History Books » Contemporary History (1945-)

The best books on Brexit

recommended by Anand Menon

The Oxford Handbook of the European Union edited by Erik Jones, Anand Menon and Stephen Weatherill

The Oxford Handbook of the European Union
edited by Erik Jones, Anand Menon and Stephen Weatherill

Read

Brexit shook British politics in 2016 and, six years on, its long-term consequences both for the UK and for the European Union remain highly uncertain. Here political scientist and Brexit expert Anand Menon recommends books to help you understand Brexit, what caused it and why, and puts those trends in a wider global political context.

Interview by Benedict King

The Oxford Handbook of the European Union edited by Erik Jones, Anand Menon and Stephen Weatherill

The Oxford Handbook of the European Union
edited by Erik Jones, Anand Menon and Stephen Weatherill

Read

Before we get into the books, Theresa May famously said, “Brexit means Brexit”. I just wondered, six years after it happened, have we got a clear sense of what Brexit means, or is going to mean?

We’ve got a sense of what Brexit is, in the sense that we have a trade deal that specifies the nature of our relationship with the EU. So that much is a lot clearer than it was. What Brexit means is a far bigger question, in terms of its longer-term implications for the EU, for our relationship with the EU, and for the future of this country. Those things we don’t know yet because, of course, they’re going to evolve over time.

Let’s look at the books you’ve chosen. First up is Brexitland: Identity, Diversity and the Reshaping of British Politics by Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford. Tell us about this one.

I hate saying things like this, but this is quite possibly one of the best books on the state of our politics now. They’re very good at using public opinion data and what they do is trace the Brexit identity division right the way back into the 1960s and ’70s. Then they show where that division comes from, that it’s been there for a long time, and how its activation and reinforcement by the referendum has gone on to impact on politics so spectacularly. So it’s a history of contemporary British politics, as well as a very, very nice explanation of where we’ve got to and why.

Does it have a particular take on the referendum of 2016, or the drivers of Brexit?

It does in the sense that it describes these tribes that existed well before the referendum, sort of social values tribes, which made them very different to the traditional left-right tribes of our politics. It illustrates the way in which one of the implications of the referendum was to give those tribes meaning, identity and names, which reinforced them. The crucial point, I suppose, is that a lot of people say, ‘Oh, Brexit has created this divide’. And what this book does is show that actually it did nothing of the sort. That divide was there for ages, it had just never been mobilised quite as effectively as it was by calling a referendum, in contrast to an election. That provided a different set of rules that directly spoke to this particular division.

And does it argue that the divisions were about identity and that economics was very much subordinate?

It was about identity. It was about immigration. It was about feelings of security and insecurity. It was about a whole host of things that aren’t necessarily directly relevant to or directly linked to your class status, or how your economic preferences work. The crucial thing was that it remade some of the coalitions in British politics.

Let’s move on to There’s Nothing For You Here by Fiona Hill. She’s an Anglo-American policy expert, isn’t she? How does her book relate to Brexit?

Fiona’s a Brit from the North East. She went to Harvard after her undergraduate degree and has stayed in the States ever since, ending up working in Trump’s White House. She became famous because she gave evidence to the impeachment hearings in Congress. On the back of that, she has written a book which is part analysis, part autobiography. It is very, very different to the other books here in the sense that it is autobiographical.

“Very few people changed their minds”

It does several things. She makes some interesting points about her time with the Trump White House, about social mobility and the difficulty she faced as a working-class girl from the North East when it came to navigating university admissions and things like that and the outright snobbery that she faced. She also makes this rather unexpected comparison between Russia, the US and the UK, and how, in their own different ways, they’re wrestling with very serious problems to do with de-industrialization and how you cope with that.

Is she just setting out the landscape, or does she offer some solutions? Does she have some idea about how to make politics function better in the face of these difficulties about de-industrialization?

I don’t think I would commend the book for the solutions it offers, but more for its first-person perspective. It’s a very personal exploration of some of the issues that the other books address.

In this country is she looking at the so-called ‘red wall’ seats and why they voted for Brexit?

Yes, precisely. She’s talking about the places where Brexit support came from, which is to say smaller towns, particularly the smaller economically badly performing towns. Places like Bishop Auckland, where she grew up, fit into that quite neatly. It’s partly social history. It’s partly personal history. But it’s a nice book. It’s a good read. She’s had a fascinating life.

Excellent. Let’s move on to the book you wrote with Geoffrey Evans, Brexit and British Politics. Why did you write it and what does it say about Brexit?

I felt a bit ashamed putting our own book in, but anyway… The story of this book is quite a sad story in the sense that we sent the first complete manuscript to the publishers on the day that Theresa May called her snap election in 2017. I cannot remember ever being so hacked off about a political development in my whole life, because of course, it meant that we had to wait and incorporate the election.

What we wanted to do was have a first cut at showing what drove the outcome of that referendum in 2016 and what it might mean for British politics from then on. It was very, very early in the game and many of the other books—Robert and Maria’s and a couple of the books that we’re going to come to—are far better at reflecting in a calm and cool way what was going on. But we just wanted to put down our first thoughts on what was happening to the British electorate because of Brexit, and what that might mean.

And what was your first take?

In terms of the referendum campaign itself, which I think this book talks more about that than any of the other books, several things are noteworthy. One important finding is that very few people changed their minds, not just during the referendum campaign, but actually in the few years leading up to it from about 2012 through to 2016. There’s tremendous stability of opinion. We explain that by saying that this is because these opinions are rooted in identity and identities don’t change very quickly, if at all.

Secondly, the flip side of that is that the Leave campaign was very, very effective, not in convincing people, but in getting people who were already convinced to go out and vote. One of the statistics that sticks in my mind is that 2.8 million people who could have voted in the 2015 election, but didn’t, voted in the 2016 referendum. So a lot of people who weren’t in the habit of voting in general elections were motivated to go out and vote in the referendum, which is one of the reasons why we saw the result that we did.

Let’s move on to Listen, Liberal by Thomas Frank. What does this book about the United States tell us about Brexit?

For those who don’t know him, Thomas Frank writes beautifully. He’s very, very readable. What he’s looking at in this book is the way the Democratic Party lost its working-class base. What struck me is that it’s a very similar story—a slightly more analytical version— from the United States of Fiona Hill’s story. It’s about the Democrats falling in love with high tech and with innovation and forgetting those working-class voters who have traditionally made up the core of their support. Many of those working-class voters defected to vote for Donald Trump. It’s a salutary reminder that, as Fiona says in her book, many of the factors driving developments in the United States are identical to those in the UK. Central to all that is deindustrialization. What do you do with places that were industrial powerhouses once the industries move out? The book’s an indictment of the US political class, and particularly the Democrats for not thinking more about this and not doing more for those people.

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About a year and a half after the referendum Thomas Frank wrote a really interesting piece in The Guardian, comparing one of the places he looked at in the United States in Massachusetts with Wakefield, my hometown, which drew out the comparison explicitly. That comparison is not there in the book, but it’s latent there and you can look for it.

Let’s move on to the final book The British General Election of 2019 by Robert Ford, Paula Surridge, Will Jennings and Tim Bale.

This is the Nuffield election series publication on this election. The series has been going since the 1940s. It is simply the best book on the general election if you want to know what happened and how the parties approached it. The beautiful thing about this book and all the books in the series is that, because it’s an established series, everyone talks to them. All the insiders, the people who did the data, the people who draw up the manifestos will all talk to the authors. So you get this fantastic coverage, but it’s very, very detailed and it takes a long time to read. But if you want an insight into what happened in 2019, this is the single best thing you can read.

And how does it talk about Brexit playing into that election?

Arguably that’s the wrong question to ask me personally because I co-wrote the Brexit chapter. But Brexit played into it very, very strongly indeed. I think there’s more reason to call the 2019 election the Brexit election than there was to call 2017 the Brexit election, for a variety of reasons. One important one was sheer fatigue. Voters who wouldn’t perhaps have been amenable to vote for a simple three-word slogan—’Take Back Control’—three years earlier, by 2019 would have done anything to put themselves out of the misery of Brexit. That was one of the strengths of the Boris Johnson campaign—his message of ‘Get Brexit Done’. And, of course, he was helped by the fact that the Labour position, drawn up by Jeremy Corbyn and Kier Starmer, was ‘we will drag this out, we’ll have a referendum, we’ll stay neutral in the referendum because we still, after four years, can’t quite figure out where we stand on this’. So there was absolute clarity on the key issue of the day versus absolute fudge on the clear issue of the day. That helped the Tories enormously.

Interview by Benedict King

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Anand Menon

Anand Menon

Anand Menon is Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at Kings College London. He also directs the UK in a Changing Europe project. He is co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of the European Union, and co-author of Brexit and British Politics.

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Anand Menon

Anand Menon

Anand Menon is Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at Kings College London. He also directs the UK in a Changing Europe project. He is co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of the European Union, and co-author of Brexit and British Politics.