The Threat of Unprepared Deglobalisation: The Case of Brexit

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The Threat of Unprepared Deglobalisation: The Case of Brexit
From the Edited Volume
Edited By:
Dr. John Walsh


The relentless and repeated failure of right-wing free market economics to deliver the benefits claimed for them has meant that proponents of the right have had to search for scapegoats for the failure. One such scapegoat had for some years been the European Union (EU), of which the UK had been a member since 1973, when it was known as the European Economic Community (EEC). A referendum on membership of the EU had been an obsession among a section of the British right for some time but had never appeared likely to materialize until the Conservative Prime Minister (PM) David Cameron promised to hold one as part of an attempt to unite his divided party through renegotiating the relationship with the EU (Copsey & Haughton, 2014). The subsequent campaign was bitter and divisive and characterized by dishonesty on the leave campaign (Elgot, 2018) and support for leave by Russian interests (McGaughey, 2018). Seasoned purveyors of race hate such as Nigel Farage were given an extraordinary amount of mainstream media presence in the interest of ‘balance’ at a time when the national broadcaster, the BBC, is said to have been infiltrated by Conservative agents (Waterson, 2022). Meanwhile, the Remain campaign was bedeviled by seeming complacency and an inability by its leaders to inspire the public with a positive message. The campaigning was not entirely run on political lines, since many on the right recognized the benefits of enhanced trade and cooperation with the country’s close neighbours and the leadership of the Labour party and some prominent trade unions failed in their duty of care to their members by peddling the possibility of a left exit or Lexit as a desirable outcome.

The result of the referendum in 2016 was narrow but a 52-48% victory for leave. This was, alongside the election of President Trump in the USA in the same year, one of the two significant blows to the growth of globalization. By cutting links with institutions and organizations across a wide range of domains, Brexit was clearly a cause of deglobalization. Although rarely presented as such in the popular media, the EU was a successful and effective multilateral organization that provided connectivity in the fields of education, science, security, transportation and many other areas. In the era of cross-border problems such as the climate emergency, attempts to find solutions at the national level are surely doomed to failure. However, the narrow lens of the British media presented the decision as rampant immigration versus a slightly diminished standard of living. Very few people were prepared for the implications of leaving, famously including even those prominent in the leadership of the various leave campaigns. In other chapters of this book, deglobalization has been discussed as a rational response to changing circumstances that can be conducted in an orderly fashion. By contrast, this chapter will describe what happens when deglobalization descends like a thunderbolt for which there has been no preparation. Indeed, the rupture was intensified by each of the two subsequent Conservative PMs who followed Cameron’s post-referendum resignation, Theresa May and Boris Johnson. Neither of these politicians was able to complete the process before being forced out of office, for incompetence in the case of May and in disgrace after numerous scandals and outrages in the case of Johnson. Both made the mode of leaving as severe as they could, rejecting compromise positions which would have maintained better relations between the UK and the remaining 27 members of the EU. Whether a third post-referendum Conservative PM will be able to resolve the remaining contradictions in the current settlement remains to be seen but early portents are dismal.

To a certain extent, Brexit as a representation of deglobalization can be seen as a form of the double movement described by Polanyi (2002). According to this idea, the initial movement is the shift to marketization, in which all resources are commodified. This may lead to aggregate increases in income but can also lead to individual dissatisfaction because of the alienation that exposure to markets can bring. Consequently, there may be a second movement which is to re-embed the economy into society. This has been presented by leavers as the need for national sovereignty, for which it is worth sacrificing a degree of economic well-being. Irrespective of the merits or otherwise of this argument, it has precipitated as dramatic an example of deglobalization as may be seen in recent history and, hence, it is worth considering in this light. In doing so, the example of Davies (2020) has been followed in the sense of real-time sociology, in providing observations and analysis about the very recent past in the understanding that “What they inevitably lack in quantity of hindsight, I hope they make up or in their immediacy, which grants a sense of how things appeared at the time (e19).”

The Claim of Sovereignty

The supposed benefits of Brexit have evolved over the years as reality has replaced propaganda. One of its current faces is ‘sovereignty,’ as in the country has taken back sovereignty from the EU and now can make its own rules. Leavers pretended during the referendum campaign that this would mean higher standards of protection for the environment, for food safety, for workers’ rights and so forth. It was not always pointed out that the same people were also noted proponents of reducing the size of the state and deregulating markets. After the cabinet was purged by Johnson to remove any surviving remain-leaning people in office (although those who had changed their position might have been spared), there seemed to be nothing to stop the Brexit project being forced through in all aspects. The problem was, of course, the continuing failures. Unwilling to acknowledge their mistake, the leavers cast around for people to blame, including French border officials, left-leaning lawyers, the courts, the civil service and even more outlandish suspects.

In place of trade with the EU, which would diminish because of higher costs caused by additional transactions, it was claimed that new trade deals could be supplemented or even replaced by new trade deals with countries in other parts of the world. Trade deals are very complex and time-consuming in nature, particularly because of the increasing importance of services compared to goods and digital trading. Since Brexit, agreements have been signed with Australia and New Zealand but these have yet to come in to force as of August, 2022. A digital trade deal has been completed with Singapore and come into effect. Negotiations have begun with the USA, India, Canada, Mexico, Israel, Ukraine, the Gulf Co-operation Council and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTTP) (Webb, 2022). It is not clear whether any of these negotiations will come into fruition. In other cases, agreements have been concluded with largely replicate arrangements which were in place prior to leaving the UK. The agreement with Australia has been criticized on various grounds, not least because increasingly intensive beef agriculture to export to the other side of the world is not sustainable with the climate emergency. It is certainly true that the government has tried to rush it through parliament with as little scrutiny as possible. Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer under Johnson and contender for next Conservative leader, said the deal, signed by the Foreign Minister Liz Truss and his main rival, was bad for British farmers (Bourke, 2022). Granting Australian beef and lamb exporters unfettered access to the British market does not appear to have been balanced by any benefits to the UK.

The Economic Consequences

The economic consequences of Brexit have been significant, it “… has reduced UK trade openness, foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows, and immigration growth. New border frictions and higher transportation costs pose new barriers to trade, and FDI inflows are unlikely to return to levels reached in the 1990s and 2000s (Posen, 2022).” The global economy has suffered in recent years from the coronavirus pandemic, which affected demand for many goods and services while disrupting supply chains, in addition to its human costs. It was subsequently disrupted further by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has also had an enormous human toll and also dramatically increased energy and food prices. These higher prices have contributed to a higher rate of inflation in many countries than have been seen for some decades. However, Britain has fared worst among leading economies. Figures from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predict that the country’s performance will be the worst in the G7 until the end of 2023 at least (Giles, 2022). The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has predicted that the country will have the lowest growth of any of its members over the same period, with the exception of Russia, which is facing extreme circumstances (Elliott, 2022).

Small businesses have suffered from the increase in paperwork in exporting goods, which now takes longer because of higher numbers of transactions and customer rejection of new practices such as having to charge VAT on delivery (Helm et al., 2022). The ending of freedom of movement has not just contributed to enormous queues at Dover as French border officials are now obliged by law to check documents of would-be entrants but have also led to significant problems but also saw soaring numbers of job vacancies. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) reported that there were nearly 1.3 million job vacancies in May-July, 2022 and this was 478,000 higher than the January-March 2020 pre-coronavirus level (ONS, 2022). Many of these vacancies had previously been filled by EU labour migrants working in the UK. For example, despite the very high prices of food and a worrying level of food insecurity in the country – more than two million people regularly use food banks – some £60 million worth of fruit and vegetables was left to rot in the fields, while thousands of pigs have been culled on farms because of the lack of staff at meat plants (Durisin, 2022).

The fishing industry was claimed to be one which would particularly benefit from Brexit because it would enable new rules on regulatory autonomy, access and quotas. However, the claims made greatly exceeded what has been achieved, partly because of the complexity of agreeing new arrangements without substantial preparation and the expectations had been significantly increased by rhetoric (Stewart et al., 2022). At the same time, the industry has also faced the problems of increased export costs, labour shortages and higher oil costs which have drawn gloomy predictions for the future. Even if vessels were allowed to land as much fish and shellfish as fishing people would expect, sustainability issues would still be in force, as well as longstanding international norms which cannot be just cast aside. The contemporary world relies on complex webs of agreements between states and institutions that that have developed over time and across a wide range of issues. For example, police officers in the UK, while searching for information on missing people, property and vehicles using the Police National Computer were simultaneously (since 2015) using the Schengen Information System (SIS), which provided information from across the EU. This access has now been lost, along with various other forms of information exchange, thereby weakening the ability of the police to provide security (Pearson, 2021). This is just one of a range of non-economic ways in which quality of life has been degraded in the UK post-Brexit.

It’s Not Just the Economy

New EU animal health regulations came into force in 2021, having been previously agreed in 2016 while the UK was still a member. These regulations mean specialist border posts are required to permit rare and exotic animals to enter EU territory. Since no such posts exist in France, the UK’s ability to participate in cross-border animal breeding (necessary for the small numbers present in any one country) has become effectively banned (Tapper, 2022). Farmers with rare breeds are similarly affected. The failure of the UK government to deal seriously with international issues means the value of a British passport, once ranked as the most useful in the world, is now ranked as seventh (Phillips, 2022). Scientists in Britain received some £1.5 billion a year in grants from the EU’s Horizon programme and could lead multi-nation teams but those privileges have been lost (Kupferschmidt, 2020). The UK also withdrew from the EU’s Erasmus+ scheme, which provides support for young people to study across the region and beyond. This scheme particularly benefits students with disadvantaged situations (Charanzová, 2021). The UK government has refused to join as a third party and instead proposed a national Turing system, which has been funded for one year and does not provide support for students coming to the UK (Reuben & Kovacevic, 2021). This is in addition to the loss of opportunities and experience that young people in particular would have derived from the free movement around Europe that had been possible.

Difficult to quantify but clearly of importance has been the continued division of the people and the way this has been enforced by Britain’s powerful right-wing controlled and dominated media. The move to the internet has meant the demise of much local press and exacerbated the problem of concentration of ownership of the major titles. In a YouGov poll, a sample of British people expressed the belief that the British press was more biased to the right than six other European countries (Dahlgreen, 2016).

The extent to which the media controls the public discourse in Britain has been amply demonstrated by coverage of the death of HM Queen Elizabeth II in September, 2022. This coverage was notable for its relentless monotone of reverence and solemnity. Alternative viewpoints were not tolerated and this was enforced by the police and members of the public. When one man called out an insult to Prince Andrew, now notorious for his role in Jeffrey Epstein’s network of human trafficking of minors for sex work, he was tackled to the ground and taken away be the police. Police also arrested a woman peacefully holding aloft a placard. The former footballer Trevor Sinclair tweeted that, as a black man, he was ambivalent about mourning, a howl of outrage led to him being suspended by his employer and being forced to publish an apology (Chantler-Hicks, 2022). Numerous businesses and organizations found themselves required to change their practices, often with unintended comic effect. At the heart of the discourse and its direction was the BBC, which is the state broadcaster and a powerful exponent of British soft power around the world. Flagship programmes such as Radio 4’s Today had had long been pressured to lead on talking points provided by powerful influences such as the Daily Mail, Daily Express and the Sun. A prominent BBC journalist, on leaving the organization, made a well-publicised speech claiming that Conservative party influence was influential in shaping the presentation and content of news (Waterson, 2022). If the BBC seemed happy to comply during the mourning period for the monarch, then this was at least in part because it had been conditioned to do so in the post-Brexit period. Regularly, stories were covered in the news that showed problems in the country but for which Brexit would not be mentioned as a possible cause: extensive delays at the border crossings at Calais (BBC News, 2022a); lack of seasonal workers to support agriculture (Campbell, 2021); growing cost of living crisis and the closure of exporting companies (BBC News, 2022b) are just a few examples of many stories which would have benefited from a frank and honest discussion of the facts.

The Conservative government has regularly demonstrated its hostility to the BBC, as it does from most expressions of collective enterprises. Its threat to remove the compulsory license fee which funds the corporation became more insistent as the party came further under the influence of know nothing American Republicanism. There are early signs that the replacement for Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, plans to repeat the failed experiments of the past through tax cuts for the rich, deregulation of workers’ rights and the abandonment of climate change commitments (Nugent, 2022). Historically, it would be expected that the BBC would be supported in such circumstances by the opposition party but the leadership of the Labour party, Sir Keir Starmer, remained silent, at least in part for fear of being branded as wanting to return to the EU, which is not considered to be a viable policy at the current time and is a stance that is thought to be unpopular in a country exhausted by the unexpected complexity of contemporary politics. Eventually, Starmer announced that his party would seek to fix the problems of Brexit as negotiated by the Conservative party but ruled out rejoining (Walker, 2022). One of the main problems of mounting a revolution is what to do with those who refuse to accept the change. In the case of Brexit, many if not most remainers have kept their heads down for fear of being subjected to online abuse.

Lessons Learned

The forces that have worked together over the years to promote globalization are multiple and multifaceted. Each one is supported by institutional and organizational changes that act to reduce the transaction costs that are created by crossing borders. Many of these changes are in the form of enabling technologies – that is, they enable anyone to take advantage of the reduced transaction costs in any way they can imagine. Consequently, people become accustomed to doing their business in unexpected and unanticipated ways, which also means that the sudden removal of the enabling technology will have unpredictable results. One slight change can have a multiplier effect that can endanger an entire industry. If other acts of deglobalization are to take place, then more effort is required to understand the connections between countries and the actors within them and how they would be affected. In the case of Brexit, it was clear that most people who voted for it did not know what exactly they were voting for and how the changes it would bring would affect their lives – as opposed to the supposed changes that they were told it would bring. If liberal democracy is to survive the concatenation of crises with which we are now beset, then citizens will need to be empowered to make decisions with access to higher quality information, if they wish to avail themselves of it (and assuming they can navigate the labyrinths of online information obscuration that blights the world now).

It has become something of a commonplace enough to observe that global problems require global solutions. However, it remains true. For humanity to survive the climate emergency will require coordination and communications between the governments of the world at various levels and scales. If this is to be conducted successfully at a time of deglobalization, it will certainly require goodwill on all sides and mutual belief that all parties will act in good faith. This is very nearly the exact opposite to what has been happening with respect to Brexit. Not only was the leave campaign duplicitous and dishonest, those politicians entrusted with negotiating the exit signed up for treaties they had no intention of keeping and planned to break international law for political advantage while seeking to place the blame on rules-bound EU intransigence. One clear result of this approach is a sharp reduction in the willingness of involved actors to trust the British government or to extend good will beyond negotiated agreements.

A third lesson to draw from this episode is one that is depressingly inevitable: the poor suffer much more than the rich. Price rises for basic goods necessarily affect poorer people more than the wealthier because expenditure on them represents a higher proportion of their budget. Reduced government revenues have meant no relief from the ideologically-imposed austerity of the Cameron-Osborne period, from which no recovery has been possible. Britain now suffers not just from a cost-of-living crisis and the debts incurred during the coronavirus period (which itself is not yet over) but also from record high waiting lists for medical treatment of all kinds, the spread of precarious living and the breakdown of seemingly all public services, as manifested by the pumping of raw sewage through the country’s rivers and beaches.


There can be a significant difference between instances of deglobalization that are planned and for which appropriate preparations have been made and those which occur as sudden ruptures. Brexit shows what can happen when preparations are absent and people are taken on a journey to a destination obscured from them. The results are much wider and more profound than are evident from an apparently simple binary question. Students of business will be aware of the work necessary for a firm wishing to internationalise, even in the age of easy and mobile internet access and blue skies flights agreements. The issue of de-internationalisation is less well-studied, presumably because of its association with failure. However, this is a process that also requires a great deal of consideration and action, sometimes required to be completed under duress and at speed. Mistakes are easy to make in such circumstances. It is possible to mitigate the worst problems but it is impossible to avoid such damage altogether. The people of Britain will suffer the consequences of what happen when proper decision-making processes are absent.


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