Brexit and Britain's Left – a divided countermovement?

Andreas Novy 

Brexit has been the result of decades-long neoliberalisation in the United Kingdom, which has produced severe social cleavages and a delegitimized political system. Privatisation, soaring inequalities as well as the introduction of a managerial logic in the delivery of social services have undermined habitation – be it traditional forms of life, trust in institutions or a sense of belonging. Although Brexit can not be understood without Britain´s neoliberalisation, Brexit was not simply a countermovement against omnipresent marketization, from education to health and everything. If it were, Labour would have won the 2019 elections with its ambitious program of strengthening public services and implementing redistribution. Besides the double movement of marketization, which creates countermovements for decommodified social protection, socio-cultural dynamics have been crucial in contemporary struggles. 


To understand Brexit, a Cultural Political Economy perspective is required. In The Great Transformation, socio-cultural dynamics are conceptualized as “improvement and habitation”, which is a dialectics of modernization and traditionalist resistance. The dialectics of improvement (“modernization”) and habitation (routinized forms of life) can be politicized as a countermovement against neoliberalism, but also as a socio-cultural movement to defend accustomed forms of life against liberal cosmopolites and elites in “London” and “Brussels”. First by voting in favor of Brexit, and then for Johnson, a sufficient section of the working and lower middle classes voted against the status quo, perceived as a detrimental and unjust form of modernization. “Bringing back control”, in this understanding, insists in the validity of democratic decisions. In the 2016 Brexit vote it aimed at stabilizing accustomed habitation by allying with nationalism and xenophobia, identifying the EU as scapegoat of externally imposed (and doubtful) improvement. Instead of class cleavages, other cleavages dominated the confrontation: cosmopolitan London and the South East against the left-behind North, the younger against the older generation.

Why was the Left unable to account for this desire for habitation? What can be learned from these entangled dynamics of economic integration (presented as “improvements”) and traditionalist socio-cultural protection (presented as “habitation”)? How can the inherent contradictions in opposing “the status quo” be used for progressive politics?

Ann Pettifor, UK/South Africa
Bob Jessop & Ngai-Ling Sum, UK
Mikael Stigendal, Sweden
Matthew Watson, UK
Kevin Morgan, UK