In Tales of Brexits Past and Present: Understanding the Choices, Threats and Opportunities in Our Separation from the EUNigel Culkin and Richard Simmons draw upon three purported historic examples of previous ‘Brexits’ in which Britain retreated from its relationship with the European continent to consider the challenges and opportunities of Brexit in economic and entrepreneurial terms. Gary Wilson welcomes this novel contribution to the growing literature on Brexit. 

Tales of Brexits Past and Present: Understanding the Choices, Threats and Opportunities in Our Separation from the EU. Nigel Culkin and Richard Simmons. Emerald. 2019.

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The phenomenon of Brexit has given rise to a not insignificant body of literature which seeks to make sense of the UK’s cataclysmic referendum vote on 23 June 2016 to leave the European Union and the consequences of this. Most of the prevailing scholarship has centred on the referendum campaign itself, the reasons why the majority of the UK voted ‘Leave’ and the implications of the UK exiting the EU. Although touching upon all of these themes to some extent, this new book by Nigel Culkin and Richard Simmons seeks to adopt a different focus in its treatment of the issue of Brexit. Culkin is a professor of enterprise and entrepreneurial development and Simmons is an economist; these disciplinary perspectives are at the heart of the lines of enquiry explored within the book. Using three purported historic examples of previous ‘Brexits’ in which Britain retreated from its relationship with the European continent for the sake of comparison, the authors endeavour to consider the challenges and opportunities of Brexit in economic and entrepreneurial terms.

Tales of Brexits Past and Present is relatively brief given the complexity of its subject matter, running to just over 160 pages excluding annexes and references. Broadly speaking, the book might be separated into three parts which each roughly account for a third of its content.  The first third is concerned with making some sense of Brexit and setting the context for the discussion found in the later chapters. The next third concerns itself with an explanation of three purported earlier Brexits of sorts, from which it is hoped that some lessons might be learnt which can guide approaches towards the construction of a post-Brexit economic model for the UK today. The remainder of the book is given over to consideration of five specific economic themes which require action if the concerns which gave rise to Brexit are to be addressed. At the outset, three underlying objectives of the book are outlined which reflect this division of contents: to understand why people voted ‘Leave’; to learn from past experiences drawn from the end of the Roman occupation of Britain, Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the Elizabethan reformation; and to establish what changes must occur if the aspirations of Leave voters are to be realised.

It has been widely suggested that for many of those who voted ‘Leave’ in the 2016 referendum, this was an act of rebellion against the effects of globalisation and the perceived political establishment, a starting point from which this book also begins. It is contended that perceptions of identity underpinned the Leave vote, although it suggested that support for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU was particularly found in two quite different demographic groups. The first consisted of relatively comfortable, older middle-class people who were often retired and typically had no financial burdens, such as outstanding mortgages, to contend with. The second comprised those often labelled the ‘left behind’: working-class people with low incomes, poor economic opportunities and little job security. The former group were aggrieved at apparent social changes, including the perceived effects of immigration to the UK, and harkened to an idyllic past. The latter’s grievance concerned its lot in life. For both groups, the referendum was an opportunity to deliver a blow to the perceived establishment, the EU being a convenient punchbag. The former group did not feel threatened by any potential negative economic effects of Brexit, whereas for the latter there was little to lose by taking a gamble in voting ‘Leave’. Attitudes towards immigration were central to the Leave vote, whereas Remain voters were comparatively younger, more educated and predominantly influenced by arguments concerning the economic effects of leaving the EU.

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After alluding to the ‘red lines’ set out by Theresa May in January 2017 to guide her approach to withdrawal negotiations with the EU, the authors highlight some of the various effects of withdrawal from the EU, not least the loss of access to the benefits of 746 international agreements to which the EU is a party. The current economic situation is considered within the context of the 2008 global financial crisis, which resulted in a significant reduction in real wage levels and the growth of ‘zero hours’ contracts. The financial services sector is flagged up as being particularly threatened by Brexit. Accounting for 1% of GDP and employing one million people, there is a genuine risk of relocation on the part of many employers to other EU member states.

In considering the possible longer-term effects of Brexit, perhaps the most interesting and original part of the book is found in its treatment of prior ‘Brexits’. While it may have been helpful if some more recent examples could have been adduced, those chosen from the fifth and sixteenth centuries respectively offer much food for thought when considering how the current Brexit may develop. Brexit Mk 1 is found in the departure of the Romans from Britain in AD410, which set in a period of economic decline and ushered in the ‘dark ages’. The authors regard the Roman Empire as essentially the first incarnation of the EU, possessing a single market and facilitating borderless trade. The end of tax payments to Rome resulted in a loss of coinage which damaged the market economy.

The second Brexit took the form of Henry VIII’s break with Rome. Drawing upon similarities to the present day in respect of disconnected elites, wage squeezes and great power tensions, the authors also demonstrate how the nature of the split was similar in its focus on ending continental legal authority over the UK and the repatriation of power at a national level. However, it is observed that while serving as a short-term solution to Henry VIII’s marital and financial problems, in the longer term the break with Rome produced unrest on the part of a public alienated from the political elite, illustrated in uprisings such as the Pilgrimage of Grace. Brexit Mk 3 came in the wake of Elizabeth I’s accession and England’s self-imposed isolation from Europe over religious matters. The domestic response was to pioneer new economic objectives, which included the launching of global expeditions to explore trading opportunities further afield, the promotion of free trade and outsourcing.

The chapters in the final third or so of the book may prove the most taxing to those with little interest in matters of economics or entrepreneurship. In these, the challenges posed in a post-Brexit world on a number of counts are explored. These concern, respectively, the global innovation economy; the generational divide; the ‘left behind’ phenomena; international dimensions to Brexit; and the rise of populism and the role of the internet. A central argument throughout is the need for post-Brexit developments to be able to address the aspirations of the ‘left behind’ and narrow the gap that is the generational divide between a wealthier, comfortable middle-aged population and younger people who are struggling to achieve the success of previous generations.

The authors end with the question: ‘What Brexit will it be this time?’ While this is rhetorical, they refer back to their selected previous Brexits, of which they suggest Mk 1 took the hardest form, Mk 2 was largely a legal form of Brexit and Mk 3 represented an entrepreneurial model. Given the earlier experiences, the implication is that to be successful, Brexit must be accompanied by genuine entrepreneurial efforts to address the kinds of economic grievances which gave rise to Brexit in the first place. Although much has been written on Brexit in such a short period, this book is nonetheless deserving of a place in any such collection, bringing as it does some novel perspectives to make sense of both the background to, and consequences of, Brexit.

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Note: This article is provided by our sister site, LSE Review of Books. It gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Gary Wilson – Liverpool John Moores University
Gary Wilson is Senior Lecturer in Law at Liverpool John Moores University. He specialises in collective security, the use of force and issues of secession and self-determination.

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