Brexit itself, and the subsequent 4-year saga on defining the future relationship between the UK and the EU, have been damaging to both the EU and the UK. They represent a failure on the part of both. This blog looks at the roots of the failure in the UK.
According to Remainers the roots of Brexit sentiment lie in a nostalgic attachment to an earlier era when Britain was an undisputed world power and in possession of a vast colonial empire. According to this view, Brexit represented a failure to adjust to a reduced place in the world where British influence is best exercised in conjunction with others. These ‘others’ might include notably the US, as well as parts of the Commonwealth. But, according to Remainers, the key to the UK pooling power and influence in an effective way lay in association with the immediate neighbours in the EU. Thus, according to this view, nostalgia blinded Brexiteers to the reality of Britain’s place in the world and was responsible for a failure to think strategically about post war and post imperial realities.
The missing narrative
The failure to think strategically can be linked to an accompanying explanation of where things went wrong. It is about the failure of British leaders to develop a convincing narrative that would appeal to both heads and hearts about why the UK belonged in the EU. For the original 6 members of the Common Market the narrative was clear. ‘Never again’ could national rivalries be allowed to lead to mutual destruction. A clear narrative also linked newer members. For Greece, Spain and Portugal it was about turning away from a non-democratic past and becoming part of ‘modern’, social democratic Europe. Membership signalled acceptance into mainstream European modernity. Similar motivation about joining a modern, market oriented, democratic mainstream, free from the Soviet yoke, provided an equally compelling narrative for Central and Eastern European members.
For the British, a simple narrative was lacking and never fully developed. Membership was sold mainly as a matter of serving British self-interest in a wider market. Modernity was not linked to EU membership. It was home grown, or transatlantic, embodied in the Thatcher/ Reagan reforms, or borrowed further afield from New Zealand and Australia in the case of the so-called ‘new public management’. The reliable ally, notwithstanding Suez, remained the United States. London’s roots as a global centre for financial, legal and educational services and the entertainment industry, well pre-dated the EU and could be seen by some as a benefit to Europe rather than as a benefit from Europe. The position of London was seen as a source of envy in Europe rather than a demonstration of everybody being better-off together.
Britain’s historical links with the wider world also illustrate a different type of possible reason why EU membership has come to grief. Post-war Britain has developed as an inter-cultural society, imperfect, but with overlapping identities, among which identification with Europe has had to contend with other, possibly stronger identities. Part of Britain’s historical sense of identity involves the importance of relationships with a wider, English speaking world. Another part revolves around the idea of ‘tolerance’ in relation to the inter-cultural. ‘Tolerance’ in this British context is not an overriding value. It is a passive value. It stands for ‘I’ll mind my business if you mind yours’, live and let live, smugness or arrogance in the face of difference.
In this mix, a sense of European identity plays an ambiguous role in the UK. For Remainers, statements of values such as contained in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights provide an over-arching sense of a common identity and play a constructive assimilative and integrationist role. But that assimilative role is less compelling in relation to the competing passive approach to the inter-cultural. Instead, the promotion of an overarching European identity can be seen as using an artificial instrument to resist, overcome and downplay the values associated with other cultural influences and identities. European identity has appealed strongly to those in Britain with professional links, such as lawyers, educators and civil servants, but otherwise is part of a larger inter-cultural story, with a less than forthright appeal.
In the eyes of Remainers, the failure in the UK to look to an overarching European identity as an assimilating canopy to help manage inter-cultural relationships, has fed a regressive nationalism and populism. Slogan’s about ‘taking back control’ are seen as vast over-simplifications in an inter-dependent world. Targeting UK control over immigration also represents the false appeal of simple answers to complex problems affecting job markets and economic security over the lifecycle. Characterising immigrants as the ‘other’ is also a vast misunderstanding of British history with successive flows of people both inwards and outwards. In many cases what was once ‘the other’ is now 'us'. According to this view, Brexiteers have nursed and fostered a misguided and misleading populist simplification of the external world that finally led to rupture.
Pragmatism and the constitutional
The British are famously emotionally buttoned up, repressed and retarded – or so the trope goes. British politicians have been deeply uncomfortable dealing with emotive nostalgia, reticent in developing an appeal to the hearts, reluctant to address questions around identity and only at ease in denouncing populism at the same time as embracing it. The time-honoured approach to any weighty problem of public policy has been to avoid underlying values and attitudes and to approach issues through ‘pragmatism’. ‘Pragmatism’ has been presented as a source of pride, rather than being seen for what it is - a dignifying label for a combination of ‘muddling through’ and guile.
Pragmatism in politics involves dividing up big issues into many small sub-components that avoid abstract debates. Pragmatism looks to advance public policy through small incremental steps in what the American political scientist C.E. Lindblom referred to as ‘partisan mutual adjustment’. British politicians have followed the same approach towards European policy. The aim has been to focus on the practical rather than the abstract and to avoid larger abstractions around what is meant by ‘ever closer union’ in favour of small integrationist steps. Incrementalism has many virtues. Unfortunately, in the case of the EU it is impossible to avoid the big issues, most notably in relation to the fundamental elements of political union.
Since the late 1980s there has been an ongoing constitutional debate in the EU without an accompanying public debate in Britain about the shape of a European constitutional settlement into which the UK would find a comfortable fit, and without serious constitutional input from British politicians, either conservative or labour. Neither of the major parties have wished to stir up their internal divisions with abstract arguments. Within Europe’s treaty base there is one constitutional provision with British fingerprints – the principle of conferral (itself unfortunately ineffective).
The EU’s constitutional debate has been led by federalists aiming to build a unitary state of Europe. The UK could have been the natural leader of a more confederal vision allowing for a more flexible, decentralised and differentiated Union. Unfortunately, Britain’s famous reliance on unwritten constitutional conventions have led to her politicians being totally ill-equipped to contribute constructively or thoughtfully to Europe’s basic constitutional construction and debate. The UK has not itself had a serious internal constitutional debate since the Civil War over 350 years ago. The attitude of successive governments has been to avoid talk around the underlying assumptions that underpin constitutions. British politicians somehow have believed that the conventions of good behaviour between neighbours could rule in Europe, that a muddling through and an ‘It’ll be alright on the night’ attitude was good enough.
In the end it has not all been ‘alright on the night’. Brexiteers have been able to point to the EU’s longstanding ‘democratic deficit’. There has been a plausible case to be made against the EU’s unchecked centralising tendencies and the agenda of a unitary state of Europe. There has been a rational basis for the rejection of the EU’s rules of association. For this failure of ‘pragmatism’, Britain has the complacency and shortcomings of its ruling elite to thank.