In the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum Teresa May, tried to calm the concerns of anxious Leave supporters with the now infamous phrase: ‘Brexit means Brexit’. While this phrase has become widely parodied, as a robotic and meaningless tautology, it does serve to highlight a common-sense view that the meaning of Brexit does not extend beyond the political and legal relationship between the UK and the EU. The issue of sovereignty was undoubtedly important during the referendum and this provided the master frame for the Leave campaign — reflected in the campaign mantras of ‘I want my country back’ and ‘take back control’. However, the issue of sovereignty was also a proxy for a broader range of economic, cultural and political concerns and insecurities. The issues of immigration, political disengagement and economic insecurity were particularly important concerns and these were successfully harnessed and articulated by the Leave campaigns. These concerns were linked to dynamics that have been decades in the making and the question as to why and how Brexit happened requires a careful historical analysis of these dynamics. Brexit was the point at which four long-term trajectories converged and precipitated an event of seismic magnitude that disrupted decades of what seemed like inevitable transnational integration and development.
The first trajectory was the post-imperial crisis of the British state fuelled a discourse of British exceptionalism and a range of contested interpretations of ‘Britain’, ‘Britishness’ and ‘Europe’ that attempted to maintain this ‘exceptionalism’ and the status of the UK as a ‘world power’ in the context of post-imperial decline. This resulted in the UK being peripheral to the process of European integration and fuelled ambivalent and negative public attitudes towards European integration. This generated a range of Eurosceptical political discourses on the right and left of British politics that attempted to redeﬁne the meaning of ‘Britain’, ‘Britishness’ and ‘Europe’ in ways that conﬁrmed and re-afﬁrmed this ‘exceptionalism’ and made the ‘Europe question’ the most contentious and divisive issue in British politics. These discourses framed the accession of the UK to the EEC and continued to frame the relationship between the UK and the EU throughout the following four decades of fractious and turbulent relations between the UK and EU.
The second trajectory was the ‘financialization’ of the British economy created a tension between the global and European integration of the British economy and a pattern of de-industrialization and economic insecurity that undermined the legitimacy of elites and elite projects such as the EU. London developed as a dynamic growth hub in the global ﬁnancial system and this created an increasing tension between the European and global integration of the British economy. The ﬁnancialization of the UK economy was also responsible for the de-industrialization of the British economy and increasing levels of economic and social inequality and insecurity in the post-industrial heartlands. This threatened the legitimacy of the British state and resulted in the ‘state projects’ of Thatcherism and New Labour, which attempted, in different ways, to encourage the dynamism of the UK’s ﬁnancialized economy, while building the active consent to this ongoing accumulation amongst strategically important sectors of British society. Both projects failed ultimately to deliver long-term prosperity and security, whilst simultaneously alienating traditionalist and nativist support within the Conservative and Labour Parties. Both projects contributed to the growth of Eurosceptical attitudes within British society and to the building of signiﬁcant middle-class and working-class support bases for radical right Eurosceptical populism. The 2008 ﬁnancial crisis intensiﬁed inequality and marginalization and, in the context of high levels of EU immigration, Eurosceptical attitudes intensiﬁed and provided the support base for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the Leave campaign and ultimately Brexit.
The third trajectory was the secular decline of British culture and identity and a trajectory of cultural decline resulting from immigration, loss of empire, the devolution of the United Kingdom and the transnational dynamics of globalization and European integration. This encouraged the emergence of new popular nationalisms and sub-nationalisms and increasingly politicized and Eurosceptical forms of English identity. The ‘two tribes’ discourse on Brexit based on a simplistic division between Remain-supporting ‘winners’, marked by the cultural values of cosmopolitan liberalism and multiculturalism, and Leave-supporting ‘losers’ or the ‘left behind’, marked by the values of communitarianism, nativism and patriotism, fails to capture the complexity of the socio-cultural dynamics underpinning Brexit. This discourse tends to scapegoat Brexit-supporting marginal groups such as the ‘white working-class’, who are often presented as too ‘stupid’ and ‘prejudiced’ to recognize their own ‘real’ economic interests and ignores or downplays the real anger and alienation that underpinned support for Leave in marginal communities. The discourse also downplays the importance of middle-class supporters of Brexit. While the ‘left behind’ might have been an important component of Brexit support, it was more than a narrow socio-economic segment of the working-class and formed a cultural disposition of frustration and disillusionment across the working, intermediate and middle classes. This disposition reflected the long-term effects of de-industrialization, the austerity-based aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis and the ‘resentful nationalism’ generated by a sustained increase in EU immigration. The socio-cultural legacy of Thatcherite individualism also delivered a significant libertarian support base for Brexit amongst older and middle-class ‘Baby-boomer Brexiteers’ mainly in the South East of England. The socio-cultural meaning and interpretation of Brexit is complex and contested and linked to a long-term crisis of English identity.
The fourth trajectory was the de-alignment of party political representation and the increasing convergence of mainstream parties around an agenda of economic and social liberalism that alienated voters with conservative, nativist and communitarian values. This created a crisis of political legitimacy amongst the marginal and insecure that could be harnessed and articulated by UKIP and the Eurosceptic right in the Conservative Party. Paradoxically, the Leave campaigns were elite-led and funded by powerful and influential advocates of hyper-global neo-liberalism from financial and political elites, but the campaigns were able to effectively mobilize public support through a nationalist repertoire of contention focused on how the EU was a corrupt and undemocratic institution that protected the interests of elites, and how leaving the EU would enable ‘the people’ to ‘take back control’ of Britain’s economic and political destiny and protect the British way of life through the strengthening of borders and controls on immigration.
Short-term factors, such as the decision by David Cameron to hold a referendum to appease Eurosceptic forces in the Conservative Party and confront the external challenge of UKIP, precipitated the referendum. However, the level and intensity of support for Brexit is only explicable through a consideration of these long-term dynamics. The extent to which Brexit means more than Brexit is also highlighted by developments since the referendum. The neo-liberal model of free market capitalism, that has dominated the mainstream political agenda for decades, has been challenged, at least rhetorically by both the Conservative and Labour Parties. The fragile cosmopolitan multiculturalism that marked community and ethnic relations for decades has been challenged by real and symbolic ethnic violence and return migration threatens the viability of key sectors of the British economy including the NHS. Enduring divisions over Brexit have generated political paralysis in the ruling Conservative Party, and an unstable and ambiguous coalition within the Labour Party. The Brexit coalition was an unstable coalition of libertarian and conservative/nationalist forces that marked decades of cultural contestation over the meaning of Britain and Britishness in the context of post-colonial decline. It is these enduring divisions over support/opposition to Brexit and competing definitions over the meaning of Brexit that underpin the deadlocked negotiating position of the British Government with the EU and which make both the future of the relationship between the UK and Europe and the cultural, political and economic trajectory of British society increasingly uncertain. Brexit really does mean more than Brexit.
Graham Taylor is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of the West of England, Bristol. This article is based on his most recent book Understanding Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union published by Emerald (November, 2017).