is about who gets what pain/pleasure and why. Arguably, the economic harm caused by Leave is a case against Brexit: it will damage those who are most vulnerable. It will create unemployment as businesses locked into the European economy struggle; it will deter outside investment that might create new jobs; it will lose British companies contracts in European markets; slowdown will emaciate the fiscal possibilities for social provision. This argument seems reasonable. But this prospective economic declinism does implicitly suggest a romantic vision of the EU present.
A great deal of the supposed economic good times within the EU have had little if any beneficial impact on the working classes of northern towns and small cities, much of the south of England outside the greater London area, many rural communities outside of the tourist routes, and much of Wales.
The procedures of left-leaning political economy seem to have disappeared in left-leaning scholarly analyses of Brexit. Take economic growth and trade. It is extremely common for political economists to say that economic growth might obscure persistent poverty or even exacerbate inequalities. In my own research, I have read many criticisms of GNP increases under neoliberalism as “jobless growth”. Additionally, it is an accepted canon of critical political economy to inquire as to how intensified trading relations generate winners and losers. The entire critical/left tradition in political economy is built on the meta-question: cui bono? It would surely behove critical political economy also to ask cui suffero? in relation to predictions of economic damage. I, for one, could not give a single shit if Frankfurt takes half of the City’s hot casino money. And, I am yet to be convinced that leaving the EU will have much of an effect on the sink estates, insecure workers, minimum-waged, food bank visitors and socially-isolated people of the country. If your answer is that EU-convergent growth trickles down to the poorest, then welcome, my friend, to the enchanted doctrine of neoliberalism and please don’t bump your head on the door on your way out.
Thus, I have found the political economy of Brexit to have largely been based in declassé analysis that takes growth, trade and investment as unconditional goods that don’t need much political analysis. When the benefits and harms of membership or leaving are so obviously infused with class dynamics, the Brexit-as-big-bang crisis narrative obscures all of the important stuff for anyone who identifies with the Left.
Brexit interregnum and critical academic amnesia
For some time, critical political analysis has been prone to call practically everything constructed: crisis is not a fact but constructed; terrorism too. Austerity as well. Great, but this deconstructing sensibility has not been applied to Brexit. Surely the constructivist view would be to assume that Brexit has no essential quality, and therefore to critically analyse how it has been politically articulated. This is surely desperately needed when Brexit is commonly treated as an external event and in increasingly apocalyptic terms. The affective work of fearfulness by many Remainer is remarkable. Is this not a construction?
Another core reference point in critical political economy has been depoliticisation: the notion that technocratic governance has emptied policymaking of its politics and made governance seem like a technical exercise. But, post-referendum, technocracy and depoliticisation have been re-engineered as virtues. Whereas left-leaning scholars criticised Gordon Brown’s “five economic tests” for Euro membership as depoliticisation and technocracy, the economistic statements of the cadre of Brexit-critical economists are embraced as evidence of political error.
Relatedly, the second referendum argument reformulates the purpose of a referendum in a profound and worrying fashion. Referendums are not about a population “getting it right”. They are about putting to the people discrete clear choices to make an authoritative decision of deep constitutional import. The second referendum argument shifts the purpose towards something tutelary: a “conversation” with the people in which, in time, they might change their minds as experiences and deliberation continue. This makes a referendum a managerial exercise that necessarily imputes that there is a right outcome that may need some time and effort to reach. For some Remainers, it is expected (rightly or wrongly) that a second referendum would overturn the decision of the first (that is why it is being demanded) and accepted that the next one would be the last.
Next time around…?
All in all, my experience of post-referendum discussion has been a considerable challenge for me. I have seen an odd insurgence of pro-EU normative discourse where everyone assumed the EU was a neoliberal project before; I have seen casual assumptions of systemic racism and/or naiveté amongst Leave voters; I have searched often in vain for a critical and empirically-substantiated analysis of the differentiated costs and benefits of remain and leave for different classes. And, although I have steered clear of commenting on the culture wars coursing through social media, I have seen a screed of social prejudice and anti-democratic Remainer discourse on Twitter.
In the past few days, Parliamentary Brexit procedures have moved into a state of high anxiety. The Prime Minister’s proposal is caught within a divided but broadly hostile Parliament and an EU unlikely to indulge further negotiations, clarifications and rescheduling. Alternative models, elections, and a second referendum are mooted by political commentators and campaigners. I doubt that there will be a second referendum. But if there is, I will have to assess not only the politics of leaving but also the politics of remaining which have to my mind lost considerable value throughout the interregnum.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.
Graham Harrison is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield.