Archive for the ‘Culture and civil society’ Category

The Brexit car crash: using EH Carr’s What is History? to explain the result

Justin Frosini (Bocconi University) and Mark Gilbert (Johns Hopkins University) draw on EH Carr’s seminal What is History? to consider the root causes of Brexit. They identify three key factors: a British preoccupation with parliamentary sovereignty, the role of the media and the impact of migration from Central Europe.

The Brexit vote was the result of a confluence of several social and political causes – though the debate over parliamentary sovereignty, which burst into flame when Britain applied to join the ‘Common Market’ and has never been doused since, permeated all of them. The prolonged debate over sovereignty is crucial, since it explains why 17.4 million British citizens not only voted to leave, but in many cases manifestly rejected the EU even as an ideal.

The State Opening of Parliament in December 2019, shortly before the UK left the EU. Photo: UK Parliament. ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Why were so many British voters adamant that the EU was a superstate taking away fundamental rights? One answer might simply be that there are an awful lot of deluded nationalist bigots in Britain. But this is implausible. Brexit voters are ordinary, mostly lower middle and working class people who live in England’s rural towns and villages, the industrial heartland, the ports. They are Victor Meldrews, not Viktor Orbans. They voted for both John Major and Tony Blair not so long ago. Yet millions of them celebrated when Britain voted to leave in 2016 (and again on Brexit night in January 2020). Why?

The June 2016 referendum result was a car crash waiting to happen. We do not use the metaphor casually, since the methodological frame for our paper was provided by EH Carr’s use, in What is History?, of a road accident to explain historical causality. Carr examines the case of Robinson, who is knocked down while crossing at a blind corner where ‘visibility is notoriously poor’ by Jones, who is returning from a party where he has ‘consumed more than his usual ration of alcohol’, and is driving a car whose brakes are defective (Carr 1973: 104–5).

What is the cause of Robinson’s death? Jones’ drunkenness? The blind corner? The faulty brakes? The answer, of course, is that these causes fatefully combined. As Carr says, ‘the historian deals in a multiplicity of causes’ and the ‘relative significance of one cause or one set of causes or of another, is the essence of (a historian’s) interpretation’ (Carr 1973: 103). Most historians do ultimately identify one cause or set of causes that ‘in the final analysis’ they regard as overriding in any particular case (Carr 1973: 90). In the case of Brexit, the sovereignty debate is ours.

Of course, chance and human agency played a part in the accident, too. Jones might have knocked someone else down five minutes earlier. Robinson ought to have looked right and left before he crossed the road. Carr insisted, however, that we should not waste excessive time on happenstance. Scholars should construct their explanations primarily around ‘generalisable causes’. They should isolate the crucial socio-economic, intellectual, institutional, and political variables of any given case and suggest how they combined over time to produce a particular result.

The three generalisable causes that we concentrate on are

(1) the deep-rooted conviction that EU membership was incompatible with the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty;

(2) the role of the press;

(3) mass migration into a society that was already experiencing serious problems with social injustice.

We emphasise that the Brexiters’ slogan Take Back Control was a very effective way of summarising in plain English a 50-year debate about how entering the Common Market/European Union would adversely affect one of the pillars of the British constitutional system, i.e. parliamentary supremacy. Of course, this is not a debate unknown in other European countries (think of the judgment handed down by the German Federal Constitutional Court a few weeks ago), but it is particularly poignant in the UK because the sovereignty of Parliament has a similar significance to the British as postwar constitutions have for the Germans and Italians: though, of course, parliamentary sovereignty is centuries older and intrinsically bound up, for some, with a particular notion of British national identity. One of the huge paradoxes of Brexit, however, is that a campaign whose mainspring was giving back control to the British Parliament has damaged parliamentary sovereignty by enhancing popular sovereignty. In fact, mixing a classic representative democracy with an instrument of direct democracy such as a referendum gives rise to an unpalatable cocktail where the “taste” of direct democracy is overpowering. Whoever would have imagined the Daily Telegraph opening with the headline “Judges versus the people” after the famous High Court judgment concerning the triggering of Art. 50 TEU?

This leads us to the role of the press. We contend that, especially after the fall of Thatcher in 1990, the Eurosceptic press used a water torture method to disparage anything “European,” be it the European Commission, the Court of Justice of the European Union, or even the European Court of Human Rights, which of course is not even an EU body. Though some headlines were amusing if you share the British sense of humour, they were part of a strategy to intimate that British freedom was in peril. In a nutshell, the tabloids played an important part in achieving Brexit by raising the profile of the issue of lost sovereignty with public opinion.

Large-scale migration, in particular from CEE countries following the 2004 enlargement, was grist to the mill. Many British people believed that their government and parliament no longer controlled their country’s border. This sentiment was exploited during the referendum by an electoral poster, redolent of Nazi propaganda, showing an endless queue of refugees, and by fake news claims that Turkey was on the brink of joining the EU. Again, however, the issue of EU migration was not a compartmentalised cause, but one that added fuel to the burning question of parliamentary supremacy. Brexit was perceived to be about the most fundamental question of politics: who rules?

The reference to fake news underlines a key element of contingency in the Brexit process. The Brexiters were more ruthless and more committed than the Remainers. Farage, Johnson and Gove were ideologues and Machiavels. The Cameron government, by contrast, was complacent about the result and fearful of the damage a Remain vote would have done to party unity. The campaign swung decisive votes to the Brexit camp.

We acknowledge that the weight of causation might be placed elsewhere. In What is History? Carr argued that historical interpretation is like looking at a mountain: it looks different from every angle of vision (Carr 1973: 26–27). Cultural causes such as the English habit of defining themselves against a continental ‘Other’ (Spiering 2014), or the role of imperial nostalgia both mattered. The strange death of British social democracy mattered too. We mention David Goodhart’s emphasis on the cleavage between ‘Somewheres’ and ‘Anywheres’ (Goodhart 2017). These are all legitimate ‘generalisable causes’ which other scholars might weigh heavily in the balance.

We plead guilty to sketching the mountain from one angle in particular. But this angle is an important one, since the sense of liberation that many voters genuinely felt on 24 June 2016, and the tenacity with which Brexiters have since resisted compromise, is inexplicable unless you look at Brexit from this point of view.


Carr, EH (1973). What is History? London: Pelican.
Goodhart, D (2017). The Road to Somewhere, London: Penguin.
Spiering, M (2014). A Cultural History of British Euroscepticism, London: Palgrave.

This post represents the views of the authors and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.

Welsh independence: can Brexit awaken the sleeping dragon?

Wales is the only devolved nation within the UK that has never caused a stir in constitutional terms, to the UK’s territorial structure. This is because Welsh independence has remained largely a dormant political issue, both within Wales and within the wider UK context. Can Brexit awaken the sleeping dragon, asks Darryn Nyatanga (University of Liverpool)?

Brexit does present the opportunity to awaken real discussion on the potential of  Welsh Independence. This can be attributed to two reasons, firstly – independence could be the only way to ensure Welsh interests are met after Brexit. Also, there has been a growth in sub-state nationalism within the UK, exposed by the Brexit referendum and the withdrawal process, highlighting the point that the UK is united in name only.

Welsh nationalism

The agenda for Welsh independence can only arguably be pushed by a strong sense of nationalism. This is the case in both Scotland and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, nationalism has been spearheaded by the SNP. Scottish independence (and Scottish home rule – before the introduction of devolution in 1998) has long been the main objective for the SNP since its genesis. In the case of Northern Ireland, two main forms of national identity exist; British and Irish. The latter identity challenges the status quo of the UK’s unitary nature. Irish nationalism in political terms is spearheaded by Sinn Fein, who advocate for the constitutional status of Northern Ireland to change i.e. Irish (re) unification. Within the Welsh context, however, there is a deficiency in terms of nationalism when compared to the other devolved nations. This is not to say that Wales has no nationalism. Rather, Wales’ nationalism tends to be embedded in culture rather than institutional. Essentially, Welsh nationalism tends to focus on language and tradition, rather than the creation of separate Welsh political institutions. Evidence of this can be highlighted by the two referendums on Welsh devolution in 1979 and in 1997.

In order to bring into effect the provisions of the Wales Act 1978 , a referendum was held to ensure that there was support for the process. The Act required that at least 40 per cent of the Welsh electorate had to vote ‘yes’ in the referendum for its provisions to come into effect. On a turnout of 58.8 per cent, 79.7 per cent of those voted ‘no’ in the referendum. The ‘yes’ vote only accounted for 11.8 per cent of the electorate, which was far below the 40 per cent threshold. The vote was essentially 4 to 1 against devolution, with no single council area voting majority ‘yes’. The 1997 Welsh devolution referendum once again highlighted the lack of popularity among the electorate for Welsh devolution. On a turnout of 50.22 per cent, the narrow majority ‘yes’ result of 50.3 per cent only accounted for 25 per cent of the Welsh electorate voting in favour of devolution. Under the criteria of 1979, Wales would have failed to gain devolution in 1997, as the yes vote would have fallen well below the 40 per cent threshold. The referendum also split the nation in half, of the 22 council areas in Wales, 11 (mostly in the east) voted majority ‘no’, Cardiff included. It is key to note too that the desire by the Labour governments in the late 1970s and 1997 to introduce devolution to Wales was due to the developments in Scotland. Devolution to Scotland was introduced as a mean to mitigate the growth of Scottish nationalism.

Plaid Cymru and Welsh Independence

Despite the lack of support for institutional nationalism shown by the electorate, Wales does still have a nationalist party. Plaid Cymru (Party of Wales) was formed in 1926. When it was first established, the preservation and continuation of the Welsh language within Wales was its focus. Over time it has evolved to become a party that first advocated for Welsh home rule and now, Welsh independence. Electorally, Plaid Cymru are not as strong as the other nationalist parties in the devolved regions. The party won its first-ever Westminster parliamentary seat in 1966, and in the 2019 General election, the party managed to secure only 4 of the 40 Westminster seats in Wales. They operate fairly better within Senedd elections, however. In the 2016 Senedd election, they secured 12 of the 60 Assembly seats, making them the third-largest party in the assembly after Labour and the Conservatives. The party’s constitutional ambition for Wales after Brexit is very similar to that of the SNP for Scotland. However, just like the SNPs constitutional proposal, the ‘Barroso Doctrine’ would also apply to Wales. The doctrine is named after EU Commission President at the time, José Manuel Barroso who stated in a letter to Lord Tugendhat that “an independent Scotland would become a third country with respect to the EU, and would therefore need to apply for EU membership.” Therefore, an independent Wales would need to reapply for EU membership.

Plaid Cymru’s constitutional objectives

Under the current UK constitutional terms, Wales (and England) has no unilateral clause to secede from the Union and become Independent. In comparison, both Northern Ireland and Scotland (time-limited) have been granted such a right. With regard to the former, the constitutional basis of this right is found under the Good Friday Agreement 1998 and section 1 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. For Scotland, the constitutional basis of this right was granted temporarily via an Order in Council under Section 30 of the Scotland Acct 1998, for the purposes of holding a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014. While this does not legitimate achieving Welsh independence, Plaid Cymru’s constitutional objectives can still be achieved via the constitutional developments in Scotland. A Welsh government that is in favour of independence could negotiate with the UK government for similar powers granted to Scotland in 2014 to hold an independence referendum (this can be achieved via an Order in Council under section 109 of the Government of Wales Act 2006). The Scottish government are strongly arguing for powers from the UK government to hold a second referendum on independence (Indyref 2). The rationale behind the need for Indyref 2 is to ensure that, for the Scottish government, Scotland’s interests are met after Brexit.

Given that “discussion of Welsh politics usually takes place in the shadow of developments in Scotland,” the Welsh government in the instance that Scotland is allowed to hold indyref 2 could take inspiration from these developments and put a case for Welsh reciprocity. However, as been illustrated throughout the Brexit process, any devolved input has been nullified by the UK government. For instance, the government has refused to grant Holyrood a section 30 order to hold a second referendum on independence. More recently, as a result of the current public health pandemic, the Northern Ireland Assembly passed a motion to call for the extension of the transition period, in order to protect the region’s economic interests. Though, based on the subordinate nature of devolution, this motion is non-binding on the UK government. Those in favour of the motion, feel that the UK government has a greater obligation to honour it, considering that Stormont is a named party to the Withdrawal agreement, unlike Holyrood and the Senedd. Nevertheless, this is very unlikely to happen, especially given that the UK government recently pushed through the EU Withdrawal Agreement Act 2020, despite all three devolved regions (including Northern Ireland)  withholding legislative consent. The UK government are more likely to continue to ignore the views of the devolved regions over Brexit, and resume with their proposed agenda. Based on this then, the UK government may refuse to grant Welsh government independence by any legal means at its disposal.

Welsh public consensus on independence

Looking at recent polling carried out by YouGov, there has been an increase over time in Welsh public opinion for independence. For instance, support for Welsh independence rose from 14 per cent in 2014 to 21 per cent in 2020. The highest peak in support for Welsh independence was in the 2018 poll, at 23 per cent. Since the inception of this YouGov poll in 2014, the 2020 poll was the first time there had been a decrease in support for independence. In the 2016 poll, two follow up questions were asked in addition to the question on Independence. These included first, the break up of the Union as a result of Scottish independence, and second, Wales re-joining the EU as an independent state.  In that poll, 19 per cent were in support for Welsh independence, this increased to 24 per cent in the scenario that Scotland leaves the UK, and a further increase to 35 per cent in the instance that Wales re-joins the EU as an independent state. Essentially then, as highlighted by the 2016 poll, support for Welsh independence is influenced by both the constitutional developments in Scotland and  Brexit. Despite this, however, looking at the 2020 polling data, when asked about their constitutional preference for Wales, 24 per cent voted for the status quo, in comparison to 14 per cent who were in favour for independence. It is clear then from the polling data that there is a significant lack of public consensus within Wales for independence. Owing to the lack of public appetite, and lack of legal means to do so, it would be very difficult for any Welsh government in favour of independence to achieve this objective. However, fortunes could change as a result of the manifestation of Scottish independence and the conclusions of the Brexit process. For now, we are far away from seeing the reality of Welsh independence.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. Image by It’s No GameSome rights reserved.

History repeats itself: Brexit, Trump and the politics of unfinished conflict

When politicians deploy racist messaging in their campaigns, they exploit the politics of unfinished conflict. Jennifer Curtis (University of Edinburgh) has spent years researching two communities with troubled histories – west Belfast and Springfield, Missouri. She reflects on how communities can try to acknowledge and process past atrocities.

Pandemics have a way of displacing all other preoccupations. Although the implementation of Brexit has receded from public attention as COVID-19 wreaks human and economic devastation across the globe, the racist messaging of both the 2016 referendum and Trump’s campaign will have ramifications for both Britain and the US.

Both the Leave and Trump campaigns asserted a specific, ethnicised sovereignty against outsiders. Both campaigns relied heavily on online advertising, using social media – possibly illegally – to target voters with xenophobic and racist messages. Hate crimes rose in both England and Wales and the US during and after the elections.

My long-term ethnographic engagements in Belfast, Northern Ireland and the Ozarkian city of Springfield, Missouri reveal another salient comparison: that racist and xenophobic campaign messages exploited the politics of unfinished conflict, of race and nation, in both countries. Such exploitation creates huge risks for democracy. Both state and nation become more vulnerable to foreign disinformation campaigns, to the debasement of political processes and norms, to the reproduction of structural racialised inequalities, and, chillingly, to the intensification of violence. Long histories of racial and ethnic violence shape personal experiences and political action in both Northern Ireland and Missouri. These politics of unfinished conflict saturate contemporary politics, defining subjectivities in which race, class, gender, and religion intersect in complicated ways. When partisans exploit these politics, the risks of renewed violence increase, and systemic inequalities rooted in these conflicts are reproduced.

In the present global health emergency, racialised structural inequalities are even more apparent than usual, although the 2016 campaigns are a distant memory for many. In the UK, the Covid-19 death rate for BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) communities is “more than twice that of whites.” In the US, with people of colour over-represented in essential jobs, mass incarceration, and migrant detention, and with racial inequalities in access to healthcare, black Americans are also disproportionately dying from the virus. Similarly, the UK and US administrations of Johnson and Trump have responded far less effectively to the pandemic than other industrialised nations. Although some observers note that the UK public has responded to the pandemic with a greater sense of unity than the US, the disparities between Northern Ireland’s and Ireland’s pandemic responses once more underscore that the Irish border remains a stubborn problem for post-Brexit arrangements. The politics of unfinished conflict sustain these disparities, and continue to shape US and UK politics, institutions and electorates.

Seeing past the new and the now

“This is a symbolic burial of the past and proclamation for the future,” the mayor of
Springfield, Missouri declared at a 2013 event commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of
the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. His words were designed as
a strong rhetorical flourish, yet landed in a tone of mild platitude.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963. Photo: Mike Licht via a CC-BY-2.0 licence

In August 2013, cities and towns across the United States marked the fiftieth anniversary
of the 1963 march. In Springfield, about 1,500 citizens gathered in the city square
following a march. The mood had been genial, even festive, as elderly civil
rights activists mingled with young black students from the state university, city officials,
and LGBT rights advocates.

In a corner, four elderly members of a local black fraternal order, wearing fezzes and sashes, waited at a microphone to speak about local experiences of the civil rights movement and bury a time capsule at the site where three innocent African American men were lynched in 1906.

This was the past the mayor hoped to bury. But as one of the lodge members began to
speak, static drowned out his voice, and the sound system was abruptly cut. The lights
shifted back to the bandstand.

Although some people around me were confused by the change, most seemed unfazed. As one participant noted, many younger participants had no idea what history the mayor meant to bury. With the fraternal order’s statement unread, that history remained unspoken. Whatever the reasons for this series of events (technical difficulties were the official explanation), African American citizens were marginalised in a program ostensibly designed to honour their history.

In April 1906, 6,000 Springfield residents witnessed the torture and murder of three black men. A mob that included police officers abducted Horace Duncan, Fred Coker, and Will Allen from the city jail. The men were tortured for hours. Perpetrators then hanged the men from a tower topped by a ten-foot replica of the goddess Liberty and set their bodies on fire. The lynching followed the pattern of thousands of others in the country: an accusation of sexual transgression, a vigilante action, and a public spectacle of violence. After the murders, the mob descended on the city’s predominantly black neighborhoods. Missouri’s governor sent the National Guard to stop them and restore order, but many African Americans fled, abandoning homes and property.

More than 20 lynchings of African Americans took place in southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas between 1894 and 1909 (Harper 2010). Similar waves of mass racist violence engulfed the state, and then the nation, in the subsequent decade.

White supremacist violence lives on in Springfield, Missouri. The Southern Poverty Law Center monitors 22 active hate, patriot and militia groups in the area; the region is also a hub for the US National Socialist Movement (Nazis). In 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering black teen Trayvon Martin in Florida, the local Ku Klux Klan leafleted neighborhoods in Springfield, offering neighborhood watch services. The following year a white supremacist named Frazier Glenn Miller travelled north from his adopted home in the Ozarks to Kansas City, where he murdered three people at a Jewish community center and a Jewish retirement home.

A year after the 2013 ceremony, events in Ferguson dragged public attention back to Missouri’s, and by extension America’s, politics of race. In August 2014, Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and the Movement for Black Lives (MBL) gathered momentum. After Brown’s death, African American students at the state university in Springfield organised a demonstration. Thirty-odd young people silently carried “Black Lives Matter” signs past a tailgate party before the homecoming football game. Tailgaters heckled students with racial expletives, threats, and calls to “Go back to St Louis.” Several of the students were sanguine about the hecklers, noting that such epithets were directed at them on a daily basis. Protests like this one, and the Black Lives Matter movement generally, connect past and present violence. But what are we to make of the white “tailgaters” who shouted racist abuse at the students? The fact that these white citizens were comfortable publicly shouting racist abuse speaks more to the enduring legacies of Missouri’s history than class anxieties – or a Trump candidacy that had yet to materialise.

Lessons learned in Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, many of my research participants voted to remain in the EU in the hope of preserving a hard-won peace. Residents of Northern Ireland are familiar with the dysfunctional politics produced by ethnic conflict. During 14 years of fieldwork and research in Belfast, I observed both violent clashes and debates about past violence (Curtis 2014).

Experiences of violence and participation in paramilitarism were not evenly distributed across the population. My fieldsites in nationalist and loyalist west Belfast were located at a geographic epicentre of violence. With three different blocs at war – republican paramilitaries, loyalist paramilitaries, and state security forces – many were caught in the crossfire. One woman rhetorically asked me, “Who am I the victim of?…I was burned out of my home by Protestants….My brother-in-law was shot dead by the British Army, and my best friend, who was in the police, was shot by the IRA”.

Insularity, racism, sectarianism, support for violence – it is true that over many years I heard such sentiments uttered by Belfast research participants. Yet ultimately, those sentiments did not translate into overwhelmingly anti-EU attitudes. Certainly, the ethno-political logic of the region’s politics — and the Good Friday Agreement — have led parties like the DUP to embrace Brexit as a further demonstration of their union with Britain. Nevertheless, many Belfast residents experienced heart-rending losses and traumatic injuries, yet connected their experiences of a less awful world after the GFA to institutions like the EU. That does not mean bitterness and recrimination are over, or that the people of Northern Ireland have achieved consensus about the past or shared aspirations for the future. But it does mean that despite the flaws of the GFA, people have begun to make progress toward building a more inclusive future. Unfortunately, there are increasing indications that imminent departure from the EU is reanimating the conflict —and paramilitary groups are planning returns to violence.

They haven’t gone away, you know

The strategy of using racist rhetoric for electoral gain is old, but these strategies are dangerous to democracy. When parties openly embrace such discursive strategies, incitement and returns to violence follow. Administrative violence in both the US and UK has expanded through immigration policies, such as migrant family separation in the US and deportations of the Windrush Generation in the UK.

Dysfunctional politics are also intensified when parties, campaigns, and elite actors exploit the politics of unfinished conflict. When parties openly embrace racist ideologies, these ideologies inevitably shape policy itself, as is now plain in the Missouri legislature, where the Republican party holds a legislative supermajority. Rhetorical dog-whistles to the Republican base are now literally legislative proposals. For example, House Bill No. 1794, a fetal personhood bill, was designated the “All Lives Matter Act,” as a sideways barb toward the Movement for Black Lives. In 2017, revisions to the Missouri Human Rights Act made discrimination claims much more difficult to pursue, and the state NAACP president was silenced during his legislative testimony when the committee chair cut off his microphone.

Finally, democracies have become target-rich environments for foreign disinformation campaigns. In both elections, Russian intelligence services mounted massive online disinformation operations. This campaign has not ended.

Yet past atrocities can be recognised and processed, helping communities to end the politics of unfinished conflict and facilitate real policy reforms; these efforts help build a citizenry able to resolve conflicts, redress injustice, and prevent future violence. In Northern Ireland, victims’ groups and advocates have established multiple processes and forums for truth-telling and reconciliation. In the US, the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, unveiled the first national memorial to lynching victims in 2017. Attempts to remove Confederate statues, to commemorate lives lost to lynchings, and other memorialisations are part of a monumental reckoning. The Springfield Community Remembrance Coalition worked with the Equal Justice Initiative to erect a marker in the central square memorialising Horace Duncan, Fred Coker and William Allen.

Sadly, the US and UK coronavirus responses may necessitate more memorials and truth processes. When politicians use racism and xenophobia for electoral advantage, they enable new atrocities and imperil fragile grassroots efforts to liberate politics and society from past conflicts. Nevertheless, in both the UK and the US, there is a new generation of leaders and young people willing to end the silences, and able to, as the sociologist C. Wright Mills’ phrased it, “connect personal troubles and public issues”.


Curtis, Jennifer. 2014. Human Rights as War by Other Means: Peace Politics in Northern Ireland. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Mills, C. Wright. 2000[1959]. The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.
Harper, Kimberly. 2010. White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894–1909. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.

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