Ideologies of Brexit

July 2, 2017

The standard shorthands for talking about Brexit (Leave vs. Remain; hard Brexit, soft Brexit, no Brexit) can be unhelpfully oversimplifying.  Mostly that’s because they oversimplify the negotiating minefield of possible policy outcomes and their consequences.  But it’s also because they oversimplify the attitudes to Brexit within UK politics.

The following is its own massive oversimplification, of course, but I want to schematise very quickly ideological orientations to Brexit within the UK parliament.  I think getting clear on these kind of broad-brush positions will often be a precondition for useful debates about Brexit. Not that lots of people aren’t already clear about this kind of thing – but more people could afford to be.

So – on the broadly anti-EU side we have:

    1. Singapore-on-Thames libertarianism – the core objection to the EU here is the purported regulatory burden it imposes on UK business, with the idea that post-Brexit a reduction of red tape can prompt a surge in UK economic growth.
    2. Anti-immigration racism – the core objection to the EU here is that the free movement of labour within the EEA prevents the UK from controlling its borders, leading to cultural pollution, etc. etc.
    3. Economic protectionism – this comes in a range of flavours, the main one being labour protectionism, that is, the objection to EEA freedom of movement on the grounds that EU migrant workers are undercutting UK wages.  (One might be suspicious about overlap between this category and the previous one, but I think it merits its own box.
    4. Socialism in one country leftism – the core objection to the EU here is that the EU’s governance prevents the implementation of socialist economic policies at a nation-state level, via restrictions of state aid to industry, etc.
    5. Greater Britain sovereignty – the core objection here is again to EU constraints on UK governance, but apparently motivated by a (to me at least) vague sense of lost British (Imperial?) Greatness, to be addressed somehow by repatriating powers.

Clearly there is room for improvement in these categories and their summaries, but this will serve as a first pass.

On the broadly pro-EU side we have:

    1. Defence of the EU as a road to prosperity.  Here the argument is the basic liberal economic one of gains from trade: that comparative advantage and the international division of labour increase everybody’s wealth over time.
    2. Defence of freedom of movement as a human good in itself.  Here the argument is that migrants’ lives can be greatly improved by migration, and/or that freedom of movement should be a human right.  Either this position is (for whatever reason) restricted to the boundaries of the EEA, or European freedom of movement is taken as a first step towards global open borders.
    3. Defence of freedom of movement on economic grounds.  The argument here is that the UK economy is heavily dependent on EU migrants, who are critical to the staffing of UK hospitals / universities / low-wage agricultural jobs.  Really this is a sub-category of ‘road to prosperity’, but given how frequently movement of labour is treated separately from the other EEA freedoms I think it merits its own category.
    4. Defence of the European political project.  Here the argument is that the European project of economic integration as a route to political integration is valuable in its own right, for example as a mechanism for reducing the chance of European war, or as a means of establishing a major European geopolitical power.
    5. Defence of a ‘European identity’.  The argument (or, perhaps better, affective structure) here is that, more or less independent of policy outcomes, partaking of a European cosmopolitan cultural identity is a valuable possession, which Brexit destroys or undermines.
    6. Anti-racism.  The argument here is that, again in addition to policy outcomes, the political fight over Brexit is a proxy war in a fight over race and racism in the UK, and that contesting Brexit is necessary anti-racist praxis.

Ok – those are some of the core Brexit ideological commitments, as I see them.

Now, some of these ideological orientations are clearly incompatible – e.g. ‘Singapore-on-Thames libertarianism’ and ‘socialism in one country’ do not go together; nor do ‘anti-immigration racism’ and ‘anti-racism’.  But plenty of these orientations are compatible with each other – and you can therefore mix and match them to produce quite different ideological bundles, with different ‘weights’ granted to different components of the bundle.  You can also probably clarify matters, politically, by attaching ‘sincere belief’ and ‘electoral strategy’ to each component of any given politician’s bundle.

I don’t really want to get into the question of the content of specific politicians’ ideological bundles here – clearly reasonable people disagree on this.  Largely for illustrative purposes, however, I’d suggest that the current parliamentary Labour Party can broadly be divided up into a group whose highest priority is ending immigration (on protectionist or racist grounds, sincerely or strategically); a group whose highest priority is retaining single market gains from trade; and a group whose highest priority is socialism in one country.  These core commitments can then be supplemented by a wide range of different subsidiary commitments, giving a much wider variety of specific ideological bundles.

However we choose to ‘map’ political actors’ or groups’ ideological commitments, however, I think it’s worth doing so in a more fine-grained way than is common in a lot of the discussion of Brexit.  Too much Brexit analysis, to my mind, schematises political actors into Leavers and Remainers, Eurosceptics versus EU defenders, advocates of hard and soft Brexit, of ‘open versus closed politics’, etc.  All of these framings may be fine as shorthand – but they collapse many different ideological commitments within these overarching categories.  Given the importance of understanding the priorities and likely compromises of different political actors, a more nuanced approach to describing their commitments would, I think, often be a good idea.