There are so many facets to Brexit that any single account will be problematical and possibly overtaken by events. It is evident that Brexit is not a stable phenomenon, but is protean and highly volatile. It is as much in the future as in the past, since it is unlikely to end when the UK leaves the EU.  The PM’s deal, which is an entirely technocratic plan, will, if passed,  unfold in the coming years and will leave much in a perpetual state of limbo.  Brexit is constituted not just by the discourses that produced it – Euroscepticism and social discontent –but also by the ones that have come about since June 2016, which include Europhilia and a realisation of the diminished significance of the UK.

The expanding volume of academic and popular literature on Brexit is growing. Not surprising much of it is addressed to populism and the wider context of right-wing neo-authoritarianism – for Brexit is not an isolated phenomenon despite its distinctively English characteristics – and the crisis of the mainstream politics. There is also the more specific focus of accounting for voter behaviour in the 2016 referendum, about which we now know much. Few works rival the incisive analysis of Fintan O’Toole in Heroic Failure: Britain and the Politics of Pain (2018).  William Outhwaite’s edited book Brexit: Sociological Responses (2017) remains a highly relevant study.

Looking at Brexit from the perspective of the present moment, March 2019, rather than the circumstances prior to June 2016, suggest to me one major question that needs further critical reflection, namely how did it come about that a virulent right-wing political ideology within the Conservative party succeeded in convulsing not only the Westminster political system but brought about a fundamental transformation in the wider society, such that British society is now not only polarised around Brexit but defined by it. The politics of Brexit penetrate deep into the fabric of everyday life. Few ideologies have this capacity.

But what is Brexit? There can be no doubt that Brexit is primarily a right-wing political project in which neoliberals and authoritarian English nationalists join forces.  Despite the attraction Brexit has for the Corbyn left and right-wing Labour MPs, it is a product of English (not British) nationalism and has its primary support with older Conservative party voters. It is this English nationalism, which has been relatively dormant despite occasional moments of activity, that has now surfaced as a triumphant force and has gained, to a large degree by default, considerable support. Justifications and counter-discourses abound such that almost everything has to be positioned in terms of the ever-shifting codes of Brexit. These trends are not entirely new or recent; it is simply that

There can be no example of a self-inflicted catastrophe of such monumental proportions as the exit from the single market, quite aside from all the complex ramifications of the dysfunctional process of withdrawal.  There was no reason why Euroscepticism could not have been contained within the Conservative Party. It is arguably plausible that the Referendum outcome, if managed differently, might have led to a less polarised society. A variation of the Norway model (membership of the single market without full EU membership) might have been an acceptable compromise two years ago, but the stakes have been raised to a point that what ever post-Brexit form the UK morphs into, the radical Conservative right will be dissatisfied.

Brexit, as in its current convulsed condition, was by no means inevitable and one should not forget that the outcome of the Referendum was a marginal victory, which could easily have been the other way around (of the 1.2 m majority, it only took a swing vote of 600,000 plus 1 for the result to be the opposite).  It is almost certainly the case that the impact of social media, harnessed by the better funded campaign of Leave, produced c. 3 million additional votes that would not otherwise have been the case. This is important in that it was highly contingent phenomenon and not a tidal wave of the masses rebelling against the elites. But, then, it can be said that many major revolutions or transformative events were also contingent on a number of elements coming together at a specific time. A striking feature of the present is the particular combination of contingent events, political-economic realities and discursive constructions, that led to the unfolding of Brexit in its particular trajectory.

A facet of Brexit that has not been sufficiently addressed, if at all, and which is certainly of major sociological interest, is the problem of how societies – or larger entities, such as the EU, or smaller ones, such as cities and regions – make collective decisions about their future. Parliamentary democracy is not designed for this task, since it is designed for majority decision making where small majorities are the norm. It is more or less impossible for referendums to produce majorities of the size, so-called super-majorities, that would be needed to make compelling decisions, which is what they are supposed to achieve. The UK, like most countries, is a representative democracy whereby elective representatives make decisions in complex arrangements between the executive and the legislature. The instrument of a nation-wide consultative Referendum (there were only two prior such national referendums and both produced results that confirmed the status quo) in producing an outcome that was contrary to the status quo but without a sufficiently large majority led to a crisis without end since there was no effective means to translate the outcome into the decision-making structures of parliamentary democracy. Referendums on major open-ended questions easily result in increasing uncertainty rather than certainty and thus contribute to the very forces that give rise to the need for the referendum in the first place. This is quite obviously because there are no mechanisms in place to decide on the multiple possible interpretations of what, in this case, ‘leave’ means. The question posed did not contain an answer, but an invitation to ask more questions. The result of the unspecified alternative that the nation was asked to vote on was a plethora of Brexits. There is the additional paradox that Brexit ceases to be a means to an end, which it was originally supposed to be, but becomes the end in itself.

I think there are two sociological points here. One is the problem, possibly the impossibility, of establishing legitimate collective decisions in the context of complex and pluralist contemporary societies, especially one that is internally fractured such as is the UK. For such collective decisions to be possible, equally complex constitutional and democratic structures need to be in place. But these exist only for the purpose of electing governments. The second problem is how to reverse a mistake. A bad government can be thrown out at the next election. The results of a referendum cannot be reversed, unless a system is designed for run-off referendums or more robust arrangements for representative and plebiscitarian forms of democracy to connect as opposed to clash. Brexit has been a colossal error, but it appears that it cannot be reversed. Leaving the EU entails the reversal of systemic structures – legal, economic, social, and political – created over the past four decades. The British society that existed before the early 1970s does not exist anymore. It has been systemically transformed by Europeanisation.

It is clear to anyone looking at the debacle from the outside that Brexit needs to be corrected, though the point at which correction might be possible without irreparable damage has probably been passed.   Even the beleaguered PM has not once, as far as I can tell, claimed Brexit is a good cause. The sole defence of the indefensible is that the outcome of the referendum must be implemented regardless of the consequences, since it is supposedly a ‘decision’ of a ‘people’. Brexit has thus become a trap: it is taken to be a decision and in any of its possible forms it leads to undesirable outcomes for which there are no measures to rescind. It is also obvious to anyone watching the arcane parliamentary motions and meaningful and non-meaningful votes (some of which are in domain of the absurd, such as the MP who voted both for and against an amendment) that the mechanisms do not exist to deal with the problem. What is the problem?

Regardless of what one’s position is, the problem, in essence, surely is embarking on major societal restructuring without a plan and without an assessment of the risks and outcomes. The Iraq war was one such monumental error that the British parliament made. It remains an extraordinary fact that it made another grave error with major consequences in 2015 in legislating for the referendum and passing the Withdrawal Bill. Nothing was learnt from Iraq about the folly of politicians. While the former PM, David Cameron, has been rightly vilified for the high risk of holding the referendum, it must not be forgotten that it was parliament that voted for the Referendum Act and the two major parties also endorsed the triggering of Article 50 without an inkling of a plan.

Brexit, of course, for many is supposed to be a moment of emancipation akin to a declaration of independence from a foreign power. It is thus supposed to be a constitutive moment in which the nation reaffirms itself. But as has now become evident that there is no British nation, only post-imperial fantasies of an imagined and irrecoverable past. Whatever divisions existed in the disunited kingdom are now such that there is probably no return to the status quo. The cause of Scottish independence will be increased and the unification of Ireland is only a matter of time. England will discover the costs of a nationalism that has already enhanced the socio-economic and socio-cultural divisions and engendered new pathologies. Brexit has opened a Pandora’s Box of toxic elements that go beyond the societal divisions that pre-existed Brexit. For this reason, I do not think Brexit is entirely explained by societal divisions even if these constituted the societal conditions of its possibility. This would not explain how the phenomenon has morphed into new, pathological and dangerous forms. In any case, the societal divisions have increased as a result of Brexit.

In this context I think what is highly significant is the entanglement of Brexit – in all its manifestations – and anti-Brexit currents. The ongoing process of Brexit, has led to an intensification and pluralisation of both Leave and Remain.  Many countries would experience a similar situation if they engaged in the recklessness of the British government, but it is possible that Brexit will serve as a warning to others. For the British public, the lesson has come too late.

Gerard Delanty, Professor of Sociology, Sussex University, Brighton, UK. Recent publications include Formations of European Modernity: A Historical and Political Sociology of Europe (Palgrave, 2019 3rd edition), Community 3rdedition  (Routledge 2018) and The European Heritage: A Critical Re-interpretation (Routledge 2018).

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