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Review: Kevin O’Rourke’s “A Short History of Brexit: From Brentry to Backstop”

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Importantly, he notes that it was initially the Conservative party that embraced European integration and the Labour Party which vehemently opposed it.”

Introduction 

The tipping point in the emergence of post-modern conservatism worldwide was 2016. The most spectacular example was, of course, Trump’s election to the most powerful office in the world, despite losing the popular vote to his rival by a considerable degree. No less significant was the Brexit Referendum, where a slim majority of voters cast a ballot for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. Since then, British politics has been defined by chaos and unpredictability, with a snap election and constant political shuffling being unable to bring back a semblance of order. At the request of the British government, the deadline for Brexit has been consistently pushed back. Right now, barring unforeseen developments, the United Kingdom is set to finally leave the European Union on October 31st unless a new deal is sorted out. This, of course, has implications for the forthcoming race to replace Theresa May as head of the Conservative Party and, ultimately, Prime Minister. At the moment, the hardliner Boris Johnson seems poised to seize the top job, though he may come to regret that given his party’s collapsing support in the polls. If he comes to power, that may send a clear signal to citizens and the European Union that the United Kingdom is leaving in October one way or another. But it also remains very possible that this could trigger an economic downturn in a country that has already suffered immensely at the mere prospect of leaving the Eureaopn Union. 

The Lead Up to Brexit

Kevin O’Rourke’s book is a timely and even-handed analysis of how the United Kingdom reached such a calamitous point. O’Rourke is currently Professor of Economic History at Oxford University, and, as such, his analysis leans heavily on economic explanations for the referendum and subsequent turmoil. But O’Rourke is also Irish, meaning the book also pays particularly close attention to the impact of Brexit for both the Republic of Ireland—and Norther Ireland, which remains part of the United Kingdom. The story he paints is not pretty, as one gets the sense many Brexiters were either profoundly ignorant of the impact leaving the EU might have on a historically fragmented region. Or, worse, they simply did not care.  

For a book on Brexit, surprisingly little of the text actually focuses on recent events. The entire first half of the book is taken up by a history of European integration from the Second World War onwards. While this material is always informative and helpful, it also seems a little general and unfocused given the topic of the book. O’Rourke’s text really kicks into high gear around Chapter Four, where he starts to hone in on the lukewarm British relationship with an ever more unified European continent. O’Rourke observes how the project of European unification was greeted with equal parts concern and applause by the United Kingdom. Winston Churchill called for the formation of a United States of Europe in 1946 and consistently argued for British cooperation with a more unified continent, though he did not believe Britain should necessarily be part of that body. Part of his support for a United States of Europe was motivated by a concern for generating economic prosperity, which is the main focus of O’Rourke’s analysis. But Churchill also gestures to the desire to secure Europe against Soviet attack, as well as the more geopolitical concern of retaining Europe’s power and prestige relative to an ascendant United States. 

Of course, the course of true love never runs smooth, and O’Rourke points out that many British officials were far more skeptical. Importantly, he notes that it was initially the Conservative party that embraced European integration and the Labour Party which vehemently opposed it. This was because the Conservatives saw integration as generating economic opportunities for British businesses, while the Labour Party saw it as a threat to workers and the nationalization of the economy. Things began to change in the 1990’s, when Margaret Thatcher entered the European Single Market, which was a major move towards a more supranational continent. This enthusiasm soured as some Conservatives began to worry that the country was ceding too much control to Europe, leading to a split between Europhiles and Euroskeptics, which persists to this day. At the same time the Labour Party under Tony Blair abandoned its commitment to nationalization of the economy and gradually came to embrace the internationalism associated with neoliberalism. 

At the same time, the United Kingdom found itself dealing with the seemingly insolvable crisis in Northern Ireland. The roots of the “Troubles” go back centuries, with Ireland being gradually conquered by a sequence of British military expeditions. British rule of Ireland was infamously harsh, helping foment a movement to independence in the early 20th century. Unfortunately for those hoping for the new Irish state to encompass the entire island, the Northern mostly Protestant counties were committed to remaining within the United Kingdom. This lead to a divided Ireland that was wracked by constant violence and conflict between militant groups and the British army. A peace was finally reached in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement, where Irish militants agreed to lay down their arms in return for amnesties and a right to political participation. One of the most important conditions for the Good Friday Agreement was establishing a very open border between the Republic of Ireland and the North, which was relatively easy at the time given that both the United Kingdom and the Republic were committed to the further integration of all European states generally. 

The Brexit Crisis

This brings us to Brexit, which O’Rourke analyzes for the second half of the book.  O’Rourke acknowledges that there is a, “raging debate today in both Britain and the United States regarding whether Brexit and Trump reflect ‘economics’ or ‘culture.’” Understandably, O’Rourke focuses on the former explanation, though whether that is because he believes it is a better explanation or because it is simply his area of expertise is unclear. O’Rourke observes that in many Western countries, including large swathes of the United Kingdom, the real wages of many workers have been stagnating or declining for decades now. This development has gone hand in hand with the rollback of state programs designed to help individuals in society. These measures became particularly severe in the aftermath of the 2008 Recession, where governments—including Prime Minister David Cameron’s government in the United Kingdom—implemented harsh austerity measures, while bailing out large financial and international institutions. Compounded by rapidly increasing inequality, fertile ground was laid for citizens to want radical changes to the status quo. As O’Rourke puts it:

“Austerity created the conditions in which that red campaign bus, with its promise to bring back money from Brussels and invest it in the health services, was so effective.  There is a considerable irony here, and also an important cautionary tale. The irony is that, presumably, when the Conservatives came to power in 2010 they thought that it would be a good idea to shrink the state because this would be beneficial for business: less state, lower taxes, greater competitiveness. But what they actually achieved was the greatest catastrophe to hit British business since the war.” 

These points bring to mind the observations of economists like Amartya Sen about the dangers in allowing too much inequality and impoverishment for the sake of overall economic growth. Economic growth means little in and of itself; what matters is how this impacts the lives of individual citizens and future generations. Too many figures assumed that as long as the economy was doing well, the people must also be thriving. These presuppositions became even more tragic when the same kind of reasoning assumed that if the people need to suffer for the economy to recover, this was the only possible course. The reality was that for many individuals the post-Golden Age of neoliberalism was one of declining optimism and growing anger at the unfairness of the system. O’Rourke rightly draws our attention to the fact that if the economy doesn’t work for everyone—or, for that matter, a growing plurality and even majority of people, it makes no sense to say it works at all. Rapid or steady GDP growth means little if all the benefits and more go to the top, while everyone else at the bottom simply has to find a way to get by. 

The remainder of O’Rourke’s book focuses on the Brexit negotiations up until the end of 2018, with particular focus paid to Ireland. Here, O’Rourke is uncharacteristically aggressive, as he highlights the hubris and even delusional quality of Brexiter’s reasoning prior to the negotiations. One particular point of emphasis is on a British officials’ November 2016 quip that the United Kingdom wanted to have its cake and eat it too. They wanted to keep the elements of European integration the United Kingdom benefitted from, chuck all the responsibilities, and reassert just how important Britain was. 

The end result of this Cakeist negotiating philosophy is well-known. At every turn, the European Union has stipulated that the United Kingdom will not get the benefits of being part of a united Europe without paying its dues and accepting the responsibilities of member states. In particular, O’Rourke highlights how British officials were shocked that the European negotiating team seemed more concerned with the interests of the Republic of Ireland than the United Kingdom. When Theresa May declared that, “one country cannot hold up progress” and that the United Kingdom was a, “much bigger and much more important country than Ireland” she was promptly told that Ireland was a member of the Union and Britain was leaving. There would be no deal unless the Irish were satisfied, which proved a major problem since the Republic was insistent on maintaining an open border with the North. This posed immense practical and ideological problems for hard Brexiters, since an open border with Ireland effectively meant an open border with the European Union. By contrast demanding a hard border—which everyone claimed not to want—meant no trade deal with the European Union and quite possibly the resumption of violent secessionist activities in Northern Ireland.

Conclusion 

O’Rourke’s book is not notable for its humor, but it is impossible not to read it and marvel at the black comedy on display throughout. While primarily an economic history, the economy is ultimately driven by people. And there is a very human story to tell. The picture O’Rourke paints is of an arrogant and fantastical political class, which had no business running an elementary school, let alone a country. It badly mismanaged the economy and social policy, generating ever worsening inequality and poverty. Then, without much care or concern, the Conservative party initiated a referendum on remaining in Europe it felt sure it would win. David Cameron and others were largely blind or indifferent to the possibility that such an effort, compounded by their own policies, might well split the party and the government—if an impoverished people did not vote the way they were supposed to. Once the election results emerged, this same political class laughably assumed it was still the 19th century and the United Kingdom could simply bull its way to a deal with an economic Union vastly larger and richer than it was. More infuriating still is how this political class constantly underestimated the importance of smaller countries like Ireland, compounding centuries old resentments at British tyranny. The end result was a farce, with Prime Minister Theresa May finally delivering a deal so unpopular it was rejected in the largest defeat for a sitting British government in history

A Short History of Brexit may not cover all dimensions of this development. But it is a worthy guide to some of the most important, delivered with scholarly care and not a little warmth. O’Rourke is in many respects the picture of a model academic, and his personal inclinations rarely influence his analysis of the facts directly. But it is clear that O’Rourke remains deeply affected by what has happened, and is especially concerned about the impact it may have for the young Republic of Ireland. After reading his book, it is hard not to share O’Rourke’s sense of tragicomedy.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at mattmcmanus300@gmail.com or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf

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Clive Pinder
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Clive Pinder

Once again your inherent dogma and bias causes you to deliver a narrative full of self-serving selective facts, and some plain silly ones. From the very beginning of your propaganda (Brexit is wrongheaded) you say that Brexit passed by a “slim majority” while Trump lost the popular vote by a “considerable degree”. Facts: Leavers won by 4%. Clinton beat Trump by 2.1%. So 4% is a slim margin and 2.1% a clear win! Then you go on to say in your next breath that the UK economy has “suffered immensely”. Facts: The UK economy has the lowest unemployment in recent… Read more »

Matthew McManus
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Matthew McManus

Firstly, virtually anyone would say a win by little more than a million votes with 70 per cent turnout is hardly a massive win. Clinton won the popular vote with over 2.87 million more people casting a ballot for her,which is the largest margin ever in US history for a candidate who lost the electoral college. That isn’t even including questions about voter suppression and direct disenfranchisement, which is well corroborated in the literature and is known to help Republicans in a country that increasingly votes Democrat. And if you want the real kicker, most Brits now say they would… Read more »

Clive Pinder
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Clive Pinder

Your sources are laughable and just provide further evidence that your mask of academic integrity is a complete facade. You turn to The Guardian and Vox to support your propaganda. Why not just admit that your essays are not a rigorous analysis of the issues, but merely a political rant. You completely ignore any evidence that doesn’t support your narrative. You have been exposed for the propagandist you are. I refer you again to the philosophy of the publication you write for and urge you to heed their creed if you are to retain any semblance of credibility: “there are… Read more »

Clive Pinder
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Clive Pinder

Any statistician will tell you that %s are a more reliable measure when comparing different data sets. 1.4 million as a % of the Brexit vote is about 4% which is twice the number in % terms than Clinton in the popular vote. Yet you still try to claim Clinton’s win was more significant. That alone is enough to prove your analysis is biased. But here are some more facts. The turnout in the Brexit vote, which you conveniently fail to mention was the largest plebiscite in the history of British elections, was 70%. The US election turnout was 58%.… Read more »