From Brexit reflex to Brexistential crisis

28 June 2016

Colin Hay - Director of SPERI

How did we get here – and where, exactly, is here?

Just a little over five months ago I ‘predicted’, in the Cassandra-esque manner to which I am sometimes accustomed, Brexit, the breakup of Britain and a second global financial crisis. I very much hoped – as I made clear at the time – that my prophecy, like so many of the things I have prophesied before, would fail to be realised.  Indeed, reflecting on it now, I almost felt that I needed to couch my anxious reflections as a prophecy in order for them not to be realised (so poor has been my previous record as a soothsayer).  But much of the logic of that unfolding is evidenced strongly in the events of the last week.  It is enough to make one cry – an appropriately Cassandra-esque reflex perhaps.

Photo by USGS on Unsplash

So how exactly did we get here – and where, exactly, is here?

Neither question is easy to answer, but the first bit is much easier than the second. We got here because, in a context of austerity, labour-market uncertainty, widening social and economic inequality and economic fragility, the urge to blame distant others can become overpowering (be they the in-migrant workers with whom we perceived ourselves to compete for scarce and poorly paid jobs or the Brussels bureaucrats who impose misery on southern Europe, who failed to see the Eurozone crisis coming and whose regulatory disposition prevents us from effectively policing our borders against those self-same in-migrant workers).  The Brexit reflex, in other words, is strong.  And it is all the stronger if one is able to discount, at a stoke, the anxious machinations of the experts – who, presumably chastened by their failure to see previous crises coming have been keen to get their warnings in early by projecting doom and gloom if the Brexit reflex is indulged (and, for once, to do so this side of the crisis to which they see it as inexorably leading).  Alas, it seems, this time they got it right.

If that is the easy bit, what about the difficult part? Where are we now?  In a phrase, in limbo.  We seem to have entered a strange kind of liminal zone, a little like Gramsci’s famous ‘catastrophic equilibrium’.  This is the moment, you will recall, in which the old is dying yet the new is still to be born, a moment in which ‘a great variety of morbid symptoms’ are present (as is graphically witnessed here).  ‘We’ (the British people) have voted for Brexit; ‘they’ (the British establishment) now seem convinced (including, rather strangely, many of the most visceral advocates of Brexit like Boris Johnson himself) that Brexit (certainly the Brexit that many thought they were voting for) might not be very good for us.  We are back to expertise again.  And in a strange way, this is a context in which the experts might exact a certain revenge.  For what I discern now is a little back-tracking on core Brexit claims as to what Brexit might look like.  Johnson, in particular, seems now to want to appear conciliatory – offering, in effect, a negotiation of Britain’s relationship with Europe based on single market access with whatever concessions on the capacity to restrict migration to Britain that might be on offer.  There is, of course, an economic logic to this (the experts’ revenge, if you like!).  But there is a grave political danger here too.  The point is that privileged access to the single European market will come only with a commitment to the free mobility of labour – and that is not what most Brexiteers felt that they were voting for last Thursday.  This is what the Brexit campaign led them to anticipate; and their expectations will not be easily assuaged.

Frankly, they don’t care about trade; they do care about migration. The logic is clear.  The more, in other words, that Brexit resembles the status quo ante minus (of course) Britain’s political influence inside the union of which it was once a part, the less the ugly Brexit reflex will have been indulged – and the less those who voted for Brexit will recognise this as Brexit.  And that can only serve to generate an even more ugly political competition.  This surely pits those claiming to speak with the ‘authentic’ voice of Brexit, keen to see the spirit of the Brexit reflex ‘respected’ (indulged) in full, against those more recently swayed by expertise towards some form of ‘Brexit-lite’.  It is neither difficult to see on what side of the fence Farage and UKIP will position themselves, nor how they will exploit this new political space.

But this is to concentrate on Brexit alone. Cassandra, you will recall, predicted breakup too – in short, Brexistential crisis.  That crisis is now upon us.  With Scotland and, indeed, Northern Ireland, having voted clearly and unambiguously for ‘remain’, it is difficult to imagine Brexit without the break-up of Britain – though the precise form of that break-up is much more difficult to predict.

Consider Scotland (the limits of any blog prevent an adequate consideration of the complexity of the post-Brexit scenario for Northern Ireland). If the wishes of the Scottish people are to be respected then Scotland has to remain within the (European) union; that can only be achieved by breaking the (British) union.  That could in fact occur in one of two ways.  In the first, rather less likely I think, Scotland’s wish to remain in the EU is respected in Brussels (as some within the European Commission have already hinted that it should be).  Here it is the Brexit vote itself that produces de facto independence – since Scotland would remain subject to European legislation whilst the rest of Britain would not, sovereignty over the relevant issue domains would have to pass from Westminster to Holyrood.  Here we get independence for Scotland without a referendum.  Acceptable though that might be north of the border, it is very difficult to see it being accepted south of the border.  But that this is so makes a second Scottish independence referendum almost inevitable.

The implications of all of this are horrific. Post-Britain is not an attractive proposition, politically; nor is it any more attractive economically (and this is before we begin to consider the collateral damage on the European continent and beyond).  England and Wales seem set for a long drawn out squabble over the nature of Brexit itself whilst their economy lies in tatters; whilst Scotland (and, conceivably, even Northern Ireland) face a difficult and uncertain future trying to adjust themselves to a post-British European economic space that they would not have chosen for themselves.

Cassandra is fighting back the tears once again.

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