What will the impacts of Brexit be? At this early stage, one can only guess what is likely to happen given that there are many possibilies.
Britain may end up losing considerable influence at European and global levels and may experience negative economic and social ramifications. It may find itself relatively powerless in delivering what was promised by the Brexiteers before the referendum, especially when other countries like Switzerland and Norway would be jealously watching its negotiations with the EU.
On the other hand, it may find itself relatively flexible to negotiate deals to its economic benefit. The depreciation of the sterling may also lead to improved competitiveness of exports. Certain sectors may benefit from Brexit while others could well face negative impacts. Indeed, impacts are hardly ever monolithic but tend to be uneven, plural and multi-directional.
There may also be unintended consequences of Brexit, such as the break-up of Britain itself, and a change of political fortunes for mainstream political parties. There is also the possibility that Article 50 will never be set in motion, thus postponing Brexit for an indefinite period.
At this stage, I believe it is imperative to analyse what led to Brexit because this may provide important lessons for political parties, policymakers and scholars. A sober analysis of Brexit may also be of benefit for a more sustainable European Union.
Britain was characterised by clear politcal divides. Scotland, Northern Ireland and London were very much in favour of remaining in the EU whereas most of the rest of Britain was against. Older people were generally pro-Brexit and the younger cohorts supported the Remain camp. The educated middle class was more prone to be pro-EU while members of the working class tended to favour Brexit.
An increasingly fragmented and unequal society was the perfect mix for populists who blamed the EU for Britain’s state of affairs
The Brexit camp was symbolised by populist politicians such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, who presented clear, simple messages, albeit coloured by post-truth promises that are difficult to fulfil.
The Leave camp was led by a prime minister who seemed to be isolated in holding the European flag and by a Labour leader who was largely absent and uninspiring. Other pro-EU politicians, such as Caroline Lucas, from the Greens, and Tim Farron, from the Liberal Democrats, did not make up for the failings of David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn.
Yet, there were other social determinants that were in place long before the referendum campaign, which should also be taken into account in the analysis of Brexit.
To begin with, Britain was increasingly becoming a nation with two economic realities. On the one hand, it was experiencing relatively strong economic growth compared to other EU member states with a relatively robust labour market.
On the other hand. too many people were experiencing relatively low living standards, with low wages and job precariousness on the increase. The economy was becoming overdependent on financial services and different regions had different living standards.
Poverty rates were on the increase and the days of a job for life for the industrial working class were sealed and buried. In a way, living standards were closer to Italy than Germany.
In the decade preceding the referendum, trust in the EU was in freefall and political fragmentation increased. Labour modernised itself but was out of synch with much of the working class, to the political benefit of Ukip and SNP. The Greens took up much of the liberal left agenda but were penalised by an unfavourable electoral system. And the Liberal Democrats were punished by the electorate for their decision to form part of a governing coalition with the Conservatives. The Conservative Party and the Scottish National Party were the net winners in terms of electoral outcomes.
Yet, the party was itself fragmented between pro-EU pragmatists like Cameron and anti-EU ideologues like Michael Gove. Cameron temporarily stopped this implosion by promising a referendum, which, ultimately, led to his own downfall.
An increasingly fragmented and unequal society was the perfect mix for populists who blamed the EU for Britain’s state of affairs. And the perfect storm for a pro-EU camp whose disjointed characteristics only made matters worse.
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.