Brexit: the destruction of a collective good – EU Referendum Analysis 2016

Brexit: the destruction of a collective good

Gifford

Dr Chris Gifford

Head of Behavioural and Social Sciences at the University of Huddersfield. He is a political sociologist and has published widely on Euroscepticism in the UK.

The second edition of his book, The Making of Eurosceptic Britain (Ashgate), came out in 2014 and he co-edited The UK Challenge to Europeanization (Palgrave, Macmillan), published in 2015.

Email: c.g.gifford@hud.ac.uk

 

EU Referendum Analysis 2016 - section 1

Section 1: Context

On the 10 May 1967 the House of Commons voted by 487 to 26 in support of a second British application for EEC membership. It was one of the largest majorities the House had ever seen. 10 years after the Treaty of Rome, the British political class had collectively swung behind membership as the solution to post-imperial decline. Many were reluctant converts; the Labour cabinet was divided. Voting for membership included Tony Benn and Enoch Powell, who went on to lead the No campaign in the 1975 referendum. In 1967 the arguments in support of membership proved overwhelming. Labour’s Foreign Secretary, George Brown, spoke of ‘the reconciliation of deeply felt antagonisms’. He pointed to the decline of Commonwealth trade, alongside the new economic opportunities in Europe. Alternatives to full membership were dismissed, ‘we would be passengers on the train; but the driving would be done by someone else.’ On sovereignty the then Chancellor, James Callaghan, bluntly pointed out that ‘to a very large extent nations are not free at the moment to take their own decisions’. In short, British power in the world depended on British power in Europe. Significantly, the US had been a long time supporters of British membership.

Brexiters may talk about taking back control for the British people, of making Britain great again but they have embedded a form of politics that is anathema to constructing a national political community. We no longer have the politics to establish what a British collective good is; the EU today, Scotland and the welfare state tomorrow

Party political divisions notwithstanding, Britain finally entered the Community in 1973 on the back of a governing consensus. A nexus of Europeanised political interests had been constituted that included party political leaders, Whitehall, financial and corporate capital and the majority of the press. The 67% who voted in favour of membership in the 1975 referendum overwhelming endorsed the British establishment position. Moreover what was notable was the consistency of the Yes vote. From urban to rural, North to South majorities in the 60s and 70s were common across England and Wales. While Scotland and Northern Ireland were outliers, they still recorded majorities for the Yes side. In some shape or form, the 1975 referendum reflected the will of the people who concluded that their collective interests aligned with what the British political establishment was telling them. They were not wrong and the experience of membership has reinforced their validity.

Many predicted that the British economy would struggle to compete in a Common Market. In fact, the economy quickly benefited from membership, and has seen higher GDP per capita growth than Germany, France or Italy since. The warnings that the City would lose out by the UK not being in the Eurozone proved erroneous, as London established itself as the global hub of Euro trading and the financial gateway to the EU. On security, the enlargement of the EU to the former communist countries has renewed its post-war purpose of bringing peace to the continent. Consequently hard working and educated young people entered the UK, providing a significant economic boost. Support for enlargement has been a central plank of British government European policy. Moreover the UK has managed its role in the EU without sacrificing its relationship with the wider world and found the EU remarkably accommodating to British exceptionalism, facilitating a range of opt outs. Visions of a European superstate have proved consistently wide of the mark, as the EU’s supranational institutions, the Commission and the Parliament, accept agendas set down by the member-states. Intergovernmentalism rules as much now as it ever did.

This all points to a UK augmented in power and prosperity by its membership of the EU. But none of this matters anymore. The idea of membership as a collective good for the British people, established in the 60s and 70s, has been erased by Brexit. It is not just that the referendum reflected divisions within UK society, but the Europe was used to reinforce and essentialise those divisions and to create new ones. It was a populist instrument with a populist outcome, which also has its antecedents in the 1970s. In the wake of the loss of the 1970 election, the Labour left saw Europe as a useful populist motif around which to mobilise the British working class against the British establishment. Similarly, the crisis of Thatcherism at the end of the 1980s saw a populist Euroscepticism rise from its ashes to destroy the Major government and give the right a new article of faith. The more disillusioned people became with mainstream politics, the more populist Euroscepticism embedded itself in the political culture. Farage and the tabloid press led the way, and with the referendum a post-rational politics of indignant, self-righteous moralism went viral.

Brexiters may talk about taking back control for the British people, of making Britain great again but they have embedded a form of politics that is anathema to constructing a national political community. We no longer have the politics to establish what a British collective good is; the EU today, Scotland and the welfare state tomorrow. Brexit is achieving precisely what the Eurosceptics have accused the EU of doing, bringing about the end of the United Kingdom.