Brexit For Americans: A Left Brexiteer Perspective

I find to my bemusement that many Americans seem to have strong views on Brexit, which most of them seem to oppose. What was an American friend imagining when he told me, on the day the outcome of the Brexit referendum became known, that I must be proud to be Scottish because a majority of my fellow Scots had voted to Remain within the EU?

Why is my confession that I would have voted for Brexit—for Lexit, actually, though this distinction is not widely understood on this side of the Atlantic— usually met with American incredulity, sometimes even with anger? Why are they taking Brexit so personally? And why do they never seem to have asked the question, what sort of thing is the EU? [1]

My speculation is that they, for the most part, saw and heard only quite one-sided accounts of Brexit before the referendum and that they are now seeing and hearing quite one-sided accounts of what the effecting of Brexit will occasion. With very few exceptions, should they be tuned in at all to what’s going on in Britain, they are, so far as I can tell, tuned into what makes its way across the Atlantic authored by those who to their own self satisfaction are living in that great echo chamber quartered mainly in London and its cultural satellites. I would so characterize much of the commentary in the Guardian, hostile to Brexit (and, relatedly, to Jeremy Corbyn), which seems the go-to news source for Americans of the centre-left. Within the United States, a very occasional other voice is sometimes heard in the New York Times, say, or on NPR. But for the most part not.

I infer that the American sources of the sort I’ve mentioned are using Brexit at least in part to press forward their own political agenda in the United States. It is surely no accident that anti-Brexit Americans repeatedly link their views on Brexit to their views on Trump. [2] Their hostility to Brexit and their uncomprehending dismay over the extremely messy politics of effecting Brexit is surely joined to an apprehension that their own system is falling apart, to an anxiety that the United States is also bordering, to say the least, on political dysfunctionality.

Is the pervasive anti-Brexit stance of American commentary because Brexit is seen by those Americans who care volubly about such things as contrary to liberal-imperial American policy, especially at a time when that liberal-imperial approach to the world is rejected by some in high places in American public life? The interventions of both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, who each made a point of telling the British public to vote against Brexit, should, be seen in light of the question, what was it they were actually trying to defend? (That their interventions seem to have resulted, in Britain, in a growth of support for Brexit, does not require much imagination to interpret.) It’s also possible that they are embedded within the same ideology, which equates well-being with material well-being and which has downplayed any concern with the political ideas and arrangements which maintain and advance that particular sort of economic system and its outcomes—so deeply embedded that they cannot perceive the unnaturalness, the adventitiousness of their beliefs, yet having been made by so many recent events to feel insecure, they must deny anything which adds to their insecurity. And finally, perhaps what one reads and hears here in the United States—on how dysfunctional Britain now is, on how it’s doing itself enormous harm—is simply another expression of disdain for things British dating back to before 1776?

Still, de te fabula narratur? Odd as it may perhaps seem to say so, since so much is now being written about ‘the peculiarities of the English,’ Brexit is not a phenomenon unique to the British Isles or even to the European Union though there are certainly many elements of Brexit unique to both places. But here I suggest that there are aspects of Brexit, of the causes of Brexit, which are in play far beyond Britain, far beyond Europe, and which are generating political disturbances elsewhere with their own local features. That is, however, a very large story I cannot address here. For the most part, I leave the drawing of parallels and the search for deeper, more comprehensive understandings to readers receptive to the notion that Brexit is a relatively local consequence of change going on at the global level. My task here is to depict Brexit in broader than now customary terms.

I should make clear that I do not defend every aspect of the politics of Brexit, whether at the referendum stage or at the stage of trying to put the will of the majority of the British voters into effect. In all political things, as in all human things, that there is pettiness, and silliness, and vindictiveness, and worse, cannot reasonably be denied. And then there are those who derive pleasure, maybe even advantage, from pointing out such cases. All this is especially so in the politic of Brexit. But that’s not all there is. There are also conflicts over issues that matter at some very fundamental level to who and what we humans are as a species, especially to our desire to exercise some degree of control over our own lives.

By way of a parallel, recall the opposition to the trans-Pacific “trade policy” favored by Obama and, for a time by Hillary Clinton, until the strength of the Sanders Presidential primary campaign forced her to reconsider, which would have transferred yet more political power to the trans-national corporations (and would, incidentally, have imposed economic containment upon China). That opposition, too, may be viewed as rooted in an aspiration to block yet more de-democratization, de-politicization, even, of our lives. Brexit should not only be contemplated in these grand, more deeply fundamental terms, but it should not only be contemplated shallowly in ways that focus on our inadequacies or on our more trivial concerns.

The first point I raise spring from the question, did Brexit, the decision and the efforts to effect Britain’s departure from the European Union, come from nowhere? Context is not quite everything, but there is more context relevant to understanding Brexit than is ordinarily noted. Much of Brexit’s context is complex and has a lot of history to it so I can give it only a sketchy treatment. Another broad category concerns the criticisms directed at the way Brexit has been pursued both in the referendum and since. In both these broad categories, I raise questions concerning the nature of the EU, not least how it has conducted itself during its divorce proceedings with Britain. I question the often idealized view of the EU so many Americans seem to cling to. They are not, of course, alone in their europhilia.

Finally, a word on terminology: I use EU as a convenient shorthand way to refer to whichever stage the European project had reached at whichever moment in its history, from its beginnings in the post-War years, from the Treaty of Rome, and before, down to the Treaty of Lisbon and beyond. In doing so, I am slighting the ways in which the European Project has moved “from [pursuing] federal social democracy to competitive ‘adjustment’ of national social protection and social life to global markets” —a shift many europhiles fail to appreciate has occurred. [3]


The first context I must mention is obvious: It has to do with what we think we know about Brexit. It has to do with what we, most of us, have been told about it. It is a truth that in all discussions of political matters description and prescription are so deeply, inextricably interwoven, that one cannot put forward the facts of the case without explicitly or, as is often the case given the imperative to try to be or at least to seem to be objective, implicitly bringing in evaluations of these facts. I can only plead guilty to doing so here as well. I begin by acknowledging that I was and remain a supporter of Brexit, of the decision by the British voters that the United Kingdom should exit the European Union. Since I certainly want to dissociate myself from some of those who support Brexit, it would be more accurate to describe myself as a supporter of Lexit—Left Exit—one of the subdivisions of Leave which has received little acknowledgement in mainstream reporting and which, probably for tactical reasons, has received very little notice from the Remainers. Besides, it does seem that the left opposition to remaining within the EU has all along between a minority position, though perhaps not such a small minority as the inattention would imply. It is grounded in the political judgment that a certain sort of democratic politics, and certain sorts of policies, roughly and at a minimum social democratic ones, are more likely to be achievable in Britain outside the EU. Likely such an outcome will depend upon the weakening of transnational forces that oppose it, upon disruptions of the EU and global economic-political order—disruptions that presently seem under way and which Brexit may further.

I confess that my attitude to the European project, from the early Common Market to today’s EU, has shifted several times. I recall arguing against British membership in the Common Market on a beach in Florida in 1961. I doubt I made much sense. But since I was arguing with Italians, Swedes, Norwegians, and others from Britain who were all, like me then, youngish students, I doubt any of us had really given much thought to such a worldly matter. At later times, as I became interested in the complexities of an emerging European system which might stand aside from Cold War bipolarities, I found myself supporting what seemed like an interesting political experiment. But later, as the emerging system, especially after the mid-1970s, fell into line with “globalization,” with the effort to subject the entire world to capitalism, I found myself opposed to it.

But why should I care? I am, I suppose, a reluctant emigrant. My passport is a British-European one. I still feel emotionally linked to that part of the world. Depending on the moment, over more than half a century I have identified myself as Scottish, as British, and as European. Yet having lived most of my life elsewhere, I am diffident about voicing opinions on decisions for which I will have to bear few, if any, substantial consequences. I regard it as a sort of political immorality to engage energetically in debates where the outcomes will hardly touch one’s own life. On the other hand, since so many Americans seem to feel no restraint when it comes to expressing opinions on Brexit, I feel no hesitation in addressing them. Besides, I’m just one small voice among a great many voices making for a great flood of opinion, information, and attempts to construct persuasive frameworks of understanding.

Most of what was and is being written and said about Brexit, as about British politics in general, emanates from the urban literati, the metropolitan elite centered in London [4]; others elsewhere are parasitic on that. This segment of the British elite for the most part attends to political and economic power but does not possess it. It aspires to influence. Self-identifying, as I think many of them do, as socially and politically progressive, they imagine they say what the many would say if only they had the means and the skill to say it, supposedly backing with their intelligence the unintelligent sincerity of the masses. These condescending literati belong to that more highly educated portion of the population which voted against Brexit, which was horrified by the result, and which has become more and more hysterical as an actual Brexit looms ever closer, not least, perhaps, because they have discovered just how little attention and respect they are accorded in their own country.

Their hysteria is to some degree self-induced. For they inhabit a vast echo chamber where they keep hearing their own fears projected back upon themselves and where, to their amazement and horror they find that they are only listening to themselves. Neither the political and economic elites, who still nevertheless try to employ them for their own purposes, nor the general public pay these Brexit Cassandras any heed. The politicians have their own partly self-interested Brexit concerns which fit poorly with those of the literati. And so what they write and what they say seems to have had no discernible effect especially on those who voted for Brexit. How can this possibly be?

The answer is that those who voted to leave the EU did so for reasons that this metropolitan elite, which also thinks of itself as a cosmopolitan Euro-elite, equally at home in the job markets, restaurants, art galleries, and museums of London, Paris, Prague, etc., has never acknowledged as deserving of anything other than casual, contemptuous, or else angry dismissal, or else they are to have their strangeness explored in the ways that colonial anthropologists explored the otherness of Africans or Indians, in the ways that more recently in the U.S. Katharine Cramer explored the strange beings who inhabit rural Wisconsin, as Arlie Hochschild explored the otherness of Louisianans. The elite’s anguish over Brexit is anguish over the loss of their Europe. But their EU is, it seems, irrelevant to many of those who are rejecting it. And their anguish is doubled, for it is not just their Europe they have lost, it is also—to repeat—their loss of the cultural role, the ideological power, they imagined they had within Britain.

I understand this depiction of most reports and commentary on Brexit will seem contentious. But it links not only to the educational divide, it links also to the class divide detectable in that vote. Looking to the categories British social scientists customarily use to carve up the British population: of the managerial and professional classes (the ‘ABs’), about 20 percent of the population, about 57 percent of them voted against Brexit; on the other side, about 66 percent of the C2, D, and E socio-economic groups, the British working classes, who account for almost half of the population, voted for Brexit; and about 51 percent of the clerical and junior managerial strata, which is to say, the lower middle classes, voted for Brexit [5]. Coming back to the elite discourse, although many of them imagine they are educating the Brexiteers and the Lexiteers, I think their lessons are falling on deaf ears or arousing hostility because, from the point of view of those whose experiences and understandings of the EU are so very different, the metropolitan literati just don’t get it. In sum, what one reads and hears about Brexit, especially in Britain, cannot be objective, factual, neutral. It’s all an expression of political purpose. There is no apolitical way of talking and thinking about Brexit. There are, next, contextualizing things to be noted about Britain’s situation.

In principle, it used to be the case that Parliament could do anything it wanted, though in practice it has always had to attend to political realities. However, in joining the EU the United Kingdom transferred some policy-making capacities, and became subject in some cases to rulings by this or that EU agency. This is something the Parliament did to itself for its own reasons. More precisely, it’s something the British Government did to itself, for although in the British system the government, the executive, depends from Parliament, over the course of time the Government has come to dominate the Parliament. One of the consequences of the Brexit referendum has been Parliament trying to claw back some of its powers to set limits on government. Yet this attempt to claw back really isn’t surprising, for the outcome of the Brexit referendum was not the outcome the British government was expecting. It was an outcome which deeply upset the role the governments of Britain, of whichever ideological coloration, have long assigned to themselves.

We encounter two issues here: first, the grounds on which it is claimed Britain has lost some sovereignty; second, that the British Parliament could simply reject the outcome of the Brexit referendum. On this second point, I have seen it said that 75 percent of Members of the British House of Commons oppose exiting the EU. That Parliament hasn’t voted to ignore the referendum result is surely in part because the political risk is deterring enough Members. But it also is in part because Brexit has so radically disrupted Britain’s major political parties. The British political parties are clinging to life in a Europe where so many of the traditional political parties are endangered or have already passed out of existence.

Even before Brexit, the British parties, especially the Conservatives, were sites of major conflicts over the EU. In the case of the Labour Party, though the effort to make Jeremy Corbyn leader and keep him there against a fierce assault did result in an unusual growth in that Party, it is now unclear whether that will continue to be so since Brexit is dividing Labour just as it is dividing Tories. All these divisions explain to some extent why the politics of effecting Brexit have been so chaotic and why Parliament has been so ineffective. [6]

Given the predicaments the government faces in Parliament and in the country, given the predicaments the Members of Parliament face in their parties and in their constituencies, the Remain campaign may be seen as not only an effort, likely a vain effort, to sway public opinion, it may also be seen as a way of providing cover for politicians to go against the outcome of the referendum by muddying the waters, by portraying everyone as so confused and anxious that ‘only a resolute Parliament can save us.’ That is, of course, speculation. But it’s no more speculative than the talk of Brexit being the consequence of evil-doers and their dark money, of Russian computer hackers, and so on. What about the role of the British electorate in all this?

First, a generally acknowledged fact: the vote to Leave the EU was heavily supported by older British citizens and by those in the poorer areas. Now we know something about the political context in which older Britons came of political age. We know that those on the right-hand side of the spectrum were embedded in arguments that Britain should guarantee its economic future by reinforcing its links to the British Commonwealth, or that it should seek to construct an alternative economic program for Europe, EFTA, the European Free Trade Association; and where other aspects of Britain’s foreign relations were concerned, that Britain should remain America’s most loyal friend and should not tie itself too closely to alliances economic or otherwise with European countries. All this is traditional post-War conservative British thinking. And many came to political age, when these were formative political debates. As for the left side of the spectrum, back then the left, including the Labour Party, was solidly opposed to getting involved in the European project, which was dismissed as little more than a capitalist ploy. The favored term is now “neoliberalism,” but that is capitalism in its present manifestation. On both the right and the left these criticisms of the EU still resonate.

An ageist dismissal of Britain’s older voters is far from my intention. To the contrary. First, older voters, having come of political age before the imposition of neo-liberalism, have an experience-based critical perspective on it. Needless to say, this does not mean to say that every older voter believes that there is an alternative to what they might term Thatcherism. And also needless to say, their critical perspective might be outdated. But younger voters have never seen neo-liberalism challenged, certainly not to the degree it is now. This does not mean that they accept it; many may be engaged in critical action against it. (The support for Corbyn—as in the United States for Bernie Sanders—among the young is a sign of this.) Still, the younger voters face the difficulty that they have been embedded in a system which sought—with some success—to colonize their imaginations. Who can honestly claim to be entirely immune to the right-wing socio-economic propaganda of the last 50 years? That said, I think the attempt to pin generational labels on the opposing Brexit votes, something I’ve seen some Remainers do, could prove socially and politically destructive. Of course, the discussion of Brexit has become very intense and ugly things are being said on all sides. But I find the ugly things being said by those who generally present themselves as living on a higher moral plane than the rest of us the more reprehensible.

Sadly, paralleling ageism, there are signs of hostility to the poor and to those who live in distressed areas: ‘So they’re going to suffer the most from the economic fallout from Brexit?—Good! They deserve it.’ These are areas abandoned by their supposed representative politicians, in particular by New Labour, which still has a dominant presence in the Parliamentary Labour Party though not in the Party as a whole. Neither are these distressed areas places the Tories support—in fact, they seem intent on running them into the ground. The EU has, in fact, been one of these areas’ few sources of support. Should their inhabitants be grateful? Perhaps. On the other hand, when they pose the question, why are we in this parlous condition, the EU isn’t necessarily off the hook.

Their decline began about the time Britain joined the EU, which does not prove a causal relationship, but the correlation is hard to overlook. And even should it be pointed out that their own British government imposed injurious policies on local economies and social safety nets, when contemplating how they might escape their plight, there is reason to think that the EU is not disposed to facilitate or even permit necessary economic change. Furthermore, given the histories of these distressed places, the people, especially those of a certain political generation, are inclined to tune in to the old left critique of the EU. And the referendum fortuitously provided them a unique opportunity to make their views known, something that has not been available to them since the early 1990s. I’m not trying to say that such people think of themselves as left-wing. New circumstances would require some translation of their old political dispositions. I am suggesting that vestiges of a politics now gone may lurk within them. Clearly, many people are at odds with representatives whose representativeness is now in question. This is particularly a problem for parliamentary Labour in its base constituencies.

The perceptions of the EU I’ve just alluded to is at odds with the high-flown intellectual justifications we usually hear: elaborate moral justifications emanating from various sorts of liberal idealism. It is at odds with thinking prevalent among Britain’s metropolitan elites. The latter is also a way of thinking of those who won past political struggles over the European project, or of those who align themselves with the victors perhaps because they have never known that there were other sides to the story. But political victories have a way of being temporary. And what I emphasize is that contrary ways of thinking continued to live on and that the Brexit referendum opened the door to their long-muted expression. Americans may begin to get a grip on the differences in attitude by thinking of the divergent attitudes in their own country towards NAFTA, towards the never concluded TransPacific trade deal, towards globalisation in general.

Although the British occupational structure underwent transformations during the last half century which call into question the notion of a Left in British politics closely linked to a large industrial working class, one must note that a large portion of the electorate still experiences vicissitudes of the sort that a classical working class was familiar with. These are not the experiences of vociferous Remainers who seem to occupy intermediate class positions, positions of some, though not great, privilege. Many of them seem to have little or no sympathetic understanding that “The rhetoric of the desperate is likely to be a simplifying one reflective of a condition reduced to its essentials [whereas] a rhetoric of complexity . . . has found favor with those whose expectations are secure”. [7] It is, however, possible to talk more forgivingly about at least some of these, about what might be termed the Left Remainers, in a way that illuminates a vitl aspect of the divisions over Brexit.

I direct attention to the inescapable tension between immediate local experience and the attempt to put that experience in a larger framework appropriate not only to forming a general understanding but to constructing political alliances amongst a range of localities. This is well expressed in David Harvey’s essay, “Militant particularism and global ambition,” in which he explores his own experience and the parallel reflections of Raymond Williams. [8] It is an exploration of the relationship between working-class people and the working class’s organic intellectuals who are always struggling to inform and be informed by each other. This is an encounter between those living in different material, intellectual, and even temporal frameworks. Harvey stresses this is not an encounter “between parochialism and universalism.” It is an interchange “that derives from the kind of abstraction achievable given different ways of acquiring knowledge of the world.” Or, as Harvey quotes another author (Ingold), “The local is not more limited or narrowly focused apprehension than the global, it is one that rests on an altogether different mode of apprehension—one based on an active, perceptual engagement with components of the dwelt-in world, in the practical business of life, rather than on the detached, disinterested observation of a world apart.” Williams’s concern was, that “the brute ugliness of the realities of lived experience for the oppressed” may be ignored, as may be “the raw anger against injustice and exploitation that powers so much of the striving for social change.” But neither must “the creative thinking and practices necessary to achieve progressive social change” be ignored. The room for mutual misunderstanding is large. And the resulting tension is often expressed angrily: on the one side, “what you are really abusing is knowledge and reason”; on the other side, “what you now think . . . is no more than a projection of what suited you. The fact that for other’s each belief is substantial merely enabled you to deceive them” (Harvey quoting Williams). Williams’s advice that “everything will have to be done by negotiation, equitable negotiation, and it will have to be taken steadily along the way,” seems more honored in the breach, making it even more necessary to remember it. This analysis would also seem relevant to those cases where populism on the one hand and elitism on the other are derided. Deserving as some of these may be of the harshest criticism, one should not discard what might become usefully progressive possibilities.

The European Union provides another context. The European project has, since the formation of the European coal and steel community in 1951 and the formation of the six-member European Economic Community in 1957, grown in members, in complexity of organization, and in the range of matters that fall within its purview. Britain joined in 1973. I guess it’s fair to say that it joined reluctantly—for both the British public and the British ruling class were divided—and not all the core six members of the European Community were eager to let Britain in. Nevertheless, when the British public was asked in a 1975 referendum whether it should stay in the European Community it had recently joined, 67 percent voted yes.

Enlargement proceeded, as did its consequences. Greece joined in 1981, Spain and Portugal in 1986, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia, and also Cyprus and Malta joined in 2004, and Bulgaria and Romania in 2007. All those seeking membership had to accept the EU’s stated values: respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law. Supposedly, no country that does not recognize these values can belong to the Union—recent events in some member states permit doubt about that and these events also permit doubt that the EU can do much to rid itself of countries which flout these values. All this raises the question, when people in Europe and elsewhere, and especially when the Remainers put the EU on a pedestal, is it the idealised EU or the actual one?

Even were each member state a functioning democracy, is the EU itself organized as a democracy? Democracy may be an essentially contestable concept whose meanings exist only within an inescapable field of political argument, but its meanings are not entirely open to arbitrary definition. They must have something to do with a relationship where the people have a legitimate political role—they’re citizens, not just inhabitants, free to interact to explore their interests and press to have them addressed, where those who formulate policies and make binding decisions are responsible in some non-trivial, non-arbitrary fashion to the citizens. Does some such definition of democracy describe, even approximately, how the EU functions? There are plausible grounds for maintaining that it does not.

Although since the Maastricht Treaty of 1993 there has been such a thing as European citizenship, it is a bit ambiguous. Typically in any country, in practical terms, influencing and reacting to government is linked to political organizations up to and including political parties. Yet there are no European-wide political organizations. The European Parliament consists of ad hoc groupings of somewhat ideologically similar political parties linked to a mechanism for distributing resources. There are no political mechanisms, certainly no moderately effective ones, for allowing the citizens of the EU to act together in relation to EU policies. At best, European citizenship, while it may make available freer travel and right of residence and free entry to many museums, would seem to be a very attenuated sort of citizenship. In particular, it is not linked to any organized processes whereby the citizens may express dissent from what the EU system produces as policies. And so, to repeat, just how democratic is the EU?

Another way to approach the question is to ask how EU policies are formulated and effected. A democratic system would have these things lodged in some meaningful way with those whom the citizens have chosen to act in their behalf. The Lisbon Treaty of 2007 redefined how EU policies were decided. The Council of Ministers, which represents Member countries, is one of the two chambers of the EU’s legislative branch—the other is the European Parliament. But the legislative initiative rests with the European Commission, which may be thought of as the European Civil Service, a body of technical and bureaucratic experts. Following Lisbon, although the procedure varies from policy area to policy area, the Council of Ministers requires only a Qualified Majority, but no longer unanimity, to approve a Commission proposal. In the Parliament, whose approval is also necessary, a simple majority is sufficient. The point to be made with respect to the Qualified Majority is that now, unlike in the past, no country can in every instance veto a policy which it see as peculiarly affecting its national interest. This surely can be interpreted as an infringement of national sovereignty, as Brexiteers well know.

The European Parliament began life almost as an afterthought in the European project. Its members have since 1979 been elected but the citizens of Europe have never shown interest in an assembly that never had much power. The Parliament also has no powers of initiative. Although supposedly representative of citizens, the Council of Ministers, only an indirectly representative body, is the European Parliament’s co-equal in judging policy initiatives of the Commission. Since the representatives of the government they elect in their own country may be outvoted in the Council of Ministers and since the body they constituted through their votes as European citizens has limited powers in relation both to the Council and to the European Commission, it is a sort of ‘democracy’ at odds with the democracy many are accustomed to in their own country. Note that it means that should the citizens of any country direct their government to reject some particular policy, their government would be unable to block it from going into effect.

The very way in which the Treaty of Lisbon came about reflects rather badly on how the EU proceeds. Lisbon had its origins in 2001 in a Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe. Since this was a new treaty, all member states had to ratify it. Several countries put it to a referendum. In 2005, the proposed European constitution went down to defeat in France and the Netherlands. Tony Blair had announced there would be a referendum in Britain, but after the French and Dutch referenda, that became unnecessary. The Treaty of Lisbon, which was presented as a treaty to amend rather than an entirely new treaty, was a refashioned version of the defeated European constitution. But being a treaty to amend, it did not need a country’s ratification procedure in most EU member states. Ireland, however, was required to put it to a referendum. There it too went down to defeat. Again, the necessary unanimity among the Member states was not achieved. But Ireland was then subjected to considerable pressure to re-do their referendum, and this second time it passed. There is an EU pattern here: keep pressing until the recalcitrant member comes up with the desired response. It is possible, in the case of Brexit that the EU is again playing a game that will give it the result it wants: Britain remains one way or another within the EU. There are those in Britain playing the same game.

In relation to this, there’s an interesting insight into how the EU—which is at one level an inter-governmental organization and at another level a top heavy technocratic bureaucracy—responds to challenges. Note this opinion piece by a French writer Sylvie Kauffmann:

“But most of all, this process has taught us about the strength of the European Union in a way that we never suspected. . .

            “The European Commission designated an affable Frenchman, Michel Barnier, as its chief negotiator and gave him a team of 60, drawn from 19 nationalities. A former center-right member of Parliament, government minister and union commissioner, Mr. Barnier viewed Brexit as “a lose-lose case” and was determined that the union would lose as little as possible. He understood early that unity would be crucial and repeatedly toured the remaining 27 member countries to brief their leaders.

            “[I]nstead of intra-European infighting and rivalry, London’s negotiators met a solid wall of unity and sense of purpose. The European Union became so relevant that exiting it is not an issue anymore, even among the most Euroskeptic governments”. [9]

This is something to be kept in mind when contemplating the shambles of official British attempts to negotiate how they might get out of Europe. The attempt to negotiate is quite one-sided. This is surely not going unperceived in Britain, especially by those who have for long suspected and opposed what that commentator says he did not suspect. And there is another direct link between the Lisbon Treaty and Brexit: Tony Blair and Gordon Brown said there would be a referendum. Then Gordon Brown, as Prime Minister, said there was no need. David Cameron criticised Labour for reneging. David Cameron, as Prime Minister, opposed a referendum until, for electoral purposes he miscalculated and called for one. The seeming bad faith of their political leaders with respect to EU matters surely also colored British attitudes towards the EU. The conflict over Europe and the related conflict over what sort of Europe it should be stretches back a long way. And not just in Britain. [10]

Why, if the European project has been such a hard sell, why if it has never aroused much enthusiasm, has it proceeded? There’s actually a stream of analysis which answers that question by placing it within a framework which extends far beyond Europe. It’s a context which helps explain why governments, or more generally, powerful groups among the political and economic elites, have been quite eager to push the European project forward even against the hostility or lukewarmness of their citizens and of members of their own political parties. What’s been going on?

From a general point of view, there is, for example, Foucault’s discussion in the late 1970s of German ordo-liberalism and American neoliberalism. The ordo-liberals sought to create a state on the foundation of economic liberty, a state where the market would occupy a very privileged place; their social-market economy was to be supported by political regulation. And having failed to effect that in Germany, so Wolfgang Streeck avers, they transferred their efforts to the European level where they achieved great success. The British—and American—neo-liberals inhabited well-established states. Their problem was to enlarge the role of the market beyond the confines of the economy, to make more and more of their societies and politics subject to economic rationality, to get the system and the people to replace questions of right or wrong, of just or unjust, with cost-benefit analysis and a widespread acceptance of corporate profitability as the be-all and end-all. These two approaches did find common ground in the fashioning of the EU at least after about the mid 1970s, if not before.

Since the EU was a system which emphasized the role in policy making and implementation of diplomats, bureaucrats, and technical experts and de-emphasized the role of the publics in member countries, it might be so, that ordo-/neo-liberalism fitted it like a glove. Like the rise of capitalism itself, of which ordo-/neo-liberalism has been but a recent phase, even as it inexorably spread, it found a readier new home in some places than in others. Neo-liberalism is the ideology the EU was seeking, the justification for and the explanation of its earliest supervisorial practices, the explanation of and the justification for the extension of these practices into evermore areas of human activity, for it knows no bounds. The marginalization of a democratic element in its decision-making is thus perhaps no accident? The possible reform of the EU to insert a democratic element into its functioning may thus be an immensely difficult task. At the same time, the hope of reforming in a democratic direction, of rolling back the neo-liberal regimes which hold sway in the EU’s member countries may not be great, especially in such a place as Britain, which may fairly be described as one of the birth places of neo-liberalism. Yet neo-liberalism is not inscribed in Britain in the very grain of its formal and informal constitutional arrangements, in its cultural forms and practices, in the memories of its people. In the EU, which lacks a history which might impose limits and generate counter-institutional arrangements, which was, I’ve suggested, born neo-liberal avant la lettre, there may well be less reason to hope for change of a generally liberating, empowering sort.

Note just how rapidly and successfully this neo-liberal ideology has come to dominate societies and individuals. The notion that there is no alternative to the market determination of all aspects of life invades the thinking even of those who wish and try to resist it. It is no wonder, then, that economistic and individualistic considerations weigh so heavily in the debates over Brexit. To have other concerns and to think in other ways, to repudiate what is now the dominant socio-political theory structuring and guiding the EU, as at least some of the Leavers do, strikes so many Remainers as unrealistic, irrational, fantastical. How can it be about anything other than the money? They seem to be unaware that the concerns they express with respect to the possible consequences of Brexit can come across to those who do not see the world in the same light as self-centered outrage at the potential loss to them of for the most part mere economic and cultural privilege.

In contemplating how this came about, in contemplating how the EU became an ordo-/neo-liberal bastion, the role of British governments led, first, by Margaret Thatcher and dominated after her departure by Thatcherism, a particularly harsh version of neo-liberalism, should not be minimized. Britain, with the aid of willing allies elsewhere in Europe, helped drive the EU towards becoming a region where politics was reduced to operating within a space defined by economics, where politics became ever more incapable of inhibiting economic excess. Neither should it be ignored that some of the drive for Brexit came and is coming from just those in the British economic and political elites for whom the EU’s neo-liberalism was not harsh enough, who want to dominate an independent Britain to their own advantage, who want to link with the more uninhibited economic polity that is the United States. For people like me, that is a legitimate concern. On the other hand, to see the dominance of Britain’s own neo-liberals as inevitable is to overlook two things: that support for Brexit has been more explicitly correlated with hostility to neo-liberalism than with support for a more extreme version of it; and that Brexit is, as was inevitable, transforming the whole space of domestic British politics—it is necessarily leading to a period of political upheaval and innovation, the outcome of which cannot be known in advance. That is both worrying and liberating, as is always be the case when a settled way of doing things has become untenable.

In the case of Britain, to quote Peter Mair, an Irish political scientist who wrote, “Ruling the Void: The Hollowing out of Western Democracy,”

“Since the last years of the Thatcher government . . . the parties in Britain have rushed to the centre, with . . . New Labour’s ’Third Way’ in particular being promoted as a way of superseding ideology and partisanship as central forces in the process of policy-making. In place of the politics of party, and hence in place of the reversals and extremisms of the earlier system, there came what . . . has [been] identified as ‘the politics of depoliticization’—a governing strategy in which decision-making authority is passed over to ostensibly non-partisan bodies and in which binding rules are adopted which deny discretion to the government of the day. . . The [still competing political] parties . . . came to find themselves sharing the same broad commitments in government and confining themselves to the same ever-narrowing repertoire of policy-making”. [11]

In place of political decision-making there is EU regulation. Domestically, it’s tweedle-dum versus tweedle-dee. The two processes go hand in hand. Underlying this is that old anti-democratic fear of and hostility towards the supposedly ignorant masses; how could they ever contribute to rational decisions about very difficult and very important matters? The strategy has been to displace policy making to a place out of democratic reach and to put in place means for curbing whatever the demos, the almost neutered citizens might try to do. Consider, for example, the way in which particular international organizations block or even punish national efforts to try to salvage the natural environment or to limit privatization of such national institutions as universal health care or education systems. Again Mair:

“within party organizations, there has been a shift in the party centre of gravity towards those elements and actors that serve the needs of the party in parliament and government; . . .’those who control the government appear to be better able than in the past to also control from that position the whole party’. . . [T]he party organization outside the institutions of the polity, and the pary on the ground in all its various manifestations, gradually wither away. . . What remains is a governing class.”

. . .

“Citizens change from participants into spectators, while the elites win more and more space in which to pursue their own particular interests. The result is the beginning of a new form of democracy, one in which the citizens stay at home while the parties get on with governing.”

Primarily with an eye to the ways in which the governing arrangements of the United States had been changed, Sheldon Wolin voiced a similar concern:

“The ideology of ‘the economy’ and the positive role of the state in advancing capitalist societies share a common tendency towards the depoliticalization of society; or, stated more sharply, both are not only opposed to the redemocratization of society, they are committed to reshaping the attenuated remains of democratic practices to accord with the needs of a corporate vision of politics”. [12]

Often enough this has been done under the guise of internationalism, and who could possibly be against that, for, we hear again and again, internationalism is good, nationalism is bad. But here’s what Streeck has to say,

“Ideologically the political-economic preemption of the nation state—of democratic national institutions in favour of technocratic supranational ones—makes use of certain positive normative connotations of internationalism, especially on the Left. . .. Using left internationalism for left disempowerment is a particularly ironic method to de-democratize a capitalist political economy, especially if deployed by the left itself. It comes with a moral denunciation of borders and protectionism tout cours in the name of a misunderstood cosmopolitanism, identifying ‘globalization’ with liberation, not just of capital, but of life in general”

All this helps one understand just why Brexit is arousing vociferous dismay in certain circles: A political and economic elite project supported by a recently emerged (and subordinate) cultural elite is faced with repudiation. Neither should it be overlooked that some are locked into the EU as they pursued their single issues or their identities, for the EU arena was where decision-making respecting their particular concerns had become increasingly lodged, and they are, with some cause, desperately afraid that their concerns will be ignored or injured should Brexit go into effect.

All of this has been going forward, at least until recently, with the encouragement of the world’s major actor, the United States. While it wasn’t the sole factor in the framing and fashioning of the European project, there is no question that American urgings are among the things that brought the EU into being. With respect to Brexit, two US-related points have to be noted: the end of the Cold War and then before too long the difficulties the American empire began to experience, both at home and abroad, in consequence of the great surge of imperial hubris which attended the realization (or was it always a delusion) that it was the sole superpower. There has been since 1989 an expansionary thrust, in which the EU has been implicated, and there has been a mounting perception, abroad as well as at home, that US imperial ambitions were outstripping its capacities. The drive to become more encompassing has become tied to perceptions that it was weakening. Athens went to Sicily, with a well-known result. America has been going almost everywhere.

While the EU is implicated in globalization, in the process to integrate the world into a capitalist network of production and distribution, globalization is American led. American interests predominate, no matter that privileging them may not harmonize with the interests of others. The EU, while it is more or less an American ally, is also an American competitor. Of consequence for Brexit, there are those among Britain’s elites more inclined to look across the Atlantic than across the English Channel when contemplating their future. A range of responses come into play when the globalizing drive seems to be weakening, especially when an American government is seen to be narrowly pursuing its own economic interests. Those in Britain whose interests are more closely aligned with American ones found themselves more than ever drawn away from the EU.

What did the end of the Cold War have to do with Brexit? With the end of the Cold War Eastern Europe was in a sense cut loose. One of the first consequences was to all intents and purposes the unilateral decision of West Germany to unify with East Germany, no matter the cost, no matter how this might impact the EU and its other members. Here it needs to be remembered that one of the imperatives of the European project from its beginning was to contain Germany. Reunification as well as another German action I’ll come to in a moment, insofar as they influenced perceptions of the EU, cannot be ignored when considering Brexit.

What to do about other cut-loose eastern European countries? There was internal EU discussion whether or not to bring them on board. In the broadening versus deepening debate: should the EU include more members, even though those that might be included were poorer countries—for note, the poorest EU member, Greece, was richer than the richest cut-loose entity, Slovenia, which might become a member; or should the EU put its energies and its resources into deepening the economic, social, cultural, and political relationships among its already existing members? Although not the only factor, American pressure contributed to the decision to expand into Eastern Europe.

This expansion of the EU into Eastern Europe was coordinated with the expansion of NATO to include some of the same countries. Both EU expansion and NATO expansion are aspects of an American policy to advance its power closer to Russia and to assure continued dominance over Western Europe. It’s a whole other subject for discussion, this policy, pursued under both Republican and Democratic direction. But it is relevant to the contextualization of Brexit to note that, no matter that since 1941 both Labour and Conservative governments supported U.S. foreign policies, it cannot be assumed that the British people all were happy about it.

And worse was to come, for another consequence of the ending of the Cold War was the break-up of Yugoslavia. Under the Cold War system, both the eastern and western European countries were tightly constrained by their overlords, the US and the Soviet Union. After 1989, these constraints lessened. Although Yugoslavia occupied a unique, awkward-to-define place within Cold War Europe, nevertheless, its own internal developments now took place in a new context. What’s significant so far as the EU and Brexit are concerned is the part Germany played. Unilaterally, it recognized the independence of Slovenia and pressured its EU colleagues to go along, which helped trigger the violent unraveling of Yugoslavia. That Germany had again acted unilaterally provoked outrage and anxiety concerning how Germany’s future role in Europe. That NATO and the EU were injected into the Yugoslavian conflicts in a one-sided way also provoked anger, for not everyone interpreted what was going on there in the way that their governments did.

So far as the EU is at issue, the engagement in a war within Europe raised serious questions about what had been one, perhaps the most widely supported argument in favor of European unification, that it would bring a halt to the wars which had ravaged Europe for centuries, and especially to wars prompted by great power rivalries among the French, the British and the Germans. That Germany would open the door to the horrors of Sarajevo, ethnic massacres, and the like, raised fears, never dormant in Europe, especially never dormant in Britain, that the EU was incapable of fulfilling one of its primary functions, namely, that it constrain Germany. To jump forward a few years, the extraordinary harshness with which the EU dealt with Greece’s financial difficulties was also seen justly by many as being German-led, as done primarily to protect German financial interests and Germany’s economic system. Again this raised the question, what is the EU and who or what is it designed to benefit? Could the EU control its most powerful member to the benefit of all the EU member countries? Or was the EU becoming slowly subject to German hegemony? Again, so far as Brexit is concerned, new fears of Germany found ready resonance with some old fears embedded more deeply though not exclusively in Britain’s older people.

The post-Cold War extension of EU membership also had consequences, for they became free to make use of what membership made available, including so-called “freedom of movement.” What is relevant for Brexit is that, unlike most countries in the EU, Britain failed to put in place measures that would put some brakes on the flow of working people into Britain out of places such as Poland eager to advance themselves economically in the richer West. What must be recognized about this influx of eastern European workers is they for the most part found only some parts and places in the British economy accessible to them on account of their education and skills. In other words, the impact of the influx was experienced differentially. Some parts of Britain experienced little impact. I have seen a BBC estimate of over 1 million immigrants of this sort—about 2 percent of the British population, which has to be translated into a much larger percentage of the working-age population, and into very much higher percentages in particular categories of economic activity and in particular places. The British government, led by Tony Blair, clearly bears responsibility. But it is also clear that it would not have happened had Britain not been a member of the EU.

So far I’ve reviewed the political context within which the Brexit referendum took place. And I’ve pointed to the disappearance of another enduring political framework of relevance to the Brexit vote, the ending of the Cold War. And I suggested how these affected that vote. I now want to draw attention to another obvious framework for Brexit—the massive economic collapse of 2008-9, a collapse which cannot be viewed apart from American-led globalization. The EU has not recovered from that collapse to the degree other places have. Rather, dominated by neo-liberal thinking, the Eurozone has adhered to a punishing regime of austerity. Britain, outside the Eurozone, but still dominated by its own neoliberals, has also pursued austerity, but has managed to recover rather better than other parts of the EU. Greece is not the only country to find itself subjected to economic requirements and conditionalities which poorly fit their own circumstances. Spain, Portugal, and Ireland, among others, may be mentioned here too. Inevitably, especially since the policies of austerity have a differential impact both on the different countries of Europe but also on the populations of these countries, the notion that the EU is an engine for creating economic betterment has fallen into question. It has lent credibility to the notion that economic betterment might be better pursued outside the EU. It is relatively easy, I think, to see how this perception finds ready allies among those for whom the EU has never been experienced as a source of betterment.

Besides, it is widely acknowledged tha economic inequality has grown significantly in Britain as well as elsewhere. We know that whatever the benefits of EU membership may have been, these have not been distributed uniformly. It may have been a bit unfair for Brexiteers to broadcast under the title “40 years of EU rule”, “Railways—sold, electricity—sold; water—sold, the Royal Mail—sold; the National Health Service—being sold,” because these were policies pushed by Britain’s ruling class. But these policies met no opposition from the EU. And more to the present point, where left critics are concerned, given the economic ideas which dominate within the EU we suspect that any attempt by a British government to reverse privatization would be ruled out of order by the EU. Let me just add that the re-nationalization of Britain’s railways is now widely advocated. And the NHS—the National Health Service—has been, like Social Security in the United States, the third rail in British politics, yet its privatization seems to be proceeding in dribs and drabs under the rules of “fair competition” [13]; the EU is not where to look if one wants to find support for opposition to the privatization of basic social services.

To return to the arguments of Mair and Streeck, among others: the project to put elite policy making in the place of democratic policy making derived such legitimacy as it enjoyed only from its apparent success, for it was justified as a way of making sound decisions about matters the citizenry were not qualified to deal with and to provide these citizens with economic and other sorts of security they could not otherwise be provided. In a number of ways, elite decision-making instead has demonstrated its inadequacies. It was elite decision-making that collaborated in seemingly endless wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, in the thrust towards Russia. It was elite decision-making which, by helping to make life intolerably dangerous elsewhere in the world, made the mass migration of desperate people seeking safety a problem. It was elite economic decision-making which has sought to deal with the consequences of the economic disaster of a decade ago by imposing austerity and which has put in place policies which are allowing a few to become obscenely rich while the many are being returned to a socio-economic and cultural poverty preceding the good years, the two generations during which many enjoyed the benefits of something like social democracy.

That Britain’s Tory government wants to exploit austerity to squash social provision, to deprive desolated urban areas of resources and weaken them as sites of opposition, to privatize what remains of the welfare state—and that many of those who think this way support Brexit because it may allow them to pursue these anti-people projects more vigorously—should not cause anyone to imagine that the EU is their friend. There are those who reckon that the EU might be reformed into becoming a friend, but there are others who judge that the EU is less reformable than an independent Britain. In my opinion, whichever of these judgments might have been the more plausible prior to the Brexit referendum, it almost certainly strengthened all that makes the EU less than people friendly, for should Brexit fail to come to pass, or worse, should it come to pass in ways that subject Britain to new sorts of EU constraints, there is surely in some higher places a desire to punish Britain for its temerity joined to a desire to discourage others from pursuing a similar path out.

As the process of transferring legitimacy to supra-national organizations was going forward, simultaneously some legitimacy was withdrawn from states. Increasingly, people were told, there are matters your government is incapable of dealing with. But what happens when the supranational organization to which powers have been transferred begins to be seen as less than competent to deal with policy areas transferred to it, policy areas we have been assured are significant? What happens when the EU begins to seem less legitimate, as has been happening across Europe. All that are left, it seems, are entities, national governments which have also through their own earlier actions lost legitimacy. And as the EU has, I think, made very clear in the case of Brexit, the costs of leaving can be made extremely great. The space within which confusion may reign has become very large. This is perhaps why one now hears it being said that both Britain and the EU need rebuilding. But this is not, I think, what one hears from the adamantine Remainers for whom the EU continues to be an ideal and for whom Britain is a dark region harboring all sorts of backward and vicious tendencies only an enlightened Europe can hold in check.

None of this can be ignored when one is trying to understand Brexit. The causes of Brexit are many, historically rooted, multiply interconnected, and ultimately deeply political. Brexit is not adequately to be understood as some kind of irrational spasm, as something which suddenly emerged out of nowhere.


Brexit is xenophobic, ignorant, nationalistic, economically misguided, etc. Although presented as unarguable facts, they are at best problematical assumptions, misrepresentations, or manipulative in intent. All this and more will be familiar to those who know something of the history of democracy’s enemies. At the same time, few critics feel any need to accompany their criticisms of Brexit with a defense of the EU. Their EU, to borrow from 1066 and All That, simply is “a good thing.” It is almost as if there are no valid or plausible criticisms of the EU, as if the EU was not, as it has since the great financial crisis a decade ago, riddled with problems. For some Europeans, in the richer as well as the poorer EU member states, it should be remembered that economic difficulties preceded the crisis. Yet it’s as if Remainers had never heard of “Europe’s disappearing middle class.” [14] One conclusion of that study is surely relevant to British attitudes towards Brexit:

“Rather than the crisis, long-term transformations in industrial relations and labour markets seem to explain the growth of the low-pay segment and the erosion of the middle class in countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy” (p. 43).

It’s also noteworthy, given the emphasis on migration in the Brexit discussions, that according to this report,

“The changes in the world of work that we describe in this volume for some southern countries – such as real wage falls, weakened collective bargaining, cuts in employment and wages in the public sector and reduced expenditure in health and education – have led many middle-class employees to emigrate to seek better employment and wage conditions. Emigration of middle-class public sector employees could also be observed from southern countries to northern countries. The ILO documented the illustrative case of a middle-class employee from the Portuguese state administration who decided to emigrate to Switzerland to work as a cleaning lady to earn more income and ensure the coverage of her family needs. A high number of doctors have emigrated from Hungary, Romania, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia, but also Spain and Greece, to work in northern countries (pp. 41-42).”

There has, in other words, been ‘brain drain’ going on. If Britain has benefitted from immigration, some of the benefits have been at the expense of poorer EU countries. But that’s no concern of ours? That’s not something ever mentioned in Brexit debates. And where defenses are put forward, they’re in the form of unsupported assertions concerning the benefits the EU has supposedly brought to Europeans, including the British. For the Remainers, for the most part, the EU is an unexaminable object, a sacred object.

One of the most frequently heard charges is that an unprepared and ignorant British public was suddenly asked to vote on a very complex matter and that the campaign around that referendum was uninformative and misleading. What this disregards is that in fact: (1) the referendum was initiated because the EU was already and had been for several decades a most contentious, much discussed issue. (2) The multi-faceted opposition within Britain to the EU has been enduring. Here’s a comment from a 2009 Eurobarometer: “Respondents were divided about the ‘image’ of the EU: of those taking a position, about half had a rather positive image of the EU (37%), while the other half took the opposite view (40%)” (Note the inherent duplicity in referring to 37% and 40% as being “about half,” but then, these surveys are conducted in the service of determining where and how the EU needs to be buttressed. (3) Britain is not unique in harboring opposition to the EU. An analyst at the Robert Schuman Foundation—another organization devoted to defending the EU—concluded in 2013

“Since 2007 Europeans’ attitudes about the European Union have constantly worsened. Image, confidence, optimism about the Union’s future – these three indicators in the Eurobarometer have plummeted sharply. As we explain this downturn we immediately turn to the financial and economic crisis. But a national analysis illustrates that the key factors in attitudes to Europe are not just economic. Increasingly Europeans are being tempted by a type of national withdrawal and this phenomenon is clearly linked to a weakening in support to the European Union.” [15]

            In short, the Brexit referendum was not injected into a political vacuum. Rather, the referendum was injected into a political space filled with a great deal of political argument, going back to the 1960s, about the pros and cons of EU membership. The public voting in the referendum was not ignorant. It was, however, a public—a diverse public, I should emphasize—which suddenly found itself with an effective political voice on a matter about which for a long time it had had little or no say. Imagine if there was, in the United States, a referendum in, say, three months time on, say, the right to terminate a pregnancy or the right to own guns. Although it’s all too easy to imagine that the losers in such a referendum would claim that the public had been given too little time to think the matter through, surely these issues have been discussed for many years. Would it really be accurate to say that the American people were voting out of ignorance?

Another charge is that the referendum vote—about 52 percent in support of Leave, about 48 percent for Remain—was too close to provide a basis for such a consequential action. Leave received the support of a little over 37 percent of the entire electorate. In fact a great many elections have been decided by similar or even smaller levels of support:

  1. The great reforming Labour government of 1945 came into office with the support of about 35 percent of the electorate; their opponents got less;
  2. In 1951, the Conservatives swept Labour from office with the support of about 39 percent of the electorate; defeated Labour won 40 percent;
  3. In 1964, Labour ended 13 years of Tory rule by winning the support of 34 percent of the electorate; the Tories got 33 percent;
  4. In 1979, the fact that Thatcher’s Tory party won the support of only about 33 percent of the electorate was not regarded as deligitimisation for her policies; the main opposition got 28 percent; a second opposition party got a bit more than 10 percent; her opponents got over 2 million more votes than Thatcher’s Tories;
  5. In 1997, the Labour Party was swept into office with 43.2 percent of the vote, with the support of only about 30 percent of the electorate, outvoted by the two leading opposition parties, who together got almost 2.5 million more votes than did Labour;
  6. And in 2010, the Conservatives came back into power with the support of 23 percent of the electorate, with 36.1 percent of the votes cast, outvoted this time by close to 5 million votes for the two main opposition parties.

If the vote to Leave lacks electoral legitimacy, then every British government since World War Two, and most before, lacked electoral legitimacy. And these were not governments making inconsequential decisions. To put it in American perspective, in 2000 George W. Bush became President with 47.9 percent [26 percent of the voting age population], returned to office in 2004 with 50.7 percent [30 percent], that in 2008 Barack Obama became President with 52.9 percent [33 percent], and returned to office in 2012 with 50.9 percent of the vote [30 percent]. If the Brexit vote lacks legitimacy, then so too does the election of these US Presidents.

Next charge: The Brexit vote was a much-to-be-regretted expression of nationalism.In some respects, that is so. But before we lapse into condemnation, it’s necessary to scrutinize nationalism, for it comes in different varieties, and some varieties were in favor of remaining. The first type of Remain nationalism is that which talks about how the EU will allow Britain to play a greater role in the world. It’s not exactly “Make Britain great again” nationalism, but it can be said to be “Make Britain greater than it will otherwise be” nationalism. It’s the sort of nationalism where the EU is regarded as a vehicle for British international ambitions. It’s a nationalism one comes across in other member European states. A second type of Remain nationalism is what might be referred to as Euro-nationalism, the notion that the EU permits Europeans to play a larger role in the world than they might otherwise, a larger role that is their birthright as the inheritors of European civilization. (For a very recent example of this see Emmanuel Macron’s letter, “Dear Europe, Brexit is a lesson for all of us: it’s time for renewal”. [16]) If the nationalism of the Leavers makes their desire to Leave morally and politically suspect, the motives of some Remainers surely also must be held suspect. We’ve gone from black and white to shades of gray.

Although not all Remainers are internationalists, internationalism is often juxtaposed to nationalism in Remain versus Leave arguments. But internationalism comes in at least two varieties. There is the sort of internationalism associated with various sorts of socialism. But before, during, and after left internationalism there has also been capitalist internationalism. It’s surely true that some left internationalists want to Remain. But it’s also true that some touting the EU’s internationalist credentials are the opposite of left internationalists. This is the sort of internationalism which has driven globalization during the last few generations—and too often people who should know better, who should be more suspicious, are led astray by the term internationalist when they should be critically examining what sort of internationalism is on offer.

But isn’t the support for Brexit driven by xenophobia? That there is anti-immigrant xenophobia cannot be disputed, but for present purposes it is convenient to mention Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speeches against West Indian immigrants in the 1950s, hostility to immigrant Pakistanis and Africans (I once possessed a Manchester police helmet inside which was written “Paki basher”), and more recently the expressions of anti-Islam linked to mass migration out of the Middle East. Followers of the Brexit debates too casually assume that these are what are at issue in Brexit. While it is plausible that one sort of anti-immigrancy feeds another sort, what needs to be clarified is (1) why the EU became the focus of today’s hostility to foreigners, (2) whether other concerns are being bundled into a grab-bag labeled in a way which carries negative connotations. The answers to both these questions have a bearing on the legitimacy of components of the Brexit vote. They cannot be explored without taking note of so-called “freedom of movement” within the EU.

“Freedom of movement” within the EU is debatable on a number of grounds, but the one of relevance here arose with the expansion of the EU into Eastern Europe. To quote the BBC

“Most EU countries imposed temporary labour market restrictions on workers from the eight East European states which joined in 2004, but the UK, Republic of Ireland and Sweden did not. The UK saw an unexpected surge in migrants from those states – the majority from Poland. Net migration from those states to the UK reached nearly 400,000 in 2004-2011, and a UK census in 2011 suggested about 1.1 million residents were born in those countries. The concentration of migrants in certain areas has put extra pressure on services such as schools and hospitals”. [17]

As this BBC report goes on to explain, “social dumping,” i.e., importing cheap workers from poorer countries who undercut local workers and even deprive locals of jobs, is a related problem. So is the fact that companies are allowed to pay required social contributions in the workers’ countries of origin, where these contributions are generally lower. In short, the mechanisms of the EU freedom of movement of working people are perceived especially in areas highly impacted by migrant labour, and by quite a number of trades unions, to undermine rights that working people won for themselves over generations of struggle. Neither major British political party came to the defense of workers who found their conditions of work degraded, their jobs even eliminated. This surely figures into why the vote in favor of Brexit was so strong in parts of Britain. It also explains why the vote to Remain was strong in other parts of Britain—the nature of their economies, especially in a place like London and the South-East, is such that immigrant workers are for the most part unlikely to seek employment there since they for the most part lack the basic qualifications. And it helps explain why the major parties have been finding it difficult to contain and exploit Brexit.

Both in the run-up to the referendum and in the political conflicts of the post-referendum period we’re now in, the complexities I’ve just sketched have all too often been dismissed as “anti-immigrant xenophobia.” This is just confirming for many of those who voted as they did, for Brexit, that their opponents, the Remainers, have no interest in understanding their plight. We’re talking about those geographical and socio-economic locations in Britain where the support for Brexit was greatest, where poverty has been on the rise for a generation and more, where their towns and cities are blighted, where their children have access only to increasingly inadequate schooling, where the National Health Service is being run into the ground. In short, while the anti-immigrant charge has some validity, it is inadequately understood for what it often is, all too often being categorized as mere racist bigotry.

This is an opportune moment to look to the charge that Brexit will prove harmful to Britain. Since it’s clear that the EU is unwilling or is incapable of working out some friendly, no fault divorce with Britain, there’s reason to expect that there will be considerable economic costs attached to Brexit. Given the socio-economic divisions within British society, there is every reason to expect that these costs will be inequitably distributed. On the other hand, many British people are already experiencing economic tribulation. They’re not unaware that their lot has been increasingly unpleasant and not just in consequence of the economic crash a decade ago. They know that economic inequality has grown over the last half century, roughly the period during which Britain has been in the EU. For them, the EU is a part of their problem not a part of the solution to their problem. They see that the guiding ideology of the EU means that staying in the EU will mean more of the same for them.

Often enough, of course, people have been advised that their general standard of living has improved. Recall, however, the report cited above on the decline of the European, including the British middle class since at least the mid-1990s. And note, too, British historian Edward Thompson’s conclusion to his in depth analysis of an earlier period of great economic transformation,

“It is perfectly possible to maintain two propositions which, on a casual view, appear to be contradictory. Over the period 1790-1840 there was a slight improvement in average material standards. Over the same period there was intensified exploitation, greater insecurity, and increasing human misery. By 1840 most people were ‘better off’ than their forerunners had been fifty years before, but they had suffered and continued to suffer this slight improvement as a catastrophic experience”. [18]

In other words, there is no single story to be told of the British people, of how they have experienced and how they evaluate life in the EU, and of how they will experience and evaluate the consequences of Brexit.

But the charge that Brexit will be economically damaging to Britain and its people must also be viewed in another light. For it presumes, in fairly typical neo-liberal fashion, that the EU is simply all about economics. What it ignores is that the EU is much more than that. It is a political entity that happens to have been constructed to make primary, dominant, a certain kind of economic judgment—the sort of judgment capitalist markets favor. It is, in fact, what has been termed an economic polity, a political system within which politics is secondary to and the servitor of the economic system and those dominant within it. But though one would not know it from the endless harping on the economic costs of Brexit, Brexit is intended, at least in the minds of some supporters, to bring a variety of other political considerations to bear, considerations that are not at all co-aligned, some of which I happen to be very opposed to. What ought to be kept in mind, however, is that no matter how those in favor of Brexit disagree over who should have political power and to what ends political power should be directed, they see the issue as one of taking power away from the EU system which they all in their different ways see as limiting or injuring them in non-economic as well as economic ways.

Brexit is only secondarily an economic matter; it is primarily a political matter, even for those who desperately want to be in control of a neo-liberal Britain. While the economic injury it may impose shouldn’t be and isn’t universally trivialised by those who support Brexit, those seeking some sort of redistribution of political power within Britain and within Europe, with an eye to pursuing goals they see the EU as inhibiting, are more concerned about more fundamental things, such as the processes by which economic decisions are made and the assumptions which guide those who operate these processes.

Another charge one hears is that the referendum process was corrupted by “dark money” and by malign “Russian intervention.” Interestingly, these are charges that seem borrowed from similar charges voiced in the US with respect to the 2016 Presidential election. In the case of the Brexit referendum, the assumption underlying such charges is a common, elitist, anti-democratic perception that most people, since they lack any sound understanding of an issue and even of their own conditions, can in the space of a few weeks or months be led to vote in ways that hidden puppet masters wish. I don’t for a moment doubt that over the longer term a great deal of quite successful mind shaping goes on—though much of that is carried out openly by those closer to London than to Moscow. But such models of political propaganda assume that the public is a passive, moldable object which offers little or no resistance to attempts to manipulate it. As to the role of money from strange sources, I’d be more receptive were mention made of the foreign banks which donated to Britain Stronger in Europe. [19]

Besides, all attempts to manipulate the Brexit referendum, from whichever direction, certainly encountered a public in which there were already strong opinions regarding the EU. Whether such interventions would have been sufficient to affect the outcome can only be a matter of opinion and can probably never become a matter of fact, no matter that many will treat them as if they were facts. In attending to the propaganda model, it’s surely appropriate to take note of all attempts to shape how people think.

Finally, there’s the charge of British incompetence. This charge rests on certain assumptions. Would the charge hold up if negotiations between the British government and the EU were not conducted in good faith? Might not incompetence be better understood as symptomatic of something else? On the British side, it isn’t beyond possibility to imagine that Theresa May, an opponent of Brexit who was landed with the job of effecting Brexit, is not eager to effect it; it isn’t sheer fantasy to perceive that some within Labour see the politics of Brexit as a means to get rid of a leader with policies and a following they have never accepted; it isn’t beyond possibility that the British Civil Service, another technocratic bureaucratic organization, has been working to thwart Brexit. I don’t mean to be at all conspiratorial, but there are certainly a number of ways to derail Brexit, to deny those who voted to Leave the outcome they voted for, and to simultaneously pursue other political goals. It would be naive fantasy to think that there are not an awful lot of mixed motives and goals haunting Brexit. But that’s just a small part, a small possible part of the Parliamentary and diplomatic process in which Brexit is entangled. One may be sure that all kinds of calculations are being made about how to gain political advantage in the parliamentary parties, in the country-wide political parties, in all sorts of political arenas. It’s both fascinating and confusing, difficult to keep track of and to analyze.

Still with an eye to negotiating in good faith, one also has to attend to the sort of organization the EU is. Here I quote the director of the Centre for European Reform, a British Remainer:

            “However, two and a half years after Britain’s referendum, some lessons of the Brexit process are becoming clear. One is that leaving the EU is like joining it. Countries wanting to join engage in “accession negotiations”, but that is a misnomer. The accession process in fact involves the EU imposing its terms on the country concerned. If it does not like those terms it does not have to join. The details can be debated, but not the basic deal that the EU offers. Every country that has joined the EU has put up with this unequal “negotiation” in order to get into the club.

            “Leaving the EU is a similar process. Once the departing country has set its red lines for the future relationship, the EU decides what kind of deal will work. Then the exiting country has to accept those terms – if it wants a deal, and it will, since leaving without one would be hugely damaging to any state”. [20]

That pretty much explains why the negotiations have been going nowhere. In some respects, I see British-EU negotiations as mirroring the Greece-EU negotiations of a few years ago, as described by Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister. (I must add that Varoufakis opposed Brexit because he believed and still believes that the EU—and, indeed, the encompassing global economic system—can only and should be reformed from within. But that, too, is a possibly mistaken political judgment.) This sort of reform of the EU will depend on the prior reformation of the European left, on the overcoming of that left’s own neoliberal ideological and institutional elements—something the present quandaries of Britain’s Labour Party indicate will be no easy thing to accomplish. [21]) Surely at least part the political turmoil within Britain should be contemplated in light of the question, how do negotiations proceed if one party to these negotiations is obdurate? Whether that obduracy is the consequence of its institutional arrangements or an expression of the arrogance of power, that hardly places the EU in a flattering light.


Since at this moment of writing, Brexit has neither been effected nor discarded, it is premature to present a conclusion. It is not premature to conclude that, whatever comes about, Britain and its contexts have all been irrevocably changed. In Britain Brexit has already disrupted and will continue to disrupt its constitutional arrangements, its socio-political alignments, and more. The departure of a number of parliamentarians, both Labour and Conservative, from the political parties that made their elections possible is one indication of this. To be sure, those who have departed have long been disenchanted with their parties’ programs and leaderships. But pleading Brexit makes plausible their claim to be acting on principle. [22] This will surely prove to be one of the lesser disruptions.

Brexit has already disturbed the EU’s ideological and institutional arrangements. And its efforts to contain these disturbances are likely to fail, no matter whether, how, or when Brexit is achieved, for, on the one hand, in defending itself it will likely become more oriented in its institutionalization and behavior towards inhibiting more challenges, yet voice and exit denied, loyalty is hardly likely to result. On the other hand, both that and the way in which it has engaged with Brexit—as it previously engaged with Syriza, with Greece—will likely also encourage more reluctant acquiescence and more outright hostility.

Looking further afield: given the small role Britain now actually plays in the American-led global system, Brexit is unlikely to much disturb that. Only, support for Brexit is not the only sign that globalisation of a liberal-imperial kind is being rejected either consciously or in effect. It is being repudiated in a most significant fashion within the USA itself. There the contest has only recently been joined between liberal imperialism (which pursues its ends, including its primary goal of eternal dominance, through the more or less judicious use of carrots and sticks, of ‘soft power’ and ‘hard power’) and nationalist imperialism (which regards ‘soft power’ as an illusion and a sign of weakness, and which pursues the same ends by being coercive, even in relation to its ‘friends’ and ‘allies’), and where American global dominance, though rejected by some, has not yet, and perhaps never will, give rise to a powerful, consciously anti-imperial political force within the United States—too often even the best intentioned define their policies as having “the aim of [making the U.S.] the undisputed international leader”. As to whether Britain will continue to pursue its imaginary ‘special relationship’ with the USA even as the latter seeks to construct a harsher hegemonic global order, or whether it will seek some alternative, that too remains to be seen. What Britain does post-Brexit will be determined in part by political struggles within Britain, the outcomes of which cannot be predicted given the changes underway in Britain. But they will also be determined by political struggles elsewhere, especially within the USA, where the contest between the liberal imperialists, the nationalist imperialists, and others continues.

Some opponents of Brexit view the EU as a bastion against a global order dominated by the USA in either of these ways, and there is perhaps some justice in that. At the same time, since the EU shares the neo-liberal assumptions and priorities of the liberal-imperialist system, the barrier it presents to that sort of globalisation is not very high or strong. And should nationalist imperialism come to dominate in the United States, it must then be pondered how the relatively weaker EU will respond. That the EU will develop a military capacity sufficient to check the coercion of American nationalist imperialism, though presently unlikely, is a frightening prospect since there are few if any arrangements in place to inhibit and limit the violent resolution of differences. (One may here contemplate how the conflict between the liberal imperialist Clintonites and the nationalist imperialist Trumpites would have played out in the absence of constitutional expectations and constraints—and as some fear it will be played out, traditional constraints being discarded in the process, should Trump be defeated in 2020.) A halfway house divided, as the EU presently is, provides little assurance of an outcome favorable to Europeans.

It is possible to view American nationalist imperialism in a somewhat different light, as a desperate effort to salvage something from a perceptibly increasingly endangered liberal imperial order. It itself, possibly with Britain, if led by its right-wing Brexiteers, in tow, does not necessarily have much of a future. For, although the EU is in no position to do much about it, domination through undisguised coercion will surely engender resistance backed up by the capacity to employ equally violent means. One way or another, through recognizing its own limits or through being forced to acknowledge its own limits, American nationalist imperialism is likely to define a global order only in the short run. In the longer run it will likely come to be seen as an indicator that Pax Americana is approaching its terminus. It is, that is to say, better viewed as another sign that the liberal imperial order is unraveling.

And so back finally again to Brexit: make no mistake, all these large British, European, and global issues are the ground upon which Brexit rests. And Brexit, whatever its consequences, is, to me, a welcome sign that the present order of things can be and is being challenged. Should these words of mine do no more than provoke others to step back, if only for a moment, from what has become mainstream orthodoxy, to explore Brexit in critical ways, I shall be satisfied, no matter what flaws they may detect in my arguments.



  1. Much of a euro-critical nature has actually been and continues to be written on this question. To mention but a few:

Perry Anderson, “Depicting Europe,” London Review of Books vol. 29, No. 18, 20 September 2007 (accessed at

John R. Gillingham, The EU: An Obituary (London, Verso, 2016). (See also the generally positive review of this “Thatcherite historian[’s]” book by Christopher Kissane accessed at )

Wofgang Streeck, “The European Union is a liberal empire, and it is about to fall” (accessed at ).

—and an amendment to the foregoing—

Peter Ramsay, “The EU is a default empire of nations in denial” (accessed at

  1. See, e.g., the comments attached to such NYT columns as “What’s the plan for Brexit? There is no plan,” accessed 18 February 2019 at Similar examples are not in short supply.
  2. Wolfgang Streeck, “European Social Policy: Progressive Regression,” accessed at
  3. There are some noteworthy exceptions to my crude generalisation. See, e.g., several pieces by Anthony Barnett at; also


  1. These numbers are taken from Susan Watkins, “Casting Off,” New Left Review 100 (July-August, 2016), accessed at
  2. There is a fascinating series of graphics plotting the shifting clusterings of every Member over the course of every Parliamentary vote respecting the Brexit deal at, accessed 15 February 2019.
  3. Sheldon Wolin, “The Liberal/Democratic Divide: On Rawls’s Political Liberalism,” Fugitive Democracy and Other Essays (Princeton, 2016), ch. 13


  1. David Harvey, The Ways of the World (Oxford, 2016), pp. 214-244.
  2. Sylvie Kauffmann, “Watching Brexit Fall Apart,” NYT 23 January 2019
  3. See, e.g., Philippe C. Schmitter and Zoe Lefkofridi, “Neo-Functionalism as a Theory of Disintegration,” Figure 6, “Perceived Benefit from EU Membership.” In 2007, less than 50 percent of the people of eight member countries—Sweden, Finland, Cyprus, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, UK, Latvia—thought “EU membership is good.” In 2011, 15 countries—Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, France, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia, Slovakia, Greece, Cyprus, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, UK, Latvia—were in the disapprovong category. (Accessed at )
  4. Accessed on-line at New York Public Library.
  5. Wolin
  6. See, e.g., James Meek, Private Island: Why Britain Now Belongs To Someone Else, esp. ch. 5, on the NHS.
  7. Part title of a 2016 ILO report based on “evidence from the world of work,” edited by Daniel Vaughan-Whitehead, accessed at—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_630642.pdf; referenced in the Business Section of the NY Times, 16 February 2018.
  8. I quote from the Abstract of “The Europeans’ Attitudes About Europe: A Downturn Linked Only To the Crisis” (Policy Paper, Foundation Robert Schuman, No. 277, 2013), accessed at
  9. Accessed at

Macron calls, inter alia, for “protecting our continent” by having all EU members recognise the same “stringent border controls” and “a single asylum policy” to be placed “under the authority of a European Council for Internal Security.” He wants “to take Europe forward and to defend its model.” Increased spending and a European security council would be part of this project. Moving from the institutional to the ideological, he exhorts his readers that “Europe is not a second-tier power. Europe in its entirety is a vanguard: it has always defined the standards of progress.” “It is for you,” he urges, “to decide whether Europe and the values of progress that it embodies are to be more than just a passing episode in history.” Imagine had similar sentiments come from a Brexiteer!

  1. Accessed at
  2. E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Vintage, 1963), p. 212.
  3. See, e.g., reports that Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and J.P. Morgan donated sizeable sums of money to Britain Stronger in Europe (accessed at )
  4. Accessed at
  5. See, e.g., D. Nicol, ‘Is Another Europe Possible?’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (29th Feb 2016) (available at
  6. See, e.g.,


Robin Melville is a retired professor of politics at Ripon College and a frequent book reviewer for Logos.



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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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