How to Brexit: An Introduction

EU flag on Winston Churchill
A European Union flag is waved over a statue of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, London, September 3. Luke MacGregor/REUTERS

This is an extract taken from How to: Brexit, which is available as an ebook from Pan McMillan, £1,99.

The story of Brexit does not begin with a polling card. Neither does it start with David Cameron's manifesto promise in 2015, nor with Tory victory in 2010. Indeed, we might reasonably deem this a 20th-century drama that has overrun, and trace its origin to a speech made by Winston Churchill at the end of the Second World War. Churchill advocated a peace project, 'a kind of United States of Europe'—how incendiary those words have become! Britain, importantly, would not be a member. France and Germany, he said, 'must take the lead together'.

And so they did, establishing the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951; six years later this expanded to become the European Economic Community, the most powerful of the various European Communities ratified by the 1957 Treaty of Rome. Britain first attempted membership in 1961, led by Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, but was vetoed by French President Charles de Gaulle, who expressed doubts about Britain's compatibility with the European Economic Community. Labour PM Harold Wilson applied again; again, De Gaulle used his veto. Only in 1973 did Edward Heath finally succeed in securing British membership. Many members of the Labour Party, however, had been vocally uncertain about the European project for years, and when Labour won the election in 1974 Prime Minister Harold Wilson called a referendum over Britain's membership. This was held in 1975, and elicited a resounding majority for staying in; with 67 percent of a 65 percent turnout, more Remain ballots were cast in 1975 than in 2016.

In the decades following Britain's first referendum on the subject, the political map of Europhile and Eurosceptic attitudes becomes more familiar. Margaret Thatcher chafed against the European regulations in the late 1980s, and revolted particularly against Jacques Delors' promise of a 'Social Europe' to the British Trade Union Congress. In the nineties, New Labour carved out a pro-Europe position, paving the way for growing Euroscepticism within the Tory party in the early years of the 21st century. The history of these respective attitudes hardly fits present-day attributions of Left and Right. Have these words changed their meaning? Or is it the economy, the electorate, Europe or the EU itself that has been transformed? In any case, observing these shifts redeems the Brexit debate from reductive categories and divisions. For the history behind Brexit is not simply one of events and dates; we must attend also to a history of ideas, and the development of concepts crucial to the functioning of British and European democracy.

Issues and Ideas

In the weeks leading up to the referendum, and in the weeks following, the media have largely focused on short-term, immediate and pressing issues, both economic and political. What will happen to the economy, to the markets, and indeed to the financial conditions of everyday British life after Brexit? Remainers forecast economic uncertainty, unemployment, possibly a recession; Leavers predicted a boom with millions of pounds, redirected from Brussels, available to relieve the U.K.'s overstretched public services. At the time of writing, the economic picture is unclear, as it is likely to remain for the coming months and possibly years. The pound has fallen and the markets are volatile; unemployment, however, is down. Immigration also occupied a prominent position in the debate, and immediately after the result attention turned—not least in the Conservative party leadership contest—to the status of EU citizens living in Britain and British citizens living in other EU countries. Pollsters tell us that the Leave campaign began to gain ground when it changed its focus from sovereignty to immigration, and the promise to curb the steady flow of immigration seen in recent years. As leadership of the government is handed over to Remainer Theresa May, who as Home Secretary warned against mass migration while failing to meet her own targets, it is unclear how this promise will play out.

Such issues have proved understandably contentious among commentators and the electorate, and their development will be followed in the wake of the Brexit vote. But economics and immigration are only the tip of the Brexit iceberg. Under the surface lie entire histories and philosophical traditions that form the basis of our thinking about the subject. In requiring us to look back, these traditions can help us to look forward, secure in the knowledge that the decision to leave the EU is not entirely new, anomalous or unprecedented, but in fact part of a rich and complex philosophical trajectory that goes right to the heart of democracy in modern Britain and indeed Europe. Jean Bodin, Thomas Hobbes and Immanuel Kant are just a few of figures who loom over Brexit, asking the difficult questions about kingship and kinship, power and the people. What is sovereignty, and who has it? Can it ever be absolute? In a democracy, what defines the demos? Is independence an illusion? What makes a nation? What makes a nation-state? Which is more important: order, or openness?

These values and ideas massively influenced the Brexit debate. However, those Leavers and Remainers who direct discussion towards such concerns have been called idealistic, irresponsible, dangerous. Issues and ideas have seemed mutually exclusive: Remainers who lauded the interconnectedness of multicultural Europe were told to check out the Birmingham banlieues, while Leavers who spoke loftily of democracy and sovereignty were told to get real and consider the effect on British trade. Strategists and analysts divided voters according to their priority: issues or ideas.

Post-referendum, however, the electorate is re-united, trying to make sense of our new direction and the new issues it has thrown up. Whatever the given political or economic climate of the years to come, it is a philosophy of Brexit, one that incorporates the attendant ideas surrounding sovereignty, nationhood and unification, that will illuminate the foundations of Brexit Britain, and thus its possible future.

Jack Parlett is a freelance writer, editor and doctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge.