Don’t be fooled, political scientists did see Brexit comingon 2 December 2016
By Matt Wood
This week the artist Grayson Perry took a swipe at political science at the annual PSA Awards, claiming the profession completely failed to foresee Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. The notion that Brexit was a defeat for political science seems to have become a commonly accepted lesson from the vote on June 23rd this year. For some, this was because the quantitative polling methods that widely predicted a narrow win for Remain were wide of the mark. For others, it was because political science has avoided its professional and ethical duties in defending informed public debate.
In this blog I’m going to challenge this narrative. I’m going to offer some reasons why political scientists in fact did see Brexit coming, in the form of a deep and intractable crisis of legitimacy for the EU. The clickbait-style title of the blog is intended to be provocative. Evidently, most political scientists did not predict the specific outcome of the referendum vote. However, we have long diagnosed democratic weaknesses in the EU’s fuzzy and incoherent governance structures, noted how weak European identity is, and even argued for ‘taking back control’ ourselves.
The Democratic Deficit
For decades political scientists have been warning that the European Union has faced a fundamental crisis of democratic legitimacy – what was termed the ‘democratic deficit’. In a widely cited article published ten years ago, Professors Simon Hix and Andreas Follesdal noted with some exhaustion that ‘The fate of the Constitutional Treaty for Europe after the French and Dutch referendums will no doubt prompt further volumes of academic books and articles on the ‘democratic deficit’ in the European Union (EU). The topic already receives huge attention”. They were right; the ‘democratic deficit’ debate goes back to some of the foundational debates about the EU in the academic ‘literature’. Influential scholars have weighed in with ideas of how to alleviate the problem. Giandomenico Majone, one of the doyens of EU scholarship, has even very visibly changed his view on the EU, arguing in a recent book the Union now faces an existential crisis related to the Eurozone.
If anything, political science has moved beyond simplistic arguments that people would support the EU just because it is good for economic growth. In an animation released by the Sir Bernard Crick Centre during the referendum campaign, we highlighted the dangers posed to the European project by the democratic deficit. The media debate, though, was dominated by economists, global figureheads and business leaders who still thought economic arguments would be enough. Our video clearly wasn’t as well watched as we would have hoped! But even it had been, would anyone have noticed?
The second glaring issue political science got right before the referendum was the clear and consistent finding that British people (and Europeans more generally) simply do not feel European. Recent Eurobarometer findings show just how few citizens of Europe, and Britain especially, actually feel uniquely European, as well as their focus on key challenges like immigration. More broadly political scientists have criticized the notion of European identity, recently arguing for example: “European identity remains a ‘dry, institutional, symbolic conception’ … which has failed to reach the ‘hearts and the guts of the peoples of Europe’”. We’ve also uncovered how those who are most committed to the European project are liberally minded Erasmus students or business people who tend to travel regularly between European countries.
This does not strike me as putting our heads in the sand, or failing to see the ‘Brexistential crisis’ coming. It’s entirely consistent with what most commentators have been saying post-referendum. Perhaps if we’d written more blogs about this identity crisis, the public would have sat up and taken notice? Perhaps if we acted more like think tanks, political talking heads or Sun columnists, we would get more of a hearing?
There may be something to this, but the question though is if political scientists don’t write enough for public audiences, would anyone actually listen to us if we started writing more? Would they be any more likely to listen to us on the benefits of EU membership than, say, the Bank of England, Ryanair or the International Monetary Fund?
Taking back control
The last, perhaps more controversial point, is many prominent political scientists have been arguing in favour of themes used by the Leave campaign for quite some time now. While focused mainly around globalisation, a number of political scientists and political economists have been saying that communities, activists and governments should be challenging globalisation and transnational institutions. They’ve argued these institutions are disastrous, undemocratic and obscure. Politics, they argued, should be about having ‘control’; having collective agency, engaging in deliberation and promoting democratic choice. This is certainly what we think in the Anti-politics specialist group of the PSA. Some of us have been saying talk of ‘globalisation’ disincentivises public engagement and participation. Others have been making the broader argument that we shouldn’t accept the ‘neoliberal’ settlement as inevitable.
All these themes were used to devastating effect by the Leave campaign. They created political engagement in some areas of the country not seen since Tony Blair’s 1997 electoral victory. Put in a mischievous way, if political scientists had hoped for stimulating mass political engagement and challenging ‘anti-politics’, then they have, in many ways succeeded. They just haven’t succeeded in the way they would have hoped.
Should we conclude Brexit has been a resounding success? Are we all eminently happy with a possible new world order of closed borders and economic uncertainty? Many political scientists would not wish to settle for that. What it does suggest, I think, is we need to look at our own emotive attachments, and whether we do our jobs properly as ‘critical friends’ of the institutions we study. If anything has been surprising, it has been how dismayed many of us claim to be about Brexit, given that political science has been highlighting the limitations of the EU, discontent with globalisation and so on for decades. Could it be, then, we need to reflect on our attachments and orientations as a discipline, rather than the specific ‘research findings’ and how they are ‘communicated’?
Perhaps our feelings of existential crisis have more to do with the funding and culture of universities themselves, than whether our actual research findings are ‘valid’? As the impact agenda has taken hold, we have grown closer to government, European bodies, think tanks, and other ‘elite’ organisations. While we should help out those organisations and fulfil our commitments as advisors and communicators, we should never forget academics need to have the role of ‘critical friends’ in helping these institutions out. That’s what distinguishes our profession. The idea is we take what the best evidence and theory tells us, not being afraid to point out the flaws in the system, as well as being honest about the limitations of our findings.
We are witnessing the crisis of a transnational system that, for all its faults, many political scientists feel an emotive connection to, often due to feelings of solidarity and liberal values of openness and tolerance. At the same time we understand the EU’s inherent weaknesses, the desire of local communities, beset by divisions and inequalities, to ‘take back control’. We understand how deeply undemocratic the project has been, and feel we must be critical.
This creates dilemmas. Many of us balk at the idea of supporting ‘elite’ institutions, but at the same time don’t wish to bias our research to movements campaigning to ‘take back control’ even if we believe there may be merits to this. If anything, maybe this dilemma means we put our heads in the sand about the momentous consequences of the referendum, rather than being short of explanations for why it happened. Now more than ever, good evidence is needed to improve public policy responses to the great challenges of our time. Governments need political science more than ever. But we should be confident in being critical of mainstream media and public opinion, whether that is as electoral commentators, advisors to government, or wider public speakers.
Matt Wood is Lecturer at the University of Sheffield Department of Politics, Deputy Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre and ESRC Future Research Leaders Fellow. His current research focuses on the legitimacy of the European Union. He tweets @Woodpoliticshef.
Image: Rareclass CC BY-NC-ND