Structural causes of the radicalisation of Brexit

A few weeks ago I wrote a post arguing that since the referendum, Brexit had been subject to a process of increasing and self reinforcing radicalisation. Some of the ideas I think require some further clarification, so I thought I would collect them here in what is hopefully a clearer form. By radicalisation of Brexit, I refer both to the objectives and policy demands associated with Brexit, and the tone, rhetorical style and surrounding political and ideological tropes. On a policy level this means the fact that many Brexiteers demand not just an end of single market membership, but a default on international legal obligations to achieve it (terminating article 50 negotiations without a mechanism for preserving the Good Friday Agreement, failing to pay existing obligations to the EU etc). On a rhetorical/ideological level, I am primarily referring to the evocation of a notion of democracy which is ultra majoritarian and rejects any form of constitutionalism or democratic pluralism which might get in the way as treasonous, be it parliamentary scrutiny, supreme court rulings, the findings of the electoral commission etc. I wish specifically to argue that a large part of the explanation for this is structural and to do with the nature of the referendum, its legal status and its tensions with parliamentary democracy. This is not to say other factors are not also in play, but I wanted to focus here on these particular points, as I have not seen a fully fleshed out discussion the interplay of these factors with one another elsewhere, even though the individual points are not particularly original. The factors identified are as follows:

1. The referendum had very little legal status, beyond being advisory. It was won, but without support from the majority of MPs, or the then government. Implementation, because of its complexity and the absence of a defined legal mechanism beyond parliamentary and executive initiative, required some level of active support from people who had seen no new reason to like the policy. This damaged the traditional separation of liking a result and respecting its legitimacy. As Ken Clarke noted, normally an MP of the losing party in a general election can respect its outcome, with all the constitutional consequences which follow, without having to now agree or even acquiesce to the policies of the new government. With Brexit that was simply not possible. Many MPs saw the only way of solving this difficulty as a form of self censorship.

2.  Given point (1) it was strategically necessary for Brexiteers to attempt to delegitimise opposition to Brexit. The absence of a legal mechanism compelling implementation of the referendum result meant that Brexiteers assessed, quite rationally, that Brexit could only be guaranteed if support for it did not wane, and opposition did not grow. This made the delegitimisation of opposition a key strategic goal, achieved by calling opponents traitors or undemocratic. Their assessment that opponents were trying to reverse the referendum outcome was not wrong, but the means by which they attempted to prevent this was an assault on democratic pluralism, and later on constitutional constraints (e.g judges ruling in favour of Gina Miller).

3. The positive proposition (leaving the EU) was neither proposed by the government nor an opposition party, but instead a campaign group with no political accountability after the referendum. Support for leaving was from a diverse group of people with diverse and contradictory motivations. Vote Leave judged (correctly) that the best strategy for winning was to gloss over these, rather than making explicit policy choices. This meant that after the referendum result, interpretation of what the result should mean was a matter of ex post facto rationalisation.

4. Because we tend to make sense of policies as having reasons behind them, or fulfilling a purpose, the most natural ex post facto rationalisation of Brexit would involve policy choices which satisfied at least some of the most vocal (and radical) proponents.  This meant that Brexiteers would have a natural advantage in setting the tone of what 'counted' as a Brexit, and what the motivations for it were. This is not the same as achieving something with majority support, as these key proponents may well represent the radical wing, and even if they represent the majority of Brexit voters, a majority of a majority does not imply the majority of a whole. Being able to define what counted as Brexit went further than having a platform for being able to argue a particular outcome was good. It allowed Brexiteers to define the criteria by which Brexit was evaluated, and dismiss other criteria, or questions about whether the policy as a whole was a good idea, as illegitimate.

5. These Brexiteers have also largely been competing to come out well in any potential leadership contest within the Conservative Party. This gives a huge premium to those who make radical proposals, given the preferences of the party membership. This premium is further aggravated by the fact that extreme positions attract media attention, and outright displays of bellicose behaviour play well in culture war type disputes. In order to prove ones credentials as the true messenger of Brexit, Brexiteers have competed to outdo each other on their radicalism.

6. The logic of the Single Market and Customs Union does not allow for any of the substantial promises of Vote Leave to be kept without a radical break with the single market. Whether or not this is a good idea is not the point, as this is no longer the relevant criteria for deciding policy (see point (4). Since the criterion used to evaluate withdrawal is whether it 'counts' as Brexit, rather than being sound policy, it does not matter any more how damaging leaving the single market is.

7. The only way of preserving the large coalition in favour of Brexit despite its contradictions is to coalesce around purely negative propositions (no deal, voting against the government) etc. This also has the benefit of avoiding any of the consequences of any positive proposition, which given the realities of the options available will be politically toxic whatever that positive proposition happens to be.

8. Given points 1 and 5-7, any deal or course of action supported by Brexiteers could never command the support of the House of Commons. The response of Brexiteers, therefore, has been to attempt not just to delegitimise opposition to Brexit, but Parliament as an institution. This, and the institutions of representative democracy more generally, are now taken as superseded as sources of legitimate political power by what is taken to be an expression of 'the will of the people'.

Any comments on further possible structural factors are most welcome.


  1. Fantastic article.

    Thank you for your thought and work.

  2. Thanks! Really appreciate it.

  3. Clear, easy to read and gets to the heart of the matter. Certainly helped me to understand the 'why' in terms of outrageous falsehoods being put out by obvioulsy intelligent people.

  4. also the National dynamic of referendums, takes place outside our traditional constituency-based way of doing democracy. Parliament decided to go 'over the heads' of the constituency/ party stuctures of our constitution, forgetting that they would come to bear again for implementation of the result. All of a sudden, constituency MPs were conflicted between; 1 tbeir own judgements; 2. the interests of tbeir constituents and 3. the National decision.

  5. Of course they appear to forget that what I described above was the consequence of the train of events they themselves voted to trigger. As holders of office, they also have obligations as guardians of our constutional settlement including publuc trust with Parliament. As a Remainer, I believe tbeir only honourable and consistent course would be to vote for the WA, rather than place at further risk 100s of years of democratic stability.

  6. Good read.

    For point 3. I'd argue that Vote Leave intentionally employed the "Nirvana Fallacy." Making legitimate criticism of the EU yet not offering any real-world alternatives.