Brexit: A View from the Other End of the Telescope

Yves here. While the cultural and historical norms are important in understanding “Why Brexit?” let us not forget that this was a Conservative Party power ploy that was never supposed to succeed. But the deep seated attitudes do go a long way towards explaining the continued delusional thinking on behalf of just about everyone in the Government and too many people in the UK press, that many Brits can’t accept that the EU doesn’t need them that badly and is in a position to push them around.

One big reason it did was the outlandish promises made by the Leave side, recapped here. The short version (and I wonder if UK readers will agree) is the power of the “red bus”: the persistent and false advertising that Brexit would result in £350 million a week in supposed EU dues saved being spent on the NHS.

By Robin Wilson, the lead editor of the openSecurity section of openDemocracy. He advises the Council of Europe on the intercultural paradigm for the management of cultural diversity. Originally published at openDemocracy

Image: diamond geezer, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, described the UK government’s proposal this week for an interim customs agreement as a ‘fantasy’, as Euronews reported, it highlighted how the view of Europe from the home counties is very much at odds with the view of the UK from the European mainland.

Yet amid the welter of coverage of Brexit in the British media, the view from the other end of the telescope is very rarely adopted. Take a simple example. Throughout the referendum campaign in 2016, no commentator—or even partisan from the Remain side—asked the obvious question: why has the European Union grown from the six that the UK joined in 1973 to the 28 of today and yet only the UK has even considered leaving the club, never mind voted so to do? What is it, in other words, not about ‘Brussels’ but about Britain, which makes it so alien?

The UK has always been a reluctant EU partner. An academic book published seven years ago with the title A Community of Europeans? described how hitherto narrowly national identities and public spheres across the EU had become ‘Europeanised’ as a result of decades of integration. But throughout the author, Thomas Risse, noted how the UK remained an outlier. The Brexit vote, we now know, was the consequence, but claims of a domino effect leading to a ‘Nexit’ or a ‘Frexit’ proved ridiculous.

On the contrary, before-and-after survey research commissioned by the Bertelsmann Foundation in six large EU member states found a significant uptick in support for the EU after the Brexit vote in all of them (France, Germany, Italy, Poland and the UK) bar Spain. Respondents were asked how they would vote in a referendum on retaining EU membership and in the UK positive responses rose from 49 per cent in March 2016 to 56 per cent in August. Fast forward and three out of four tracking polls by Survation—the company which called the Westminster election most accurately—in June and July this year have found Remain would win a rerun referendum. Hence the shrillness of the Brexiters that ‘the will of the people’—most of them, then—must be respected.

Yet also entirely absent from the saturation reporting of Brexit—and from the Remain camp—have been the three European precedents for the overturning of a referendum which initially brought a narrow Eurosceptic victory by a second ballot. In 1992 in Denmark, the Maastricht treaty was rejected by 50.7 per cent of voters but 56.7 per cent approved it the following year. Denmark and Ireland, both countries with quite a nationalistic political culture, joined the EU at the same time as the UK and voters in the Republic rejected two treaties at the first time of asking: the Nice treaty of 2001 and the Lisbon treaty of 2007. Constitutionally, Ireland requires referenda on EU treaties, because they comprise constitutional amendments; again, in both cases the initial vote was decisively overturned in the rerun referendum. Democracy is not a once-and-for all event—the ‘will of the people’, always pluralistic, changes.

Because of the myopic lens applied to European affairs, therefore, the UK is on track—despite contrary votes in Scotland and Northern Ireland and despite the shifting mood in England—to commit what the leading Irish official dealing with Brexit described in April as an ‘act of great self-harm’. A Financial Times investigation found in May that the UK would have to rewrite at least a bewildering 759 international agreements as alternatives to those to which it was party as an EU member. And an expert on trade has explained how developing a bespoke customs union with the EU bilaterally would be fiendishly complicated.

With firms and staff already voting with their feet in the City and the car industry in an agitated state—on top of Brexit-induced inflation hitting already pressed living standards generally—talk of sunny economic uplands for ‘global Britain’ has understandably quietened. So why is Brexit still going ahead?

The problem is that there are four longstanding features of British political culture which are taken for granted domestically and yet together have made the UK a ‘foreign body’ in the EU:

  1. A ‘classical’ English approach to political economy, rooted in the thinking of Adam Smith (not John Maynard Keynes) and embodied in the dominant ‘Treasury view’;
  2. A ‘liberal’ approach to the welfare state, characterised by means-testing of benefits and a commitment to low taxation;
  3. A patrician approach to governance, marked by dominance of the executive (‘the Crown in Parliament’) and lack of judicial constraint on ‘parliamentary sovereignty’; and
  4. A ‘realist’ approach to international relations — ‘no friends, only interests’ — associated with a transfer of allegiances from the countries of the former empire to the ‘special relationship’ with the US.

These four aspects were never going to sit easily with widely-held post-war assumptions on the European mainland—and indeed long delayed UK membership. While not all would share the traditional étatisme of the French governing class, nevertheless even on the Christian-democratic centre-right there was a recognition that markets had to be socially embedded to avoid the searing experience of deflation and mass unemployment which had been associated with the rise of Nazism and the onset of war. And while not all would endorse the Nordic welfare states, with their universal benefits funded by progressive taxation, the alternative was the insurance-based Bismarckian system, introduced to dampen worker alienation, rather than an Anglo-American minimalism based on faith in ‘flexible’ labour markets.

While there was respect for the long tradition of democracy in Britain, with its ‘mother of parliaments’, the absence of a written constitution for the UK was incomprehensible to most elsewhere, as was the British belief in the merits of a winner-takes-all electoral system, in sharp contrast with European-style coalition-building. And while British trumpeting of values of tolerance and freedom would also not have been discounted, the subservience (and associated delusion) of the UK’s Atlanticism was a mystery to many.

And so the conflicts inevitably followed over the decades succeeding UK accession, the periodic eruptions beginning when that nationalist evangel for market fundamentalism, Margaret Thatcher, entered Downing Street in 1979. And they were to be over predictable issues:

  • – ‘our’ money, as Thatcher banged the table for a rebate on its contribution to the resources necessary for the European Community to function;
  • – the mild ‘social chapter’ of the Maastricht treaty and the working-time directive, from which the UK opted out for ideological reasons;
  • – the constraints on UK ‘sovereignty’ represented by the European Court of Justice and the (separate) Court of Human Rights; and
  • – the establishment of the euro, deemed to undermine the City and sterling as a ‘global currency’.

These inchoate conflicts were inflamed by (themselves unregulated) conservative newspapers, which seemed unable to address European integration except in the aerated language of ‘Brussels’ impositions — ‘straight bananas’ among them — presented as defying British ‘common sense’.

Underpinning all this has been the dominant narrative in Britain of World War II. This is not of a Europe rescued (including with the sacrifice of 20 million Soviet citizens) from the fascist Sword of Damocles but is a story of how ‘Britain stood alone’ against its main national enemy: historically this was France but since World War I had been Germany. Fascism, and the political alternatives to it, only entered this story in the superficial demonising features of helmets, swastikas and the pidgin German (‘Achtung’, ‘Jawohl’) which entered countless children’s comic books.

Elsewhere in Europe, the political lesson bitterly learned through the Holocaust was of the need to subordinate particularistic identity claims and their aggressive prosecution against the ‘other’ to a regime guaranteeing universal norms of democracy, human rights and the rule of law — the fundamental shift which turned western Europe from the most violent region on the planet in the first half of the 20th century into a haven of peace in the second. What Britain ‘learned’ however was merely a reinforcement of its supposed national mission in the world, embodied in beliefs in its inherent stoicism at home and acceptance of the White Man’s Burden abroad.

Brexit is thus not just a misunderstanding between the British ruling class and the rest of Europe. It is the incomprehension of a former imperial power, wistfully hoping to recreate a long-gone global sphere of influence, for what remains—despite all its manifest shortfalls—a modern, cosmopolitan political project.

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  1. Disturbed Voter

    Sounds like …

    Of Germany, For Germany, By Germany

    If Brussels was more democratic, I think it would be better for GB to remain, but German leadership has failed.

    Similarly in the US, DC is increasingly authoritarian, which undermines national unity.

    GB will either be dominated by the US or by Germany … and our rule is more democratic … for now.

    1. Anonymous2

      The reason I disagree with you is that the UK had an important say in the decision making process in Brussels. Along with Germany and France it has been one of the three most influential voices in determining EU policy. Very often, in alliance with Germany it got its way in the Council chamber, as the two countries have similar political philosophies.

      Yes it will be dominated by the US but it will have no votes in Washington. In Brussels it had about 12%.

  2. SteveP811

    What shifting mood?

    Out of everyone I socialise with, be it a leaver/remainer/not bothereder… If anything there are more people who now just want it over and done with and we can pick up the pieces later.

    The threat of a Frexit has been postponed, if Macron gets no real victories over the EU regarding policy change, fully expect Le Pen to be back champing at the bit in 4 years time, campaigning against the undemocratic nature of the EU. Which, lets not forget, is the real reason the country voted against them. People have been told for years that they can’t do something because the EU won’t let them. Is there any great surprise that one day they listened and decided to do something about it? 350m a week isn’t a lot of money (ok it is for the NHS, but in comparison to our GDP it’s peanuts). For me it was never about that, it was about showing the EU up as rife with corruption. In the end, it boiled down to Geldof vs Farage on the Thames, and as soon as Geldof got involved, the result was never in doubt.

    I don’t see a reason for a second referendum before the deal is on the table. Maybe then, give the people the choice again, but I’d suggest it’ll all be over bar the shouting at that point.

  3. Tim

    I will start by saying I lean confidently on so many of your articles and analysis and have done for a long time. Great respect.

    Here you seem to have given the “Remainers” side of the argument with all the “facts” from their perspective. None are untrue, so much as you have given one side of the ledger.

    In fact, your list of chosen headings in your Brexit category shows you only have evidence of one side of the ledger, and fill in the other side with somewhat “influenced” assumptions, which is a shame.

    As the “status quo” can always be defined more clearly than future possibilities, the fact that there is no clarity on the future is rather self-evident.

    The “establishment” (corporations, civil service etc etc) in every jurisdiction will always try to slander anybody who challenges their system. This applies to the Civil Rights movement, the ANC, the Sinn Fein, Catalonia, Basques, Scotland, ex colonies…. The constant mantra is they have no idea what they are doing, they are racist, violent, stupid, uneducated, dreamers, etc

    Look back at what the UK was saying about the US in the mid 18th century, and the UK said the same about every independence movement in every colony…

    Having said all that, I won’t go into why I am pro-brexit (married to an EU citizen, living in EU, children in UK in school) but my list of independents’ and civil rights movements might give an indication of where my loyalties lie.

    BTW, a more recent poll has the following result:
    When taking this into account, we can split the country into three groups instead of two: The Hard Leavers who want out of the EU (45%); the Hard Remainers who still want to try to stop Brexit (22%); and the Re-Leavers (23%). The other 9% don’t know.

    1. Terry Flynn

      YouGov have it only “sort-of-right” yet again. Interesting that they agree with my own national choice model survey that there is (as of April 2017) 45% hard leave (which I’ve commented about on NC before with PlutoniumKun and anonymous2 amongst others), around 10% don’t know and 45% remain. I didn’t ask whether those who voted remain wanted us to respect the referendum. But what I *do* know is the motivations (regarding the single market, customs union and free trade area in particular) among the groups.

      Interestingly, the single european market has become significantly more important in explaining any hypothetical re-rereferendum (becoming more important to most people as they understand what it offers), except among a lot of the hard leavers.Therefore the 45% remain camp (and assuming YouGov are correct, the 23% subset) and 10% don’t know camp are counting on some sort of soft BREXIT if it is to go ahead. Of course there’ve been a plethora of good articles on NC explaining why soft BREXIT is unlikely to work but the interesting overall result is that the don’t knows lean ‘remain’ vote in any new vote (causing a 51% REMAIN win) and more significantly in a EU-vs-Hard BREXIT referendum (the likely choice the UK will face).

  4. PlutoniumKun

    Well, my two cent/pennies:

    1. A very big driver behind Brexit was English nationalism (yes, I know the Welsh voted Brexit too). As a general rule, the EU is much more popular with nationalist ‘minorities’ whether its the Scots or Catalonians or Sami than with traditional ‘elite’ national groups. The reason is simple – the former know they have to have some sort of overlord, they’d rather have one they pick than one that they are lumbered with for historical reasons. While the latter see themselves as ‘losing’ some of their former power. In Germany and France this is tempered by historic realities, most notably having lost wars in the last century. English nationalism has never realy had to face those realities, as they managed to wrap up their defeats (i.e. losing the empire) as a sort of moral victory.

    2. I grew up in Ireland, where learning about how the EU worked was part of the school curriculum. It was almost always seen as a progressive thing – it was impossible to deny when so many Directives imposed on Ireland were much more environment/worker friendly than those the Irish government would ever grant. Nationalist conservatives were happy with the money flowing in, even if they grumbled a bit. When I moved to the UK to work I was quite shocked at how even well educated British people who’s work and professions overlapped with EU Directives had such little knowledge of how it worked. ‘Oh, its a stupid European rule’ was said as often as ‘its health and safety, innit’? Even when it very obviously had absolutely no connection with the EU. There was just no engagement whatever. It is much easier to spread lies and mistruths when even those who should know the mechanics of how the EU (or any other major institution) works. The media never bothered to address this – indeed most of the printed media has been engaged in deliberately spreading misinformation for decades.

    3. This extends very much to the UK government, where a posting to Europe was always seen as a compensation job, rather than the plumb post it would be seen in every other European country. Other countries sent their best and brightest to Brussels to learn. Britain sent its also-rans. You can see this in the political arena where the Conservatives refused to team up with their natural allies, the Christian Democrats in the European Parliament, instead grouping with a fringe bunch of East European quasi fascists and loons. This should have been seen as a scandal, but was greeted with a shrug in the UK.

    4. EU opposition is much more gut level in the UK – there is plenty of Euroscepticism in Europe, but it tends in general to be issue related – fishermen angry at quotas, plumbers angry at Polish competition, etc. But it is not a philosophical opposition – it is just a baseline assumption in Continental Europe across classes and nations that Europe has to have some type of shared structures – the argument is over what these should look like, not over the entire concept.

    5. There is a generational issue too. What is striking is that the Brexit vote was very heavily concentrated among the over 50’s. Its very hard to to find a Brexiter under 35 outside of a fringe Tory meeting. This is something Corbyn needs to be very aware of if he isn’t to blow his advantage. I think – to simplify – the younger generation are ‘over’ the empire and WWII, the older generation are not. John Harris of the Guardian did a good series of articles before the Brexit vote, including interviews with English retirees in Spain. It was striking that these people had benefited enormously from European free movement and equal rights for citizens, and yet they were noticeably reticent about expressing any real support for ‘Remain’.

    1. larry

      PK, nice one. “[S]o many Directives imposed on Ireland were much more environment/worker friendly than those the Irish government would ever grant”. That would be the case with Tory Britain also. Who can possibly trust them. As you show in pointing out the nut jobs that the Tories allied with in the European parliament.

      In noting Euroscepticism, however, we shouldn’t ignore DiEM25, I don’t think.They want to create a system in which the Euro system works. As you know, it currently doesn’t. It is a disaster.

      So far, there seems to be a tension between recognizing that the Euro system isn’t working and resistance to further federalization that might go some way toward fixing it, which seems to be rooted in a rejection of increasing German domination of the Eurozone. This is understandable.

  5. Anonymous2

    Thanks Yves.

    There is much here that has some resonance.

    The point I would emphasise is the role of the English newspapers. For thirty years now, many of them have been misrepresenting the truth about the UK /EU relationship so that a substantial segment of the English electorate have a completely false picture of the relationship or how matters are actually decided in the EU.

    This I believe reflects the personal political goals of the press barons, especially Murdoch, but also Dacre and Desmond and the Barclay brothers. There were concerns back in the 1960s that UK press regulation left open the possibility of abuse of power by the newspapers and suggestions were made to involve the judiciary so as to make the situation ‘politician proof ‘.Complacency prevented the necessary measures being taken, Thatcher installed Murdoch in a position of excessive power in the early 1980s and the result is what we now see: a country largely run by its newspaper barons using well-tried propaganda techniques of vilifying foreigners. The recent election was something of a setback for them and hopefully social media will weaken them further but it will take time.

    Their importance in the Brexit referendum can be seen in the different results in 1975 and 2016. In 1975 the newspapers strongly supported membership and the result was a landslide in favour. In 2016 they mostly opposed membership and persuaded a small minority to vote against the Government’s recommendation and their own economic interests.

  6. Terry Flynn

    I hate to quote Clinton but “It’s the economy, stupid”.

    Yes, I’m sure the factors in the article are relevant, but they’ve stayed relevant to people largely because of 40 years of neoliberalism which has ruined the economy except for the few. Referenda are always stupid vehicles for democracy as they are often used to simply kick the ruling class in the teeth, no matter what the question on the ballot paper is. Of course the problem is not the EU, but when you have an over-centralised state like the UK where First-Past-The-Post effectively disenfranchises the vast majority of the country in favour of a few 10,000s of people in key marginals, the silent majority will take the first opportunity they can “when their vote really counts” and don’t weigh up the consequences. Had they not fallen behind economically then the right-wing press would never have had such strong leverage with people too.


    Underpinning all this has been the dominant narrative in Britain of World War II. This is not of a Europe rescued (including with the sacrifice of 20 million Soviet citizens) from the fascist Sword of Damocles but is a story of how ‘Britain stood alone’ against its main national enemy: historically this was France but since World War I had been Germany.

    Silly Brits, don’t they know the US single-handedly won WWII, with the English and French as just our lovable sidekicks and the Russians our Judas? /s

  8. Darn

    I’m a left-wing Remainer and despite the “will of the ppl” we would still be better off reversing the result. I agree partly with PlutoniumKun. But I find a number of probs with this article!

    He’s selective with “three European precendents”. Switzerland, Norway, Iceland are not in the EU. Even if hard Brexit happens our eventual relationship with the EU may evolve to resemble one of them. EU =/= Europe.

    Point 1 about British political culture is bollocks. Then he says “even on the Christian-democratic centre-right there was a recognition that markets had to be socially embedded to avoid the searing experience of deflation and mass unemployment”. How’s that working out, these days? (I am not interested in how things were in 1992 or what continental countries would do if-not-for-the-euro. The euro exists and most countries are in it)

    The fact is, in the real world today and not some parallel universe, that the EU is being used to promote Thatcherism at international level.

    As for welfare state “minimalism” since the beginning, I’m sure he’s aware Germany (Bismarckian), and continental countries generally, has private health insurance with patient cost-sharing whereas the UK has a nationalised system free at point of use. It’s a mixed picture.

    The Europeans are more accepting of restrictions on their “sovereignty” sure, but those can be social democratic or Thatcherite and they’re increasingly the latter. Imagine telling France their wage costs are too high because this is a measure of “competitiveness”. And yes, the “Anglo-American” “flexible” labour markets which Wilson mentions are coming, ask Merkel and Macron.

    He then really jumps the shark by suggesting the British are complacent about fascism and throws in the phrase “white man’s burden”. And yet fascists only have a noticeable presence on the continent despite the antifascist culture of Germany. the Holocaust denial laws etc. Since the war far-right terrorists have killed a significant number in (West and unified) Germany, more in total than the commie terrorists have, in Britain there’s been, oh, the London nail bomber, the killer of Jo Cox MP and who else? Do the Brits lack “universal norms of democracy, human rights and the rule of law” compared to continentals really?

    And Sarkozy was always tolerant of Muslims and Roma I suppose (“prosecution against the ‘other'”, see also how Germany scapegoats Greece), the FN is sitting on 13% of the parliamentary vote in the last 2 elections and Le Pen getting 33%… sigh. The BNP got 2 MEPs after the expenses scandal and then lost them. No Westminster votes in 2015 and ’17. And in a pinch who would you pick, UKIP or the FN? Come on. Not to mention Golden Dawn’s honest-to-goodness actual Nazis.

    Atlanticism and the “white man’s burden abroad”: the UK plays second-fiddle to the USA in the Middle East, yep. To be the beneficiary of oil profits. France vetoed inevitable invasion of Iraq, but never spat out publicly that invasion was unnecessary even if Hussein had WMDs, because he couldn’t attack using them unless suicidal (as MI6 pointed out at the time, according to Chilcot). Very diplomatic of France — or it means Bush and Blair didn’t promise enough for Elf and Total. Maybe France only wants to carry the white man’s burden in Francophone Africa (countless times since 1945)?

    Wilson even cites that poll without mentioning that support for staying in the EU is now slightly lower in France and Italy than in the UK! Not cosmopolitan and modern enough apparently.

    “You’re not being cosmopolitan, you’re maybe a wee bit imperialist or fash” didn’t work during the referendum campaign and won’t work now. Stick to the economics please, Remainers. But don’t close your eyes to the Eurozone crisis with imposition of 25% unemployment on Greece and Spain (and 15% in Ireland instead of the UK’s peak 9%) and what it says about the EU. Don’t imply it’s a social democratic endeavour when it wasn’t even in the days of Mitterand and Delors. Ignorance (or pretending) is after all what makes Brexiters so wretched…

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