One of the implications of the EU referendum that was perhaps little recognised at the time was the way in which its outcome might dominate British politics for a generation. As the process of establishing the new destination for our relationship with the EU recedes ever further into the future, so we can expect the political divisions of Brexit to persist. When, as seems likely, we eventually reach a form of soft Brexit that will manage to disappoint everyone, we can also expect these divisions to morph into new forms with political populists raging against the ‘establishment’ for failing to deliver the form of Brexit that they claim was demanded by the popular vote.
The seemingly interminable nature of the conflict over Brexit is, in part, a reflection of competing moral visions of the future of Britain. The case for Brexit was never convincingly made on the basis of technical policy arguments about the future of the British economy, something reflected in the fact that a detailed, plausible plan for a ‘hard Brexit’ has never materialised since the EU referendum. Instead, the case for Brexit appealed to broader claims about restoring autonomy to the British people in ways that could stimulate a new era of collective national confidence and innovation. This vision of autonomy was never a substantial policy argument about the nature of political sovereignty in a global society, nor did it recognise that national sovereignty is always given away in different ways through international trade agreements whether within the EU or outside of it. But the moral and emotional appeal of collective self-government goes beyond the specifics of policy, representing a potent expression of political values that have sustained nationalist movements for at least the past two centuries. It is perhaps ironic that the most recent turn in Britain’s post-imperial history is that political discourses of self-governance that motivated independence movements throughout Britain’s former colonies now find fresh expression in the ‘mother country’ herself against the ‘colonising’ influence of the EU.
Such moral meanings fuel the intensity of current public divisions over Brexit. For those convinced by the emotionally-resonant vision of the autonomous British nation, compromises of this freedom with the EU represent a form of betrayal against the nation’s moral destiny. There is no doubt that claims about the unquestionable moral authority of the ‘will of the people’ stifle effective democratic debate. Yet at the same time, if elections and referenda are understood as symbolic ways of managing political conflict that prevent the resort to raw power or political violence, it is not difficult to understand that powerful moral emotions can be generated by what are claimed to be attempts to subvert the outcome of the EU referendum. Both sides of the divide present claims to stand for the moral heart of democracy.
The countervailing moral narrative of those still characterised as ‘Remainers’ is not, for the most part one of a deep investment in political visions of internationalism. One of the striking features of the Remain campaign during the EU referendum was its struggle to generate any widespread emotional connection to the kind of internationalist political project represented by the EU. Instead, the Remain campaign relied more on pragmatic arguments of national self-interest which were all too easily dismissed by the more compelling political vision of a free Britain as ‘Project Fear’ and a talking down of the innate potential of the British people. Whilst those arguing for closer on-going ties with the EU continue to do so on the basis of economic interests, it is also possible to see within this an ethics of care in which politicians and campaigners feel genuine anxiety about the effects of a ‘hard’ Brexit on people’s everyday lives, not least through rising unemployment, loss of government revenue to pay for already over-stretched public services or signs of growing intolerance towards ethnic and national diversity. In the absence of harmful economic effects of Brexit yet taking place, however, these moral concerns have not yet evoked strong emotional support amongst a substantial number of voters.
One of the tragedies of the EU referendum was that none of the outcomes on offer combined emotionally compelling visions of the future of Britain with achievable political ends. The notion that Britain might still end up overturning the outcome of the EU referendum through a People’s Vote fails to address, for example, the longer-term problem of the lack of emotional identification that most of the British electorate feel towards the moral vision underpinning EU integration. A return to the EU might have economic benefits for Britain, but will not address the problem that political structures with which people do not identify will always lack a sense of political legitimacy. Equally, a Leave campaign which offered an emotionally compelling vision of Britain’s future for many voters, whilst lacking any effective policy plan for how it could be delivered in practice, was inevitably going to end in disappointment and recrimination.
As a consequence, Brexit seems most likely to evolve into an extended period of negotiation with the EU leading to close ties that will involve some compromises over Britain’s autonomy in areas such as trade and immigration. It was, on reflection, inevitable that the moral vision of the autonomous British nation that inspired many Leave voters would be wrecked on the hard realities of complex Brexit negotiations. What remains to be seen are the political consequences of a narrative of ‘the Brexit that was stolen from us’ amongst former Leave voters and whether this fuels a new phase of destructive populist politics, in which the ‘establishment’ becomes the new colonising force to be resisted. If that proves to be the case, the clash of values that have emerged over Brexit may dominate political life in Britain for many years to come, at a time when some overseas influences are also seeking to encourage our culture wars for ideological and pragmatic reasons. If our public life becomes dominated by conflict between mainstream politicians and populist insurgents, at a time when national party politics is itself fragmented in a myriad of different ways, we are less likely to see effective efforts to address the genuine national crises that we face in areas such as health and social care. If that proves to be the case, we will all be much the poorer.