- George Hoare
The Legacy of Brexit
Looking back on the Brexit process from 2023, what are its outstanding features?
Brexit is best understood not just as the UK’s formal exit from the European Union but more importantly as a period of political crisis that exposed the contradictions in parliament, in both major parties, and in the very structure of our representative democracy. That process is far from finished today.
Brexit, seen from this point of view, began properly on the 24 June 2016. It was only after the referendum that the underlying, and long-developed, opposition between the majority of the British public and the various political, journalistic, and academic establishments took on a new meaning. This is because the referendum result posed a challenge to the political class, namely that of implementing a vote that they had called, but the results of which they largely disagreed with (for instance, it is estimated that only 158 out of 650 MPs voted to leave). Moreover, any public pressure to implement the 2016 vote remained diffuse, cutting across traditional (but thin and weakening) partisan alignments and lacking a durable institutional form. Almost all of the stalling and U-turns of the Brexit crisis period are attributable to this absence of continued political organisation of the Leave vote: Brexit remained a democratic moment without a democratic movement.
In terms of the legacy of Brexit for democratic politics in Britain and beyond, three factors stand out. First, the meaning of Brexit is profoundly international since, despite its national peculiarities, it focused attention on the key political conflicts that underlie the wider revolts against neoliberal globalism. Paradoxically, Brexit’s internationalism was manifested in the centrality of national sovereignty to its political process. Brexit was a vote that encapsulated a felt loss of popular sovereignty to the supranationally networked, cosmopolitan ruling elite. In the British case, the cutting edge was provided by the elite’s policy of mass immigration experienced by many as a loss of control over the composition of the political community. The “Take Back Control” slogan was a masterpiece of political rhetoric, continuing to echo today, appealing directly to this sense of powerlessness while constructing an imagined previous period in which the people (presumably) had control. But the sheer radicalism of the slogan is worth noting: control is something that needs to be taken (not given), and it does not set any limits to what we want control over. The injunction for ourselves to “take control” is at the centre of any emancipatory politics, as it entails collective responsibility for power over the decisions that affect our lives, be they around our political institutions or our economic structures. This is why the Tories both struggled to master the Brexit process (as the British public were far more radical in their demands than the Tories were prepared to countenance) and then attempted to drain the political energies out of Brexit with the profoundly depoliticizing slogan of “Get Brexit Done”. Faust-like, they had called up the dark powers of the feared British public, and then fought mightily to banish them again when they threatened to drive things too far forward too quickly.
The second legacy of Brexit lies in the way it illuminated the positions and interests of the actors in British politics with extraordinary clarity. In particular, it showed the fundamentally anti-democratic character of the British left. The most strident opposition to Brexit came from the Left, usually framed in internationalist terms or on the basis of defending the material interests of the working class. At the same time, Brexit was constructed as a project of the Conservatives or the ruling class more widely. This was most marked in so-called “Lexit” arguments that understood the necessity of leaving the EU but contended that only a Brexit under a radical Left government was acceptable, and all other Brexits should be opposed. At the centre of the Lexit position, then, was a slippery ambivalence – formally we can agree that Brexit may be a good thing, but just not now, as the time isn’t right. And this ambivalence concealed a fundamentally defeatist position: the left would always lose to the right in any democratic struggle to lead the nation. The role of the Left around Brexit was reduced to undermining the democratic vote for Brexit by questioning the cognitive abilities of Leave voters, or simply smearing them as xenophobes, racists, or even fascists. The left's utter alienation from the working class it purports to represent was exposed by Brexit.
The third legacy of Brexit is that it brought about the culmination of a decades-long process: the weakening of loyalties to the established political parties. In December 2019 we saw the burying of the Labour Party and the partial revival of the political independence of the working class. Immediately experienced as a political “realignment” – with working class support steadily transitioning from Labour to the Conservatives for many years before the decisive election of 2019 – the vote was in reality a decisive blow to the Labour Party over Brexit. The Johnson government subsequently showed its inability to implement the Red Tory / Blue Labour agenda that was massively popular electorally; having shifted their base towards a self-consciously more “working-class friendly” conservatism, the Tories now stand exposed by their inability to deliver on Johnson’s populist appeal. The link between the working class and the Labour Party has been symbolically broken and the Tories were unable to forge a new one.
In the new political conditions post-Brexit, democrats should ask themselves three main questions. First, how can we build a movement for democratic control of the state in the teeth of opposition from what remains of the left? The left did not accept the first principle of popular sovereignty: that the people should rule and that they and their representatives should be prepared to fight to see democratic decisions implemented (including, at a bare minimum, having their votes count). Second, how can we develop an account of the nation-state as the locus of a politics that is centred on democracy, and a vehicle for economic renewal? Third, Brexit represented an opportunity (though only an opportunity) for building popular sovereignty; the question is how in 2023 to make something of this opportunity while it still exists.
Brexit perhaps has one final, and more diffuse, legacy. The Brexit process was a time of political change – old cliches such as the world being turned upside down or the old dying with the new unable to be born suddenly made sense and seemed applicable. This hyper-real feeling of politics came through consistently. The political meetings, rallies, and fierce political arguments (often within families) took on an entirely different meaning and energy than those in the previous generation; we were no longer fully in the End of History, where all the major political decisions had been decided in advance. We were at the End of the End of History, where the future was suddenly up for grabs – if any democratic force worth the name was willing to seize the opportunity. The lasting impact of Brexit is in bringing about this new era in British politics, even if it is still not clear what this period holds for democrats.
George Hoare is an independent researcher, co-host of the Bungacast podcast, and co-founder of The Full Brexit. His forthcoming co-authored book, Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy After Brexit, will be published in April.