Brexit is driven less by contextual and conjunctural factors than by history and structure, writes Hudson Meadwell (McGill University). It is not the short-term dynamics of the referendum campaign or the machinations of pre- and post-referendum party politics, or the current state of public opinion that need to be accounted for in understanding Brexit, both as event and process in British and UK politics. Rather, we should start elsewhere by examining foundational features of twentieth-century British politics. Brexit is an English problem, yet the foundations of British politics expose all of the UK to the risks and uncertainties of England’s historical ambivalence toward, and more recently, its rejection of European integration. The national structure of Britain and the UK, and the political organisation and expression of that structure, are the keys to understanding Brexit.

There are three basic features of British politics that account for Brexit: English political dominance, a largely unwritten constitution (which does take into account relatively recent changes that have codified certain constitutional features) and party politics. The first feature is fundamental and shapes the other two.

Only Human by Martin Parr, National Portrait Gallery, London. Image by @RochDW

English Domination

England politically dominates all other nations in the UK. Its 2015 electorate was five times all others combined (Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland). The House of Commons is English-dominated with almost five times the number of constituencies of other nations combined. To win a majority government, a party need only win roughly 60% of seats in England, even if all other seats in other nations are won by another or other parties.

There are no significant political counterweights to English political dominance. The ‘unwritten constitution’ does not correct for this dominance but simply expresses and reinforces it. Political powers and competences are not divided or shared territorially but are merely ‘de-concentrated’ or devolved. The recent histories of the Scottish and Welsh ‘parliaments’ support this observation, as does the history of Stormont, post-Home Rule (1920) through the formation of the Irish Free State up to the current operations of Stormont, post-Good Friday Agreement. All exist at the discretion of Westminster rather than constitutionally. England does not have its own national assembly as do Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh. Its domination of Parliament makes an English assembly redundant. Moreover, upper parliament – the House of Lords – is no counterweight to English political dominance. English dominance also organises the incentive structures of the two major parties. The Conservative party currently has roughly 3 English MPs for every 2 Labour English MPS and both Conservative and Labour MPs are dominated by English MPs: 292/313 and 211/246 respectively.

The referendum was predominantly an English question. It was forced by a party that was increasingly English-centric, and whose leaders were responding to challenges from factions inside their party and from UKIP and more recently the Brexit Party. UKIP and the Brexit Party are almost exclusively an English electoral phenomenon. Turnout for the referendum was highest in England as was, of course, support for leaving the EU. The referendum results show significant, unsurprising national differences. They also show the contemporary vacuity of British identity, which seems to have had historical resonance primarily as an imperial identity. As a post-imperial identity, however, ‘British’ has lost meaning and is now (if not always has been) code for English dominance. Northern Ireland is Irish and not British. Scotland is not British. ‘Britain’ has been reduced to England and Wales.

Brexit may hasten Irish unification and Scottish separation. These are the limits of English dominance. Brexit may spell the end of English dominance of Scotland and Northern Ireland. Here is a thought experiment that perhaps helps to show the dilemma: Suppose at some point well prior to Brexit (but post British entry into the EEC/EU), England had negotiated changes to the political structures of Britain that recognized other nations in a written constitution that divided and shared power among them. Perhaps at the same time, the House of Lords would have been refashioned. Clearly, by definition, such changes would have diluted English dominance. England then could not as easily have dominated the political agenda, and an English-centric push to call a referendum on EU membership would likely not have emerged at all, all else equal. And it is hard to imagine, in my view, that such a call would have emerged from Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales, if they were constitutionally empowered in some way to express voice on issues as vital as membership. Playing this out a little further, an omniscient planner with an interest in keeping English options open on the question of economic and political integration, so that his future degrees of freedom on this question are relatively unfettered, is not likely to want to give up English dominance. Why divide or share power if it would threaten these future degrees of freedom?

Hence, if England wants out of the EU in order to escape EU-domination, it is unlikely going to be able to continue to dominate the UK, or the UK it does dominate will not be the UK we know. The Irish and the Scots will leave or they will negotiate a constitutional agreement that shares and divides power and that dilutes English dominance.

Negotiation and Ratification

Post-referendum political dynamics have been organised around two processes: EU-UK negotiations and British ratification of negotiation results in the House of Commons. In turn, these processes have had two consequences: they reveal the superior bargaining position of the EU and they have added structure to the choice sets facing the British. English dominance plays a role in each of these consequences. Negotiations reveal the superior bargaining position of the EU. Some rough backward induction should reveal that the EU also had the superior bargaining position in the pre-referendum negotiations between Cameron and the EU. The UK did not enter the latter negotiations as a status-quo oriented party. Rather Cameron was publicly demanding changes to the UK-EU status quo. His private preference (both personal and his preferred position for the Conservative Party) may have been to maintain EU membership but his public posturing was revisionist.

The negotiations reveal the boundaries of the politically feasible for Britain. The relationship between bilateral British-EU negotiations and British ratification suggests that it is the EU that now has de facto agenda-setting power, not only in negotiations but in the ratification process in Parliament. That agenda-setting power has effectively forced the divisions in the Conservative party to be fully expressed and in so doing has fractured the last two governments. The negotiations thus ironically confirm the substance of the Yes vote: The EU constrains the UK Parliament.

Yet this is not accurately framed as a problem of the indivisibility of parliamentary ‘sovereignty’. Parliamentary sovereignty masks the hard fact of English political dominance and is marshalled in political rhetoric to protect that dominance. The EU is not challenging British parliamentary sovereignty; rather, the EU is a challenge to English political dominance. The price of having freely entered the EU via negotiations and a voluntary referendum is that Britain and its Parliament are now not free to leave via a referendum only. There is no legal right or practical option of unilateral withdrawal, once having joined. Once again though, this is not to suggest that British political ‘sovereignty’ has been violated either at point of entry or in the current negotiations. Rather, this is a question of whether contracts to which Britain is a corporate party are complete contracts or not. The notion that something called ‘sovereignty’ is threatened or has been violated is a political frame rather than a supportable argument. The post-referendum negotiations, however, do suggest that there is some symmetry in the exercise of EU power. The EU appears to be most powerful vis à vis individual members at the point of hypothetical entry (conditionality) and hypothetical exit. If this is true for Britain, it should hold, by virtue of monotonicity, for those members who are more fully integrated, eg. in the Euro-zone. All else equal, fuller integration should imply higher exit costs (both transaction and transition costs).

The EU will be able to force the hand of supporters of a no deal Brexit.  Negotiations did not break down. Rather, to this point in mid-June 2019, they have failed to be ratified by one of the parties. Johnson’s claim that Britain can leave without paying any transition costs related to benefits accrued from its access to EU programs, which have been priced and agreed to in the negotiations, and hold back payments to the EU until a better deal is reached is not a credible threat or bargaining position. The no deal option is not a no deal option at all. Instead, it merely implies a deal that is different than the current one agreed to in negotiations, namely one in which the EU agrees to lower the agreed costs of exit, holding everything else agreed to constant. In effect, what is implied in Johnson’s position is a trade-off in which there is (effectively) financial compensation provided to Britain, in the form of a lower bill, in exchange for British acceptance of other provisions. This is perverse. Indeed, in order to secure better terms with regard to access, mobility or borders, Britain should expect to pay more. It is the EU that has the superior bargaining position.

There will be a deal with the EU, there is not a no deal option. Then one question is whether Britain’s formal withdrawal from the EU, without ratification, would increase its bargaining position vis à vis the EU so that British leadership could negotiate a better deal after withdrawal than the one currently on offer. If the answer to this question is positive, then it should be possible to show concretely how formal withdrawal provides more leverage. Does formal withdrawal make it more likely that the EU will agree to changes demanded by Britain? I don’t think so. Bargaining over the financial bill after withdrawal will only change the outcome if Britain can credibly commit to walking away altogether from paying its bill. But then, of course, it is left with nothing – no access of any kind to EU markets in essentially all commodities and services, zero mobility, a hard Irish border and no interim backstop. The EU will not improve the terms of its offer in order to induce Britain to pay some of its bills. And, in my view, the EU can more credibly threaten to pursue the charges owed it in the event that Britain reneges than Britain can threaten to renege.

The EU status quo without UK membership would look recognizably like the status quo ante when Britain was a member. The UK status quo, particularly in the event of a no deal exit but also under other scenarios, is not as easy to imagine, particularly in the short and medium term. The transition costs are far higher for Britain than for the EU. The national structure of Britain and the UK means that its territorial integrity will likely be challenged in the transition out of the EU, ultimately because its boundaries are maintained through English dominance. While others such as Wolfgang Streeck think the EU is a liberal empire organized around German hegemony and anticipate its failure, I don’t see a similar challenge to the integrity of the EU in the transition, in part because relations of national and territorial domination do not appear to be as important within the EU, compared to Britain, and because there is some meaningful power-sharing within it. Certainly, there has been far more coordination, coherence and unity on the EU side than the British side through the negotiating and ratification processes. These differences in transition costs would account for some of the bargaining advantage of the EU.

Negotiations and the public framing of the negotiations also have provided more structure to political choice, and the increase in structure reveals some aspects of the distribution of costs and benefits of alternatives within the EU-British multi-dimensional bargaining space. The referendum vote was structured as a binary choice between continued membership — the pre-referendum status quo negotiated by Cameron (call it SQNB) or exit, the negation of the status quo (Ø SQNB). Post-referendum, the structure and choice set are more elaborate: SQNB remains as a possible reference point, and its negation (Ø SQNB) is now elaborated as Hard Brexit (HB), Soft Brexit (SB), or No Deal Brexit (NDB). The post-referendum choice set then is {SQNB, HB, SB, NDB}. SB, HB, NDB vary according to access to markets, mobility and borders, primarily.

The current contest (circa mid-June 2019) for the Conservative party leadership shows the reality of this structure with candidates staking out positions, eg. Johnson as a NDB candidate, others are committing to a deal (versions of HB or SB) but not the deal offered by May. Through the negotiations that the referendum has initiated, information has been revealed about bargaining positions and the structure of political choice. Yet beyond these matters, in terms of more fundamental features of British politics, Brexit shows the enduring importance of English political dominance in Britain and the UK.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.

Hudson Meadwell is Associate Professor of Political Science at McGill University.

[1] {Glossary: SB Soft Brexit, HB Hard Brexit, NDB No Deal Brexit, SQNB Status Quo No Brexit (the settlement negotiated by Cameron pre-referendum)}.

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