What does ‘How Change Happens’ thinking tell us about Brexit?

June 28, 2016 16 By Duncan Green

liberation brexit coverI was in Lisbon running a ‘How Change Happens’ summer school when the Brexit news came in, so I thought I’d apply an HCH analysis to a seismic event. I’m not an expert on UK politics, so this is bound to be pretty uninformed compared to the avalanche of post mortems in the press, but let’s see where it goes.

First up a disclaimer. As Timothy Garton Ash put it in a brilliant piece for the Guardian on Saturday ‘A
universal truth: nobody knows what is going to happen but everyone can explain it afterwards.’

I went back to the Context/Institutions/Agents/Events typology I used in From Poverty to Power. I’ll run through some of those, then reflect on what’s missing.

Context: Multiple long-term shifts influenced the result. Demographics: An ageing population combined with higher propensity to vote among older people who are much more Brexit demographicslikely to be anti-EU (see table). Globalization and rising inequality prompted a deep sense of alienation and disconnect from the decisions of those in power. Syria and Europe’s half-hearted response both fueled a sense of an island under siege and further discredited the EU project.

Institutions: A deep democratic deficit/hollowing out at all levels. The Eurozone meltdown tarnished the EU’s already damaged reputation. The 2008 financial crisis led to a general feeling of malaise and the MPs expenses scandal deepened scepticism about politicians and their arguments. No-one believes ‘we are all in this together’ any more. As John Cruddas argues, the Labour Party seems to have become the voice of the liberal metropolis, unable to respond to the sense of an Englishness under threat, as Tyler Cowen puts it.

Then there’s the institution of the referendum itself, which offers the public the chance to make a one-time statement on the state of the nation – a form of mass therapy in which it proved impossible to keep the focus on EU membership when people wanted to give the government a kicking on entirely separate issues, like ‘too many Muslims’.

Agents: Where to start? In terms of leadership, this useful piece identifies 12 key players and their referendum press biasroles. You could count the press as either agents or institutions, but they were clearly stacked in favour of Brexit by those other influential agents, their owners. Leading players’ motives were in many cases petty and careerist/party positioning, compared to the profound consequences of the vote, and the aftermath is surely likely to ratchet up public disillusionment and anger, especially among Leave voters who saw promises being broken within days of the vote, and who may well end up suffering the most from the debacle of the next few years.

But the key agents are, I suppose, the voters themselves, 17 million of whom expressed their dissatisfaction with the status quo, their sense of a way of life under threat and poked a remote and arrogant political elite in the eye. It may have been a national outburst of nostalgia for a world seen through rose-tinted specs, or an excessive fear of the future and change, but it was obviously deeply felt by many, and too glibly dismissed by the establishment (remember Gordon Brown and Gillian Duffy?).

Events: While some relatively distant events such as the financial crisis, or the Syrian exodus, clearly influenced the poll, the only major event of the campaign was Jo Cox’s murder, which had much less impact than we anticipated (in the end, her constituency even voted Leave).

That provides a kind of X ray of the forces and actors involved, but misses some big pieces:

Powerful narrative, shame about the content

Powerful narrative, shame about the content

Narratives and Norms: The hollowing out of democratic debate has been accompanied by a transition to ‘post-truth politics’, in which experts and expertise of all kinds are dismissed and people are urged to vote on their feelings. At the same time, the level of alienation is such that many people seemed to think the referendum would have no impact on anything real, so voted Leave as a protest vote. One interesting post mortem goes even further:

Amongst people who have utterly given up on the future, political movements don’t need to promise any desirable and realistic change. If anything, they are more comforting and trustworthy if predicated on the notion that the future is beyond rescue, for that chimes more closely with people’s private experiences. 

Having seen the initial meltdown after last Thursday, many Leavers are reportedly having second thoughts about this odd form of electoral nihilism – promptly christened ‘Regrexit’.

The referendum result was the strongest proof yet that in many circumstances, narrative trumps remain word cloud

Social Media word clouds show the different narratives at work

Social Media word clouds show the different narratives at work

evidence. ‘Take back control’ and anxiety about immigration resonated more than any number of ‘IMF predicts Brexit would trigger recession’ type headlines. No-one believes it will affect them. It’s feelings not facts, people.

One dog that didn’t bark was that the vote was gender neutral. I would have expected a gender bias in favour of remain, especially given the male face and machismo of the Leave campaign – anyone seen a good gender analysis?

Coalitions: There weren’t two sides in this, there were dozens, forced by the referendum into uncomfortable cohabitation. As my friend Matthew Lockwood says ‘the Leave vote is actually made up of some distinct different constituencies: some hard core libertarians, some neo-liberals, some old fashioned Tory nationalists, then the populist working class left-behind group. Their agendas are actually incompatible and the wheels will come off, arguably already are.’ The same equally applies to the Remainers, who couldn’t even get Tory and Labour leaders (both supporters) on the same platform.

Dynamics: So put that all together and we have a perfect storm, a spectacular own goal prompted by demography, the big tides of post 2008 Europe, the hollowing out of British democracy, David Cameron’s preference for tactics over strategy, Labour’s leadership vacuum, and ‘events, dear boy’ as Harold MacMillan, another UK PM, apparently never said.

Attribution: This is really just a list of contributory factors, but how on earth could you even try to weight the importance of these different factors, given that they are apples and pears and all feed off each other? Over to the measurement gurus on that one.

Overall, this exercise and framework feels like a handy way of synthesizing multiple factors, rather than adding any particular explanatory power. Useful?

What have I missed? Over to you and do please suggest links to good analytical post mortems – this is going to be a case study for decades to come!