Understanding Brexit at a Local Level: Causes of Discontent and Asymmetric Impacts
Referendums and Initiatives
The 2016 UK EU membership referendum has not only contributed to revealing, and arguably exacerbating, significant levels of political polarisation and populism in Britain, but also the inability of social scientists to influence authoritatively political debates (Murray et al 2017, Clarke and Newman 2017). Research evidence has not been a decisive factor shaping either public views or political choices on the issue. Misperceptions on the issue of Brexit have been pervasive (UKICE and Ipsos MORI 2018). So far, most economic studies on Brexit have been conducted at a macro level (e.g. Breinlich et al, 2017, Dhingra et al 2017, Los et al 2017, CEP 2018). Likewise the analyses by political scientists have focused chiefly on the decisions and implications at national level or on the negotiation process between the UK and EU (e.g. Hobolt 2016, Goodwin and Heath 2016, Curtice 2017). In order to better understand the results of the June 2016 referendum, as well as its likely consequences for the UK, it is necessary not only to observe the macroeconomic trends and the discourses from Westminster and Brussels, but also pay a closer attention to what Brexit means to ordinary citizens. Thus, this paper is based on a reflexive participatory research process involving citizens, policy-makers, business people and civil-society representatives. It contextualises the most prominent academic explanations and predictions about Brexit at a local level, via the investigation of local sources and discussions with local stakeholders.
This paper synthetises the findings of the research project Debating Brexit at Local Level: a mixed methods comparative study which took place between January 2018 and March 2019 in five local authority areas of England and Wales: Barnet, Ceredigion, Mansfield, Pendle and Southampton. It argues that the ideational factors that explain the Leave vote, such as discontent with globalisation, migration and the perceived threats to identity, are to a large extent rooted in some local socio-economic, political and geographic structural characteristics. While at the ideational level the Leave vote can be interpreted as a defensive reaction that seeks to preserve identity and culture, from a material socio-economic point of view, this vote means the opposite: a disruptive force aiming to truncate the current path of economic development and promote change. This article also shows that the impacts of Brexit are likely going to be primarily negative and largely asymmetric. The consequences of the disruption of trade flows, particularly for industries with complex logistic chains, the shortage of skilled labour, and the problems substituting EU funding and payments are key sources of concerns for local stakeholders and seem to outset the opportunities Brexit may create. Political and economic uncertainty seems to be precluding clarity at the level of post-Brexit governance. Furthermore, it is not clear that leaving the EU would help to substantially mitigate the problems which are at the origin of the discontent motivating the Leave vote. On the contrary new ‘losers’ may emerge during the process of economic adjustment. Many will continue to feel ‘left-behind’.