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Brexit Identities

Bad politics is more the rule than the exception around the world, so it should come as no surprise that the United Kingdom, where parliamentary democracy was born, is not immune. What is surprising is that the UK's withdrawal from the European Union should be the reef on which its political elite is crashing.

LONDON – Having just moved to London from Latin America, I recently told British dinner companions that the local politics – with its grandstanding politicians, overheated rhetoric, rampant populism, and leaders who put party over country – makes me feel right at home. Their obvious discomfort suggested that I should not repeat the joke. 

But I was only half kidding. After all, bad politics is more the rule than the exception around the world. Not even the country that invented parliamentary democracy can be expected to be immune. What is surprising – at least to a newcomer – is that the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union should be the cause of all this trouble.

Consider some of the options heatedly debated recently in the House of Commons: customs union, Common Market 2.0 (also known as “Norway-plus”), and a Canada-style free-trade agreement. International trade wonks know that there are substantive differences among these alternatives. But how many MPs knew six months ago the difference between a customs union and a free-trade agreement? Was that subtle distinction a good reason to lead the country into political anarchy? Would ongoing compliance with EU rules really turn the UK into a “vassal state,” as former foreign secretary Boris Johnson likes to claim?

Or consider possible outcomes to this terrible tale. Under all the “soft Brexit” options, the UK would remain tightly tied to the European economy, though it would lose all say on the relevant rules. A “hard Brexit” would prove so disruptive that businesses, citizens, and even trade unions would soon be clamoring for renewed ties with Europe. And a new referendum could well overturn Brexit altogether.

As in Lampedusa’s The Leopard, “Everything must change so that nothing will change” – except that the UK will have wasted a decade and left its GDP at least 2.5% smaller than it might have been.

Of course, Brexit is also about migration. But leaving the EU is necessary to control inflows of people from Europe, not the rest of the world. And while immigration from Europe has fallen since the 2016 Brexit referendum, immigration from the rest of the world has risen, so that the total flow has barely budged.

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Brexit exemplifies the age-old principle that politics thrives on conflict. And, more often than not, that conflict is between competing identities, rather than between opposing positions on issues like trade and migration.

Wannabe statesmen always claim to practice the politics of dialogue and consensus. But it is disagreement and conflict that give rising politicians the visibility they need to reach the top. Any practicing politician knows the routine: say something nice about your opponents and you will be ignored. Launch a vitriolic tirade and you will be front-page news.

As Chile’s finance minister a decade ago, it took me forever to learn this lesson. Parliamentarians from my own coalition hated highly technical bills that elicited broad support and could be passed with opposition support. They hankered for polarizing issues that would allow them to pick a good fight with the opposition.

Social scientists often assume that political conflict arises from differences over what you support. In reality, conflict follows from differences over who you are. Britons are no longer supporters of the Conservatives, Labour, or the Liberal Democrats. They are, above all, Remainers or Leavers.

Recent research shows that nearly one-third of UK voters do not think of themselves as supporters of a political party, but only 11% fail to identify themselves as Remainers or Leavers. Moreover, 44% say that they are a “very strong” Remainers or Leavers, while only 9% claim to identify “very strongly” with a political party.

Brexit-related identities have little to do with policies or facts. Despite much information since the referendum about the likely costs and tradeoffs of Brexit, the share of people claiming that voting to leave the EU was right or wrong has changed remarkably little. As Sara Hobolt of the London School of Economics and her coauthors put it: “To the extent that Brexit identities motivate how we view the world, we are also less likely to change our minds about whether Brexit was ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ even when the facts change.”

There is one thing both sides agree on, however: the other side is no good. Hobolt and her colleagues report that “both describe each other as hypocritical, selfish, and closed-minded, and their own group as honest, intelligent, and open-minded.”

As the white rural voters who traditionally voted Conservative and the Labour-allied industrial working class declined in relative terms, political identities in Britain were bound to change. But it was not historically ordained that nationalism versus cosmopolitanism would become the new axis orienting these identities.

In Richard II, Shakespeare described England as “This precious stone set in the silver sea, which serves it in the office of a wall, or as a moat defensive to a house, against the envy of less happier lands.” For centuries, however, Britain used the moat as a means of exercising influence over those other lands, not as a means of cutting itself off from them.

Surveys reveal that Remainer and Leaver identities were not firmly established early on. The share of people identifying strongly with each side only grew after the 2016 referendum. In other words, Brexit may have spurred, rather than reflected, the formation of these two competing identities.

Since that fateful day in June 2016, many have tried to establish empirically that Leavers tend to be rural, white, older, uneducated, and – in some accounts – economically disadvantaged, while Remainers are none of the above. But the UK is certainly not the only country with disgruntled citizens who feel left behind by globalization or offended by cultural liberalization. Voters’ anger could just as easily have been directed at the London establishment, rather than the Brussels establishment.

All of which reminds us we should never underestimate the role of accident and circumstance in human affairs. Perhaps none of this would have happened if then-Prime Minister David Cameron had not tried to resolve an internal party dispute by means of a national plebiscite. Surely some of the anger nowadays in the UK should be directed at him.;
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