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The response of the intellectuals to the 2016 Brexit referendum

Written by Robert Tombs

This is a shortened version of a paper recently given to a conference at the European Parliament on ‘Populisms and the EU’. Prof Tombs was in a minority of one in treating pro-EU sentiments critically, and in suggesting that ‘anti-Brexitism’, as a demagogic explanation of all Britain’s present problems, had itself become a simplistic form of populism.

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The reaction in Britain to the referendum result in 2016 was extraordinary, particularly in London and university towns: consternation, grief, anger, alarm.  Eight years later, I still get dropping into my inbox every month articles by British and overseas academics purporting to analyse and provide insights into the referendum and its consequences, invariably seen as pathological.  The aim of this paper is to trace the main themes in the responses of leading public intellectuals, including commentators, academics and writers to what they considered populism—even ‘among the worst of the current worldwide horde of nationalist populisms’, in the words of Professor Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at Oxford, and a frequent and vehement commentator.[1]  Let me say in passing that I do not accept that the Brexit vote was ‘populist’: it represented a majority of the country, and aimed to defend national institutions, most obviously parliament.  If it later tended towards ‘populism’ (if we see one meaning of that term as a revolt against the elite) it was because of that elite’s attempt to stifle or reverse the referendum result.

The electorate had chosen to Leave, but those running the country emphatically disagreed.  Three-quarters of Members of Parliament had supported Remain, including most Conservative MPs.[2]  A substantial number of Remain voters (estimated at 10-20 percent of the electorate[3]) refused to accept the referendum verdict.  The intelligentsia, from actors to academics, participated volubly in the national quarrel.  They were overwhelmingly Remain (nearly 90 percent of academics, for example[4]).  Over-representation in the media, especially the BBC, gave them ample opportunity to stoke controversy.

Rapidly, intellectuals produced a range of arguments to discredit the biggest vote in British history.  The issue was too complex for the electorate.  It was too difficult, some declared, for democracy itself: when the wrong people formed the majority it was mere ‘populism’.  Leave voters were dismissed as ignorant (‘low-information’), poor (‘left behind’), bigoted, and gullible dupes of the tabloid press, the Russians, and ‘silver-tongued demagogues such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’ (Garton Ash again).[5]  Leavers were anyway old: depriving the young of their promised land, ‘driven by nostalgia’–this became a key Remainer theme—’for a world where passports were blue, faces were white and the map was coloured imperial pink’, in the words of the Liberal Democrat party leader Sir Vince Cable.[6]  It became common to describe Brexit supporters as ‘gammon’.  Many would soon die, so their vote was invalid, and should be cancelled or re-run.  If both sides sometimes used inflammatory language, only that attacking Leave voters was biological.

This overwhelmingly hostile reaction to the vote was not based on a positive case for EU membership.  A recent monograph by Adam Fagan and Stijn van Kessel, The Failure of Remain,[7] identified this as the fundamental weakness of the ‘Remain/Rejoin’ movement.  Remain campaigners had no response to worries about sovereignty and immigration, and no shared view about how Britain could rejoin the EU and on what terms.[8]  In short, they were ‘anti-Brexit’ rather than ‘pro-EU’, and had little to say about the EU itself.  As they understood it, Brexit was not about the EU, but about Britain, and especially England.  The many publications that have appeared since 2016—several by established academics, prominent novelists or well-known media commentators—nearly all share the assumption of English exceptionalism: that England is different from all the other ‘Europeans’.  This is the main unifying thread of what I would call ‘anti-Brexitism’.

However, this exceptionalist assumption was an elementary error, which undermines the main intellectual response to Brexit ‘populism’.  British views of the EU were in no way exceptional.  In 2016, the percentage expressing a broadly ‘unfavourable’ view of the EU was 46% in the Netherlands, 48% in Britain, 48% in Germany and 49% in Spain; far more took a negative view in France (61%) and Greece (71%).  On economic policy, many countries expressed greater ‘disapproval’ of the EU than the UK (55%), including Sweden (59%), Spain (65%), France (66%), Italy (68%) and Greece (92%).[9]  A majority in France wanted a referendum on membership,[10] and President Macron said they would ‘probably’ have voted to leave.[11]  Far more people in France thought the EU was bad for France (38%) than good (24%).[12]  In brief, there was no British or English ‘exceptionalism’.  But anti-Brexit intellectuals were apparently oblivious to this.

Voting Leave, they thought, must be an English psychological aberration, not a rational political choice.  In a book acclaimed by Remainers (it was a Times Book of the Year), a prominent Irish commentator, Fintan O’Toole, saw ‘the Brexit psychodrama’ as a product of ‘the English reactionary imagination’.[13]  He proposed as evidence the success of the sado-masochistic novel Fifty Shades of Grey—apparently forgetting that the book (which sold 125 million copies world-wide) had also been a best-seller all across the EU, not least in Ireland.

There were, admittedly, a few attempts by bemused intellectuals to try to understand England, which they suddenly realized was a mystery to them.  J.D. Taylor set off to explore the country on a bicycle.[14]  James Meek, a novelist and journalist, also travelled around the country to understand what he called ‘dreams of leaving and remaining’, but he could not escape the assumption that Remainers were rational and Leavers deluded.  Revealingly, when a farmer told him that Brexit might damage farming but ‘there are more important things than farming,’ he could not understand what could be more important than personal economic interest.[15]

I have already mentioned several academics who took a vocal part in the national quarrel, but I want now to look in more detail at prominent academic responses.  There is no doubt that most academics were anti-Brexit.  One cannot discount institutional pressure to conform, or at least to be silent.  Vice-chancellors collectively spoke of their corporate interests.  Much emphasis was given to EU research funding, although the UK in fact contributed more that it received.  When historian Sir Noel Malcolm worked this out from the rather opaque official statistics, the University of Cambridge repeatedly declined to publish his findings.[16]  One leading Left-wing intellectual, Perry Anderson, compared censorship at Cambridge with ‘the Writers’ Union under Brezhnev.’[17]  Institutional pressure made vulnerable younger academics cautious about speaking out.[18]  So did pressure from colleagues and even from family members.  The philosopher Professor John Gray has recently lamented that in the ‘post-liberal societies of the West, anyone who openly deviates from progressive ideology risks being erased from their professions.  Leading figures can withstand the pressure [but] the resulting conformity is impressive.’[19]

Even among serious academics, nostalgia became the favoured explanation of Brexit: especially nostalgia for empire and/or for the Second World War.  Professor Robert Gildea, professor of Modern European History at Oxford, explained Brexit as ‘the anguish of losing an empire and the fantasy of recovering it,’ and Professor Timothy Garton Ash blamed ‘English post-imperial delusions of grandeur.’[20]  Danny Dorling, Professor of Human Geography at Oxford, in a book co-written with Sally Tomlinson (of the Department of Education in Oxford) similarly assert that Brexit is ‘the last vestiges of empire working their way out of the British psyche’.[21]  As well as being perhaps the only people to blame Brexit on ‘a patriotic BBC’, Dorling and Tomlinson diagnosed ‘nostalgia for a time when … Britain could simply get rich by killing people of colour and stealing their stuff.’[22]

No discussion of the EU itself.  The philosopher John Gray commented that ‘among all the embarrassingly hackneyed investigations of the post-imperial English psyche … that litter the liberal media, you will struggle to find any reference to the dark forces that are shaping European politics’.[23]  Professor Richard Tuck, Professor of Government at Harvard, made the equally obvious point that the social groups supporting Brexit were those that historically had been least supportive of empire, and he suggested that it was support for the EU that was underpinned by ‘imperial nostalgia’.[24]

Despite such criticism, ‘nostalgia’ remained the principal ingredient of anti-Brexit analysis.  A cultural historian at Cambridge, Hannah Rose Woods, wrote a whole book on it, entitled Rule Nostalgia: A Backwards History of Britain.  For her, almost everything in British history is a manifestation of a unique nostalgia.  Protestantism is nostalgia for primitive Christianity.  Catholicism—also nostalgia.  Admiration for the Classics: nostalgia.  Building Palladian country houses, ditto; and Gothic Revival ones too.  Modern art and sexual liberation have nostalgia lurking in the background.  Almost every reference to the past she labels ‘Nostalgia’.  Bernard Porter, emeritus professor of Modern History at Newcastle (for whom Brexit supporters, when not moved by ‘plain stupidity’, are fascists) takes a similar view in Britain’s Contested History.  His fundamental assertion is that Britain is uniquely obsessed with its past, similar to Woods’s assumption that Britain or England are uniquely nostalgic.  Neither Porter nor Woods attempts to argue the case.  How could they?  One does not need to know much about other European countries to realize that interest in and emotions about the past are universal.  Protestantism, Classicism, Romanticism, ruralism, the Gothic Revival and so on are not in any meaningful sense British.  Limiting oneself to British examples and ignoring everywhere else, as these authors did, cannot disguise that obvious fact.  The European Union itself is founded on obsessions with the past.  But unless these authors—like nearly all anti-Brexit authors—insist that Britain is the exception to a European norm, their explanations make no sense.  This is their elementary intellectual failing.

Not all British intellectuals were anti-Brexit.  Whether or not they had voted to Leave, they considered the vote rational and legitimate.  The leading Left-wing political philosopher Perry Anderson wrote a series of long and excoriating attacks on the EU – its history, institutions and personnel.[25]  He summed it up as ‘dilute sovereignty without meaningful democracy, compulsory unanimity without participant equality, cult of free markets without care of free trade.’  The conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton prioritized the nation: ‘a society held together by trust between strangers’, the bedrock of tolerance, democracy and inclusivity.  He regretted that many Remainers seemed animated by ‘repudiation of home—the turning away from the inherited first-person plural’, and he argued that Britain always had been and remained part of true European culture.[26]  John Gray, also a philosopher and Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, wrote mordant political commentaries amounting to a critique of neo-liberalism, of which he identified the EU as a pillar.  He criticised the ‘fellow traveller’ mentality of pro-EU intellectuals: ‘The ease with which fellow-travellers pass over the casualties of the regimes with which they identify is one of their defining traits … They are attracted by any large political experiment that seems to prefigure a new order of things.’[27]  Professor Richard Tuck, a historian of ideas at Harvard, provided similarly incisive commentary on post-Brexit politics.  A Cambridge economist, Graham Gudgin, demonstrated the exaggerations of anti-Brexit economic analyses beginning with the notorious ‘Project Fear’.[28]  Matthew Goodwin, youthful Professor of Politics at Kent, attempted to explain ‘populism’.[29]  Christopher Bickerton, Professor of Modern European Politics at Cambridge, provided a critical model of the EU system, in which former nation states were reduced to dependent ‘member states’.[30]  Sir Vernon Bogdanor, Britain’s leading constitutional expert, hoped that Brexit, ‘a new beginning’, might catalyse constitutional reform.[31]  Sir Paul Collier, an economist at Oxford, who had voted Remain but accepted Leave, wrote of the need for an ‘economics of belonging’ which after Brexit must redress the inequalities created by a globalized metropolitan culture.[32]  Several of these writers draw on the most seminal work published in the wake of the referendum, David Goodhart’s analysis of ‘Somewhere’ and ‘Anywhere’ people, which is not solely about Brexit, though its arguments substantiate Leave as necessary for ‘a new settlement’ in Britain.[33]  Yet, to repeat, these voices, however distinguished, were a small minority.

Among historians, Professors David Reynolds and Brendan Simms (both of Cambridge) gave reasoned support to the Remain cause, emphasising the long relationship of the British Isles with the Continent.[34]  A third Cambridge historian (full disclosure: it was me!) traced the same story.[35]  We all three emphasise the importance of the British Isles’ continental relationships, but reach different conclusions.  Reynolds regretted Brexit on the orthodox Remainer ground that Britain is thereby weakened and marginalized.  Simms feared Brexit on opposite grounds: that the loss of Britain (which he calls ‘the last European Great Power’) and its influence (‘fundamentally different and more benign’) is disastrous for European security and for the European project itself.  I think they both underestimate the transformation brought about by Britain’s three-century relationship with the world outside Europe, which is why I differ from them.

If academics—with exceptions—generated more polemic than analysis, writers of fiction were certainly no better at understanding what was going on around them.  Not all admittedly were as blindly angry as the novelist Ian McEwen, writing after the referendum:

A gang of angry old men … are shaping the future of the country against the inclinations of its youth.  By 2019 the country could be in a receptive mood: 2.5 million over-18-year-olds, freshly franchised and mostly remainers; 1.5 million oldsters, mostly Brexiters, freshly in their graves.[36] 

It is unusual in a democracy to look forward to the death of one’s opponents.  It is rare too for confident predictions to be quite so wrong as this one.

McEwen, a holder of the uniquely prestigious award of Companion of Honour, and hailed by the conservative Daily Telegraph as one of the most powerful figures in British culture, also dashed off a slight and unfunny satire roughly based on Kafka, with an unnamed Boris Johnson and his cabinet turning into cockroaches.  Julian Barnes, the elegant francophile essayist (winner of the Booker Prize, the leading British literary prize) repeated Remainer clichés, deploring Britain’s ‘deluded, masochistic departure from the European Union’.  Ali Smith (winner of the Orwell Prize for Fiction and described as ‘Scotland’s Nobel laureate in waiting) and Kate Atkinson (winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year award) dropped anti-Brexit asides into novels about other things.  Atkinson made the villains in her novel Big Sky Brexiteers, although their business (sex trafficking East Europeans) would logically make them enthusiasts for Free Movement.  Jonathan Coe (a winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Prix Médicis and the Costa Book Award) wrote Middle England, a novel in which nice people were Remainers and Brexiteers were old, bigoted and manipulated by sinister forces; however, it ended on a cheerful note as Brexiteers die and nice Remainers flee Birmingham for sunny Provence, where they consume ‘huge bowls of salade Niçoise … steaming pots of ratatouille made with fresh Provençal courgettes [and] an endless supply of red wine’ — the bourgeois British ideal of life in the EU.

Families and friendships were strained after 2016.  ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ replaced other political banners: by mid-2019, 88 percent of the public identified with one side or the other, and 72 percent did so strongly or fairly strongly.[37]

Yet Sir Paul Collier suggests that the divide was not as deep as it seemed: if Britain had been outside the EU and its people had been asked in 2016 if they wished to join, the answer he thinks would have been ‘an overwhelming consensus for “out”.’[38]  Moreover, on political, social and cultural issues, Remain voters were little different from Leavers: including on immigration, equality, ethnicity and national identity.[39]  The Brexit controversy did not expose a previously unrecognized gulf between two nations: it created one.

Now, in 2024, Brexit is no longer an obsession.  The public seems tired of the issue.  Politicians tend to avoid it.  Leaving the EU has not done the economic or diplomatic damage that its opponents predicted; nor has it brought the benefits its supporters hoped.  But it has caused lasting political divisions, including within the structures of the state, and disrupted political loyalties in the country.  The Conservative Party, split between Leave and Remain, despite being arguably the most successful political party in European history, is threatened with near extinction in the general election on 4 July.

For the more radical elements of the Left, anti-Brexitism has become one of a set of ideological shibboleths colloquially described as ‘woke’.  There is no strong connection between the EU and anti-racism, ‘decolonization’, trans-genderism, ‘green’ radicalism, and now pro-Palestinian activism.  But this set of issues has in common with anti-Brexitism the rejection of traditional identities and sentiments.  The accepted term is ‘intersectionality’; and the journalist Mary Harrington has christened it the ‘Omnicause’.  It reminds me of the Czech novelist Milan Kundera: ‘what makes a leftist a leftist is not this or that theory but his ability to integrate any theory into the kitsch called the Grand March’.

……

To conclude, if we wish to understand more than superficially the intellectual responses to 2016 and what has followed, we have to look beyond politics and economics into the realms of what are now called the ‘culture wars’ and identity politics.  The great majority of the intelligentsia opposed Brexit bitterly, but without being much interested in the EU—the paradox brought out by Fagan and van Kessel.  The anti-Brexit intelligentsia rejects what it thinks Brexit stands for: namely, a popular revival of the nation state, condemned as archaic, absurd, xenophobic, racist, and ‘White’.  John Gray comments that ‘the progressive mind detests national identity with passionate intensity.’[40]  Many have recalled George Orwell’s famous comment in 1940: ‘England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality.’[41]  This, surely, rather than assessment of practical advantages and disadvantages of EU membership, characterizes the reflex anti-Brexitism of much of the intelligentsia, and links it with other elements of the ‘Omnicause’.

To summarize, anti-Brexitism features one absence, one paradox, and one trope.  The absence is the EU: rarely discussed and hardly ever analysed.  The paradox is intellectual insularity: ‘Europhiles’ seem oblivious of attitudes and developments in Europe.  The trope is that Brexit was essentially a manifestation of Englishness: its nostalgia, xenophobia, delusions and failures.

Anti-Brexitism has become part of the nihilistic ‘Omnicause’ of the radical Left, which in recent years has seized a huge influence in British cultural life and in national institutions.  Roger Scruton saw it as a repudiation of ‘anything that makes a claim, even justified, on their loyalty’, and the economist Paul Collier feared that ‘well educated metropolitans’ were unwinding their obligations towards poorer fellow citizens in the name of ‘Europeanism’.[42]  Mary Harrington takes an equally pessimistic view: ‘there is now very little elite support for the geographically and politically bounded democratically governed nation state that Brexit voters sought to defend.’[43]  If this is true, years of political debate and turmoil have been for nothing, and the democratic impulse of 2016 has been stifled.

Or—less alarmingly—perhaps the years of turmoil simply show the difficulty of extracting Britain from half-a-century of European integration.  It became clear in the years after the referendum how much of a struggle was needed to turn a ‘member state’ (whose elites derive legitimacy and advantage from relationships with the other states) back into a ‘nation-state’ (where legitimacy is conferred by the national electorate).[44]

The outcome is still in the balance.

There is a final irony.  Anti-Brexitism has become itself a form of Left-wing populism: it is, as the journalist Tom McTague puts it, ‘an easy and ultimately populist explanation for Britain’s current woes.’[45]  This reflects the failure of most intellectuals to understand the Brexit vote, or more precisely their refusal to do so.  In consequence, as the EU turns increasingly to the populist Right, as the disadvantages of EU membership become clearer, the British Isles are turning to the populist Left, in the belief that Brexit has failed.  When will the penny drop?

[1]               Timothy Garton Ash in the Guardian, 10 Sept. 2019

[2]               BBC News, 22 June 2016

[3]               Stephen Davies, The Economics and Politics of Brexit: The Realignment of British Public Life (American Institute for Economic Research, 2020)p 133

[4]               Times Higher Education, 16 June 2016

[5]               Timothy Garton Ash in the Guardian, 14 December 2019

[6]               Sir Vince Cable, Liberal Democrat leader, speech at party conference, 11 March 2018.

[7]               The Failure of Remain: Anti-Brexit activism in the United Kingdom (McGill-Queen’s, 2023)

[8]               Fagan and van Kessel, The Failure of Remain

[9]               Pew Research Centre, ‘Euroscepticism beyond Brexit’; Eurobarometer polls give a similar picture.

[10]              Le Monde, 12 March 2016

[11]              Andrew Marr Show, BBC 1, 21 Jan 2018

[12]              Institut Montaigne, ‘Les Français et l’Union européenne’, 4 Oct. 2018

[13]              Fintan O’Toole, Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain (London, Head of Zeus, 2019)

[14]              J.D. Taylor, Island Story: Journeys Through Unfamiliar Britain (London, Repeater Books, 2016)

[15]              James Meek, Dreams of Leaving and Remaining (London, Verso, 2019) p 104

[16]              See ‘Brexit and Science Funding: What Exactly is the Problem?’ Briefings for Brexit (30 Oct. 2018) https://briefingsforbritain.co.uk/brexit-and-science-funding-what-exactly-is-the-problem/

[17]              Perry Anderson, in New Left Review, 125 (Sept-Oct 2020)

[18]              Several young academics brave enough to support Leave openly wrote on websites such as The Full Brexit and Briefings for Brexit; we advised those without secure positions not to use their names.

[19]              John Gray, ‘These Times’, New Statesman 12-18 April 2024 p 22

[20]             Robert Gildea, Empires of the Mind: The Colonial Past and the Politics of the Present (Cambridge UP, 2019) p 260; Garton Ash in the Guardian, 14 December 2019

[21]              Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson, Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire (London, Biteback Publishing, 2019)

[22]             Rule Britannia p 3

[23]             John Gray, ‘Brexit has left the British political class trapped in its own history’, New Statesman ,13 March 2019

[24]             Richard Tuck, The Left Case for Brexit (Cambridge, Polity, 2020) p 145

[25]             Perry Anderson, ‘The European coup’, LRB 17 Dec. 2020; ‘Ever closer union?’ 7 Jan 2020; ‘The Breakaway’ 21 Jan 2021

[26]             Roger Scruton, Where We Are: The State of Britain Now (London, Bloomsbury, 2017)

[27]             New Statesman, 8 May 2017

[28]             Tuck, The Left Case for Brexit; Gudgin et al (2018), How the Economics Profession Got it Wrong on Brexit CBR Cabridge WP493 .

[29]             Eatwell and Goodwin, National Populism

[30]             Christopher Bickerton, The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide (London, Penguin, 2016)

[31]              Vernon Bogdanor, Beyond Brexit: Towards a British Constitution (London, I.B. Tauris, 2019)

[32]             Paul Collier, ‘Getting Somewhere’, Prospect (August-September 2020); and see Paul Collier and John Kay, Greed is Dead: Politics after Individualism (London, Allen Lane, 2020)

[33]             David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics (London, Hurst, 2017)

[34]             David Reynolds, Island Stories: Britain and its History in the Age of Brexit (London, William Collins, 2019); Brendan Simms, Britain’s Europe: A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation (London, Penguin, 2017)

[35]             This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe (London, Penguin, 2022)

[36]             The Guardian, 12 May 2017

[37]             Davies, The Economics and Politics of Brexit p 188

[38]             TLS, 30 Sept. 2016, p 13

[39]             See Clarke, Goodwin and Whitely, Brexit 99-103, 153-70; Goodhart, Road to Somewhere pp 20, 56-64, 119-22

[40]             Gray, ‘Why this crisis is a turning point in history’, New Statesman

[41]              George Orwell, Essays (Penguin, 2000) p 155

[42]             Roger Scruton, Where We Are: The State of Britain Now (London, Bloomsbury, 2017) p. 89; Paul Collier, ‘Achieving socio-economic convergence in Europe’, Intereconomics 55 (2022) p 5

[43]             Mary Harrington, ‘Why the nation state failed’, UnHerd, May 2023

[44]             Chris Bickerton, European Integration: From Nation States to Member States (Oxford UP, 2012)

[45]             Tom McTague, ‘Farage’s army is on the march: In Great Yarmouth a rebel force is stirring’, UnHerd, 8 June 2024

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About the author

Robert Tombs