K. Featherstone: "Support of Brexit is cross-class, on the basis of identity"

Posted by economia 10/12/2019 0 Comment(s) Economia Blog,

interview by Harry Savides


I met Professor Kevin Featherstone*, in his office in the LSE, to discuss Brexit and the coming elections. He was concerned about the impact of Brexit and the prospect of Boris Johnson being strengthened by the coming elections, but still optimistic that after all “life will be more complicated” than we think.


* Pr. Kevin Featherstone is Eleftherios Venizelos Professor in Contemporary Greek Studies and Professor in European Politics at the LSE








UK people were always supposed to be the less pro-European. Was there a specific reason related with cultural identity or national interests or something else?

For many historical and cultural reasons UK people are the less pro-European. In terms of popular culture British have made the Continent – the “other”. This is the legacy of two World Wars and the Empire. One of the interesting curious features historically is that from the point of view of the UK, the rest of Europe is often seen as too small. Too small for us to join in the 1950’s, because we thought UK was still a great power. But also economically too small, because we still had the Commonwealth, with very privileged trading arrangements (e.g. you could buy materials from Nigeria cheaper than in the world market). Moreover, Europe is too small not only as a result of our self-image, but also because of a sense UK trading interests were wider in the international “sphere” rather than in Europe. It is fair to say that right through the present day the UK trades less with the rest of the EU and this has consequences in terms of the economic cycle – the boom and bust periods. There is a lack of synchronization (with the rest of the EU). So there are good economic reasons you could make for UK not join the euro.


Then why did the UK join the EEC in the first place?

By the ‘60s there was recognition that for trading reasons we needed to join the then 6 EEC states, because the alternative of EFTA did not work – Britain was far bigger than all the rest together. I think that the Conservative government at that time didn’t see it as an alternative but rather as a back door into the EEC and had hoped that the EEC would allow some privileged trading access (some hope that this will be the case with Brexit today). Furthermore, we should keep in mind that in the 1960’s the Empire was at its final days, so the privileged trading relations had gone or were less important.


Was it just an economic decision?

By the late ‘60s and 70’s, by the time we were joining, the narrative was purely economic. Europe was a trading arrangement. And indeed, when the Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, sealed the entry of the UK in the then EEC in 1973, he made many statements to the effect that it was an economic enterprise – just a customs union. There were explicit assurances that Europe would not be something more political. Moreover, given the position of De Gaulle and also Pompidou, it was not unreasonable to say that, because of French vetoes on political union and economic union, bigger ambitious goals, by the time Britain was joining in 1973 were unrealistic.

We start then to see a changing Conservative party, having established that we were joining for economic reasons. Mrs. Thatcher support for the Single European Market in 1985 was fully consistent with this narrative of economic reasons. Indeed she could reasonably claim that the philosophy of the single European market with deregulation at its core was essentially an exporting of Thatcherism or Reaganomics to the rest of Europe.


Did that claim work the other way for the Labor Party?

That was the reason Labor Party did not support EEC membership in the early 80s. By 1988 Labor had already been defeated badly in three successive elections. Jacques Delors, then President of the European Commission, came and made a speech at the Trade Union annual Congress, where he tried to win support. And the Trade Unions accepted the economic advantages of being fully integrated in the single European market. And if you actually look at the Jacques Delors speech, it was a tremendously technocratic boring speech. He himself said later that he was very surprised by the very positive warm response. It was symptomatic that indeed the speech was purely symbolic. The Trade Unions had already decided to change their stance before he was invited to speak. But it meant that Labor was now accepting the single market, it was also at the time of Maastricht more prepared to consider the single European currency.


So what changed after Maastricht?

If you want to look at the long term historical path, then I think that what happened is that Britain has always had two concerns: trade access and sovereignty. When, with the legacy of De Gaulle, we felt that sovereignty was not going to be such a big issue, then we could prioritize trade. When after Maastricht it became clear that European Union had bigger objectives, not only economic, then some in the Conservative Party gradually played sovereignty above the economy.

To come to 2016 and after, the opinion polls and survey attitudes showed remarkable results. So if you asked in 2016 those people who voted Leave, this 52%, “Would you still support Leave if you could be shown that this could be to the economic disadvantage of you and your family and your grandchildren”, 75% of those who voted Leave say they would vote Leave again, even if they were convinced that economically it was a bad thing. So it is symptomatic that a long term trajectory that it is simple economics, trade, there is no political sensitivity or concerns had shifted, after Maastricht, and it came with a new international politics of culture identity. It does not matter if you can prove to me that economically I will be worse off. For reasons of identity politics, I am now prioritizing sovereignty, I am prioritizing identity. We may be 3,5% less well-off but somehow this is a prize worth paying for this “UK identity”. After all we fought Hitler!


Is this attitude common among different classes?

In political science, throughout the postwar period, we were able to say that the biggest predictors of which party you are going to vote for in an election is your relative income, in other words your class. And there were famous political science books which claimed that any other consideration was irrelevant.  This position has weakened since the 1970’s, but Brexit has made it nonsensical.  You have support for Brexit regardless of income levels or class. The biggest divisions today are in terms of age, in terms of region, in terms of urban-rural and in terms of education. Some of those relate to class but not so obviously.

People of different income or education levels share the narrative. I was invited to some private dinner with some seriously wealthy people from the City, hedge fund people.  I was asked to speak for Brexit and the mega-rich host of the dinner said “Kevin, don’t you think that Brexit will be fine, we were OK in the war, we came through, we won eventually etc.” Now, to be frank, if he was a taxi driver I would have thought it is some kind of populist, nationalist rhetoric. But this was a very successful businessman, who was somehow equating Brexit with 6 years of the Blitz and Hitler. So it is cross-class on the basis of identity. We will support it whatever the economic cost.


How is the shift towards national identity related to the immigration issue?

You could make a historical argument that the British were always reluctant, for reasons of culture and history, but then (in 2016) they were even more reluctant than the Danes or the French to some extent. It is not so easy to say that it was always different. But then you add to that the narrative that Europe is only economics, Maastricht overcoming that and making it seem to be much more of a political project and the new identity politics. However, the biggest single change in 2016 was immigration. In open survey questions “What persuaded you to vote Leave”, the resulting “word map” comes with “migration” as the biggest word.

We then had a toxic relationship between a residual sensitivity about sovereignty, identity, independence etc. Add to that a concern about immigration and it was like putting oil on the fire. Never mind the fact that in terms of relative numbers, per capita, the number of migrants from the rest of the EU that entered the UK during the period 2007-2016 was far less than in Germany or France or Italy. It was a fear narrative.


Yes, but London has been a multicultural capital decades ago.  Did something change?

Remember, in the 2016 referendum London voted overwhelmingly Remain. Go to parts of Northern England or parts of The Midlands and you have very different attitudes. The odd thing is that impact of immigration can be very localized. I think that what has changed in the last 10 years, is that small towns, semi-rural communities, particularly in Northern England that had always been highly homogeneous, after 2004 started to get an influx of workers from Central and Eastern Europe, often coming on short-term temporary contracts, working in low paid, agricultural jobs etc.  So, we witnessed a shift: small towns that had hardly seen any non-white or non-British people, suddenly having, they thought, lots of migrants.

Also what is interesting across the UK is that UK voters from ethnic minorities were more anti-immigration than the so-called white UK voters. We had first or second generation immigrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh etc. saying we should not have Bulgarians, Romanians or Poles, because they are not like us. But what is Europe for them? Europe is the space between them and their motherland. It has no particular meaning.


Did David Cameron underestimate this cross-class mood?

I think he was one of those Conservative leaders for whom Europe was simply a vacuum – a blank space. To be frank he could not care less about Europe, in a positive or negative way. It was something that did not animate him at all and I know this from people who worked very closely with him. For reasons of internal party management he thought we should have a referendum, we would win it and that would settle the matter.


Does the City support Brexit or Remain?

I think what we've seeing from Brexit is that the City is becoming more complicated, more complex and a differentiated part of the economy. So at the time of Maastricht we could refer to The City as if it was some kind of singular sector. And what has not been adequately appreciated by the Media when it comes to Brexit is that if you ask the City institutions whether Brexit will be good or bad, the answer depends on the parts of the City that you're asking.

Ask the banks and they will be saying that things will be negative. If you ask the investor funds, the hedge fund managers, they will be saying Brexit will be fantastic; we will be going with Moses to the Promised Land. There will be less rules for the financial regulations of the EU. Absolutely. So what is the British establishment in its economic face? A lot of it is the City, or the City has become much more differentiated sorts of part of the economy. And again there is a difference if you ask foreign or domestic banks, in terms of ownership.

The surveys which have been conducted in relation to the disinvestment from the City, to Dublin, Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt etc. show a significant number is leaving. But the other parts of the domestic cultural pattern is talk to a pro-Brexit voter in Newcastle and tell them that Brexit is bad because lots of bankers are leaving the City of London and they will answer “what is the problem?”. Since the financial crash in 2008 bankers have been a source of great suspicion. To say the bankers are unhappy with Brexit doesn't shift the vote in Newcastle.

For the other parts of the establishment and Whitehall it is assumed in public surveys that they voted overwhelmingly for Remain, so they had difficulty to find a pro-Brexit senior civil servant. And of course Parliament in terms of 2016: 75% of members of Parliament voted to remain. So it has been a Tramp like bottom-up, grassroots shock to the system.


Brexit prevailed as an answer to identity questions, but could it eventually reinforce secessionist movements?

It is not unusual for the EU to be a means of making more credible secession and independence, Catalonia or the Basque country is an example of that. It is more credible to argue that we could be a successful independent small nation, so long as we are a full member of the EU. The SNP has been playing that card as well as the Welsh Plaid Cymru party.

Is interesting how the question “might Brexit lead to Scotland become an independent country”, has now become quite uncertain and complicated. Constitutionally Scotland cannot have a referendum unless London agrees. And Boris Johnson has said that he will never agree – a slightly bizarre comment. In 2014, when Scotland voted to remain a part of the UK,  you could make an argument that Scotland economically being independent would be OK within the EU. Today because of the changes in the oil prices it is a bit more difficult to argue that.

But if the alternative is the UK coming out of the EU with a very hard Brexit or no deal, then Scotland staying in the EU but not being part of the UK, economically starts to sound much more credible. The vast majority of Scottish politicians are saying that a no-deal Brexit or a hard-deal Brexit would be an economic disaster to Scotland. So Scottish public opinion is hearing Brexit is bad and it makes more credible the idea of Scotland becoming independent.


What about Northern Ireland?

Under the Johnson deal N. Ireland is treated separately and that makes it difficult for Johnson to justify why Scotland would not be given the same deal. It is not obvious why you would not extend the logic, given that such a large majority of people in Scotland voted to remain in the EU. So basically I think there are many reasons why Brexit might lead to the breakup. Will it?  I think there is sufficient uncertainty to think it is a difficult call.


So the Brexit referendum could lead to more referendums?

It is not like the Brexit referendum. You could bring in rules stipulating that the number of people voting in total has to be over a certain percentage of the electorate, which happened when Scotland voted in 1979 on substantial decentralization – not independence, or that the majority has to be more than x percent. They could do something like that again. No one doubts that the turnout will not be very high, but they could easily say that to win the referendum there has to be a turnout above 55%. I think one of the legacies of the Brexit referendum in 2016 is to try to avoid referendums on these complicated things, but also, if forced, to try to establish certain rules, qualifications which made it that it cannot be 48-52% for a life episode.

(continue to Part two)

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