Tim Oliver’s brilliant new book, Understanding Brexit – A Concise Introduction, leads us through the byzantine complexities of the European Union and the options for how the Brexit process may unfold. It is a valuable resource for teachers and students, especially those interested in a Brexit textbook. In it Oliver tells us that that Brexit provides a window onto questions about British and European politics. But, what it actually is, is far less clear. Perhaps, ignorance is bliss, asks Matteo Tiratelli (UCL)?
Understanding Brexit – A Concise Introduction. Tim Oliver. Policy Press 2018
Tim Oliver’s excellent new book, Understanding Brexit, sets out to provide a comprehensive, non-partisan introduction to a subject which is already attracting a ballooning volume of literature. He is comfortable leading us through the byzantine complexities of the European Union, he sets out the various positions and options available to Theresa May in an impressively neutral tone, and he provides a valuable resource for teachers and students. For those interested in a Brexit textbook, there’s much to praise here and I would certainly recommend it to my students.
But, one of its strangest features is how reticent he is it to tell us what Brexit is. In the first few pages we learn that it is not a single event, not just about the UK, and not even just about Europe. He tells us that it provides a window onto questions about Britain’s place in the world, the challenge of European integration and even the global trend towards ‘post-truth politics’. But, what it actually is, is far less clear. In fact, throughout the book, Oliver repeats a negative mantra: ‘Brexit is not a single event, a single process, solely about Britain nor the country’s departure from the EU’. Negative theology might be an appropriate response when confronted with the enormity of God, but is that really the best we can hope for when confronted with Brexit?
Armed with that negative definition, Oliver employs two different rhetorical strategies (unfortunately, neither of them is the mysticism which normally accompanies negative theology – ecstatic union with essence of Brexit anyone?). His first is to talk around Brexit, building up forensically detailed knowledge about EU negotiation practices, the British constitution, the different possible outcomes etc etc. We learn about the Council of the EU and the European Council, the Commission and the Parliament, Britain’s role in pushing the EU towards neoliberal economics and expansion, while resisting the creation of strong centralised institutions. His other approach is to peer behind Brexit, to make it all about internal Tory-party factionalism or England’s rejection of elites, experts and European migrants. Both of these approaches are interesting in their own right, but, the premise of a book like this is that Brexit is a really existing thing about which we can be knowledgeable. And, in that context, both begin to feel like sophisticated dodges.
I also wonder what we’re meant to do with all of the encyclopaedic knowledge that Oliver gives us. The 2016 referendum debate was spectacularly uninformed. And neither side was prepared to talk honestly or clearly about what the EU was or what Brexit might be (Jeremy Corbyn’s infamous attempt at honesty – “I’m seven out of 10 on the EU” – was ridiculed in the press, so may be they should share some of the blame too). But, in early 2019, this knowledge might be too little too late. Meanwhile, in the political battle over Brexit, the major actors on both sides have been elected officials and well funded lobby groups. And even there, there’s been little room for knowledge. Sir Ivan Rogers, former Permanent Representative from the UK to the EU, recently pointed out that Theresa May and her circle of advisers fundamentally didn’t understand how the European Union works. But clearly, they’re not the intended audience for a book like this.
Over the last two years, there’s been a growing industry of Brexit explainers, from Kevin O’Rourke’s A Short History to Fintan O’Toole and Tim Shipman. But all these explainers struggle to set out what Brexit is and so raise the question of what purpose they’re meant to serve. Talking around or behind Brexit might give us some sense of agency in a situation which too often feels radically out of control. But it doesn’t help us to pin down what Brexit actually is. It’s not even clear that these explainers would help the different sides organise politically. Instead, the second referendum/remain-at-all-costs coalition have alienated themselves, failing to win over a majority of MPs or of citizens. Meanwhile, it’s too early to tell whether the ERG’s hardball strategy will force us into a hard Brexit. And it’s also not clear how Britain and the EU can reach any of the various compromise positions.
But there is one way of thinking about what Brexit is, which is rarely addressed by the explainers. We’ve known about Theresa May’s ‘red lines’ since January 2017, when she said she wouldn’t accept free movement of people and wanted Britain to be able to make independent trade deals. We’ve also known that her government was politically impotent since the elections in June that year. That same year we found out that the EU and UK were both committed to an open border in Ireland (despite the Freudian slip that is ‘Brexit’, a portmanteau of Britain and exit which conveniently ignores Northern Ireland altogether). So, from about 18 months ago, Brexit started to take shape as a slow-motion car crash of irreconcilable ‘red lines’.
As a society, we try to deal with car crashes with a mixture of preventative systems (driving tests and road signs) and safety devices (airbags and crumple zones). Neither of these seem to operate on the political front. Our unwritten constitution allows politicians to make it up as they go along, while the automatic stabilisers meant to protect citizens from economic downturns have been eviscerated by austerity. And there’s been no serious attempts to build those systems back up over the last two years. We don’t need to know much about Brexit to tackle those issues and, at a political conjuncture like this, ignorance might, in fact, be a virtue.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of LSE Brexit, nor of the London School of Economics.
Dr Matteo Tiratelli is a Teaching Fellow in Sociology at the UCL Institute of Education and is currently thinking about where power lies in the modern state. He’s also half Italian.
Asking “what is Brexit” with the expectation of an answer is to fall into the essentialist fallacy. So a negative theology might be the best strategy. Though the author’s definition that Brexit as a car crash without the amelioration of seat belts, airbags or crumple zones enriches the range of negative theology.