The Urge to Purge

As Brexit takes a turn for the even worse, I've come across a number of commentators arguing that 'no deal' may now be the only way to neutralise the appeal of Brexit. Only once the obvious, visibly harmful consequences of Brexit are felt, will public opinion finally shift decisively against Brexit. Perhaps then we might finally be able to undo the damage. I expect most of the time this argument is not meant to be taken too seriously. Perhaps it is just an expression of frustration, or the search for the cloud's silver lining. In any case, the people who make the argument are themselves unlikely to be impact the process anyway. But just in case they are, and the argument is meant seriously, here are three reasons why I would tend to disagree.

1. It is unclear how public opinion will respond to the negative consequences of no deal. It is possible that some leavers will turn against Brexit. But it is also possible that views will harden against the EU, seen to be 'punishing' the UK. Unscrupulous politicians will certainly push this narrative, eager to shift blame away from their own actions. Furthermore, the saliency of Brexit is likely to increase as it becomes even more of a focus of attention, dominating not just news cycles, but every day life. That could serve to increase existing tensions and resentment between 'remainers' and 'leavers', and exacerbate culture war dynamics of blame, demonisation and recrimination.

2. Economic hardship is not good for politics. Periods of low growth and worsening living standards make politics meaner, encourage zero sum thinking, and encourage political actors to look for scapegoats. Indeed, stagnating real incomes and public sector shortages following the financial crisis and austerity may have been significant contributing factors to Brexit. Even if public opinion did shift against Brexit itself, the brand of mean spirited, conspiratorial,  ethnonationist thinking it represents might well get worse.

3. The consequences of no deal may well be irreversible. On the narrow question of EU membership, the UK might only be able to rejoin having left on substantially worse terms. The economic consequences perhaps more so. Both manufacturers and financial services rely on economies of agglomeration. If, for example, a large number of well educated graduates leave or stop coming to London, or the networks of financial and consultancy firms break up in the UK, it might make a lot less sense to locate these institutions in the UK even if a more favourable environment were to return. Periods of job losses and business closures can destroy communities in ways that are never recovered from. What's more, a no deal Brexit could represent the kind of economic, political and institutional shock which fundamentally changes what a country looks like. It could plausibly be a kind of perestroika moment for the UK, with a very different country emerging afterwards, perhaps no longer unified as a single state.

This is, of course, all rather speculative. But given the near certain human cost of no deal, the speculative counter claims of its politically cleansing effect are clearly not worth the cost, particularly since public opinion is already slowly but surely moving in remain's direction. I suspect their real appeal lies less in the belief in the mechanism- that people will change their mind in light of overwhelming evidence - with the all too human appeal of the idea that suffering can offer redemption. Paul Krugman has made this point with austerity, comparing it to medieval doctors who thought that bleeding a patient would bring about recovery. Unfortunately, it could only hasten a patient's demise.


  1. This is obviously correct but of course every specific and available form of Brexit is already well behind in opinion polls. The battle for public hearts and minds is already won. What hasn't been won is the war in Westminster. The danger is in the Tories putting in new "facts on the ground" re the UKs EU membership (& even a short lived no-deal exit would do precisely that) that would be irreversible by a future govt.

  2. On the other hand; project fear 2, 3, 4 etc are debunked. We carry on trading and carry on with our lives much like we did before we ever joined the EC/EU. Most countries in the world are not part of the EU or anything like it, they are doing just fine. There's nothing to be scared of but fear itself. Don't fear change, because change is inevitable. Embrace it and make the most of your (our) opportunities.