Brexit: Well-Behaved Liberals Seldom Change History


As Ian McBride has commented in The Guardian, one of the strange features of Britain’s EU referendum is the resignation with which the losers have accepted the outcome. 16 million voters – 48 per cent of those participating – voted to Remain. Their voices have been completely silenced by the national media and political elite. Those of us who made this choice are just told that we must accept the outcome of a post-truth campaign based on lies and deceit. The winners had no positive plan and left the field almost as soon as they realised what responsibility for the outcome would mean. Does anyone seriously believe that the Leave campaign would have been as stoic and gentlemanly if they had lost?

Some of this silence is clearly attributable to the implosion of the Labour Party and its failure to make the case for EU membership to its core voters. The only serious opposition to Brexit is coming from smaller parties and from the Scottish Nationalists, whose voices are rarely given space in the London-dominated UK media. However, it also reflects the gradual suffocation of extra-parliamentary opposition tactics over the last 50 years. The constitutional abuse of the referendum must be met by a social movement if it cannot be met by a political party.

This abuse starts from the principle of the referendum itself in a representative democracy, where the people who are asked to make a decision are not actually responsible for the outcome. ‘Brexit means Brexit’, says the prime minister, in a phrase worthy of Lewis Carroll. Does anyone actually know what this means? We have a representative democracy because the world is a complex place with many trade-offs and fine judgements to be made. We accept that those responsible for making those judgements are also responsible for their consequences, as we have seen with the recent public inquiry into the decision to go to war in Iraq.

We are now told that implementation will not be subject to further votes in Parliament but can be conducted under the Royal Prerogative. This will be tested in court but it does rank alongside the crude use of state power in countries like Turkey. We have agreed that the country will no longer go to war without a vote in Parliament, which raises questions about the legitimate scope of the Royal Prerogative much beyond its occasional use to issue pardons for people who have been wrongly convicted. Our representatives will not have a further opportunity to make a judgement on the country’s future and the choice between a status quo that has benefitted us for more than 40 years and whatever package can be hastily cobbled together by a low-calibre ministerial team and their temporary workers.

Some of the passive response of the Remainers is undoubtedly just a reflection of liberal distaste for conflict. Much of it, I suspect, has to do with several generations where all political problems have been defined as personal, where individual preferences and identities have trumped collective action. If you don’t like Brexit, you can use the grace period of free movement to take your start-up to Berlin, Paris or Barcelona. Of course, an increased outflow of young, entrepreneurial graduates is one way to reduce the net migration figures – although it may be balanced by an influx of elderly retirees looking for the health and social care that is less available to them in other states. It is, of course, not clear who will look after them when they arrive in the UK, unless there are draconian welfare sanctions to force low-skilled workers into jobs they have previously declined to accept.

If you do not want Brexit, however, you do need to challenge the governability of the country in a more collective way. Our constitution is sometimes described as an elective dictatorship that gives one party considerable authority to impose its programme following elections. This does not equate to the right of narrow majorities to tyrannize minorities. Representative democracy is also a means of producing consensus and delivering legitimacy, both of which are commodities in short supply after the referendum.

This means developing a movement that can sustain a winter of street action, mobilizing the 16 million who voted Remain and, especially, the 4 million who signed a petition asking for a chance to think again. We need to fill the streets of the cities that backed Remain to remind our representatives that we also have a right to be heard and considered. This is not a call for street violence, but it is a call to revisit some of the lessons of the 1960s. As the Situationists presciently observed, a society whose self-understanding is dominated by the spectacle presented back by its mass media, can only be challenged by rival spectacles. We need to create and stage events that the media cannot ignore, that force the case for Remain to stay on the public and political agenda, and challenge the narrative of inevitability that is currently being constructed and imposed.

Brexit is not a done deal – unless the apathy of well-behaved liberals allows it to be.


Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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Rita Schepers
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Rita Schepers

An excellent article.

Tammy Hervey
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Tammy Hervey

Thoughtful as ever and I don’t disagree. But I’m interested in the real spatiality of your proposal, given that so much of the pre-referendum debates (which continue) were conducted virtually. Why did the media pay attention to the virtual then, but won’t now?

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