Juuso Järviniemi believes that this last five years or so will be a treasure trove for historians to ponder over. The question is, how will it be judged?
In political science, scholars are often interested in change, and in extreme cases. It’s important to explain continuity, but change is more visible and may force us to re-evaluate the theories through which we observe the world. In particular, extreme circumstances are apt for testing existing theories.
Brexit fits the bill. Add to that the fact that Brexit is a cross-cutting phenomenon, present in nearly all aspects of politics, and we can safely say that scholars will be occupied with studying Brexit for years to come. Whether you study political parties, elections, parliaments, civic activism or multi-level governance, Brexit touches your field – and that’s only a few examples.
Fractures within political parties
To begin with, David Cameron’s decision to arrange an EU referendum stemmed from the Conservatives’ internal split on Europe. For the Conservatives, the Brexit question has been a tough choice between the party’s commitment to free trade and its suspicion of rapidly developing institutions like the EU. At the same time, in its indecision over its EU stance, Labour has found itself engaged in an age-old debate on whether the EU strikes a right balance between deregulation and social protections.
Now that British parties’ splits over Europe have attracted international attention, it might be an opportune time to study why such ideological tensions haven’t seemed as unmanageable within mainstream centre-left and centre-right parties elsewhere in Europe.
Whatever the Brexit referendum did, it certainly didn’t heal these divides within the parties. Therefore, the Brexit experience could also give impetus for thickening the literature on the effects of referenda on party unity.
In 2006, Claes de Vreese said that in referenda, smaller parties can ‘stay on message’ better, and that they can better mobilise their supporters to vote along the official party line. He wrote that within larger mainstream parties, it’s more likely that there are high-profile figures going against the party’s position, making these parties more vulnerable to referenda. On the face of it, this sounds familiar in the British case. However, to build on these ideas, the Brexit experience could inspire us to study rehealing within fractured parties after the referendum period.
Brexit and electoral politics
Electoral campaigns are perhaps the most visible aspect of politics, and one which devours copious amounts of money. Accordingly, there’s a vast body of research on what difference campaigns make for elections (see for example Jacobson 2015). Given that the Conservatives experienced a historic collapse in the polls just before the 2017 General Election, it seems worthwhile to test some existing hypotheses for this dramatic election.
Academics have indeed already been studying the 2017 election, asking in particular whether we can speak of a “Brexit election”. In their study, Jonathan Mellon and others found that voters did noticeably switch parties according to how they had voted in the EU referendum. This research interest speaks to earlier studies on how much citizens’ views on the EU affect national elections.
Already in 2007, Catherine de Vries found that for Europe to truly influence a national election, the issue should be salient to the electorate, and at the same time the parties should be competing on the issue of Europe (by highlighting their differing views on Europe). British elections in the Brexit era look like excellent testing ground for the argument.
Finally, campaigners are saying that the next General Election will be marked by tactical voting in a way never seen before. Scholars who take an interest in tactical voting should stay tuned.
Civil society and changing norms
Beyond elections, Brexit Britain is a very rare example of a country where political parties and civil society have been on virtually non-stop ‘campaign mode’ for years. Anecdotal evidence says that civil society campaigners have persuaded MPs to change their minds ahead of key parliamentary votes through means like letter-writing. More broadly, politicians speaking to campaigners have credited activists with making a new EU referendum seem acceptable at a time when politicians themselves weren’t yet ready to advocate for one.
A study on why the British Overton window has shifted to include a second referendum, and even a straight revocation of Article 50, could further strengthen our understanding of how political norms and discourse change. Of course, a similar shift has also been perceived on the Leave side, with a previously unimaginable “no deal” becoming a mainstream opinion among Brexit supporters.
Going back to the question of MPs changing their views, we should study in further detail the effects of grassroots campaigning on parliamentary arithmetics. More generally, scholars can ask what kind of MPs have changed their views on Brexit, or some of the smaller sub-questions in the Brexit debate. For example, has it been MPs whose constituencies have seen strong civic mobilisation around the issue, or perhaps previously undecided MPs, or MPs who only enjoy a small minority in their constituency? Or on the other hand, how do the MPs’ ambitions for career advancement within their party factor in?
Multi-level governance and constitutional affairs
One issue at the heart of the Brexit negotiations was a familiar one for students of EU affairs: Which decisions should be made at what level of government? For example, one reason why the ‘Norway model’ didn’t work for the UK was because so many decisions would continue to be made in Brussels instead of London.
Within the UK itself, the effects of Brexit on devolution have been a subject of several papers – in this case, too, the question is which level of government decides on what policies. In Scotland, the big question has been whether the Scottish Parliament can freely legislate in devolved policy areas where powers return from Brussels to the UK after Brexit.
As devolution is governed by conventions rather than cast-iron constitutional law, and the division of competences across different levels of government is in a flux, the situation is intriguing. The story lends itself to studies on devolved governments’ strategies for maintaining their powers.
On the other hand, the Scottish and Welsh governments’ attempts at influencing the London government’s Brexit negotiating strategies, and Scotland’s independent diplomatic efforts are fascinating cases of sub-state governments wading into foreign policy and the diplomatic arena.
Of course, the UK’s devolved governments are just one type of actor in the Brexit process. Looking at the EU side, we could similarly study the European Parliament’s efforts to make its mark on Brexit, and find theoretical justifications for why the EU has managed to retain its cohesion throughout the long negotiations.
Finally, besides devolution, another constitutional debate that has touched the UK is executive-legislative relations. In the absence of a clearly codified constitution, the conflict between the Parliament and the government has for many times been at the forefront of the Brexit battle. The unique test that the British constitution has undergone might teach scholars new lessons about the advantages and drawbacks of ambiguously drafted constitutions.
Brexit helps us learn how politics works
Whatever the other effects of Brexit, at least it’s teaching us a wealth of lessons. Some of these might predominantly apply to the UK, but there are many other aspects of Brexit that relate to more universal themes. The pace of academic research cannot keep up with fast-moving day-to-day news events, but once there has been enough time to unpick what truly happened in the UK in the past few years, we will have learned a lot more about how politics works.