Brexit was not really a neoliberal project, whatever that is

Simon Wren Lewis argues in a recent post that Brexit was a ‘neoliberal project’.  That the driving force was a form of free-market utopianism.

I have doubts about the project of diganosing Brexit as a neoliberal project.

For starters, there are the Lexiters.  They see the EU as the neoliberal agent, strengthened by the agents of Europe’s companies ganging up on the workers.  They want to break free from the EU to intervene more, not less in markets.

Then there are the nationalists and nativists.

Nationalists want to break free because they have a preference for the sovereignty abstraction;  and a nostalgia for the UK’s imperial past as a great player on the world stage.  That was not about pursuing open markets, but about flexing muscles and imperial preference.

Nativists want to keep out foreigners, especially ones that don’t look like ‘us’.  This is an impediment to free markets.  They are happy to pay for that ‘privilege’.  And they will turn on business – which mostly favours open markets – if it tries to thwart them.  These strains of opinion are not usefully termed ‘neoliberal’, despite the legacy of a particularly elastic use of that term.

In follow up discussion of Simon’s post, ‘Property Spotter’ tweeted that even some of those advertising a preference for free markets are feigning it [the example of Dan Hannan was given].

One sense in which Simon’s headline may be right is this:  it was an accidental product of the behaviour of those in government who favoured something like the rough status quo before the referendum, in both the Labour and Conservative parties.

That is, in both governments, there was:  1) genuflection to anti-immigrant views in the UK, 2) common cause with those creating the archetype of the Brussels bureaucrat, (and it’s opposite, the failure to articulate the positive aspect of rule harmonisation), 3) more genuinely felt opposition to the labour market protections upheld by the EU.

The objective of this discourse was to try to make sufficient common cause with eurosceptic factions to sustain a governing coalition, but without threatening EU membership.  ‘We hate it all too but we can fight it from within’.

Of course the tactic, which included failing to articulate the business benefits of EU membership, backfired.

If you find it helpful to turn this argument into something involving the term ‘neoliberal’, then Brexit was a neoliberal project because UK neoliberals failed to articulate what EU did for neoliberalism.

All that said, because of the particular elasticity with which the term neoliberal is used, the debasing of the term by those on the left who seem to adopt it as a coalition building term to campaign against something bad in the status quo, I don’t see that we get farther by encoding our Brexit diagnoses using sematics like ‘neoliberal’.

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4 Responses to Brexit was not really a neoliberal project, whatever that is

  1. Dipper says:

    The thing that unites all Brexiters of whatever label is that they thought leaving the EU was better than staying in it. So if you want to discuss what Brexiters think, the obvious place to start is not with neoliberalism, nativism, or nationalism, but the EU itself.

    I’ve never seen a proper analysis by any Remainer of the EU, its direction, and what form continued membership of the EU would take for the UK. Take Simon Wren Lewis. He thinks we should stay in the EU. He also doesn’t think we should be in the Euro, and thinks the austerity policies of the ECB are all wrong. This is cake-and-eat-it Remainerism. My view is that if we had voted to Remain, then the Federalist core of the EU would have taken this as a green light to push the UK into full membership including the Euro and all that would entail. And yes I know we have a veto, but given the Remainers have spent the last two years detailing with great energy and passion exactly how little power the UK has when faced with the might of the EU, I’m not sure how we suddenly get to exercise a veto without that full power being directed at us to comply and sign up.

  2. Roger Backhouse says:

    To Tony, I would say that, although I agree with much of what you say, there were surely a significant number of Brexiters who have always seen Brexit as what could legitimately be described as a “neoliberal project” and some of them have now become very influential voices within the government. So even if motives for Brexit were initially very mixed – partly because few people expected it to happen – that is what has become.

    As for Dipper’s claim that Britain would have been pushed to join the Euro, I see no reason for this. The Eurozone has enough problems without those that would be caused by Britain joining and, in any event, if Britain remains, it will be easy enough for Britain to resist any pressure. Surely joining the Euro (at least in its current form) would be politically so contentious that no British politician could contemplate it and this fact would be obvious to our EU partners. Is Brexit not a more likely route into the Euro? We leave, there is disaster, and the price of re-joining becomes full participation, Euro and all? Not likely but perhaps less unlikely than remaining and being pushed in.

    • Tony Yates says:

      Thanks for the comment. I agree that there were neoliberal strains. I am not sure I buy that they were dominant or became so. I agree completely on the Euro. And even if this eventuality arose, we could leave at that point.

    • Dipper says:

      To repeat my point in different language, some may have wanted to leave the EU so we could become a neoliberal paradise, some may have wanted to Leave the EU so we could do things with a socialist government we couldn’t do under EU rules, but the thing all people who voted leave had in common was they wanted to leave the EU, so any analysis of Brexit should start with the EU.

      I think the two of you are being complacent about the EU. We had the treaty of Lisbon which marked a shift to federalism. The European Parliament has just got additional powers. The movement is all one way, and it is being clearly sign-posted exactly where we are heading.

      As for the notion that we can stop at any time, I don’t think so. Extracting ourselves now is proving extremely difficult, and it is only going to get more difficult with each move to integration. I don’t see realistically how in ten years time you could resist a strong move to adopt the Euro given (as we are repeatedly told) the EU has all the power, and that is the stated direction.

      People in the UK arguing for re-entry to the EU are delusional about the amount of power and influence we would have. They imagine themselves at the top table shaping Europe’s future, but the reality is the future is already decided and there is no appetite for mixed models or a separate model for the peripheral countries. The UK would have no leverage, everyone in Europe would know it and would waste no time in demonstrating it.

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