By William Outhwaite, Newcastle University

Photo of William Outhwaite.Someone browsing an academic library for books on Brexit might not head first for the sociology section. When we presented Brexit. Sociological Responses to the annual conference of the US-based Council of European Scholars in Glasgow in July 2017, five months after publication, it was clear that many participants saw sociology as something slightly exotic. Yet as one of the discussants, Didier Georgakakis (Paris I), pointed out, part of the retrospective rationale for the book was that there had been so much amateur or ‘wild’ sociology in response to Brexit.

Since then, the impressive volume of writing on Brexit has not been matched by any practical achievements by the UK government, as I argued in Discover Society in January 2018 and again in Network in the spring. As a Remainer who cares more about Europe than England or the UK, I am however uncertain whether or not to welcome this slightly revolting spectacle. The alternative (if it had been somehow possible), a smooth progress towards granting what Mrs May asked for in Florence, all that time ago, would have been only a nuance less disastrous than a ‘no deal’, with Brighton Beach-style stones rather than pointy rocks at the foot of the cliff. Ian McEwan suggested a year ago that time would gradually remove the Leavers, but emeriti/ae cannot afford to wait, and March is already in our diaries for the new academic year.

But while there’s life there’s hope. The insanity of Brexit is slowly sinking in. The more extreme illusions seem to have been largely abandoned, and the remaining obstacle, one not to be discounted, is the oh-so-British feeling that there must be a compromise which gives something to both sides. That, and the difficulty for Captain Starmer to steer the rudderless Labour Party in a direction which makes some sense. There are worse places to end up than Norway’s, but it would sit uncomfortably with the delusions of grandeur which animate Leavers and probably also some Remainers.

The lessons of Brexit for sociologists, I think, are in the end familiar ones. They must be interdisciplinary and multi-causal in their approach, moving flexibly between accidental events and underlying structures without discounting either. A long-term explanation of Brexit framed in terms of insularity and exceptionalism, anticipated by De Gaulle and well presented by Brendan Simms (2016), has as much going for it as what the Annales historians mocked as ‘histoire événementielle’, in this case a story about a dangerous drift in a pathological political competition, shaped by a toxic press and ending with a bad bet by a playboy prime minister (who had recently won an equally risky bet in Scotland). Another lesson, framed in structuralist terms by Durkheim’s stress on collective representations and in more interactionist language by W.I. Thomas, is that if what we used to call men and now call people define things as real, they are real in their consequences.

Among these, unintended consequences or ‘perverse effects’ are especially important. In the case of EU membership, opt-outs and other concessions may smooth the way to a harmonious relationship, or they may corrode what are already weak ties. Although the UK may have gained in the short term from opting out of the euro (since its economic management would probably have been no less incompetent than that of Ireland and had similar results) and Schengen (given its island location), these might have bound the population more closely into the EU and made the prospect of leaving it seem more consequential than abandoning an unused credit card or gym membership. Alternatively, of course, they might have brought forward the date of Brexit.

The concept of liminality is more prominent in sociology’s distant twin, anthropology, but it may be helpful here.[1] The UK was on the threshold of what has become the European Union for two decades; when admitted, it immediately held a referendum to decide whether to stay in, and remained ambivalent about membership like no other member state. (The closest analogy is probably Norway’s non-membership.) It has dithered inconsequentially for two years about what sort of divorce settlement it wants and may end up for two years or much longer in another liminal position just outside the threshold. To borrow another term from anthropology, its politics has been dominated by ‘tricksters’, clown-like figures without attachments or convictions.

The other related, theme, is the importance of the sociology of time, which has been wrongly marginalised as just another specialist option. A triumphalist Brexiteer might quote Shakespeare: ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men…’  Hitler too, though he would have skated over the fact that he came to power when his movement had peaked and seemed likely to decline. Time is not on the side of the UK, but which way the pendulum ends its swing is as uncertain as it was on 23 June 2016.

[1] Arpad Szakolczai, ‘Liminality and Experience: Structuring transitory situations and transformative events’, International Political Anthropology, Vol. 2 (2009) No. 1, pp. 141-172; Arpad Szakolczai and Agnes Horvath, ‘Political Anthropology’, in William Outhwaite and Stephen P. Turner, The SAGE Handbook of Political Sociology (2018).