leideninternational relationsblog

Brexit. The Great British Shame.

Brexit. The Great British Shame.

I write this a scant 21 days before The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is scheduled to leave the European Union. Or, as Professor Ben Tonra kindly just reminded me on Twitter, just “twenty sleeps to Brexit”. Whether the UK will leave with or without a deal is a matter of opinion but the truth is that at this moment, no-one knows. Whatever the case, plenty of people have made the point that the exit is an act of self-harm.

The British Blame Game

Few outside of the UK understand why any state would do this to its neighbours and allies, let alone to itself and its citizens. Indeed, one of the sadnesses I have over the British exit is just how little time the Government and our political elites more generally have spent in expressing sorrow, regret, apologies generally for filling up so much of the EU’s agenda. Instead, we have seen concerted attempts to end our membership of the EU in the same way as we conducted ourselves as part of it: in scapegoating, throwing off responsibility for our decisions and actions and blaming Brussels instead. The most recent example of this came from the Foreign Secretary on Friday March 8, when he implied that the UK had done all it could to get a deal, that it had tried to maintain good relations with the EU and ended by saying, “I think future generations, if this ends in acrimony, people will say that the EU got this moment wrong. And I really hope they don’t."

Those in the member states and Brussels will understand that the domestic arena can throw up problems and there has been plenty of evidence of sympathy for Theresa May trying to negotiate her way through the very many groups of interests that have prevented Parliament being able to agree a deal. Nevertheless, we have fallen far short of the ideal in terms of making sure the conversation does not become antagonistic, even insulting. The British media bear a large share of responsibility for their long-term and continued toxic reporting of the EU too. In short, there is plenty of blame to go around and plenty of people to blame.

What has been particularly worrying for those of us who are more outward looking is how, in the context of what we see Russia doing in the world, so much of what the British have done has played very nicely to the agenda of Putin and other groups in Russia who seek to undermine the EU’s place in the world.

Beware of the British Bearing Gifts

I should imagine Brexit has also been the gift that keeps on giving for those who teach Politics 101 and particularly the history and nature of representative democracy in the western world. Such states and their political elites have just two tasks really: one to ensure the security of their territory and people(s); and the second to ensure their economic prosperity. The economic harm being done and to be done by Brexit is near indisputable and that this would be the case has been known from the very beginning. As for security, just think about the loss of access to Europol or the European Arrest Warrant. Understanding why we have forged ahead with all this is the essay-setter's dream question.

Others have made the point that focusing on the economics of it is pointless, that those who voted to leave were thinking with their cultural hats on. This is to miss the point, of course. We have political representatives not only to represent our opinions but also to represent our long-term interests. As a consequence of this lifetime delegation of power, the public does not always necessarily know what those interests are. Even supposing that the cultural shifts we have seen in the UK are the consequences of our membership of the EU and not of wider, global shifts (does anyone study globalisation in the UK anymore?), we should be able to expect our politicians to protect us against our worst, our darkest impulses.

The Dark Side of Brexit: Racism

One dark impulse that drove people to vote leave was racism. Where you stand on this says much about where you stand on Brexit, though that’s a difficult argument to make without being accused of insulting millions of people. See this incredibly uncomfortable exchange between Will Self and Mark François for an example of that.

Regardless, we have had precious little from Prime Minister Theresa May on this subject, precious little from her on all the evidence that Brexit has created a space in which some British people feel it is okay to use racist language, to victimise those not like them. What we are seeing is the normalisation of racist language and behaviour and a far-reaching failure on the part of our MPs to tackle it. When reporting on her visit to the UK in May 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, Professor E. Tendayi Achiume, concluded: “Another Brexit-related trend that threatens racial equality in the UK has been the growth in the acceptability of explicit racial, ethnic, and religious intolerance, in ways that that the different stakeholders I consulted believed marked a notable shift."

Never Rule Out Stupidity

Brexit has thrown up so many issues, so many concerns. Not least among those for me has been the impact it has had on how I think of policymaking. In teaching Foreign Policy Analysis, I have always directed students not to rule out stupidity as an explanatory factor when they are trying to understand why certain courses of action were undertaken. Brexit looks like the best example we could have of the limited applicability of the rational choice literature. The impulses behind Brexit may not be irrational but what our politicians have done sure looks stupid.