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William Outhwaite – Game Over (for England and Wales)

July 6, 2016

by Professor William Outhwaite

This is not the title I expected to use on the day after the referendum. I was hoping to begin by saying it was all just a dream. There was indeed, and remains, no realistic, or at least attractive, future for the UK or any of its component parts outside the EU, as documented at length in analyses by almost every expert source. But the dream came true, as when you dream your house is flooded and wake up to find that it actually is.

What we have experienced in the UK is the conjunction of three phenomena: a world problem, a European or EU problem and a British (or, more properly, English and Welsh) problem. The world problem, well illustrated at the same time by the spectacular performance of two outsider candidates in the US presidential election campaign (one of them still in the running), is a widespread disaffection with established political parties, political leaders and political systems as a whole and the rise of (mainly right-wing) populist politics. The sociolinguist Ruth Wodak (2015: 181) wrote that in 2000, when the Austrian far-right FPÖ entered a coalition government, ‘probably very few scholars could have imagined that in 2014, such parties would be able to win the elections for European Parliament in France or the UK…’

The European problem is one of disaffection with the politics of the European Union and to some extent with the EU as a whole. This is most extreme in the UK, which now follows Greenland into withdrawal, but can be found to varying degrees across the Union. The same goes for the populist politics mobilised against it. Boris Johnson’s comparison of the EU’s integration strategy with those of Napoleon and Hitler was prefigured in 2014 by an Austrian MEP who called it a dictatorship, compared to which the ‘Third Reich was probably informal and liberal’ and that it was also a ‘conglomerate of negroes’. (Wodak 2015: 63-4) He later apologised, unlike Johnson, who merely complained about the way the campaign had been dominated by sound-bites and twitter storms.

The British/English problem[1], a widespread unwillingness to see EU membership as a fact of life and a permanent ambivalence about the UK’s membership, culminating in an even balance of opinion in the referendum campaign and a narrow majority for the leave option, can be seen in a broader context as the failure of the EU to attract three western European states and, so far at least, to reach a stable accommodation with others further east. Two of the westerners, Norway and Switzerland, remain outside the EU, but either a member of, or closely associated with, the European Economic Area and with both of them members of the Schengen area. It remains to be seen whether the EEA road, however unsatisfactory it has proved in both countries, will be taken by the UK, where anti-EU voters were misled to expect a fall in EU immigration. This could indeed be achieved, but not within the EEA, though the economic collapse which is likely to result from Brexit would reduce the appeal of England as a destination, and this may enable some sort of fudge which keeps the UK at least in the EEA. The Canadian/Singapore/Hong Kong alternative suggestions are really for the fairies, as the WTO chairman made clear some weeks ago.

The implications for the UK are radically open between a range of bad outcomes. For the EU, it sharpens up the issue of the Union’s variable geometry or differentiated integration model. This is particularly important in relation to the euro, in terms of both widening (its prospective extension to all EU member states except Denmark, whose currency is pegged to the euro and likely to remain so) and deepening (the closer integration of the Eurozone which all observers agree is required).

There was considerable debate in the long months preceding the UK referendum about a possible domino effect of Brexit, though less about a similar domino effect or, better, Pandora’s box from Bremain. In either event, and we now know which is the reality, other member states might demand the same sort of special treatment afforded to the UK, with the threat of a popular referendum in the background. The failure of these (admittedly trivial) ‘concessions’ to persuade the UK to remain has done little to change this. Nothing is easier than for member states to defer indefinitely their adoption of the euro, even if they are officially committed to it. Any plans for more intrusive surveillance and supervision within the Eurozone could be expected to reinforce this unwillingness to participate. The Schengen area is in some disarray, and another obvious area for opting out.

How all this will pan out for whatever is left of the UK remains to be seen. It is hard to envisage much willingness in the rest of the EU to concoct a special position for a state which voted to leave it. What the UK has done is to place exit as an agenda item for the whole of the Union. This can be found here and there in the rhetoric of some populist parties, but the UK’s departure, however disastrous it turns out to be, does at least show that it is possible. This cuts more ice, as it were, than the departure of Greenland in 1985. Just as the Scottish referendum in 2014 made it harder for Madrid to resist one in Catalonia, it is now hard to see how any member state could resist one if there were a significant demand for it, as some recent polls have suggested.

Media bias was also important. Unlike the situation in the Scottish referendum, the UK press massively supported Brexit. The UK, along with Austria has long stood out for its eurosceptical press coverage, just as the UK and Latvia stood out in 2015 for their level of ignorance.


The BBC felt itself obliged to take a neutral position between the two camps. In what became a standard pattern, expert analyses were ‘balanced’ by a perfunctory rebuttal, often based on ‘facts’ which had long been shown to be false or misleading. Michael Dougan, an expert on EU law, aptly compared the so-called debate to one between evolutionary biologists and creationists. (SLSJ YouTube)

Separatist nationalism, to which the Brexit campaign can in some ways be assimilated, divides according to whether independence is valued whatever the cost or, alternatively, is seen as in any case the least costly option. Richer sub-states, like Slovenia in Yugoslavia and Catalonia in Spain, have typically stressed the benefits of getting out from under an economically weaker union. This was contentious in the Scottish case, and the current lower oil price, as well as the depletion of the remaining fields, has made the issue more problematic. In the Brexit referendum, the EU was variously portrayed as threatening and as itself threatened by economic decline and political collapse. In a milder version of the second position, membership was seen as something possibly beneficial in the past but which the UK, its economic fortunes revived by Thatcherism, no longer needed or benefited from. This was typically conjoined with the better grounded argument that the character of what is now the EU had changed since the 1975 referendum, or at least since the Maastricht Treaty of 1992.

In the UK, however, the separatist vote was largely indifferent to the almost unanimous warnings of economic disaster which are already being borne out. However badly the result turns out for England and Wales, voters elsewhere in the EU may choose to follow suit. The UK, which had a great deal to offer the EU and Europe as a whole, and in the recent past substantially reshaped the EU according to its neoliberal priorities, has now little to offer to either except disruption and dissension. At worst, it could cause the EU to develop into the shape favoured by the extreme right and its supporters in Russia, which might politely be called Gaullist: a loose association of (so-called) sovereign states.

How did it come to this? We might separate the short-term explanations (migration, austerity, etc.) from longer-term considerations. The longer-term explanation takes us back to the UK’s initial unwillingness to join what has become the EU, its immediate referendum in 1975, and its ongoing hesitation about its membership. De Gaulle, when he announced his veto in 1963, suggested that it was not a viable prospect. There are three possible answers. One is that the UK should indeed never have been allowed to join, another that membership was useful for the UK (and perhaps also for the Union) for a time, but now no longer, and the third, that a tense but effective partnership was wrecked by an idiotic decision to put membership once again to a vote, in a political culture hopelessly corrupted by an anti-EU press and by politicians happy to blame Europe. The last of these is my view. In the UK’s essentially two-party system, the Conservatives since the late 1980s have nurtured an increasingly anti-EU position earlier represented by Labour, returning it from a fringe obsession to the political mainstream.   Sociologists are used to choosing between state-centred and society-centred explanations. Here, I think, the answer is clear: the UK is socially very like the rest of north-western Europe but happened to diverge politically, building on earlier differences and drifting further away from it.

Jürgen Habermas entitled one of his innumerable articles ‘learning from catastrophes’ (and did his best to argue against this one). For the EU, it can hardly be business as usual. To lose one member state (or two if one counts Greenland) might seem like an accident: to lose more would be carelessness. One lesson from the UK is that where electorates are excited by the prospect of an in-out referendum there is little to be gained by negotiated ‘concessions’ or the presentation of expert evidence. A more democratic Union, of the kind I have argued for in DS 2014 and elsewhere, might, I have to admit, be even more prone to populist subversion. The likely break-up of the UK will not frighten voters in Catalonia, the Basque Country, Brittany or Belgium – or even northern Italy. Its economic decline, unless it happens even faster than I expect, will not be soon enough to discourage separatist moves in other member states.

Clutching at straws which might alleviate the gloomy tone of this assessment, I should point out one for the UK and one for the EU. The UK’s exit will be a little easier than it would be for states in the Eurozone. For the EU, the loss of a member state which had been a drag on its already snail-like integration process may free things up, or at least add a sense of urgency to reforms of whatever kind, whether towards closer union or a more variable geometry. On the other hand, having to waste yet more effort on negotiations with the UK will inevitably distract attention from more important matters, just as making special arrangements with Switzerland has taken up a remarkable amount of time which could have been better spent. The EU resisted the temptation to tell Cameron to stuff his negotiating demands, but although there is now nothing to be done but damage limitation this can only be more disruptive, and whatever goodwill remained is now gone for ever.

When people said over the past years that they could not imagine the UK leaving, I reminded them of the Czecho-Slovak divorce in 1992 and the danger of drifting into an outcome which hardly anyone wanted, except for some opportunistic politicians. But whereas there it took two to tango, in this case it is just the British who have danced away to disaster.

Wodak, Ruth (2015) The Politics of Fear. What Right-Wing Populist Discourse Means. London: SAGE.

[1] Like England, Wales was evenly split. Scotland was quite solidly for remain. In Northern Ireland there was a substantial majority for the remain option, though the politicians supported leave.

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