The terms of the Brexit debate seem to have shifted in recent weeks. Labour is now committed to staying in the single market and customs union for a transition period. That period may prove lengthy. Theresa May intends to lead the Conservatives into the next general election.
Both major parties remain determined that the UK will leave the EU, but the Westminster arithmetic suggests votes on Brexit legislation will be tight. The negotiations in Brussels seem slow and disputatious. The scene is set for a challenging conference season.
Brexit raises myriad questions about the UK’s future. What are its aspirations for future economic and trading relationships? How should the economy’s internal structure best adapt to Brexit? How far can the social and political aspirations of Leavers and Remainers be met? What patterns of migration suit the UK – and its various nations and regions – for the future? How should political institutions – Westminster, Whitehall, the devolved legislatures and governments – operate as we navigate Brexit and after leaving the EU?
What challenges and opportunities face the UK in its relationships with the EU, other European countries and the wider world? Ultimately, to make the best of Brexit, we need to understand how and why it occurred. We need to know what various groups want from Brexit, and what they are prepared to tolerate. Equally, the combination of deep disagreement, shifting political positions and uncertainty make the lessons of Brexit hard to learn.
A British Journal of Politics and International Relations special issue aims to help make sense of Brexit. Its articles draw on various traditions of political analysis, international relations and law – political economy, comparative analysis, normative theory, diplomatic studies, quantitative public attitudes analysis, security studies. Some focus on Brexit’s causes, others address its consequences. Some do both. The collection gathers various perspectives and analyses; its authors are not committed to any single approach, still less to any shared dogma.
The causes of Brexit are, for some, peculiar to the UK. Helen Thompson’s historically-oriented analysis of political economy finds them in the UK’s singularity: the offshore financial centre of the euro-zone, which did not itself adopt the euro. When combined with the UK’s 2004’s decision not to restrict free movement of people from the EU’s accession states, for Thompson, Brexit became unavoidable.
By making the UK a European employer of last resort, the euro-zone crisis was its trigger. Matthew Goodwin and Caitlin Milazzo’s multivariate analysis of British Election Study (BES) data also shows that immigration concerns motivated the Leave vote. They exploit the rich BES data to show that worries about immigration also motivated ‘switchers’ – those who changed from Remain in 2014 to Leave in 2016. Labour Party identifiers were less likely to switch.
Jonathan Hopkin takes a different view. Brexit exemplifies a wider populist, anti-elite, ‘anti-system’ trend (see also Graham Wilson). A failed policy consensus, rising inequality, weakening representative democracy and falling representativeness of elites were Brexit’s underlying causes for Hopkin, not a resurgence of intolerance of xenophobia.
The UK was hit disproportionately by the financial and economic upheaval of the late 2000s. But the distributional consequences of global free market capitalism and perception that politicians are impotent are endemic features of Western democracy today.
In a normative critique of the European Left, Owen Parker takes up related themes. The Left is trapped in a ‘progressive’s dilemma’ where social and labour rights conflict fundamentally with open immigration regimes. For Parker, pure market freedom and exclusive social regimes are avoidable extremes.
He proposes dividing the European single market’s four freedoms, to privilege the human right to movement. A debate on values – to which Parker contributes – would provide an important underpinning for the new policy regimes the UK will need to develop after Brexit.
The UK’s territorial constitution has changed continuously since 1997. Brexit adds to uncertainty about its future. The special edition features articles about the UK’s four major parts. Those on Wales and England will appear shortly (plus an analysis of Brexit’s challenges to Westminster). Here we have articles on Northern Ireland and Scotland.
The Irish border is widely recognised as a deep problem. Cathy Gormley-Heenan and Arthur Aughey analyse the referendum’s impact on individual and collective self-understandings in Northern Ireland of identity, politics and the constitution. They see a ‘border in the mind’ being constructed, with implications for political stability. Aileen McHarg and James Mitchell interrogate constitutional traditions in Scotland and England. Brexit reveals major weaknesses in arrangements for devolution, they find, especially faced with a resurgence of unitary legal interpretations of the constitution.
Beyond its domestic sources and impacts, Brexit has major international implications. It will, for example, transform the UK’s diplomatic position. Megan Dee and Karen Smith consider its implications for the UK in the UN, where diplomacy is dominated by group politics.
They analyse how the UK has operated in various UN groups and alliances, examining human rights and nuclear weapons. Different policy fields reveal distinct support patterns from the EU for the UK at the UN, as well as constraining on its position. Even as Brexit rewires UK diplomatic channels, EU positions will still need to be taken into account, Dee and Smith argue.
Transatlantic relationships are the focus for Wyn Rees and Graham Wilson. Each suggests that the US helped to stoke fires that brought Brexit to the boil. For all President Trump’s enthusiasm, the US may come to regret Brexit. Wilson suggests that the UK may become a less useful partner for the US, while Rees argues Brexit increases the potential for transatlantic stalemate and estrangement.
How do actors in other countries – in Europe and beyond – understand the path to Brexit and the future prospects it offers? Rebecca Adler-Nissan, Charlotte Galpin and Ben Rosamond analyse how Brexit is constructed outside the UK. External perceptions may shape post-Brexit scenarios more than choices made in the UK. Adler-Nissan et al consider how Brexit frames external perceptions of (national and European) identities, reshapes understandings of geopolitical reality and diplomatic possibilities and impacts perceptions of the global economic order.
Brexit presents social and political scientists with challenging new tasks. Its contingencies are as daunting analytically as they must be for practical politicians. The risks inherent in rushing to predict the future are particularly stark in this context. In addition, academics must not forget the shock the referendum outcome triggered in the United Kingdom’s university sector, and for political analysts and pollsters. Many academics have criticised the EU’s impact on democratic practice and policy outcomes. Yet there is little evidence of support for Brexit among the UK’s university-based social and political analysts, a fact of which academics should be mindful.
Joining the sometimes-febrile debate about Brexit can be challenging for researchers. But academics should not duck the responsibility to engage with an uncertain future. Carefully designed and implemented, modest and reflexive analysis can make a distinctive and significant contribution to public debate.
It may be dismissed as ‘academic’ in the pejorative sense, but scholarly research should bring diverse disciplines, traditions and perspectives to bear on the key issues of our times – and test them in vigorous debate. We hope the articles discussed here make a contribution of this kind.
By Alan Convery, Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. John Peterson is Professor at the University of Edinburgh. Daniel Wincott is Professor at Cardiff University.