The Road to Brexit: Why We Are So Divided

Our society is deeply divided and full of uncertainty. HUGO RADICE asks how we got here and wonders what it might take to create a more equal and united world.

Even after Theresa May’s speech of 17 January, and the parliamentary vote on 1 February, we remain very unclear about the outcome of Brexit. Single market access, freedom of movement, repatriation of lawmaking, exit payments and much more remain subject to protracted negotiation with 27 EU member states whose own objectives are no more clear than our own. Still less clear are the possible consequences for our country, even in the supposedly more measurable category of ‘economic effects’.

Brexit image

But one thing is absolutely clear: our society is deeply divided over Brexit. The weekly New Statesman recently announced that “the biggest divide in politics is no longer left versus right”, and instead offered six other axes of division: closed versus open; whites v ethnic minorities; graduates v non-graduates; old v young; owners v renters; and metropolitans v provincials.

These divisions have certainly all been widely discussed, but they are all pretty narrow in scope – and apart from ‘closed v open, they are all based on citizens’ given and largely fixed attributes. If we want to understand how they all fit together, I think we need to explore some much larger-scale divisions in society, and in this global age, in the world as a whole not just Britain. We also need to do so historically, so that we can trace how such divisions have arisen.

I suggest we look at four major divisions:

  • rich v poor – material inequality
  • our country v the rest of the world: nation-states in the world order
  • private v public: the citizen and the state
  • individual v social: how we live together

But there is another sort of division which needs to be recognised, namely the divisions in the social sciences. Until the late 19th century, scholars interested in society, rather than the natural world, felt able to range far and wide in the realm of ideas in search of understanding. But since then, the study of society has been divided into separate academic compartments. Our four societal divisions are studies within the disciplines of economics, international relations, politics and sociology respectively (and each of these is in turn chopped up into more detailed specialist fields).

Yet a moment’s thought tells us that they are intimately related – each affects all the others, and never more so than at times of crisis in our society, when important choices have to be made. Taking just the UK’s recent history, think about the General Strike of 1926, about appeasement in the late 1930s, about the end of empire after 1945, or the miners’ strike of 1984/5. All these led to changes in how we see ourselves, our society and the world at large – what in German is called weltanschauung, or ‘world-view’.

In life and in ideas, we need to take the broadest possible approach at such times. I will look at the four aspects in turn, looking for the big issues that can help us understand the Brexit divisions.

Economy: the division of labour, growth and inequality

From its beginnings in the 18th century, our economic system – capitalism – has developed through what the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1960) called “creative destruction”, in which the combination of free markets and technical innovation constantly transforms our patterns of work, production and consumption. The sorts of jobs we do become more and more varied, and many are left behind by the pace of change.

With the industrial revolution, these processes intensified; production and work became increasingly specialised, and for our daily needs we came to depend more and more on trade – regional, national and global. This new way of economic life also led to a new conception of how we relate to each other: the individual person (let’s face it – individual man, until around 1900) was no longer cosseted by community, guild or place of worship. Homo economicus (economic man) was born, and for mainstream economics since Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), this new kind of person has had to master the art of survival in the shifting sands of “the market”.

History tells us that unless checked by collective action, the free market leads inexorably to increased inequality of income and wealth, and thereby, of life-chances. The economic historian Karl Polányi (1886-1964) tells us that in British society from the mid-19th century, a “great transformation” got under way, in which people sought to mitigate this inequality through measures of social protection, leading eventually to the welfare states of the 20th century.

It is surely not surprising that the return of free-market thinking, associated with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1980, reversed this long historical trajectory, and has in consequence seen significant rises in inequality in very many countries, and a retreat of the welfare state – or at least the redistributive and universal form of post-1945 Britain and much of Europe.

How should we address this growing inequality? The universal welfare state imposes higher taxes and thus limits the ability of ‘economic man’ to get richer. It also provides to the less fortunate the social protection they need, and helps them to be more productive members of society.

This is not just an economic question. If the division between rich and poor becomes excessive and discontent reaches the point of revolt, the world may risk being turned upside down. But it also raises what is fundamentally a moral issue: shouldn’t our ‘self-interest’ really include a concern for other people? If it was just a question of money, then philanthropy would only come from the rich; as we should all know, everyone – rich or poor – has the capacity for empathy, solidarity and collective action.

International relations: conflict or cooperation?

Our world has always been divided into a multitude of communities. At present, it is divided into 200 or so nation-states, a form of community that dates, the experts tell us, from 1648, when the Treaty of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years’ War that ravaged continental Europe. Our own nation-state was at that time reeling from the Civil War, but 40 years later we finally agreed upon a model of statehood that fitted this emergent world order.

Yet ever since 1648 we have grappled with how nation-states should interact with each other. We have experienced war and peace, territorial expansion, treaties, the 19th-century ‘concert of nations’, the League of Nations of 1919, and on to the modern United Nations system, which now presides over a bewildering variety of regional alliances aimed at cooperating in the economic, political or military spheres.

On the one hand, we have the lofty ideal of ‘sovereignty’ – much in evidence in the referendum debates; on the other hand, we have the ghastly legacy of imperialism, slavery, colonisation, extermination, exploitation, in which our own ‘sovereign nation-state’ played a leading, indeed dominant role for some 150 years.

To those who see the nation-state form as essentially no different from earlier forms of community, the constant tension in the world order between conflict and cooperation is a given, a part of human nature. Yet at least since the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), an alternative state of ‘universal peace’ has attracted many. In part, this is seen as a ‘natural’ extension of the economic and political rights that flow from the modern form of citizenship in the nation-state. Why should free economic exchange, mitigated by democratic politics, stop at the borders of each state?

Kant pic

In the 19th century, Britain resolved this problem as the ‘superpower’, underwriting global free trade and international finance, enforced by gunboat diplomacy. But growing competition from newer powers – Germany, the USA, Japan – led to trade wars and eventually two appalling World Wars.

The postwar global order under the UN was intended to end both kinds of war, as well as the miseries of colonial imperialism. Alongside the adoption of a universal right to nationhood under the UN system, there came a global system of managed international trade and finance, presided over today by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation.

The stability of this new order provided a global framework within which individual nation-states could address their own internal problems more effectively, a system dubbed “embedded liberalism” by the American political scientist John Ruggie (b.1944) – meaning that free trade and the market system were undertaken within the social protection offered by each nation-state, much as Polányi had argued.

For some 50 years, this system expanded, including not only the independent states formed by decolonisation, but also eventually the states of the Communist world. For a brief moment, in the early 1990s, Kant’s dream of universal peace seemed within our grasp. Francis Fukuyama’s essay on ‘The end of history?’ (1989) argued that liberalism was now on track to supplant all other world-views, and this seemed to be borne out by the growing prosperity and openness of the BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China) in the 1990s.

But the economic globalisation which had been intensifying since the 1960s had been suffering increasing disruption: the inflation and oil crises of the 1970s, the Third World debt crisis of the 1980s, and the long chain of financial collapses (involving individual banks, businesses and even states) that culminated in the 2008 global financial crisis.

Since 2008, not only has economic growth been slower, especially in rich countries, but the fruits of that growth have not been equally shared between rich and poor – and this has applied within both rich and poor countries. Growing inequality has become more and more evident, and has led to important studies by present-day economists such as Thomas Piketty in France and Tony Atkinson in our country. Since Brexit and Trump, however, inequality has been centre-stage in our increasingly contested politics.

Politics: the people versus the élite?

Perhaps we now have a straightforward explanation for the rise of UKIP, of the far-right parties of Europe and the far-left too, and now of Trump (on the foundations laid by the Tea Party). Surely, this is a new populism, a movement of those left behind against a cosmopolitan élite that knows nothing beyond the rarefied world of global finance, superyachts and supermodels, Davos and the stately quadrilles of international diplomacy. What is more, since the 1980s the mass parties of left and right have gravitated towards a narrow ‘centre ground’, leading many voters feeling that “they’re all the same”.

Looking at this in more detail, recall first how the economic insecurities of capitalism led us to the modern welfare state. Crucial in that process was the steady extension of political citizenship, in the form of the right to vote, to enjoy freedom of speech and assembly, and to form political parties.

As the state as provider of security grew in scale and relative importance after 1945, a political settlement in Western democracies took shape, bringing together ‘moderate’ conservative and liberal parties on the right, and equally ‘moderate’ social-democratic and socialist parties on the left. Sooner or later in most of these countries other interests formed alongside these – equally ‘moderate’ parties whose main concern was with the environment, or with the rights of national minorities or distinctive regions.

But meanwhile, these same democracies have witnessed a profound weakening of what we used to see as intrinsic to electoral democracies, namely an active relationship between citizen and state. The memberships of mass parties have declined pretty much everywhere since around 1990, and politics has become a profession, staffed almost entirely by university-educated people.

These professional politicians, in their competing parties, focus far more on the state and its management than they do on their rank-and-file memberships. Their relation to the electorate has long been shaped not by those members interacting at work and in their communities with fellow citizens, but rather by the media.

It is commonplace these days to claim that ‘social media’ have restored the balance in favour of the citizen, but it is increasingly clear that these new media accentuate divisions – each to their own tribe – and their very limited content in no way brings back the sociable give-and-take of the pub or the works canteen.

In any case, the ‘social’ media are controlled by giant corporations whose interest lies entirely in their own profits. In the case of Brexit, anyway, it has been surely the traditional media that have dictated both the content and the tone of the debate.

The failure thus far of our mainstream politicians (whether left, right or centre) to fully recognise and address the problem of inequality may also be because the real rulers of this world are not to be found in the legislatures and presidential mansions of the world, but rather in the boardrooms of vast global corporations and banks. In the business world, the processes of market concentration and financial takeovers have continued inexorably, come boom or slump.

For the best way to characterise our present politics, perhaps we should go back to a prediction of the Italian-Swiss polymath Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), who almost uniquely among modern scholars straddled not only economics, politics and sociology, but also engineering and mathematics. Late in his life, observing the state of politics after the First World War, he predicted that the likely evolution of politics would be towards “demagogic plutocracy”, in which the rich politically sedate the masses through posing as their champions. Nearly a century later, that seems to me to capture the essence of Donald Trump – and a growing number of authoritarian leaders elsewhere across the world.

Society, at last: individual aspiration, or collective purpose?

We hear a great deal these days about a new tribalism – about how the mass movements of the past have now shrunk and fragmented into a swirling storm of narrowly-defined and often incompatible interests.

The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017, pictured below), living and writing in Britain since the early 1970s, coined the term “liquid modernity” to describe the shape-shifting nature of modern consumer capitalism, obsessed with the new and with selfhood. The ideal citizen under our present free-market order is free to define his or her interests and life-course, no longer tied to inherited beliefs and practices.

Zigmunt Bauman pic

The post-1945 welfare state provided security to all, but also undermined the non-state provision of security through family and community. As the welfare state retreated and globalisation accentuated insecurity (especially of employment), so those well-endowed with money, status and education would manage well enough – but on the other hand, entire communities in areas of industrial decline would simply be left behind. In the 1990s this was recognised as ‘social exclusion’, but the answer was to mitigate, rather than prevent that exclusion.

The difference between the two is crucial to our present divided state. It seems all too clear that the haves, across the modern world, are willing to mitigate the condition of the have-nots – both through charitable works (for which the recipient must feel duly grateful) and through the state (but only with the requirement to seek ‘gainful employment’). A more radical, but increasingly popular, approach is to reduce the scale of the problem by introducing a ‘universal basic income’; this is little more than an extension of the minimum wage (now cynically rebranded by George Osborne, in the manner of George Orwell’s 1984, as the ‘living’ wage).

But what howls of derision greeted Jeremy Corbyn when he floated the suggestion of a maximum wage! This would immediately contradict those sacred cows of modern times – ‘equality of opportunity’ and the ideal of meritocracy – beloved by Blair, Clegg and Cameron.

Anyone who bothers to read The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958) knows that its author Michael Young – who also penned the Labour Party’s 1945 election manifesto – saw  that form of political rule, not as desirable, but as extremely dangerous. While it was very good for those individuals who could climb the social hierarchy, it did worse than nothing for those left behind, for they could only blame their failure on their innate inadequacies, about which they could do nothing.

Yet the political freedoms we enjoy, and the repositories of wisdom and experience to which we have access today, could be turned to a different purpose. Instead of agreeing to a modest degree of private or public redistribution, whether to salve our consciences or to ensure that the army of the jobless can become ‘productive citizens’, why don’t we consider another approach, namely the direct pursuit of a more equal society? We already do this, and it remains encouraged, within our immediate families, for example in the inheritance of wealth. Why do we not extend the same moral approbation to equality in our wider communities – local, regional, national… even global?

We live in one world, with limited resources to which not one person should have any right above that of us all. There is ample evidence that equality in the workplace encourages mutual respect and mutual aid, and leads to efficiencies in time and effort. Much of what is best about our communities is based upon a degree of mutual respect and support that, for no good reason, we do not feel obliged to extend more widely.

So imagine, as you surely can, a world in which we draw our security and our happiness from knowing that our own prosperity does not deprive others of their own. Think about a world in which work is valued not for the money (and thereby possessions) that it generates, but for the social good arising both in the work itself, drawing on our innate creativity and desire for self-expression, and in the services that are provided to others by what we produce.

Consider how a universal system of education and training might be designed that allowed the vast majority of people – not just an élite, nor even just a half or two-thirds – economic security and the time and energy to participate in a genuinely democratic politics. Could that not begin to bring us together, across our many divides?


Hugo Radice is a retired but still active social scientist. He is currently secretary of the Dales Labour Party branch in Richmondshire, North Yorkshire.

Information on his recent publications can be found here.

This essay is based on talks given at the Leyburn Probus Club on 17 January 2017, and at the Learning Curve in Askrigg, Wensleydale, on 24 January. Thanks to those who attended for their helpful comments and questions.