It has been over two years since a narrow majority of the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union and now, as the Brexit saga enters what might be its final chapter before the UK’s formal withdrawal from the EU on 29 March 2019, it is becoming increasingly clear that the costs of Brexit will far outweigh its perceived benefits. Indeed, as increasingly frantic business leaders, academics, politicians, and concerned citizens continue to raise the alarm about a process of withdrawal that has revealed both the incompetence and impotence of the Conservative government that has presided over Brexit, the entire episode will likely be remembered as a salutary example of the damage that can be wrought by an insular political class motivated by opportunism, blinded by ideology, and completely willing to lie and deceive in the pursuit of its agenda.

Understanding why Brexit is happening requires an appreciation of the ideological currents and changing material circumstances that underpin it. After the Second World War, the rapprochement between the major continental European powers ineluctably created a desire for greater integration; the collective benefits of frictionless trade and freedom of movement for people were self-evident, the shared cultural history of the continent’s nations made thought of a union possible, and strengthening ties between these countries was seen as the best way to avoid a repeat of the horrors of the two world wars. These considerations were what led to the eventual formation of the European Union as an entity that began as a common market but which has, over time, moved ever closer to greater fiscal and administrative union. Within this framework, the UK has always been a bit of an outlier; perhaps as a result of its enduring imperial hubris, or its physical separation from the continent, or even plain skepticism about the prospects for creating a closer union in Europe, the UK has always sought to establish a special status for itself within the EU. When the Euro was adopted as the continent’s currency, the UK chose to opt out (a decision that would prove to be prescient, as shown by the devastating economic experience of Greece in recent years), just as it has always preferred to remain outside the Schengen zone with regards to the free movement of people. The UK has long submitted to the jurisdiction of the European Union when it comes to trade and the setting of customs and tariffs, just as it accepts the authority of the European Court of Justice, but has always done so reluctantly.

The reasons for this reluctance are not difficult to trace. On the Right, as embodied by factions within the Conservative party, membership within the EU has long been perceived as an attack on the sovereignty of the UK, with the latter’s parliament and courts ultimately be subject to the rule of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. Those in the Conservative party who espouse this view see Brexit as a way to take back control; it is not coincidental that in practice, this would also enable UK government to dismantle or restructure many of the economic and social protections and environmental regulations that are part of EU law. Linked to this notion of control is the politically fraught issue of immigration, with the influx of low-skilled workers from other parts of Europe, and the resulting pressures on wages and social services, providing the pretext for advocating an extremely parochial and often racist discourse on immigration that sees leaving the EU as the principle means through which greater control could be exerted over the UK’s borders.

There are similar concerns on the Left, albeit in a different form. While many on the Left share the conservative concern about democracy and the will of the British people, they see the EU and its technocrats as being part of an elite that has presided over the systematic dismantling of many of the economic and social protections that characterised the post-War period. Seen this way, the integration of the EU has simply provided a framework in which the movement of capital and labour has been facilitated to protect the interest of the economic elite. Immigration is a case in point; while the Right often attacks immigrants on cultural grounds and blames them for the UK’s economic woes, many of the Left recognise that the fault lies with a broader economic system which, rather than protecting workers through the provision of higher wages across the board, throws them into a collective race to the bottom in which they compete with each other, driving wages downward while benefitting their employers. For the Left, Brexit represents a means through which the malign economic influence of the EU can be escaped, allowing the UK to forge an independent path that would allow it to put the interests of the working classes at the forefront of politics.

To a large extent, independently of the fact that it is difficult to see how the Left would implement its plans given the changed structure of the UK and global economies, the Brexit debate has been dominated by the Right simply because it is the Conservatives who have long pushed for the UK to leave the EU and were able to succeed in holding a referendum on the issue. Since the 1980s, the Conservative party has been wracked by factional conflict between pro and anti-EU politicians, with the latter becoming increasingly extreme in their commitment to their cause. The results of this are now plain to see; despite warnings from economists and others clearly stating that Brexit would bring harm to the UK economy, and despite advice from diplomats and leaders pointing out that the EU would not roll over and provide the UK with what it was demanding in the event of its exit – namely continued access to the benefits of the European market without having to conform to its rules – the pro-Brexit faction of the Conservative party continued to sell the fantasy that the UK could have its cake and eat it too. Even now, the government remains deadlocked as the warring factions of the Conservative party continue to fail to reach some kind of compromise over the form that will eventually be taken by Brexit; for those against the EU, the terms that have been negotiated by the government do not go far enough in terms of severing ties with the continent while the opposing camp believes that they go too far. It appears to be an irreconcilable divide, and the consequences of the Conservative party’s internecine warfare will ultimately be borne by the British people next year.


The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.