Last Thursday, 51.9 per cent of British voters requested their country’s departure from the European Union. The causes and consequences of this decision will surely be debated for years to come. Class divisions and Britain’s love affair with laissez faire politics surely have played a significant part in shaping this results. For decades, British voters have elected governments that have pursued aggressive programmes of privatisation and deregulation, alongside policies intended to dismantle the welfare state and redistribute wealth from the poor to the rich. In 1987, Margaret Thatcher’s famously claimed that there “is no such thing as society.” This has been a programmatic statement for the politics of the following three decades. Voters’ support for an anti-EU campaign led by free-market fundamentalists seems like a logical continuation of this political process, as do feelings of despair on the part of pro-EU voters.
While complex, long-term political and economic developments have led to this outcome, Brexit’s mien in 2016 has been dominated by a xenophobic snarl. Opinion polls began to shift decisively against EU membership when anti-immigration themes rose to the fore among the Brexit campaigns, alongside a barrage of nativist and xenophobic rhetoric emanating from most of the country’s press. Pro-Brexit voters may have had complex and widely varying motivations for their choice to leave the EU. Some may even see Britain’s departure from the European Union as the starting point of a new progressive politics. However, the campaign – and, by extension, the new government – they elected conclusively framed the Brexit campaign as the ‘get rid of the foreigners’ campaign. Little England has won. The campaign has triumphed that resorted to anti-immigrant images resembling National Socialist propaganda. A majority of voters has elected the Britain of Nigel Farage.
I do not know any EU citizen, whether in academia or not, who feels comfortable in Britain at the moment. Many of those I have spoken to feel that they have been left out of the Brexit debate, that their adopted home has been taken away from them, and that they are no longer certain whether they are welcome in this country. Public debates on Brexit have been dominated by Britain’s narrow, largely self-enclosed elite in politics, the media, business and, perhaps to a lesser degree, civil society. These debates have painted a scarecrow image of ‘migrants’, with no regard for the lives, feelings, achievements and experiences of those who have come to this country and made a home here, often for many years.
In sum, Brexit marks the triumph of populist politics. The public debates that led to Britain’s vote for isolation were dominated by lies and half-truths, framed in terms of an exceedingly narrow range of topics – economic development and immigration – and won by a group of privileged, white, middle-aged men masquerading as men of the people. Public conversations about Britain’s EU membership could have involved wide-ranging discussions of British and European politics, economics and society. They did not. Instead, they were dominated by oversimplifications, stereotypes and lies. In so far as complex arguments were set out, they had no discernible impact. British voters’ decision to quit the EU was made in an intellectual vacuum.
How will sociology fare in this new Britain? In recent years, British sociology has begun to struggle quite notably, in an academic environment that increasingly prioritises commercial success and the pursuit of ‘metrics’ for assorted audits over intellectual debate and controversy. British society has for decades been shaped by the belief that there is no such thing as society. Consequently, it seems to be losing interest in sociology’s insights into the links between history and biography, individual action and social structure. Policy makers’ emphasis on instrumentally useful STEM subjects, the success of applied fields such as criminology, and the decline in the number of sociology departments and sociology students are just some markers of this trend.
It is therefore not surprising that sociological arguments about issues such as power, politics, labour, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, and migration in its many forms featured have featured little in Britain’s national conversation about its relationship with the EU. The government that will soon take power is likely to pursue a neoliberal agenda much fiercer than those of its predecessors. Today, British society looks likely to be privatised even more comprehensively and rapidly. Those sectors of the press that thrive on simplistic populist arguments have explicitly declared their triumph (and I will not honour them with links here). Universities look likely to continue their drift towards commercialisation and authoritarian audit culture, and academics’ working lives may become even more precarious.
In this new environment, sociology may come to face a major crisis of relevance. At the same time, it has so much to offer to a new progressive politics that might counteract the worst consequences of Brexit. The time seems to have come for a fundamental conversation about the nature and future of the sociological project.