Brexit: Six Months to Go

Brian Girvin's picture

This is the final scheduled post in H-nationalism's series 'Brexit, The Future of Europe and Nationalism'. We would like to thank the contributors for the incisiveness and high quality of their posts. The different approaches taken provided insights into a complex and controversial topic. This is not the end of Brexit or its consequences. Over the coming months we will publish updates and promote further discussion. We would also welcome additional contributions from scholars who wish to add to the ongoing conversation. This post is by Brian Girvin, University of Glasgow, who examines the current state of opinion on Brexit in the UK.'

It is now just six months before the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. Attitudes to Brexit continue to harden among the general public and within the political parties. More generally, nationalist assumptions remain at the heart of Brexit but also at the core of the EU’s current difficulties. The most significant event was the rather sharp rejection of Prime Minister Theresa May’s ‘Chequers’ plan at the Salzburg summit. The expectation among her supporters was that the EU27 would provide her with some political cover prior to the party conference at the end of the month. It did not work out like this and May appears to have been tone deaf to the meeting, alienating even those who were sympathetic to her. In particular, her disclosure that she could not fulfil an earlier commitment to provide an effective solution to the problem of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland hardened attitudes.

May’s response to what some newspapers described as her ‘humiliation’ by the EU was to accuse the European leaders of lack of respect for the United Kingdom. The EU response to this was that the UK was well aware of its position but took little account of it in May’s presentation to the meeting. Theresa May’s nationalist rhetoric allowed the right-wing press to vent its anger at the EU, providing some respite among conservatives. It also allowed her to claim that proposals by the Labour Party were not in the national interest. She accused Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party of ‘actively undermining the UK’s negotiating position’ on Brexit, by proposing alternatives to government policy. May’s criticism of the opposition parties highlights a new fault line in British politics between those who actively support Brexit (though there are disagreements on the specific form that would take, ranging from a ‘soft’ Brexit to leaving the EU without an agreement of any sort) and those who are opposed (though again this group is not homogeneous and includes those who favour a ‘soft’ Brexit to those who are opposed to leaving on principle). These divisions are now hardening and reflect a possible realignment in British politics along these lines. The Conservative Party is the party for Brexit, whereas other parties offer qualified opposition to exiting the EU; see YouGov poll for March 2018. Some 72 per cent of conservative voters believe it was right to leave the EU whereas only 24 per cent of Labour voters and 15 per cent of Liberal Democratic voters think so. Just 22 per cent of conservatives consider it was wrong to leave, whereas 68 per cent of Labour and 72 per cent of Liberal Democrats think so. Similar divisions appear in respect of age: 65 per cent of the 18-24 age cohort believe it was wrong of leave, while 63 per cent of those over 65 think it was right to do so. Conservatives also consider leaving the EU to the top policy priority for them (69 per cent).

Furthermore, only Conservative voters and those over the age of 65 are optimistic that Britain will be ready to leave the EU by March 2019. 66 per cent of conservatives are optimistic while 66 per cent of Labour voters are pessimistic.  (See here.)   By a margin of 2-1, conservative voters give priority to leaving the EU over maintaining the union between Northern Ireland and Britain. These positions appear to be hardening along party lines and were much in evidence at the party conferences in September and October.

However, there are serious divisions within the conservative party on the best way forward. Polling suggests that there is widespread scepticism about the negotiating strategy pursued by the May government. 71 per cent consider that the government is handling the Brexit negotiations badly (and 55 per cent of conservative voters do so): see here. More seriously for the government, the rebuff increased hostility to the ‘Chequers Plan’ among the majority of conservative supporters. For many conservatives May’s Chequers plan was a betrayal of the party and its overwhelming support for Brexit. One member told the Guardian prior to the party conference that ‘personally I’d rather have no deal than a bad deal… If this country had a chance and an opportunity it could look after itself. In the Second World War we were feeding ourselves’

Conservative and UKIP supporters are the most likely voters to oppose the plan and to believe that a ‘no-deal Brexit’ would be a better option. Indeed, some 65 per cent of conservative voters would not be worried if Britain left the EU without an agreement. Most other respondents expressed serious concern at that prospect. 

 It has also emboldened those, such as Boris Johnson, who see this as an opportunity to challenge the leadership. Boris Johnson and David Davis resigned from the government over the issue and have been promoting a rejectionist position since then. Johnson in particular has been openly contemptuous in a number of newspaper articles about the government’s plans.

A number of other senior conservatives are also considering a leadership bid, including Michael Gove. Gove supports the current government position but revealingly claims that the UK parliament will be able to change the agreement once it has regained its sovereignty. There is widespread agreement that Prime Minister May will be unable to hold onto office for much longer, though there is disagreement about whether the challenge will come before or after the end of March 2019.

However, May has persistently (if not always successfully) argued that Chequers remains the least destabilising option currently available and has demanded that the EU and those within the UK who oppose her provide a realistic alternative. She remains Prime Minister by default. Conservatives generally continue to support her because the alternative might be a general election or Johnson as the new leader. In respect of Brexit, only 28 per cent of Conservatives believe that a change of leadership would get a better deal from the EU. For Conservatives and Leave voters the problem is with the EU, who it is believed has been much more successful than the UK in defending and promoting its position. Moreover, 71 per cent of Conservative voters consider that May is up to the job of Prime Minister, while 55 per cent want her to lead the party into the next election (see here).

The other factor that lends support to May’s leadership is that there is no groundswell for another referendum on the terms of the agreement between the EU and the UK. Attitudes have remained polarised on all matters to do with Brexit. While 39 per cent of those polled believed there should be a referendum on the agreement, some 43 per cent believe there should not be one (with 17 per cent don’t know). The most dangerous threat to May’s premiership comes from the Democratic Unionist Party and the question of the border. The DUP leader Arlene Foster has threatened to vote against an agreement that does not meet Unionist demands that there is no border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. She has also rather graphically described the Unionist position as ‘our red line is blood red’. Furthermore, senior DUP members would prefer Johnson as Prime Minister, who they think would take a harder line with the EU and the Republic of Ireland. New proposals on the border are expected from the EU and this could prompt a crisis between the government and its erstwhile allies in the DUP.

Despite the divisions with the conservative party, the Labour Party has not benefitted from this. Jeremy Corbyn is widely believed to favour leaving the EU and has been a persistent Eurosceptic since entering Parliament. However, the mood of the party is very different from this and there has been impressive grass roots mobilisation to force the Labour leadership to take a more active role in promoting a referendum on the agreement terms. In a survey of party members just before the party conference 87 per cent supported a referendum on the outcome of the negotiations. Such a poll could in theory include an option to remain in the EU:

Jeremy Corbyn would prefer a general election to a referendum, though the Deputy Leader Tom Watson is more sympathetic to the idea of a popular vote. John McDonnell the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer argues that another vote would lead to further division and xenophobia, implying that it is in Labour’s interest to deliver Brexit if in government (see here). 

The most the party leadership agrees on is that Labour will vote against any agreement that does not deliver the same benefits as currently available through membership of singe market and customs union. At the party conference Corbyn told the Prime Minister that Labour would vote against an agreement based on Chequers, but offered a caveat that if she concluded a positive deal then labour would support leaving the EU on these terms. Despite the widespread support within the party for a referendum, the motion put to the conference reflected a compromise that probably satisfies few. While a referendum is not ruled out, it is unlikely to be actively promoted as an alternative.

Two reports published in September reinforce the view that immigration is at the heart of the Brexit debate. A report by the Migration Advisory Committee found little evidence that migration had a negative impact on unemployment or wages among other matters. Despite this, the recommendations reflected a new post-EU immigration policy. The emphasis should be on high skilled and high income immigrants and no differentiation between EU or non-EU applicants. This recommendations has now been accepted by the government as a key feature of its immigration policy: report can be read here

Some of reasons for this position can be found in another report published by British Futures and Hope not Hate, ‘National Conversation on Immigration’. 40 per cent of respondents agreed that ‘having a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures has undermined British culture’, though 60 per cent thought that such a variety of backgrounds and cultures ‘is part of British culture’. Overall, 50 per cent considered the impact of immigration to be negative. The report also found that there was considerable support for restricting immigrants with low skills as well as asylum seekers and refugees – report can be found here.

These reports and polling evidence since the referendum in June 2016 suggest that active support for Brexit is rarely based on narrow economic grounds. While some Brexit supporters base their argument on neo-liberal foundations, most are motivated by traditional conservative nationalism. An emphasis on patriotism, the national interest and identifying traitors may be self-serving but it reflects the main dimension in British politics between a narrow nationalism and one that is more accommodating to difference and change. This narrow nationalism is now central to the Conservative Party and it is an appeal that the Labour Party finds it difficult to challenge, especially among its traditional working class supporters. Thus in the UK as in many other parts of Europe, the nationalist critique of the EU has become the key platform for the right.

The next few weeks will clarify these issues for both the EU and the UK. If, and it is a big if, an agreement on the Irish border can be secured that satisfies the EU, the UK, the DUP and the government of the Republic of Ireland, then sections of the Chequers plan will be open to further negotiation. In this positive reading an agreement will be secured and the UK will leave the EU at the end of March 2019. A more negative reading might involve failure to reach agreement on the border and/or a watering down of Chequers to such an extent that the Conservative Party will not support it. In these circumstances the prospect of a hard Brexit, no agreement and a possible general election all loom large.