I’d like to tell the story of how I became interested in Brexit, back in 2016, only marginally before the vote. In reality, it’s the story of why I didn’t care about Brexit at any point before a critical moment in early 2016.
I was born in 1989. Don’t worry, the story doesn’t start there; I only mention it to highlight the fact that I was born into the precursor to the EU ― the EEC ― and I was only 3 years old in February 1993 when the UK signed the Treaty of Maastricht to join the EU (and 4 years old in November 1993, when that Treaty came into effect). Wikipedia characterises this change as an evolution, not a stark change or a revolution, so I doubt it would have been much on my radar.
It’s not part of my story, but it is interesting to note a few points of the democracy of the UK being a part of the EU: there was a referendum in 1975 where the UK population voted 67.2% in favour of joining the EC; in the general election of 1983 the opposition Labour party campaigned to leave the EC and was heavily defeated; further integration with the EU was in the manifestos of elected governments that ratified various keystone elements of the EU. I’ll cite Wikipedia for this (Wikipedia contributors, 2019), but that is mainly for ease; I have been through the various acts and sources listed in that page.
My story could begin pretty much anywhere in my life, explaining why I wasn’t Eurosceptic and wasn’t aware of Euroscepticism in general. But, it’s largely irrelevant. I wasn’t aware of Euroscepticism because I lived in a country where UKIP got about 16% of the vote. So, I will start just after I left university the first time.
My undergraduate degree and early work experience
Straight away, I am university educated at this point and so are most of my friends, and that puts me in a group of Remainers (Goodwin and Heath, 2016; Becker, Fetzer and Novy, 2017). In 2010, we didn’t know that about ourselves. I then, almost immediately, travelled abroad for work in a graduate position ― so my colleagues were also degree educated and so more likely to be Remainers. I didn’t travel to the EU immediately, but to Thailand. I can’t find any research to back this up, but I imagine people who are drawn to foreign experiences are also more likely to be Remainers. I then did travel to work in the EU, and EU exposure is a researched predictor of being a Remainer (Becker, Fetzer and Novy, 2017).
Through this time ― 2010 to 2015 ― I did also work in warehouses and factories. But, I did so in insecure work, rarely being in the same place for more than a month. Detailed political discussions did not come up.
I then went back to university to do my MSc. It isn’t just the case that degree educated people are more likely to be Remainers, but the higher the level of education the higher the likelihood (Swales, 2016). In short, my social circles was becoming increasingly Remainer-y.
It is worth pointing out that I never knew my social circles was so Remain heavy. That is, in part, because before 2015 no one seemed to oppose EU membership at all, and it wasn’t until 2016 that the term ‘Remainer’ started to apply. But, even then, in my degree-educated, world-travelling, EU-exposed and young social circle, there was simply no Leave voice to contrast us. I didn’t feel like a Remainer ― I didn’t feel like there was a debate going on with sides. And, largely, the statistics back me up on this.
My Enlightenment: first contact with a Eurosceptic
By the time I started my MSc, I knew a Referendum on the UK’s EU membership was going to happen, and I perceived it as a little exercise in the Conservatives securing a few votes from the political equivalent of Flat-Earth theorists or Creationists: the UKIP voters. I knew the UKIP supporters were going to be given some air time to say some things and I largely ignored it. After all, back in 2015, it was a demographic I only knew of by second hand accounts ― I’d never met one. In 2014, I met someone who could see the merits of some of UKIP’s ideas, but was still going to vote Labour, but that is as close to the dragon as I had ever been… until late January 2016.
I had just listened to the audiobook of David Deutsch’s Beginning of Infinity (recommended), and become interested in ‘The Enlightenment’, including mini-Enlightenments. The details are interesting, but not relevant here, except to say that the Enlightenment of the 17 and 18 Century had a sort of social network, sustained by snail-mail letters called The Republic of Letters, which Stanford University kindly offered me the metadata of (who sent a letter from where and to who and where).
I was doing a module called Cartography and Visualisation. The coursework was to develop an atlas on a chosen subject, and I decided to map and visualise data relating to the Enlightenment, a few pages of which was dedicated to The Republic of Letters. I played about with the data to look at letters that were entirely internal to Britain; there wasn’t enough data to display. But, I then included Northern Ireland, to look at letters internal to the modern political boundary of the UK ― not an academically rigorous move, but a justifiable one from a visualisation perspective ― and that started something. I then mapped the outgoing letters from ‘the UK’ to mainland Europe (as well as a map showing the flow of all letters, including America). I asked a colleague to check over my atlas before I sent it to print, and they uttered the words that sparked my interest in Brexit: that map is a good argument for leaving the EU.
I didn’t get it. I didn’t see it. It was lost on me in every conceivable way. I didn’t see that the UK has been outstandingly productive in this period. If I played Devil’s Advocate and accepted the implication that the UK has basically led Europe into an Enlightenment, I didn’t see how that was an argument to leave. The comment was fractally lost on me. And I thought to myself, ‘Huh, that’s interesting.’
And that was it, the start of my interest. How did this PhD student (doing an MSc module as a part of her course) see something so obviously not there?
Starting to understand (elements of) Brexit (kind of)
Luckily, my interest did not have to leave me there. I later did a module called Water, Policy and Law, which had a coursework element very open ended and ultimately allowed me to look into the effects of Brexit on UK Bathing Waters. To answer this question, I had to look at the 5 major Brexit options being discussed.
It’s a worthwhile aside that there was minimal discussion of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit, and that term had not been coined. The term I adopted from the academic literature at the time was “Big Bang Brexit” (Oliver, 2014). Little discussion was had about this, it was covered more as an academic etiquette point, for completeness. This was true at the time of writing the essay, in April 2016, 2 months before the polls opened.
My estimate at the time was for a Brexit only marginally harder that the Withdrawal Agreement. In the context of the rhetoric at the time, that was the Hardest Brexit anyone was countenancing. I guessed Free Movement was going to go, and I knew that meant leaving the Single Market ― against the promises of the Leave campaigns at the time. But, I also guessed that we would rapidly deviate from EU Environmental Protections. (As another aside, I chose the Bathing Water Directive and not the Water Framework Directive because the latter has to be accepted as part of the Single Market ― but the Bathing Water directive does not ― and so I could write about scrapping the Bathing Water Directive, even in a softer Brexit.)
My reasons for believing we would rapidly deteriorate our environmental protections were numerous: pressures from industry wanting to save money by irresponsible disposal methods; the track records of UK Governments (of both parties); the UK’s slow uptake of the Bathing Water Directive; the UK’s violation of the Ambient Air Quality directive. Today, I would append to that list pressures from other countries in trade negotiations; we don’t have sovereignty, we have compromise ― and so we should have relied on influence.
I did acknowledge the UK’s Blue Flag beaches and the tourism industry’s interest in protecting bathing waters, but I didn’t see that lobby beating every polluting manufacturer.
The eagle-eyed of you may notice that I just said I predicted the Withdrawal Agreement with some accuracy, and may be ready to retort that no one saw the British Border in Ireland problem, so I must be full of myself. Well, I didn’t predict it, exactly. But the border concerns were in the academic literature, even if journalists didn’t take hold of it (Heisbourg, 2016; Todd, 2015; Burke, 2016; Moriarty, 2015).
I didn’t predict anything. I read predictions and tried to guess what would happen. I did not imagine the backstop, I imagined a border in the Irish sea, treating Northern Ireland like an overseas territory that happens to be in the EU. It was the backstop (except it didn’t have that name) as applied only to Northern Ireland.
The Brexit religion
My experience with Brexit ever since has been a steady and wide-eyed familiarity. It feels exactly like arguments about religion, something long-time readers will know I have made a hobby of. The religion used to be of ‘Sovereignty’, and Brexit was merely the hijad that would get the UK its promised lands. Brexit was a cornerstone in the religion of Sovereignty. But it has shifted, now. Brexit is the religion, and Sovereignty is one of the many sacrificial lambs, along with economic and political influence. The UK’s sovereignty has been sacrificed to Trump and the Trade Deal he wants, having direct influence over the UK’s food standards and NHS. American Congress is taking Sovereignty over Britain’s relationship with Ireland. The UK crucified its own influence by leaving the world’s largest trading block, where it had vetoes and power.
Even democracy ― that most sacred of cows ― is being allowed to rot in the name of Brexit. Campaigns are being allowed to lie and break the law, and momentum continues towards Brexit; Parliament is being ignored and may even be prorogued (shut down) to give the executive dictatorial powers, to achieve Brexit; additional public votes are being derided as undemocratic, short-circuiting democracy’s self-correction mechanisms, in the name of Brexit.
The parallels between Brexit and religion go further than a couple of narrative structures. The UK is even compelled to have faith, to “Believe in Britain” (but not Northern Ireland). There are compunctions to not talk Britain down, an act of heresy. And just like heretics, infidels and apostates, there is even provocative language to describe the opposition: Project Fear, Remoaner, Traitor, elitist. And when it comes to an evidence base, there’s simply nothing to support Brexit ― a familiar trait to religion.
Part of the reason the previous subheading was so caveated (“Starting to understand (elements of) Brexit (kind of)”) is because I believe Brexit is best understood through the psychology of fervent beliefs and passion, not evidence and reason.
Goodwin, M. and Heath, O. (2016) Brexit vote explained: poverty, low skills and lack of opportunities. Available from: https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/brexit-vote-explained-poverty-low-skills-and-lack-opportunities [Accessed 8 August 2019].
Moriarty, G. (2015) SF says North should be able stay in EU in a Brexit. Available from: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/sf-says-north-should-be-able-stay-in-eu-in-a-brexit-1.2182397 [Accessed 20 January 2019].
Oliver, T. (2014) The five routes to a Brexit: how the UK might leave the European Union. LSE European Politics and Policy (EUROPP) Blog [online]. Available from: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/61536/ [Accessed 20 March 2016].
Wikipedia contributors (2019) History of European Union–United Kingdom relations. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=History_of_European_Union%E2%80%93United_Kingdom_relations&oldid=906966859 [Accessed 8 August 2019].