LONDON — Britain has been radicalized by Brexit.
As the clock ticks down to D (as in EU departure) Day on March 29, 2019, both sides are digging in for the coming battle over whatever deal Theresa May is able to bring back from Brussels later this year. For the Brexiteers, the battle cry is “chuck Chequers,” deal or no deal. For the arch Remainers, it’s chuck Brexit altogether with a new “people’s vote” to overturn the last one.
There is mounting concern in parliament, government and among some leading Brexiteers themselves that the polarization could jeopardize the U.K. government’s ability to deliver on Brexit. It looks ever harder to strike a compromise between two sides who are plunging into a prolonged culture war that could spread beyond Brexit.
“The tribal chant has now become the cause,” said one leading member of Vote Leave. “Everything they are doing is almost designed to antagonize their opponents, which is such breathtaking stupidity.”
In the 27 months since the referendum, what was once acceptable for many in the Leave camp is no more. To a large and vocal number, only a pure Brexit will now do.
“I think the betrayal agenda is a minority one. It could get worse, but I’m reasonably optimistic” — David Goodhart, author
Boris Johnson, who agonized over which way to jump in the referendum and publicly supported staying in the single market as late as 2016, now likens May’s plan of remaining tied to EU standards for goods to tying a “suicide vest” around the country. Many of the Euroskeptics Johnson unofficially leads in parliament, who once said leaving the EU would be “quick and easy,” openly support a “no-deal” Brexit as the only option.
Others, however, question whether any of this matters much to anyone outside a politically obsessed elite.
David Goodhart, whose bestseller “The Road to Somewhere” explored the two Brexit tribes, says polarization exists mainly in London and main university towns, while most people in the rest of the country have come to terms with the result.
“Yes, it’s become part of people’s identities, but is there that much evidence of a psychological rupture?” Goodhart said. “I think the betrayal agenda is a minority one. It could get worse, but I’m reasonably optimistic.”
At the heart of the polarization, according to political scientists, psychologists and government ministers, is the revolutionary nature of the Brexit vote itself. Like any revolution, Brexit is developing a momentum of its own as those who brought it about seek ever-more radical solutions to achieve aims that go beyond leaving the EU. Fundamentally, they say, Brexit is a tool to bring about far-reaching changes to society than the messy nature of the exit negotiations appear capable of delivering.
According to Christopher Browning, a political scientist at the University of Warwick, this is fuelled by the “fantasy” of Brexit — a fantasy not because it is stupid or without merit, but because its desires cannot be fulfilled: “Hopes and dreams of refound sovereignty and control, freedom and liberty.”
Browning has explored the psychological fallout from the Brexit vote in two papers. The first focused on the “existential anxiety” felt by some Remainers and caused by Brexit. The second, which hasn’t been published yet, looks at the militancy of the Brexiteers.
In a draft paper called “Brexit populism and fantasies of fulfilment,” Browning argues that the vote to leave the EU was about restoring a sense of control in a world from which many felt increasingly marginalized, ignored and excluded.
He writes that economic and cultural changes made Leave voters feel like “strangers in their own home.” Those who once saw themselves at the nation’s “heartland,” Browning adds, “have not only become alienated, they have also been socially stigmatized and shamed.”
The “fantasy” of Brexit is therefore bound up with a nostalgic vision of restoring status, belonging and lost control. “It dangles a fantasy of the recovery of that which was lost, but since nostalgia is always of an imagined idealized past, recovery is ultimately impossible,” Browning writes.
Six months from Brexit Day, the messy compromises and political horse-trading have not led to a collapse in support for Brexit but, instead, to fears the dream is being “stolen” or “betrayed.”
Browning says the divergence of the Leave and Remain camps is a grave risk for Britain’s political system. “My concern is we are very much in danger of having a fundamental breakdown of social trust, of polarized narratives of national identity,” he said. “It becomes impossible for people to speak to each other because we now have two fundamentally different framings of what Britishness means.”
Philip Corr, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at the University of London, agrees there is “considerable” polarization on both sides of the debate.
“The dream is nearly always better than the reality, and leaving the EU was always going to be tough,” Corr said. “Therefore there is plenty of opportunity for polarization and finding more reasons to dislike the ‘other side.’
“There are lots of people who were backing Open Europe’s case for reform … and they are now saying the complete opposite” — Henry Newman, Open Europe
“A vacuum exists which politicians of different hues are starting to fill with their framed message — these messages have the potential of turning nasty if events turn bad,” he said. He cited the recent “scallop wars” between British and French fishermen: A localized dispute that stems from differing national rules about fishing access that has little if anything to do with Brexit.
“This opinion vacuum is partly driven by the complexity of the Brexit debate and negotiations, as well as the uncertainty of the outcome,” he said. “If the debate gets more heated and British interests are challenged directly, then people will take sides in ways that may further undermine the unity of the country, have unknown consequences … which politicians may find hard to control.”
Henry Newman, director of the think tank Open Europe and former adviser to Environment Secretary and leading Brexiteer Michael Gove, agrees that radicalization of either side makes compromise harder to reach. “There are lots of people who were backing Open Europe’s case for reform, which was ‘keep the single market and ditch the rest,’ and they are now saying the complete opposite. This is going to the root of identity and it’s not about policy anymore. It’s very hard to make a clear argument for a compromise.”
Trapped in revolution
The polarization is starting to spook influential figures on both sides of the Brexit divide.
Former Tory leader and Foreign Secretary William Hague wrote in the Telegraph that the U.K. political system is now “only one or two steps away from being unable to govern.”
One government minister, who supported Remain but believes leaving the EU need not be a disaster, said the country is now trapped in a “psychology of perpetual revolution.”
“It’s the same with all revolutions,” the minister said. “The purists keep moving on, that’s the problem. What was once hard-line, becomes soft. At the start of the French Revolution in 1789, it was perfectly acceptable to be a revolutionary and a constitutional monarchist. By 1793, the king had been executed and public figures with monarchical sympathies had their heads lopped off at the guillotine.”
A second senior Tory MP, who did not want to be named, said: “Revolutions become self-perpetuating and any attempt to recreate stability is conflated with counter-revolutionary activity and treason. The error is that Brexit is now seen as a thing to deliver. Of course it’s not. It’s a process, not a destination. We need to accept that and decide what future we want, not argue who is the most pure on the journey.”
Political leadership is now required, said Corr: “Politicians have a duty to set an example and history will surely frown upon those who try to extract personal political capital from this most unusual and uncertain history-making event.”