It’s bad enough having to deal with Brexit without having to read books about it, you may be thinking. But despite the acres of coverage and commentary, the implications of leaving the European Union remain obscure, both symbolically and practically. Little did Theresa May realise how aptly her famous edict “Brexit means Brexit” illustrated the tautological opacity of this now ubiquitous term.
As this latest addition to a growing library of books on the EU referendum convincingly argues, however, a general failure to grasp the origins and ramifications of the referendum was largely responsible for the result. The authors, both politics professors, place the events of 2016 in a long-term perspective that includes the political trends that led up to the decision to leave the EU as well as its likely impact on Britain’s future.
How has an apparently obscure issue so completely taken over our politics? One explanation is that Britain’s relationship with Europe has for decades been the neglected elephant in the living room and Euroscepticism the defining hostility that finally found expression in June 2016. The other is that Brexit itself is something of a red herring, a proxy for other issues that have become difficult to face head-on, such as class struggle and global capitalism. In this latter interpretation, “Brexit Britain” becomes a blank canvas on which to project an array of social and political gripes and aspirations – a homogeneous indigenous culture; a “pure” free market with minimal regulation; a socialist Utopia.
The authors do not come down on either side of this question; but their account usefully places what just happened in the context of broader political factors. One of the maddening aspects of Brexit is the way that it monopolises political discussion while being curiously apolitical as an issue; one’s stance towards Europe does not map on to political orientation. As Geoffrey Evans and Anand Menon correctly note, the populist anger that found expression in the referendum result was prompted, in part, by “the convergence of the main political parties over matters ranging from the economy to a raft of ‘values’ issues”, and the consequent absence of clearly defined democratic alternatives.
The result has been anti-politics: instead of taking sides, people have rejected the system altogether. While Brexit is in part a false substitute for ideological polarity, therefore, the irony is that technocratic squabbles about legal process, trade tariffs and visa rules are set to dominate British politics for years to come.
Brexit and British Politics is lucidly written and its interpretations seem correct, if not all that surprising. The authors would have done well to dispense with the blow-by-blow account – extensively covered elsewhere – and stick to the longue durée. And as well as historical perspective, what we snow-blind citizens also need is analysis that goes against the grain and cuts through the jargon. We may be familiar with the cry that precipitated the big Up Yours to the Westminster Establishment – “They’re all the same!” – but does it refer to indistinguishable policies, widespread corruption or the preponderance of Oxford PPE graduates? To fully parse such tensions, however, would be at odds with the authors’ evident desire to narrate live, topical events. Brexit is a gripping drama. But – even now – do we know what it’s really about?
Eliane Glaser is senior lecturer in English and creative writing at Bath Spa University and author of the forthcoming Anti-Politics: On the Demonization of Ideology, Authority and the State (2018).
Brexit and British Politics
By Geoffrey Evans and Anand Menon
Polity, 140pp, £40.00 and £12.99
ISBN 9781509523856 and 3863
Published 27 October 2017