Why Brexit might be good for Europe – and for social equality

James Wickham29/10/2015

James Wickham: As the Brexit referendum draws closer, progressive Europeans might start asking: do we really want them anyway? Arguably a Brexit would strengthen that amorphous thing, the ‘European project’, not least because it could begin to restore Europe’s progressive dimension.

The only partly European part of the island
Britain’s relation to the European project has always been ambiguous. The imperial legacy means unparalleled international connections at all levels of society – but to the Angloworld, not to Europe.

Consider for example, British emigration, that great untold story of migration studies. If a diaspora is defined as people living outside the country in which they were born, then in 2002 only China and India had a larger diaspora than Britain (Sriskandarajah and Drew 2006). Throughout the 20th century this British emigration went largely to the USA and the old ‘white’ Commonwealth. There has also been considerable population movement the other way, although in recent decades dwarfed by immigration from India and Pakistan. Notice finally, that while emigration has been a British experience, immigration flows have been disproportionately to England.

Revealingly there is no British equivalent of the Italian term extracommunitari (people from outside the [European] community). Indeed the planned referendum on EU membership will use the normal franchise for UK parliamentary elections: British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK will be allowed to vote, EU citizens resident in the UK will not. Thus a Pakistani citizen resident in the UK can vote on British EU membership, a French citizen resident in the UK cannot.

Across Europe virtually all Europeans define their identity primarily in national terms. People remain first and foremost French, Polish or whatever. According to Eurobarometer data, within each nation however a few people define themselves as exclusively European, and a few more define themselves as primarily European ‘and also of… nationality’. The significant groups are firstly, those who define themselves in exclusively national terms, and secondly, those who define themselves as primarily national but also ‘European’.

The UK has always been remarkable for the large size of the first group and the small size of the second group. Thus today nearly two thirds of the UK population defines itself in purely national terms – a proportion that is not just higher than in the founding member states of France and Germany, but higher than in such very different states such as Greece, Ireland and Poland (see Chart).

It is therefore hardly surprising that the European Union’s ‘ever closer union of [European] peoples’ has little popular resonance.

Source: Eurobarometer database

Not just history
In many ways the British social structure is now less European than before. In all of Europe the degradation (and denigration) of its traditional working class has gone furthest, its management is the most Americanised. Income distribution has become more unequal and so, despite considerable amelioration under the New Labour governments (1996 – 2010), the UK has some of the most extreme poverty of Western Europe.

The changes since the Thatcher revolution have made Britain a more market-based society. Thus the UK is close to the USA in the extent and form of what I term ‘lite wealth’ – ordinary private property (the house, the car, life insurance, private pension). While other European countries, especially the Southern ones, also have extensive private property, the UK is unique in the extent to which this property has been made fungible by the retail financial services industry. This financialisation of ordinary property makes British property very different to the illiquid family property of so many Italian or Greek households.

In the past Italy with its North/South divide was the European country with the greatest regional differences. Now a similar gap has opened between London and the South on the one hand and the Northern cities on the other hand. At stake here is the end of any serious government attempt to achieve balanced growth across the national territory. In the USA regional policy essentially amounts to slash and burn, and Britain now seems very similar. Conversely, London is Europe’s only real global city: the only city in Europe where financial services are on the same scale as those of New York. London’s global links are partly built on links derived from the imperial heritage, but they accelerate them into the future.

Re-institutionalising the market
British government policy towards the EU calls for completion of the single market. At the same time successive UK governments have completely ignored that if a single market is to have any legitimacy it will require more European institutions and a European regional policy, a European social policy and European employment regulation. The UK has often opposed labour market regulations and/or obtained opt-outs (such as the partial opt-out from the Working Time Directive).

Indeed it appears that one UK demand will be the repatriation of much labour regulation, thus ensuring that UK workers have even fewer employment rights than they do at the moment. There is a real danger that the UK’s demands for ‘reform’ (aka regression) will lead to a weakening of employment regulation across Europe.

European progressives should stop regarding a Brexit as a disaster. British policy has promoted a widening but not a deepening of Europe. This is hardly surprising, because what British governments – and indeed most UK citizens – have wanted is at most a Common Market. A British exit could therefore remove one brake on social Europe.

Prof. James Wickham is Lead Researcher on TASC's Working Conditions in Ireland Project

Sriskandarajah, Dhananjayan and Catherine Drew (2006). Brits Abroad. London: IPPR.

Professor James Wickham

James Wickham

James Wickham was Jean Monnet Professor of European Labour Market Studies and Professor in Sociology at Trinity College Dublin. He has published widely on employment, transport and migration in Ireland and Europe; he is the author of Gridlock: Dublin’s Transport Crisis and the Future of the City and co-author of New Mobilities in Europe: Polish Migration to Ireland post-2004.  His book Unequal Europe: Social divisions and social cohesion in an old continent analysed the collapse of the European Social Model; his new text book European Societies (Routledge 2020) examines the structures of inequality in contemporary Europe.  He is a former director of TASC. 



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