Referendums and Politics – Part I

May 1, 2019 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

R.G. Williams

I. Referendums and Politics

This short essay is a study of the role of Brexit in British politics. Great Britain, since 2008, since 2010, and since 2016, has gone through a difficult period. This difficult period has been caused by the politics of crisis, the politics of Brexit, and the politics of the Referendum of 2016. Britain has also been divided on Europe and its place in Europe since the 1970s – since Britain joined the EEC in 1973. The Referendum of June 2016 is important because it has resulted in Britain voting to leave Europe and the European Union. In Britain, today, referendums are once again political and controversial parts of modern British politics — given the result of the June 2016 Referendum on Europe. In Britain, today, there is a great political crisis in Britain due to the June 2016 Referendum. There have been few referendums in British history and British politics. In the case of the history of the United Kingdom, the only political examples of referendums all come from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries — mainly the Referendums of 1975, 1979, 1997, 1998, 2011, 2014, and the Brexit Referendum of June 2016. The Referendum of June 2016 in Britain, on Britain and Europe, was an important referendum in itself — and for political history in Britain. Britain, today, is a society in crisis — which has been a reality for Britain ever since the beginning of the current crisis of Capitalism in 2007 and 2008. The Referendum of 2016 shows that British Capitalism is a society which is incapable of solving its own problems and its own crises — despite the flawed attempts of the Conservative Party and the Conservative government. The crisis of Capitalism, Austerity, and Brexit is a real crisis in Britain. It is time for Britain to think about a new politics — politics which can solve both the problems of Brexit and the problems of Britain today. There is a firm need for Socialist politics and Left politics in Britain today. The Referendum of June 2016 needs to be understood — both for politics in Britain today and for politics in Britain in the future. This essay is about the political results which have emerged in Britain since the Referendum of June 2016. This essay is a Socialist essay about the political results which have emerged in Britain since June 2016.

The June 2016 Referendum, already, marks a major turning point in British politics, British society, and British history, since 1945. Indeed, the crisis of Brexit is a direct result of the wider crisis of British Capitalism over Britain’s place in Europe and Britain’s place in the European Union. For both the Left and the Right of British politics the Referendum shows both dangers and opportunities. The Referendum of June 2016 is, of course, a vital event in British politics. It is perhaps the greatest event in British foreign relations since the Referendum of 1975 on British membership of the EEC. Already the outcome of the June Referendum has generated a major crisis in British politics. The June 2016 Referendum will continue to affect British politics for a long time.

II. The Referendum of June 2016

In the Referendum of June 2016, the British people voted, by a small margin, to leave the European Union. With the Referendum over Europe, we have reached a decisive turning point in British history and in British politics. Indeed, it seems every crisis in Britain, since 2016, can be connected to the crisis of Brexit. Of course, Britain’s problems go deeper than Brexit, but the Referendum of June 2016 seems to be the basis of most political thinking about contemporary Britain — all of its politics, all of its problems, and all of its issues. The June 2016 Referendum on Europe and the European Union in the United Kingdom generated many political questions and historical questions. The Referendum only highlighted the problems of Great Britain. The Referendum did nothing to solve the problems of Great Britain. The major political problem and political crisis in Britain today is the problem of Brexit. The other major political problem and political crisis in Britain today is the problem of Capitalism.1

III. Brexit and Politics

Brexit has changed British politics and British society. Brexit has also changed Europe and European politics. In this new political reality, there is a chance for a better Britain, a better Europe, and a better politics. There is a chance for a better Left. The result of Brexit and the crisis of the European Union may, in fact, have positive results for both Britain, Europe, and the Left. Brexit will, however, probably only result in economic problems and political problems for Britain and the British people — indeed, it will probably produce a political disaster and a social disaster — but it will also force Britain and the British people to rethink their politics and their society. The reality of Brexit might yet show the failure of the Neo-Liberal vision of Britain, the EU, and the EEC — and force the Neo-Liberal reality of Europe today into a deeper crisis. From this a better vision of a united Europe, even a Socialist Europe, might replace it. The call of the Left, today, for ‘European Unity’, against Neo-Liberalism, the Right, and the Far-Right, is a good and correct one — but it must be a better type of European unity than the one which gave rise to the crisis of Brexit and the crisis of the Eurozone. A Left vision of Europe must emerge. The European ideal and the European project is still a worthy vision — despite its Neo-Liberal reality and despite the politics of the Eurosceptics. The British Left and the European Left cannot afford to leave Europe to simply the politics of the Neo-Liberals and the Far-Right.2 A Social Europe might yet develop from Neo-Liberal Europe.

IV. Fears and Politics

Brexit has generated a major political crisis in Britain. The crisis of Brexit is the largest crisis in modern British history — at least since the 1940s. The first major result of the Referendum has been to reshape Britain, and reshape politics in Britain, into a politics of crisis. The Referendum shows that Britain is facing a major crisis — made worse by the crisis of Capitalism and by the crisis of Austerity. The result of the Referendum has also been to change the debate on the place of Britain in the wider Capitalist world and of the place of Britain as a Capitalist state. These results are an inevitable result now, even given the still speculative nature over ‘Brexit’ as such and Britain’s future place in both Europe and within the wider structure of Capitalist states. The result, obviously, also brings the whole historical relationship between Britain and the European Union into sharp focus. The point that Britain voted to exit the Union after over four decades within the Union hints at British problems since the beginning with the European Project, and European issues with British stubbornness since Britain entered the EEC in 1973. The vote, necessarily, shows that Britain is in crisis and is currently facing a major social crisis. Brexit, itself, shows that Britain is unable to think about its problems. It is perhaps time for a new Left and a new Socialist politics to emerge in Britain. The current crisis shows that the Neo-Liberal era has been nothing but a dead-end for Britain and for British society — as shown by the reality of the crisis of Brexit. Indeed, the crisis of Brexit is simply one part of the wider crisis of Neo-Liberalism.3

The political structure of Britain has been thrown into crisis by Brexit. The Conservative Party is in crisis over Brexit. The Labour Party is in crisis over Brexit. The fact that Brexit has completely undermined the very nature of politics in Britain has given rise to some very serious fears in British politics and British society. Britain faces the future with many fears over the nature of Brexit.

British politics has also been changed by the recent General Elections and by the Referendum. The general political result of the recent Referendum (2016) and the recent General Elections (2010 and 2015) has been to re-open the political reality of Great Britain today — into a new political reality and historical reality for both the Right and the Left, for both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, for all Conservatives, Liberals, and Socialists. While the current Conservative government has managed to survive to today the recent political developments in recent years suggest that a Labour government might be possible in Britain in the near future. In terms of British politics these events also highlight the political nature of Britain’s wider crises since the 2000s and into the 2010s. For the British Left this provides a new basis for thinking about British politics today. In political terms the Referendum and the General Elections highlight political problems in Britain. They also highlight the current problems of any current government in Britain.

V. Britain’s Politics

The Referendum of June 2016 changed British politics — by creating a crisis. Despite this, the crisis of Brexit is only one part of the crisis of British politics and British society — a crisis which has been developing since the beginning of the Neo-Liberal era and since the crisis of 2008.4 The Referendum has changed all of British politics. British politics has been politically rocked by the nature of the Referendum result, in a way that has not usually happened in British politics since the turning points of the 1970s and of the 1980s. This development, in itself, highlights something of the impact that the Referendum of 2016 might have on wider British politics and British society. At the present moment, even with the possibility of an early General Election, it is impossible to know the eventual political results which will ultimately develop from the Referendum and its result, whether it will be the Right or Left which gains from the result. What is certain now, from the perspective of contemporary British history and contemporary British politics, is that the Referendum has destroyed a certain type of British politics — both for the Right and for the Left. The Conservative Party is broken, split, and divided now over the European question. The Labour Party could form a Labour government in the coming years. There is a chance, now, that a serious Left can emerge in Britain. The nature of British politics, since the Referendum, is currently unknown — for possibly the first time since 1979 and 1997. The struggle between the Left and the Right, in British politics, will probably intensify in the coming decades.

VI. Results

No one knows the likely result of Brexit. No one knows if it will be good or bad. The social results and economic consequences of Brexit can only be guessed at, at this stage of politics and of history. It is impossible to determine, at this stage, the impact of Brexit — or the results for Britain and for British society. It is vital though, that the British Left does not allow itself to be divided over Brexit.

Brexit will probably happen. Britain might leave the EU in the end. Britain might not leave the EU in the end. Despite this nothing about Brexit is certain. Indeed, it is still possible that Brexit will never actually happen — despite the Referendum. Britain might leave Europe and the EU, but it cannot leave European Capitalism. Neither can it cease to be a Capitalist state — without undergoing a much more serious change.5 As with many other examples of ‘inevitable events’ in politics and history, Brexit might eventually collapse into a non-event — with the Referendum of June 2016 itself being ignored like other referendums in history and politics. Britain’s position over Europe, like much else in politics, will come down to economics, politics, and political necessity, rather than simply a simple vote of ‘remain’ or ‘leave’. History is full of examples, particularly in the last two centuries, of when referendums and referendum results have been acknowledged as valid but then have been ignored out of hand when political or historical situations themselves changed. The French Constitution of 1793, for example, was passed overwhelmingly by referendum but then was ignored when the French Revolutionary Wars undermined the French Republic in October 1793. The 1991 Referendum to maintain the Soviet Union was passed but then was also ignored when political circumstances themselves also changed in 1991, leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union — despite the democratic will of the Soviet people to maintain the Soviet Union. Brexit itself might end up as a similar referendum to those two historical examples — a democratic referendum which eventually gets ignored by political results and by political realities. Brexit itself, Britain’s leaving of the EU, though, is still likely to happen. At the very least Britain’s relationship with the EU, the heart of the dispute of Brexit, will change. British politics, both Left and Right, must shift because of that political reality. There is still room, however, for chance or accident to occur in Brexit. No one knows how Brexit might develop or not develop. Brexit is simply part of the crisis of Britain, the crisis of Europe, and the crisis of Britain and Europe.


1. S. Watkins, Casting Off?, (2016)
2. T. Nairn, The Left against Europe?, (1972)
3. W. Streeck, The Crises of Democratic Capitalism, (2011)
4. W. Streeck, The Crises of Democratic Capitalism, (2011)
5. T. Ali, The Extreme Centre, (2015)




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This post was written by R.G. Williams

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