Putting Brexit in perspective

And so, Britain’s 47-year membership of first the EEC and then the EU has finally come to an end.  Much has been said about how this is not actually the end of the matter – despite Boris Johnson’s claims, Brexit is not “done”, and the negotiations with the EU on trade, security and much else will continue, probably for many years.  And whatever the outcome of those negotiations proves to be, Britain’s future is unlikely to be either as rosy as the more extravagant claims of the Brexiteers promise or as bad as the worst fears and warnings of those who wished to remain.  Life will go on.

But having said that, it is not wrong to see 31 January 2020 as a significant date in Britain’s history, and it is not wrong to take a moment, before the ongoing negotiations resume and bring us back to the details, to put it into a wider perspective.

We would highlight just two areas where we think lessons can be drawn from Britain’s withdrawal from the EU:  firstly the changing nature of modern politics, and secondly despite this, the unchanging nature of Britain.

On the first of these, the changing nature of modern politics, one fact stands out above all others.  Just after the 2010 UK general election, in an opinion poll asking people what factors had been important in deciding how they voted, less than 1% of the electorate answered “Britain’s membership of the EU”.  It was not then a contentious issue for most people – like the weather, one grumbled about it, but like the weather, people did not really want to go to the effort of changing it, and far less expected to be able to.  Yet just 6 years later, more than half the country voted to leave, and even now, it remains the single most dominant divide in British politics.

We think this shows a rise in the potency of single-issue politics.  And this in turn is due to a rise in the ability for ordinary people to make their views heard, however obscure, unusual or removed from consensus those views are.  Social media gives both a platform and a voice to those holding minority, even extreme views in a way that “traditional” (ie pre-internet) politics never did.

In the past, if a group of people wished to effect a change in society, the usual way to do so was to create a mass movement, whether within the formal political system (such as the formation of the Labour party as the political expression of the trade union movement’s desire to protect and promote the interests of workers) or outside politics (such as the Suffragette movement).  Crucially, both of these, and other similar changes ranging from the introduction of Prohibition in America before the 2nd World War to greater gender and racial equality after it, worked by persuading the general population of the general validity of their cause, and this process takes time and requires considerable resources to be devoted to winning the argument.

The advent of social media enables even a small single-issue group with very much a minority view to now be heard, and the preferred way of promoting such a view becomes not “to win over the majority with rational argument” but to be so loud and unyielding as to batter the majority into acquiescence so that the issue (and its loud proponents) goes away. 

This is the triumph of the few who care deeply over the many who are largely indifferent.  It is much facilitated by the recent trend of resorting to referenda – we have commented before on how this blunt tool of direct democracy conflicts and clashes with the established representative democracy, but one of the additional ways referenda can distort political debate is to force the majority of the electorate who usually hold no strong views either way on the subject in question to take sides.

And thereafter human psychology takes over, and people increasingly identify with whichever side of the debate they have decided (perhaps slightly arbitrarily[1]) to identify with.  Thus people who really did not have a strong view on Europe and perhaps only decided on Referendum day itself which way to vote, harden their views and become ever more convinced firstly that theirs is the only sensible course (because otherwise it raises the possibility that they were wrong in their decision), and secondly that the matter becomes so important as to trump all other political issues.  With the result, as we have just seen, that whole swathes of the electorate will even change their political allegiance from Labour to Conservative to avoid compromising their adopted stance on the EU.

We think this raises significant questions about how political discourse will be conducted in future.  The traditional political party, a broad coalition between people who mostly agree on most issues and who put forward an agreed manifesto with a wide range of hopefully coherent policies to address society’s needs, has very little to say to an electorate which increasingly seems to prioritise one issue above all others and to determine its voting intentions on that issue alone. 

For example the electorate hardly noticed, let alone engaged with, the vast swathe of the Liberal Democrat party’s policies at the last election:  the party was pigeon-holed as “the party of ignoring the referendum result” and absolutely nothing else they said made any impact at all on the electorate or therefore their election chances.  Indeed we challenge our UK-based readers to recall a single other policy the party put forward less than 2 months ago!

In such an environment, success in politics will not so much go to those who on balance have the best set of answers to society’s many wider problems as to those who can define, capture and own the one issue that rises above the rest.  Thus at the recent election, the Conservatives’ “Get Brexit Done” dominated and delivered the result Boris Johnson wanted;  at the 2017 election, it was Jeremy Corbyn’s “For the Many not the Few” that resonated to a much greater extent than expected and gave the Labour party a much better result than had seemed likely at the start of the campaign.

The problem though with “politics by slogan” and single issue elections is that they give no space to other no less important issues.  The electorate at large does not really know what the current government’s plans are on a whole range of issues, from the housing crisis to defence to social care and many others besides – they hardly featured in the election campaign debates at all.  But if the electorate do not know, how firstly can the government claim a mandate for its actions in these other fields and how secondly can they be held accountable at the next election?

These two issues – consent and accountability – are at the heart of the democratic system of government.  And it is perhaps no great surprise after the politics of the last few years that a rising number of people in the UK, especially young people, are questioning not only whether democracy as it is currently operating is working, but even whether democracy is their preferred way of running society at all[2].

But if the saga of Brexit is indicative to us that the nature of politics is changing, we believe that it also shows that the underlying nature of Britain is surprisingly constant.  Indeed we will go further and suggest that future historians will look back on the 20-year period from 1956 to say 1975 as the aberration, and wonder what it was that then encouraged the normally isolationist British to seek a closer relationship with the Continent.

For the truth is that throughout their history, the British (and earlier, the English) have usually tried to hold the Continent at arm’s length, seeking to engage with them and trade with them certainly, and to influence them and act as a power-broker where they can, but avoiding more direct involvement with or oversight from the Continental powers.  Even the one time England had a real presence on the Continent, the 12th century Angevin Empire of King Henry II, was in truth brittle, troublesome, short-lived and on the whole an experience no subsequent ruler has tried seriously to repeat.

In part this reflects simple geography:  the island mentality is not just a myth and the Channel has most of the time been a good defence and has afforded the country the ability to pursue a different path.  In part it also reflects the reality that the British are at best the third most important of the peoples of Europe – both the Latin people and the Germanic people have always been more numerous and more powerful, forcing the British to seek their fortune on the wider global stage, and limiting their aspirations in Europe to having influence by allying with one against the other rather than seeking control for themselves.

And never is this position of being the third power more clear than when the powers on the Continent are united – for then Britain is in a weak position, as the scope for playing the power broker is greatly reduced, the danger of being dictated to increases, and the attraction of distancing the country from the Continent grows. 

This is the case now – and has been for more than 60 years as France and Germany have formed a strong (and in historical terms unusually stable) alliance.  And as before in history, the natural British response is to seek to avoid, rather than to seek to control.  Thus the Brexiteer image of “Global Britain” is not an aberration;  it is right in line with much of the country’s history and taps into a deep and enduring sentiment born of geographical and political realities.  But it should be realised also that it is an admission of weakness and a resort to the next best option when facing a united Continent[3].

And what of the period 1956-1975, when Britain changed its original (and more traditional) stance of stand-offishness?  Historians will we think point to the slow realisation that while emerging from the 2nd World War undefeated, Britain had been much weakened, to the brutal shock of Suez which crystallised for all to see the loss of superpower status, and to the dismantling of the Empire – all of these had sapped Britain’s self-confidence to such an extent that for once, accepting oversight from the Continent seemed the least undesirable of the ways forward.

When Britain first sought to join the EEC in the early 1960s, it was French president Charles de Gaulle who stood in their way.  He never hid his view that the UK was not suited to membership of the European dream, he believed that below the surface Britain had not changed, he noted that it had never willingly accepted rule from the Continent in the past, and he warned that it would always in the last resort seek to go its own way. 

The seeds of discontent with accepting even a small element of rule from overseas took less than 2 years after Britain’s accession to surface;  45 years later they have borne fruit just as de Gaulle predicted.  But 31 January 2020 was not a total leap into the unknown, merely the latest version of a common theme in Britain’s history, and the first day of the rest of its national story.

[1]              And certainly not exclusively, and in many cases not even primarily, on economic grounds.  But this should not surprise anyone:  most of the really important decisions a person makes, from their choice of life partner to whether to have children to whether to follow a faith are not based on economics.  So the complaint of Remainers that “Brexit makes no economic sense” is to miss the point completely – for many people it was not an economic decision.

[2]              And not just in the UK, as this recent article in the Guardian shows.

[3]              I am indebted to a good friend in Switzerland, a student of European history with – unusually for someone in Switzerland – a deep interest in Tudor England, for the observation that this is precisely the right way to see King Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic church.  It was certainly not a statement of faith, and should not be seen as a statement of strength, but rather a statement of weakness and frustration, and an admission that the only way to achieve his aims (viz, divorce from Katherine of Aragon) was to accept the self-harm of isolation from the Continent, the Church and – of great importance to the general population at the time – the promise of eternal life.  With the exception of the latter, this seems to me to be a surprisingly close parallel to the mindset that has driven Brexit.