Brexit: a revolution by or against the establishment?

Sunday 3 November, 14:0015:30, Auditorium 2Battle for Democracy


The Brexit process is frequently described as a revolution, whether that be constitutional, democratic or plebeian. But this raises the question of who is precisely in revolt and against what. For many Brexiteers, Brexit was a revolution of the masses against an out-of-touch and unaccountable political elite, whether in parliament or in Brussels. But many Remainers describe it as a revolt of well-to-do, free-market obsessed Tories against the rights and protections enshrined in EU laws. More literally, Brexit is often characterised as an attempt to ‘turn back’ to a mythical past where Britain was strong and sovereignty was nation-based.

However, it seems that Brexit defies such easy characterisations. In the media, the assumption seems to be that Brexit voters are all from deprived midland or northern towns, and that no one in London voted to leave. Yet, the statistics tell a different story: the largest number of Leave votes were in the South East, with Brexiteers there casting over 600,000 more votes than the North West. Equally, it can be hard to say that Remainers are ‘establishment’ figures when Corbyn’s Labour Party backs a customs union and there are many young, precariously employed voters who back Remain.

Nonetheless, Brexit has certainly revealed and created new fault lines in UK politics. Recent polling seems to suggest that very few people primarily identify with a political party, instead identifying as Leave or Remain. On top of this, it seems that the parliamentary parties are hopelessly split by Brexit, with many forecasting major splits and eventual realignment. Already, a group of Labour and Conservative MPs have left their respective parties to create Change UK, and the Brexit Party performed strongly in European Elections and seeks to attract disillusioned voters from both the Tories and Labour. At the very least, a revolutionary aspect of Brexit is that people are more open to discussing political ideas, from sovereignty to parliamentary procedures and nationalisation to trade agreements, that were only recently regarded as arcane or off-limits. There have also been allegations of a rise in racism in different forms (be it anti-Semitism or anti-European chauvinism) coinciding with the Brexit vote.

So, what exactly has Brexit revealed about UK politics? Can Brexit be understood as representing a genuinely revolutionary moment in British history, or are there much deeper, longer-term trends that explain the current moment? Is Brexit a useful corrective and a return to popular politics, or will the fall-out expose irreconcilable fault lines for years to come?