Are the politics of Brexit here to stay? - RSA

Are the politics of Brexit here to stay?


  • Economic democracy
  • Deliberative democracy
  • Communities
  • Devolution

Perhaps the last thing we need is to imagine a near future dystopia of nuclear warfare, a mega financial crash, climate crisis, technological dislocation, the rise of far-right populism, mass movement of refugees displaced by conquest in Eastern Europe, inefficacy of anti-biotics and the spread of transhumanist body modification.

And yet, with an overlay of an engrossing family drama, that is exactly what Russell T Davies has given us with the new BBC drama Years and Years. And the problem is that, far from a work of a science fiction, this near future Britain is frighteningly close to home. It is engrossing and disconcerting in equal measure.

21st century modernity - to embrace or reverse?

We are not coping with twenty-first century modernity very well. In fact, we are increasingly pulled in two directions: embrace and reverse. For those seeking to embrace, the future is a fraught place but one that can be navigated with enormous political change and will along with a readiness to face up to mounting problems of climate change, inequality, and technological turbulence. It is an optimistic mindset but some might say self-serving and naïve.

The reverse mentality, elucidated by Paul Mason in his recent appearance at the RSA, is beyond a nostalgia and lament, it is a will to power, to reverse time and history and restore a lost world. Taking back control is not so much about taking control of our sovereignty, it is more profound: taking back control of the flow of time.

This lost world was one in which there was a greater sense of pride and esteem for many who perceive themselves to have lost out from the cultural and economic change of the past decades. And you see it in a range of observational books published in the US and the UK from Janesville to Poverty Safari to Strangers in their Own Land. Beyond Years and Years, you see it in Perfidious Albion by Sam Byers and the observational journalism of John Harris. Not all of those who want reverse are Brexit supporters and vice versa – the vision of a buccaneering, free trading, global post-Brexit Britain articulated by some on the right is a form of ‘embrace’, for example. But there is a correlation.  

The charge of these perspectives can be suddenly reversed. Should a hard Brexit be the outcome of the past few months then ‘embrace’ could become ‘reverse’ and vice versa. This simply points to the instability of the moment. These forces were below ground; the Brexit process has brought them to the surface.

Attempts to compromise on Brexit have pulled us further apart

There is a centre-ground of course: advocating a meeting point of ‘reverse’ and ‘embrace’, of compromise and move on. This seems reasonable if it were possible. And yet, we have had a series of compromise positions on the table between a hard Brexit on World Trade Organisation rules and remain. We have had the Withdrawal Agreement, Labour’s alternative proposals, and many other variants of compromise. And far from bringing Parliament and the country together, each proposal has pulled the poles further apart.

By looking backwards and forwards simultaneously attempts at compromise have strained the debate beyond the point of settlement. Proponents of compromise may wish for it to be different but we are where we are: irreconcilable on this question because ‘reverse’ and ‘embrace’ are two fundamentally different dynamics.  

Over all this, the phrase ‘Brexit means Brexit’ reverberates. Theresa May’s original uncompromising stance was far more profound than she may have intended it to be. Brexit may or may not happen but what has been unleashed by the referendum is a state of Brexit: one of deep division, win-lose politics, competing narratives of justice, democracy, esteem and power. Those in favour of leave argue the 2016 referendum should be honoured. Although, why a majority in 2016 is worth more than a potentially different majority in early 2020 isn’t entirely clear.

Yet, those who are remain cannot be unalert to the very real assurances that were given by political leaders in the referendum to implement the decision. Both sides have legitimate claims and competing legitimacies is part of the intrinsic nature of a politics of Brexit which is one of the elements making resolution so hard.

We are now beyond the point where there is a clever legislative or political manoeuvre that can navigate around this state. The EU referendum made manifest what was latent. And what was latent was a politics of Brexit.

Profound democratic transformation is now essential

Where do we go from here? Whilst we can’t easily extricate ourselves from the politics of Brexit, we do have to decide what next on the process. This Parliament now seems to be incapable of deciding so it will be to the people that the decision is likely to return. That will either be in form of a general election or second referendum or, more innovatively, through a citizens’ assembly.

In an ideal world, a citizens’ assembly would lay out the issues and perhaps set a question for a second referendum prior to a national vote. A general election is unlikely to provide clarity on what the public now wants with regards to Brexit as competing claims about the meaning of last week’s European Elections show.

Brexit is no longer a process alone. The deepening politics of ‘embrace’ and ‘reverse’ sits within a profound set of disparities. British democracy can no longer cope. Let’s be honest, Parliamentary democracy has essentially collapsed under the strain. A more profound transformation is now essential. Constitutional change doesn’t even begin to cover it; an essential component of transformation though that should be.

Recently, the Bank of England’s Chief Economist, Andy Haldane, outlined the spatial dimensions of inequality. His point was that by using increasingly complex tools of data gathering and analysis we can see complexities of local economies in new ways. When we augment data science with democratic engagement, intense listening of plural narratives, then a deeper appreciation of the way in which Britain diverges becomes accessible. This is one reason why the UK 2070 Commission  has suggested a transfer of resources from affluent to less affluent regions on the scale of the transfers within Germany post re-unification. Fiscal transfers and greater policy sensitivity to local and regional difference are certainly a strong start.

In a report on the future of skills policy published last week, Atif Shafique, argues forcibly that devolution should be, by default, to better enable adaptation to local social and economic complexity. He also argues that individuals should be given access to cash grants to invest in their skills. The risk of simply changing national economic policy to make it more context aware or large-scale spatial redistribution is that the experience of inclusion will remain elusive.

Addressing the politics of Brexit

New tramlines will be constructed, new public buildings will appear, big numbers attached to regeneration schemes will fill the local news headlines. But a sense of inclusion, of voice, of economic security and power will be out of reach. Without bearing down on economic insecurity directly - one reason we are so interested inempowering measures such as Basic Income  - this deeper reconnection of the polarities of Brexit is likely to fall short. Beyond that, local services and democratic mechanisms should be reshaped around greater civic participation. If people think participation has effect, then they will turnout. Ironically, that is one of the lessons from the high turnout in the EU referendum.

The upshot of the Years and Years world where everything seems to be moving forward faster whilst the urge to reverse becomes stronger, is the election of Vivienne Rook, a British cross between Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini. Once a decision is taken on the next stage of the Brexit process, if we don’t address the politics of Brexit directly then all sorts of outcomes become possible and at some point, likely. Any public decision on Brexit in the next twelve months is the prelude to a bigger moment: one in which Brexit politics becomes permanent or we pull away from it.                

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