By John Bone, BSA Chair
Having been asked to write a short piece on the sociological significance of Brexit, my first thought was how do you possibly address something like this in less than 1000 words given the multitude of sociological issues that Brexit has raised? I also had to consider how the piece would be read at the time of publication, given the bewilderingly unstable trajectory of the Brexit process. The well-worn academic convention ‘at the time of writing’, as a device to take account of such contingencies, seems wholly inadequate to address present events. Aside from the dizzying range and pace of political and social developments, however, there is clearly much for sociologists to engage with in relation to Brexit, much of which is largely self-evident, albeit that it is impossible to do more than scratch the surface here.
Clearly, Brexit cannot be viewed as an isolated political crisis. Rather, it appears both as a symptom and catalyst that has brought to the fore a range of negative political, economic and social trends that have been evolving in the UK over the last few decades, central to which has been a rising tide of insecurity, injustice, division and inequality. As is widely recognized, Brexit has acted as a lightning rod for simmering discontent amongst communities exposed to the growing insecurities and stresses imposed by conditions in neoliberal labour and housing markets. This evidently extends in intensified form to those experiencing the sharp end of austerity, and the trials of having to engage with an increasingly mean and Kafkaesque benefits system, food insecurity and foodbanks, and the stigma experienced by those having the misfortune to have fallen ill or otherwise slipped through the cracks of our ‘aspirational’ society. Recent data from the ONS illustrates the growing divide in the UK, starkly represented by ongoing increases in life expectancy amongst the better off being counterpoised by a fall amongst the poor. Sadly, while increasingly complex and intersecting with other forms of inequality, it seems clear that in the UK class is far from dead, and the need for greater sociological focus here is ever more urgent.
At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, the conduct of the architects of Brexit has demonstrated both the power and increasing detachment of our political elite. From the outset, aside from a small coterie of left-wing politicians who have long considered the EU to be too right-wing, as we know Euroscepticism has largely been the preoccupation of an ultra-Thatcherite constituency of politicians and their oft times shadowy supporters. The cause has always been clear; to eradicate any impediments to the marketization of all sectors of UK economy and society, and in this case any vestiges of a social democratic ‘backstop’ provided by the EU, moving the UK ever closer to the Republican US and the free market economies of the Far East. Thus, while Brexit has been presented as a revolt of the underdog against the elite, as the pages of ‘Britannia Unchained’ and the Cato Institute’s ‘Ideal US-UK Free Trade Agreement’ illustrate, the radical deregulatory aspirations of key advocates of Brexit hold to a vision that is clearly contrary to the interests of those they claim to champion. Thus, Brexitannia promises further shredding of the social contract, while paradoxically being cheered on, at least for a time, by many of those most vulnerable to its consequences. Amongst the numerous incongruities associated with Brexit this is perhaps one of the most profound, but sadly not uncommon, mirroring support amongst America’s poor for Trump’s low tax and services cutting administration in the US.
The detachment of key protagonists in the Brexit process (largely insulated by wealth from the consequences of their actions) has also been demonstrated by the way in which the wider public became, to an extent, pawns in a factional power struggle to become ‘head boy’, with UK politics, economy and civil society as collateral damage. Detachment from the wider public perspective was also demonstrated by the bemusement of the principals (on both sides) that this opportunistic gambit had actually produced a leave result, as they underestimated the level of nihilism, anomie and simple desperation amongst the UK’s dispossessed, once stirred by the power of the mass media and, not least, social media. With respect to the latter, recent trends in the UK and elsewhere have starkly re-emphasized the key elements of Kornhauser’s early Mass Society Thesis, on the capacity for atomized societies to be politically mobilized towards extremes, a scenario that has grown exponentially in the social media era where people can be simultaneously (digitally) connected and socially isolated.
All of this underlines the need for greater research on contemporary modes of communication, and not least a greater focus on the darker machinations, power plays and relations that are largely concealed from the wider public domain.
The means by which Brexit has played out thus far, in a broader sense, also provides extensive areas for sociological scrutiny many of which, as with the above, reinvoke perennial sociological concerns. As well as exposing division and disillusion, the Brexit project has made explicit a disturbing and precipitous erosion of reason, trust and civility across UK society and public life. The logical and ethical inconsistency and, at times, mendacity of much of the Brexit debate in this era of post-truth politics has been palpable, from the misrepresentation, manipulation and othering around the referendum to more recent contortions. The cynical cultivating of xenophobia and thinly (and sometimes not so thinly) veiled racist rhetoric in the debate around immigration has been a particularly dangerous and socially destructive development, exposing and deepening pre-existing discrimination and divisions that may prove difficult to repair.
As to claims of democratic legitimacy in this process, we have witnessed the doublethink inherent in justifications for demanding successive parliamentary votes on ‘the deal’ together with recurrent citing of ‘the will of the people’, while denying a second public vote in spite of the awareness that, as numerous polls and the recent British Social Attitudes Survey suggest, the latter likely no longer holds. Presently, there is a risk, albeit slim thus far, that we may leave the EU on the basis of some MPs hastily revising their position on the Prime Minister’s ‘bad’ deal, defeated by historic majorities in the space of a few months, for fear of the public being afforded the opportunity to revisit a decision taken almost three years ago, won by the slimmest of majorities under the most questionable of circumstances.
As noted at the outset, how Brexit will play out in the end is anyone’s guess. What seems less in doubt, however, is that the dislocation, division and febrile passions unleashed will not be readily contained, and will provide fertile, and essential, themes for sociological investigation (those mentioned and a host of others) for the foreseeable future.