Brexit as Political Irony

Guest post by Feargal Cochrane, University of Kent. This article is part of an ongoing blog series ‘Brexit Countdown’ by the Political Studies Association of Ireland (PSAI) and Political Studies Association (PSA).

The Brexit negotiations have proved to be confusing, frustrating and perhaps even a little boring for all but the most parched of Brexaholics. They have also been spectacularly ironic. Unlike Alanis Morissette’s song of the same name — which, as comedian Ed Byrne said, actually just catalogued a series of unfortunate events — Brexit has been dripping with irony since the referendum result in 2016.

For a start off, Brexit was never really about membership of the EU. If it had been, then the details of EU membership, both positive and negative, would have played a larger part in the 2016 referendum debate. Brexit was rather about two other covert issues. First, immigration, and second, the internal politics of the Conservative Party.

One of the abiding slogans of the Brexiteers was coined by Dominic Cummings, Director of the Vote Leave Campaign in 2016 when he cast the referendum as being an opportunity for the UK to ‘take back control’. Ironically, however, the rhetoric about returning democracy from Brussels to the UK turned out to be just that. Over the subsequent two-and-a-half year period, Theresa May’s failure to deliver a coherent policy has led inexorably to the EU taking back control from the UK in terms of the Article 50 timetable. In a double irony, Theresa May suffered further humiliation last Monday evening, when the House of Commons took back control of Brexit policy (such as it was) from the government. One of the reasons behind this was that the Brexit negotiations have not primarily been between the UK and the EU. Instead, they have been about a negotiation within the UK government itself.

At the top of government, we have a Prime Minister who allegedly voted remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum but is now promoting Brexit with all the zeal of the convert. We have a Leader of the Opposition, meanwhile, who is a well-known Eurosceptic yet claiming that he supports remain. Jeremy Corbyn might mumble publicly that he supports the UK remaining in the EU, but he seems to do very little to advance that aim. Last weekend when over one million people walked in the streets of London to campaign for a 2nd Referendum. While his Deputy Leader spoke at the rally, Jeremy Corbyn was…. in Morecambe, discussing the forthcoming local elections. How ironic that we have a government that is incapable of governing and a Leader of the Opposition who seems to be incapable of effectively opposing it.

To add irony to irony, Brexit turned British political convention on its head. Non-mandatory referendums were considered binding rather than advisory, and representative parliamentary sovereignty was deemed to be secondary to the direct democracy of referendums. In another ironic twist, what saved the parliamentary system in the UK over Brexit was not, initially at least, parliament  but the civic engagement of Gina Miller. Her legal challenge to the government, and the decision of the High Court (subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court) to prevent the government from using royal prerogative powers to trigger Article 50, forced it to seek approval in parliament. So, Brexit was, in the end, about taking back control — but not perhaps in the way Brexiteers had envisaged.

Meanwhile, the central architects of Brexit — Arron Banks, Daniel Hannon, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael  Gove, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and other privately educated, wealthy politicians as well as bankers, hedge-fund managers and stockbrokers — have spent the last three years presenting themselves as the authentic voice of the people, fighting the Metropolitan elite in the interests of the common man (and occasionally woman). But these people are the very essence of white, male, wealthy privilege. An associated and tragic irony is that it is those who have felt the most left behind politically and economically by the European project — who voted leave in 2016 and today argue for the merits of a No Deal Brexit — are the very people likely to suffer the most from such an outcome.

Perhaps the final irony of Brexit is this: Brexit has demonstrated that there is no United Kingdom, only a disunited one. While it exists in name, it no longer exists in substance. Brexit, which aimed to take back control and return sovereignty to the United Kingdom, has torn that asunder to the point where Scottish independence and Irish reunification are back on the political agenda.

Those who have pursued their British identity most avidly in the Brexiteer camp have done the most to jeopardise the very thing they value most highly. This is because Brexit was never about being British; it was about being English. This incapacity to envisage a Brexit that was actually British and appealed to those within its additional three devolved ‘nations’ prevented it from amounting to more than a narrow, shrill and ultimately doomed mission.

Wherever and whenever the Brexit process eventually finishes, and assuming it does so within our lifetimes, it is likely that there will be more ironic twists on the way to the final destination.

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Feargal Cochrane is Professor of International Conflict Analysis and Director of the Conflict Analysis Research Centre in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. He is also Vice Chair of the Political Studies Association and his new book, Brexit and Northern Ireland: Breaking Peace will be published by Manchester University Press in 2020.

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