Objectively, Brexit has, so far, been an unmitigated disaster. Extra paperwork has caused endless problems, especially for small and medium sized enterprises. The service sector – the backbone of the UK economy- has been badly hit and London’s status as one of the world’s financial centers has been questioned. This is before we get into the impact of Brexit on the peace process of Northern Ireland and the future of Scotland. In other words, the very existence of the UK is at stake, as is the future relationship of the UK with the rest of the world.
These multiple unresolved problems have led many, particularly on the ‘Remain’ side of the argument in the UK, to predict that there will be a ‘tipping point’ when public and political opinion will decisively turn against Brexit and in favor of a much closer relationship with the EU than the one provided for by the existing Withdrawal agreement.
Yet, this shift of opinion has not occurred. Whilst some polls have shown a small majority of people saying that the UK was wrong to leave the EU, others show the opposite. In any case, the results are mostly very close, suggesting a hardening of opinion and deep political divisions which now characterize the country. Whilst Brexit has had a profound impact on several ongoing social and political processes in Northern Ireland and Scotland (and to a lesser extent in Wales), as well as accelerated a profound political realignment in England, on the basic question of whether Brexit was right or wrong, public opinion has been quite stable.
One commonly advanced explanation is, obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic issues brought up by Brexit have simply been obscured by the pandemic. It has been possible to plausibly blame economic problems on the pandemic and, as such, take Brexit out of the public consciousness, especially amongst the vast sway of the population which doesn’t really care about politics.
Yet, even a subsiding pandemic may not lead to a decisive public shift against Brexit in the short term even if, and when, economic problems persist and can be clearly and empirically linked to Brexit. To understand that, think like a football fan who sticks with a team through thick and mostly thin.
Brexit, like support of a football team, is, for many of its adherents, a question of identity. It is part of who you are and therefore impervious to any rational and/or empirical argument. From this point of view, I would not expect decisive shift against Brexit even if and when a series of bad economic news can be empirically directly linked to Brexit and which will not be obscured by Covid-19. In fact, if my ‘football fan’ hypothesis is correct, we can expect a doubling down on Brexit in the face of bad news. Others will be blamed for the economic outcomes (the ‘unreasonable’ EU, for instance) just like us football fans often like to blame the referee or other external factors for a defeat.
Equally, just like football fans like to boast about how we stuck with our team in good times and bad, many Brexiters will make a virtue out of standing alone against the rest of the world or, at least, against ‘the liberal elite’. As such, I would not expect public opinion to turn decisively against Brexit even in the face of bad news or, for that matter, the disintegration of the country as a whole. The opposite may in fact occur. Public opinion may harden just like we double down on the support of our football team in times of crisis.
If we work on the basis that, at some point, any reasonably responsible government will have to address, and if possible, reverse, the economic damage which Brexit will bring but will need to do so with the support of a broad swath of public opinion, what can be done?
The answer lies in stories. Boris Johnson, as the chief architect of Leave, has been brilliant at telling a story which football fans – by far the most popular sport in the country – can instinctively understand. Nothing similar has come from the Remain side. Once the economic impact of Brexit ‘breaks through’ it will not be enough to say ‘I told you so’. It needs to be packaged in both personal impact stories which any alternative government needs to be able to address both emotionally and practically and in identity politics, which aims at unity and belonging, something which football fans – and sports fans as a whole – understand instinctively.
In the current climate any UK political leader which can package a change of course in order to address economic damage in such terms stands a decent chance of defeating a government which will have presided over an economic calamity. That leader may also save the union in the process.
Kai Enno Lehmann is an Associate Professor at the Institute of International Relations of the University of São Paulo (IRI-USP) in Brazil, having previously held positions at the Pontifica Universidade Católica, Rio e Janeiro (PUC-Rio) and the University of Liverpool in England, from which he holds a PhD in International Relations. Dr Lehmann’s research focusses on regionalism in Europe, violence and corruption in Latin America, as well as the application of Complexity Theory to crises. He has done several pieces of consultancy work for the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.