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Transcript: Brexit: Dividing the United Kingdom

[Listen to the podcast audio here.]

On June 23rd, 2016, 52% of voters in the United Kingdom stunned the British political and media establishment—and the entire world—by voting to leave the European Union. Nearly three years, later, however, the final outcome of Brexit remains uncertain. And issues that affect the lives of millions hang in the balance, from the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and Britons living in the EU, to the status of the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

In this month’s History Talk, we speak with Professors Laura Beers and Ian Sheldon to better understand the roots and consequences of Brexit. How has the relationship between Britain and the European continent changed? What were the political and economic forces that compelled the UK to join the EU in the first place? What made so many Britons eager to leave? We'll explore these questions, and more, during our conversation about this fast-changing situation.

For more on the United Kingdom and the European Union, check out European Disunion: The Rise and Fall of a Post-War Dream?, Treating the Symptoms: Northern Ireland’s Incomplete Peace, and The EU: Past, Present, and Future.

Transcript Begins Here:

Eric Michael Rhodes 
Hello and welcome to History Talk. We're the podcast that brings together experts to discuss current events in historical perspective. My name is Eric Michael Rhodes and I'm here with my cohost, Lauren Henry.

Lauren Henry 
Hi, Eric. On June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom held a referendum on the country's continued membership in the European Union. After a bitterly divisive campaign, nearly 17-and-a-half million voters voted to leave the EU, while a little over 16 million voted to remain, a vote split of approximately 52% to 48%. The results of the so-called Brexit referendum, however, failed to resolve the underlying tensions and ambiguities around the exact nature of the UK's future relationship with the EU. The two-and-a-half years following the referendum have demonstrated just how difficult it will be to decouple the United Kingdom from the European Union, which it joined in 1973.

The laundry list of issues facing British and European negotiators has been seemingly endless from the rights of both EU citizens living in the UK and Britains living in the EU, to the fate of British involvement in pan-European institutions and the status of the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Within Britain, Brexit is triggered upheaval across the entire British political spectrum. Most recently Members of Parliament unhappy with the Brexit strategies of both Prime Minister Theresa May's ruling Conservative Party and its main opposition, the Labour Party, have broken away further fracturing the situation in Westminster.

Eric Michael Rhodes 
With the situation changing on an almost daily basis. We'll try to take a step back in this episode to look at the historical context around Brexit. What's the relationship between Britain in the European continent been both before and since its assession to the EU? What were the political and economic forces that compelled the UK to join the EU in the first place? And what has made so many eager to leave?

To answer these questions and more, we're honored to be joined today by two experts in the field. First joining us from Britain is Dr. Laura Beers. She's associate professor of history at American University in Washington. There, Dr. Beers focuses on modern Britain. She is the author of, "Your Britain: Media and the Making of the Labour Party," published by Harvard University Press. Thank you so much for calling in, Dr. Beers.

Dr. Laura Beers 
Pleased to be here.

Lauren Henry 
And in studio today we are also joined by Professor Ian Sheldon. Dr. Sheldon is the Andersons Chair of Agricultural Marketing Trade and Policy at The Ohio State University where he specializes in international trade policy. We're so happy to have you joining us today, professor.

Dr. Ian Sheldon 
Glad to be here as well.

Eric Michael Rhodes 
To start off, historically have the British considered themselves part of Europe?

Dr. Laura Beers 
I think Britain has always considered itself both a part of Europe and also apart from Europe. The Empire crucially has always been a major part of Britain's identity in the world. And if you think back to the Second World War, which many of those who are particularly keen to leave the European Union are frequently referencing I think there's an idea of Britain having stood alone against Hitler after the fall of France which gives Britain's identity as a kind of people apart from Europe. So there's a recognition that a large percentage of British trade takes place with Europe, that Britains study in Europe and work in Europe and vice versa. But that integration has never felt as natural or as complete as perhaps it does another European countries.

Dr. Ian Sheldon 
Yes, growing up in the UK and having been raised on things like C.S. Forester's, "Horatio Hornblower" stories that's sort of one perspective of Britain's view of continental Europe was fighting Napoleon in the Battle of Trafalgar. So that's sort of one perspective and I think Laura makes a very important point about the view of Europe not just from the Second World War perspective, but also from the First World War. But putting in a more modern perspective, I think it very much depends on who you ask. Attitudes depend on social status, people's age, demographics and education.

Lauren Henry 
To delve into the question specifically, of how this relationship between the United Kingdom and Europe affects the Brexit referendum, of course, we'd like to look a little bit at the EU itself. So what is the European Union? What were its origins and what is its purpose?

Dr. Ian Sheldon 
So the EU has its roots in the European Economic Community, which was set up I mean, there were multiple treaties. But the most important treaty was the Treaty of Rome signed in 1957, and this was the original members of the European Economic Community were West Germany, France, Netherlands, Italy, Belgium and Luxembourg. I think I have the fullness there. Britain was not a signatory of the Treaty of Rome. The objective of the EEC, the original six, was to bring about greater economic integration between those members through a customs union and the common market. And I guess the function of the EEC, if I understand history correctly, was to, we'd just come out of a major war, we'd obviously had had the first world war again. And the idea was to bind together continental Europe, in peace, through economic integration and super nationalism, etc. So I think that that's one thing that we tend to forget.

Dr. Laura Beers 
Yeah, to pick up on that and the relationship with the origins of the European community and World War Two as early September 1946, Winston Churchill makes a famous speech at Zurich University, where he talks about the tragedy of Europe after the Second World War, and the need for what he turns the United States of Europe to emerge in its place with France and Germany at its core that will bind this nation states of Europe together as the constituent states of the United States of America are brought together and through that unification make another world war impossible. And ironically, when Churchill is talking about this need for European Union, he's speaking about it almost as he sees it, as someone who is looking on your from across the English Channel. He doesn't see Britain as an integral part of this project which is about unifying continental Europe. Churchill's not necessarily envisioning what becomes first the European colon steel community and then the European Economic Community and the common market, but he is thinking in terms of types of political and economic union making future war impossible by knitting Europeans close together. And I think when later Robert Schumann and Jean Monnet start laying plans for economic integration. They very much see institutional and economic integration as as a way of forestalling future military conflict as well.

Eric Michael Rhodes 
Could either of you elaborate a bit more on what the political and economic factors were that made joining the EU attractive particularly as we move on into say the 1970s? Elaborate on what everyday people sort of saw in terms of the promise of the European Union?

Dr. Ian Sheldon 
If you follow the history of this in the 1960s, Harold MacMillan who was the leader of the Conservative Party in the early 1960s did seek possibility of joining the European Economic Community, but this was essentially vetoed twice by French president, President de Gaulle and Britain actually joined an alternative free trade agreement, EFTA, with several other countries such as Austria. We've subsequently joined the European Union in the 1990s. Edward Heath, who subsequently became a leader of the Conservative Party after I guess, Alec Douglas-Home stepped down. But Heath had actually been pushing quite strongly for a membership of the European Economic Community from as early as the early 1950s.

Even as early as this, there was always this concern about well we think we'd like economic integration, but we're not sure about the issues relating to sovereignty. If you go back and look at that debate, and also, and Laura mentioned this earlier, that Britain remember, we're still having, you know, very strong colonial connections through the Commonwealth. There was still quite a significant degree of debate even back then, before we joined in 1972, '73.

Dr. Laura Beers 
When Ian mentioned MacMillan, and MacMillan really is the prime minister who oversees the beginning of the end of the British Empire, he comes to power following the resignation of Anthony Eden as a consequence of the Suez Crisis in 1956. In February 1960, he famously makes his winds of change speech, in which he says the winds of change are blowing through Africa, which is traditionally seen as marking the beginning of the decolonization wave in terms of British imperialism on that African continent.

And with the breakup of Empire, though you still have the Commonwealth, there's, I think, is also the beginning of a real shift in terms of Britain's both geostrategic and economic positioning. And that, formerly the Sterling Era, which was, you know, kind of a currency union, underwritten by Sterling, which formally breaks apart in the early 1970s is already becoming less of a bulwark for the British economy that it had been, you have the idea that if Britain is not the kind of imperial power with the big empire that it had been in the early 20th century that its participation in Europe your joint security arrangement, and joint economic arrangements that are emerging on the continent, something that would be valuable for Britain in a post Imperial moment. So I think it's not possible to underestimate the degree to which the attempted rapprochement with Europe and as Ian said, third time's the charm.

There are two earlier attempts, both of which are frustrated by the French President Charles de Gaulle forbidden to join in the 1960s before Britain becomes a member of the European Union in 1973. But that's intimately related to the breakup of Empire.

Lauren Henry 
What does membership in the European Union entail for member states? What are some of the specific benefits and obligations that are involved in being part of the EU?

Dr. Ian Sheldon 
If we go back to our original membership, we joined the European Economic Community. Essentially, the EEC in its original form was what we call a customs union. So a customs union is where countries agree to lower or even zero out their tariffs with each other and then formulate a common external tariff around the whole of the customs union. Customs unions are quite an old institution I believe. Zollverein Hanseatic League were both customs unions. And so the idea was to have this sort of common internal market as the EEC evolved into the European community with the Maastricht Treaty. And then subsequently the Lisbon Treaty. In the 1980s, we move through the so called single European market. Europe was suffering from what was called eurosclerosis. In the 1980s, there was a view that we really had to get rid of all the remaining barriers to trade in the EU and Mrs. Thatcher was actually a big push behind the formation of the single European market. But then that got extended too and Laura maybe can talk about this better than I can, but it moved away from just being an economic entity towards being more about social and political union and the role of the Parliament and the commission and those relationships between those organizations changed quite a bit. Then of course, we had the European Monetary System exchange mechanism which Britain originally didn't join subsequently did and then we had to leave because the pound sterling got into a lot of trouble in the early 1990s. I mean, the EU's sort of in some senses a pluralistic institution where certain countries have got let out of certain parts, like Britain is not a member of the euro. I believe Sweden is not a member of the euro either. And, of course, it's now extended to, you know, the four pillars of the freedom of movement in with capital goods, services  and people. So I, maybe Laura can talk more about the political obligations of being in the EU. But as an economist that's these are the things that I pay attention to.

Dr. Laura Beers 
To pick up on the four freedoms and the way in which the inclusion which is a comparatively modern development, the freedom of movement for people, labor, as well as good services and capital has kind of changed what it means to be a member of the European Union. If we look at why so many Britains voted to leave the EU, immigration is really at the heart of that and the perception that you know you have all these Polish plumbers who are undercutting these you know English tradesmen, job rates because they're living, you know, cheaply and remitting money home before they return to Poland, you know, is while there's a kernel of truth in it, also a real boogeyman, right, about what EU membership means in terms of allowing cheap labor from Eastern Europe to come to Britain and undercut wages. And so that, I think, is one key aspect of it. And the other aspect that Ian I think didn't touch on as much is the importance of not just a customs union, but of a free market that in order to operate requires regulatory alignment across the European Union. And so, again, when you think of the boogeyman, it's the idea that Brussels is determining the shape of a banana and what actually makes the banana a banana right last kind of regulations that are significantly important have to do with the treatment of livestock. Whether or not genetically modified foods have to be acknowledged as genetically modified when sold in supermarkets, the length of proprietary patents for innovator drugs versus when generics can be introduced onto the market. All sorts of kinds of regulation, of safety regulations for infant car seats, airbags, you know, that affect the automotive industry, the food industry, the drug industry, the technology industry, every industry. A lot of Britains felt they were chasing under the weight of regulations from Brussels. And that question of whether you can have not just a customs union but a free market with a free market movement of goods across borders, if you don't have regulatory alignment is one that is causing real problems particularly, which maybe we'll discuss later, with what the post leave situation in Ireland will look like where you have an open border between a European Union country the Republic of Ireland and is soon to be no longer European Union country in the United Kingdom.

Since the Irish Civil War and the end of the Irish Civil War in 1922, when the counties of Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom, and the remainder of the island broke away as a separate Irish Republic, there's been a tension about whether or not those six counties in the north are truly part of Ireland or part of the United Kingdom. If you are born in Northern Ireland, the Republic will give you an Irish passport. If your grandparents were born in Northern Ireland, the Republic will give you an Irish passport and the number of Brits who are nervous about the future who've been appling for Irish passports in the last couple of years has overwhelmed the Irish Foreign Office at times. I think this whole kind of fudge around the Good Friday Agreement, which was brokered by Tony Blair was meant and the at times extremely violent and militarized conflict in Northern Ireland, about whether those counties were part of Part of Britain or part of Ireland was really facilitated by the fact that the EU made it possible to abolish the border between the North and the South and to create a situation where Northern Ireland could be both part of Ireland and part of Britain de facto even if de jure was part of the United Kingdom. And so the possible return of a hard border has real implications for whether that peace settlement will hold. I think there's a lot of exhaustion with the years of terrorism and street fighting in Ireland, but it's not clear that the peace settlement could withstand the return of a hard border.

What has historically been the objections to the UK is membership in the EU, on a pragmatic level, you know, this idea of regulation and lack of transparency. You know that these regulations that are seen as problematic are seen as diktats that are coming down from Brussels and that there isn't a transparent process for how the sausage gets made. I think the problem about free movement of peoples which is really a modern 21st century problem and has been exacerbated by the enlargement of the European Union in 2004 to include all the countries that the former Soviet or many of the countries of the former Soviet Bloc and the huge economic disparities between the economies in those Eastern European countries and the wage rates and those Eastern European countries and those in Western Europe. And it's not just Britain that has been affected by migration from east to west and by the impact on wage rates for skilled labor that has come along with that. But I think that's been a real source of disquiet. I think the European Court of Justice and the kind of idea that Britain is somehow that there's a Court of Appeal beyond the High Court in Great Britain to which British case law's now subject is something that disquiets certain people, the lack of autonomy, I guess, the idea that sovereignty has been sacrificed, which it has to Brussels, by membership in the European Union makes a lot of people uncomfortable. And it comes at variance with, again, to harken back to the Second World War, and this heroic version of the idea of Britain standing alone, that Britain has instead made itself subservient to to Brussels.

Dr. Ian Sheldon 
Yes, I think this argument about sovereignty and loss of Britishness, I'm in the band even honest story, of course, is a completely fabricated argument by the esteemed Boris Johnson when he was writing columns for The Daily Telegraph newspaper. Laura's right. This was about harmonization of standards. It wasn't about that you couldn't eat bendy bananas. It was. We can laugh at those things. But they do sort of, they are symptomatic of the way that people in the UK maybe feel about loss of sovereignty-- power being shifted to Brussels in some sense. The initial successes that the European Economic Community and its expansion was about freeing up trade, learning barriers to trade etc. You know one of Mrs. Thatcher's and maybe Laura disagrees with this, but I think one of Mrs. Thatcher's objectives in pushing the single European market was let's push for widening of the EU. Let's look at greater economic integration but not more deepening of the EU through the broader economic, political and social ties because the objective was to water down the influence of the Franco-German power block, if you like, within Brussels and the commission, but what we're finding with the globally now is that if you observe what's going on, this is pushed for these big free trade agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership and the will and the one that was being negotiated between the US and the EU.

Most of these bigger agreements are about things like patents which Laura mentioned--standards, intellectual property rights, environmental laws, labor laws, etc. These are all issues that the EU has tried to address in its greater focus on integrating beyond just cutting tariffs, but it also highlights how complex it is to actually do that. And so I tend to see this from the perspective of an economist as opposed to, you know, a British person thinking, well, Brussels is telling us how to do it and to do these things. But that very complexity, of course, means that it looks like you know, you're giving away more and more sovereignty to Brussels.

Dr. Laura Beers 
I guess one thing Ian, to come in on that, when you describe the EU is about lowering tariff barriers and making trades sort of, you know, in that way, frictionless and transparent. One of the great grievances that the British would have about the EU is that the one sector in which that hasn't been the case is agriculture. And British people tend to be very aggrieved by what they perceive rightly or wrongly. And it's not clear to me that the economics are as black and white as some people think they are. As subsidizing French agriculture through the Common Agricultural Policy, basically allowing the price of agricultural goods such as French cheeses to be kept artificially high through the Common Agricultural Policy, which is a policy to maintain agricultural productions, and many traditionally agricultural countries, not just including France, but also including countries of Southern Europe by propping up prices within this customs union to the level that it costs to maintain that production in European countries. While there aren't tariffs within the EU, there are tariffs on externally imported food stuff to keep those foodstuffs at a price level where they're not going to undercut European food production. And I think Britain, which had a more efficient agriculture and much smaller agricultural sector than many of the countries in continental Europe, feels aggrieved about the existence of the Common Agricultural Policy, despite the fact that Brussels then pays a rebate back to the United Kingdom, for their contribution to this CAP, the Common Agricultural Policy. So this this one sector of the EU where there isn't transparent reduction in tariff barriers is one that also really I think, leaves a lot of British people feeling aggrieved in that it's not just about carrying a blue passport, thinking of yourself as a Britain and not a European, but is about economics. I think that is an economic issue that has rubbed people the wrong way.

Dr. Ian Sheldon 
As an economist, I would sort of push back a little bit and argue that one thing that the last round of trade negotiations in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade that led to the formation of the WTO the so called Uruguay Round, I think, actually was led to a major constraint on the way foreign policy is actually being operated in Europe. So we've switched away from policies that directly affect production, and we've got rid of the the wine lakes, the olive oil lakes, the butter, mountains, etc. And we've pushed agricultural policy in a direction that's much more focused on environmental benefits, recreational benefits of agriculture, preserving farm buildings, etc, etc. So we've gone to a much more targeted policy within Europe.

And I think we've done it, the European Union has actually done a pretty good job of pushing back. And now we're still one of the largest spenders on the agricultural sector after the US and Japan I think, on on food that the thing that you were starting to see quite a bit of discussion of in the British media is a recognition that if a large proportion of our food imports come from the EU British food imports, and that if we leave the EU without any kind of deal and go back onto the WTO bound tariff schedule, this would actually raise food prices by a considerable amount. And I think the whole issue of how do we renegotiate things like tariff rate quotas, we're outside of the EU are really complex, many farms did actually vote for leave, but it's not clear exactly what's going to happen to that sector once we leave and what we're depending on what do we actually get.

Dr. Laura Beers 
My friends and I who I live about half the year in the United Kingdom, and people here joke about about stockpiling food but it's half joking. I mean, there is a real sense that one of the outcomes of Brexit could be rising food prices in Britain.

Lauren Henry 
But it sounds like in some ways, we're sort of moving back to period of the corn loss.

Dr. Laura Beers 
Yeah.

Lauren Henry 
From an outside perspective, and I was hoping we could move a bit into talking about the politics surrounding the referendum and what's comes come since. So from an external international perspective often Brexit is described sort of as a self-inflicted wound as, in some ways, a manufactured, a very real but an artificially triggered crisis. So Professor Beers, I was hoping you could help our international audience understand the public political decisions that led up to the referendum. It seems that these concerns about sovereignty, about internal regulatory alignments, about the freedom of movement, are of longer duration. Why in 2016 was the choice made to hold the referendum in the first place?

Dr. Laura Beers 
So the decision to hold the referendum was not really about the national interest or any conception of the national interest. It was about the interest of the Conservative Party and managing internal disputes within the Conservative Party ranks, because there was a strong, very vocal minority that was a minority in Parliament, but was in many areas, not a minority within constituency, conservative parties that was in favor of leaving the European Union. And that wing was very restless. And particularly before David Cameron, the former prime minister had an outright majority in parliament when he was reliant on a coalition with the liberals. He felt that he had to appease that pro leave minority on his backbenches. And in order to do so he made a commitment going into the last election that if the Conservative Party came back with a majority that he would hold a referendum on continued membership in the European Union. And he would give a free vote to members of his party in terms of how they campaigned in that referendum and which side they supported and that he would respect the referendum result. And that was done to appease the backbenches in his party. He himself was pro remain. He campaigned for remain in the referendum, but in allowing the referendum to go forward he was somewhat blase. I think he thought these people will have their chance, obviously they're going to lose. He lived in a London bubble where he couldn't really envisage remain not winning out in the end. And so he thought basically these guys would get their chance. They'd be silenced by the will of the people and we'd move on. And then obviously that was not what happened. He had not anticipated the result.

Dr. Ian Sheldon 
This has been an ongoing rumbling debate within the Conservative Party. John Major, when he was Prime Minister, had to deal with Euro skeptics. And I think even Mrs. Thatcher herself was becoming a Euro skeptic prior to her resigning in 1990. But I actually found an article on The Conversation a couple of days ago, as I was preparing for this. This was written by a Murray pollster and it had gone back through the history of opinion polls about British views on European Union and it's just been quite cyclical. When Tony Blair was Prime Minister and talked about we need to be at the heart of Europe, there was a flip around in the polls from being very pro EU to being anti EU. And I think that was largely driven by concerns about the possibility that Britain might join the EU, you know, Laura's right this was really driven by David Cameron as prime minister seeking to resolve this issue as an internal party issue.

Eric Michael Rhodes 
So despite the prognostications of the cosmopolitans, the Brexiteers had, I wondered if both of you could speak to the ways in which the referendum results reflected various divisions within the electorate?

Dr. Laura Beers 
So Britain is a country that's made up of four nations, England where the vast majority of the population are, but then Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which are sometimes referred to as the Celtic fringe around the English core. Going into the vote not only did people consider that remain would win at the end of the day, but they considered they assumed that the Celtic French would be even more pro leaving than England itself, that the majority of the leavers were in England. At the end of the day, both England and Wales returned majority for leaving the European Union, but Scotland and Northern Ireland were both heavily remain. Scotland historically, dating back to Jacobites in the 18th century, has had a close relationship with France and with continental Europe and has seen itself as being more European I think, then England has done and that expected very pro remain vote in Scotland did actually come out that way. Ireland, the situation is a bit more complicated. It's not that the Irish have seen themselves as the Scots have, as traditionally been closely linked with Europe, but those in Northern Ireland on very practical grounds have seen themselves as being closely linked with the Republic of Ireland. There is not, and hasn't been since the Good Friday Agreement which ended the conflict in Northern Ireland, a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. You can literally just walk from one to the other. You can live in the Republic and work in Northern Ireland fairly easily. People in their wallets will carry both euros and pounds.

That entire political settlement in Ireland was premised on membership of the European Union because membership of the European Union made possible a world where there wasn't a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. So that particular national context in Ireland really mediated for people voting remain which they did. Whereas in England it was a different situation and one of the things about the remain vote in England is that it piled up in urban areas, that it was the countryside and the suburbs which were more likely to vote leave whereas the cities were more likely to vote remain and that bore out across across England. Unfortunately on the day of the vote it rained and it rained very very very hard in the south of England which you know blanketed London in pouring rain and I think that probably depressed turnout. And London nonetheless went heavily in favor of remaining. But a lot of people just didn't show up to vote, I think partly because everyone assumed that remain was going to win so what did it really matter? Did you really want to go out in the pouring rain and stand with your umbrella, you know, at a polling booth, waiting to vote? And so people didn't and that depressed the capital's remain vote, I think. I live part of the year, my husband teaches at the University of York, we have a house in York, York Central, the city center, voted to remain, as did Leeds and Sheffield but the rest of North Yorkshire, which is a very agricultural part of the country, and also a part of the country with old people. It's got a lot of kind of seaside retirement towns went very heavily in favor of leaving the European Union. So as Ian said, at the beginning of our discussion, there was a generational breakdown. There's an educational breakdown. There's an urban, suburban, urban rural division, and there was very much a national split in the way these votes panned out.

Dr. Ian Sheldon 
It's quite interesting though, that even though England voted to leave and we talked about the, the other parts of the country, I mean, Wales is interesting because Wales received the huge amount of regional aid from the European Union. And Cornwall was, is, a region of England that also received a considerable amount of regional aid. And many, many of the people who voted didn't understand that they would actually lose out on that regional aid if they Brexited. As an economist, I'm very interested in what drove the vote. And I, over the weekend I was reading a very interesting paper that's just been published in the American Political Science Review by some economists, actually Italian economists funnily enough, and they did a very careful analysis that showed that the leave vote was very concentrated in the parts of, particularly of England, which had been strongly affected by globalization and in particular the impact of China. So there's been a lot of research in the economics profession about the economic impact of China on the US, but there's been parallel research being done in the UK. And it seems like that was economic issues long standing economic issues, think about Sunderland, is this city town that we've talked about already, that there was this high and this is not, this is fairly sophisticated, statistical analysis that shows that economic deprivation effect of globalization, the impact of economic austerity measures conducted by the government in the post financial crisis period, did really affect the vote and the overall. I was actually quite surprised by this. The as a control variable immigration didn't seem to have that much effect except where people focused on Eastern European immigration, which I think Laura mentioned earlier, that the expansion of the EU to the to the old Eastern Bloc countries such as Laura mentioned the Polish plumbers story. I think that was a story that popped up in the Sun newspaper on a regular basis. So this is research, it's coming out, now that shows this with a lot of this was driven by economic deprivation or the effect of globalization, especially on older manufacturing industries, on low-skilled workers.

Lauren Henry 
Following the Brexit referendum in June of 2016, the withdrawal process began on March 29, 2017 and over the subsequent two years there's been a lot of negotiations about the terms of this withdrawal. What have some of the major stumbling blocks been with negotiations themselves within the United Kingdom and the European Union about the terms of the withdrawal?

Dr. Ian Sheldon 
The Republic of Ireland Northern Ireland border and the the fact that the European Union is stuck very rigidly to maintaining no border between the two countries I think it's really interesting I believe, Laura remind me, I think I'm right in remembering that John Major and Tony Blair, both former Prime Ministers, stood on a bridge I think it goes between the two countries, nations, sorry to use that language, warning about the need to maintain the Good Friday Agreement were significantly pooh poohed by the media as being our you have failed Prime Ministers blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, it's interesting that that has become really the, the, the key issue in terms of the negotiations, I think, with Brussels. My view is there was no plan as to exactly what Brexit would entail, and the failure of the political class to understand the nature of the value chains that exists now, and not just in the European Union, but globally, and how extracting ourselves from the EU, because of those, those value changes is going to be incredibly, incredibly complicated. I mean, you talked a lot about the standards and harmonization of standards within the EU. I think that, the pulling away from that set of standards and going it alone, has highlighted the complexity of the nature of the integration Britain has with the EU and therefore how complex it is to actually leave.

Dr. Laura Beers 
Yeah, I think that that is you have standards is in some ways, so the Northern Ireland the situation, and I think, actually, John Oliver don't all of us Comedy Central guy actually, I thought did a very good job of breaking this down. But essentially, if you're going to maintain an open border, and you're going to have goods moving smoothly across it, then you need not just a customs union, but you need to have the same regulatory framework. Because if, as in the United States, you allow chickens to be washed with chlorine to disinfect them and then sold to consumers you can't have a kind of free on with lack of border inspection movement of poultry across the border with a country that doesn't allow chickens to be washed in chlorine, right. And at the moment, there's the same regulatory framework for how chickens are handled before they end up in supermarkets in Northern Ireland and Ireland.

But if the UK were allowed to create its own regulatory framework, then you would have to stop and investigate the chickens that came across the Irish border, right. So essentially what the EU has said is OK, if we can't work out some kind of plan, after two years time, that a backstop will come into place, kind of, you know, a fail safe to make sure things don't go crazy. Where Ireland will have Northern Ireland and, and the Republic of Ireland, one regulatory framework for that island. And you won't have to have a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic because chickens and everything else will be subject to the same regulatory framework in the Republic and in Northern Ireland, which is effectively the EU framework and that a customs union will exist for the entirety of the United Kingdom and the European Union. So there won't be trade barriers and the DUP, the democratic Unionist Party, who are in control in Northern Ireland at the moment, and who are very much kind of staunch believers in keeping Northern Ireland unified with Westminster, with London, and with the rest of the United Kingdom. So we don't want a situation in which there are different regulations in place in Northern Ireland, than in Great Britain, we don't want a situation where we have to subscribe to EU regulations about poultry, automobiles, absolutely everything else, but people in Scotland, England and Wales perhaps do not because that is the beginning of a thin edge of the wedge that might separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom.

So this regulatory issue in Northern Ireland is really a big deal, but it's also a super big deal in _________, and in the ports where things cross the English Channel going in and out. Because if the British fishing industry wants to be able to have British oysters on Parisian dinner plates, by the evening that they've pulled out of the sea, then they can have a backlog where their oysters have to be investigated for any kind of contaminants when they come in to Kallay. And if you have different regulatory frameworks about the fishing industry, then that's what's going to have to happen. So it's not just having a customs union where you don't have tariff barriers, but that regulatory alignment is necessary in order for, you know, semi trucks to be able to just drive across the border without being inspected when they do.

Lauren Henry 
But, Professor because you mentioned the role of the DUP, the Democratic Unionist Party, in this entire negotiation saga, how have Teresa May's stances and her negotiating positions been affected by the domestic political scene, specifically after an election in 2017, in which the conservatives lost that majority that they had gained prior to holding the referendum?

Dr. Laura Beers 
Essentially now the Conservative Party is being propped up by these ten democratic unionist MPs. And the democratic unionist are very adamant, as I said that there can't be any difference in the way that Northern Ireland is treated vis-à-vis the rest of the United Kingdom and have said that they will veto any deal on Brexit that suggests that there could be any difference between the way that Northern Ireland is treated and the rest of the United Kingdom. And this backstop arrangement that was worked out between May and the other 27 member states in which she brought back before Christmas is one that creates a de facto difference potentially between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

And so essentially she's stuck in this position where the DPS flat out said they will veto anything that includes different treatment for Northern Ireland, these ERG, the European Research Group, who are despite their name, actually hardline Brexiteers have said that they essentially will veto anything that isn't a clear break that you know, reeks of maybe keeping Britain in the European Union by stealth. And so she's stuck kind of held hostage by these ten DMPs. And also really hamstrung by the transience of the ERG and therefore unable to get a deal that her group can get behind.

And she's also just unwilling to try to have a Brexit that could be voted through by a majority of conservative MPs, but also a good number of Labour MPs, and could be a truly bipartisan Brexit, because she is so concerned with holding together her governing coalition and finding something that they can get behind that she just hasn't really engaged with trying to think of a kind of cross party solution here that might marginalize some conservative MPs, but would bring on board a substantial number of Labour MPs and maybe even some liberals and members of the Scottish Party, which is very pro remain.

Lauren Henry 
What has been the role of the opposition parties in all of this? We've talked a lot about the schisms that exist within the Conservative Party. How has Brexit also transformed politics within the other parties of Britain?

Dr. Laura Beers 
The Labour Party, ironically because labor is associated probably the most of any party with remainers, they see labor as the natural home for remain, but Jeremy Corbyn the current leader of the Labour Party is someone who, though he wasn't very public about it, in his heart and doubtless at the ballot box voted leave. He's what the British we call Lexiteer or left Brexit or who feels that the European Union is a kind of neoliberal cabal that is undermining workers' rights and standards and that may be leaving would be better and as a consequence during the referendum campaign, he did not make a hard case for remaining. He kind of left those Labour MPs who wanted to make an aggressive case for remaining feeling slightly leaderless within their party. And since Brexit has occurred he has been very hesitant to kind of push any type of line or since article 50 was triggered since the beginning of the negotiations of Brexit he's been very reluctant to kind of put forward any proposals because his party is deeply split between those who were fervently remain who are still making a case for a second referendum in a hope of reversing Brexit and those within his party who either because like him Lexiteers and are intellectually committed to leaving or because their constituencies included a lot of economically disenfranchised hard up voters who had voted to leave and they feel they need to respect their constituents' wishes and hence don't want to frustrate leaving the European Union.

So those that broad tent has created you know, more or less paralyzed Corbin until recently. In the last few weeks Corbin, has started making the argument that the best way forward would be a customs union, a permanent customs union with Europe. But that is a very recent Genesis and I think only because developments within his party have made it seem like his previous policy of basically doing nothing and just saying if I were given a chance I could come up with a better proposal but no one's asking me is obviously not enough.

Dr. Ian Sheldon 
It's interesting that Northern Ireland, as Laura pointed out, did vote to remain and one thing she hasn't mentioned is, of course, is another major political party in Northern Ireland Shin Fein, which historically was the political wing of the Provisional IRA. During the troubles they actually have seats in the British Parliament but they won't take them because they won't state the oath of loyalty. It's really odd that you have this one party that represents a very conservative Protestant group in Northern Ireland. This sort of basically holding up Mrs. May's government and another party refuses to sit in Parliament and presumably vote against Mrs. Thatcher, Mrs. May, Thatcher and May. I made a, that was a Freudian slip if I ever did hear. They thought she was going to be the new Iron Lady, I think, when she became prime minister. A couple of things, I think one of the problems is that Cameron made a huge strategic, political error and then proceeded to walk away from it.

I also think that Theresa May made a mistake pushing article 50 as early as she did without thinking through precisely a negotiating strategy was going to be. And I think that she's been held hostage by the the red lines that she put down, the red on things like freedom of movement, and then of course, calling an election which she thought she was going to improve increase the majority.

In fact, you know, she ended up in a minority government means that that sort of political paralysis, I think, has just, has got worse and worse and worse. Thing that I found really hard as a, as somebody who's English sort of looking from the outside back, back into the UK is that we don't have a history of plebiscites, or referenda. This was an advisory referendum this soon got and it was a very narrow result, 52 to 48 said earlier, compared to the original referendum in 1975, where I think there was a two-thirds majority in favor of remaining in the European Economic Community.

So that was very narrow. The referendum has sort of been getting taken as it was, advisory, but actually seems to be, "This is it. We have to do it." that pushed, as Laura mentioned, a lot of remain supporting Labour MPs into recognizing what the wishes of their constituency. We haven't talked to anything about.... we haven't talked very much about UKIP the United Kingdom Independence Party, which I think drove a lot of the way Cameron, Cameron has basically stripped tried to strip off UKIP voters, and I think May has tried to strip off UKIP voters and Labor's very worried about losing votes to UKIP.

Having said that we're a parliamentary democracy. Parliament is, I believe, there's still a majority of MPs who would prefer to remain in the EU or this is just as an observation. There's been a massive failing of the British political class. We have a sort of history of being pragmatic, of compromising and we seem  unable to have done that. So this is a puzzle to me, as somebody who spent 33 years of his life living in Britain observes compromise in Parliament.

Most of the time we've simply thrown that away here, as far as I can see, driven by the Democratic Unionist Party, this tiny party, the ERG. By the way, the Economic Research Group, they are the only people who have any economists who say that Brexit would be a good thing for the British economy. 99% of the remainder of economists believe it will be an absolute disaster economically.

Eric Michael Rhodes 
It sounds like, Dr. Sheldon, you're hinting at the question of populism and its, its, sort of its role in the political world of today. Do you see either of you, Brexit as being part and parcel of the resurgent nationalism and populist nationalism that we've been seeing in places like Eastern Europe and elsewhere?

Dr. Ian Sheldon 
In some sense yeah. I mean, obviously, the argument about sovereignty, bringing back power to Parliament in Britain, and also, you know, there was the discussion about immigration really, right. In my opinion, rather offensive poster that was put up by Nigel Farage about immigration, his comments about, "Do you want Romanians living next door to you?" This sort of connection between, so yes. But what's interesting about Brexit in my view, compared to what's happening here in the US and maybe elsewhere, Trump's approach is clearly nationalistic in the sense that it's very inward looking. We're going to make America great again we're going to push away from multi-lateralism towards, you know, either bilateralism or unilateralism.

Whereas if you look at Brexit, Brexit, there's this idea that Britain is going to become this economic power integrated into the world economy. So Britain, you hear them talk about the highly protectionist European Union. We're going to be this global economy. We're going to sign free trade agreements with whoever. So I think it's, it's a little bit different. And I don't know whether, Laura, you see it that way. So I it's got, it's got elements of that. But it's got different elements to certainly to what I am observing here in the US.

Dr. Laura Beers 
I think the similarities in our, I mean, when you talked about this analysis of who voted for Brexit and the idea that being the losers of the 21st century economy was a real indicator of whether you are likely to vote for Brexit, I think that level of which is not so much populism as kind of a populist campaign taking advantage of people's immiseration and their desire to basically to kick back to give the finger, to sort of shout, in protest. And so this was a protest vote, I think. I think there was a large part of voting to leave the EU, which was about, you know, railing at the Gods about what had happened to, to people.

And, you know, it wasn't that they rationally may be in a thoughtful way, thought that Europe was the cause of the massive and seemingly unreversible economic decline that hit their communities, but that it was clearly not what the establishment wanted for them to vote leave. And so and the establishment was complicit in their suffering. And so it was an anti-establishment vote. And I think there is an analogy there in the way that certain Trump voters vote, right.

I mean, it's not really, I mean, anyone with any, you know, real sense of their economic self-interest to--  most of these people would not be voting for Trump, but they see voting for him not as about economics, but as about a politics of protest. And I think that does had equivalents and is indicative of a certain brand of populism. So economic decline in brief, I mean, declinist narratives about Britain have really, you know, they gained purchase, really, after the First World War, when Britain over extended itself, lent a lot of money to its allies, borrowed a lot more money from the United States, liquidated a lot of its Imperial assets in order to finance world war one, and then was faced, in its aftermath, by a prolonged economic stagnation, by the fact that it was no longer, you know, ahead of the curve in terms of industrialization. And the rest of the world has industrialized and so it didn't have quite that same competitive edge. Both industrial decline and imperial decline have been part of Britain's narrative really, for the better part of the last century.

And so in some ways, membership of the European Union, I think, it's been perceived by some as a defeat. It's been something that a great empire had to do when it was reduced to being a lesser nation state that shapes. I think so. I think there's an irrational and a rational feeling that somehow EU membership is associated with Britain's decline as a great world player.

Dr. Ian Sheldon 
On economic decline, I mean, there's no doubt that one of the drivers for Britain to join the European Economic Community in the early 1970s was we were called the sick man of Europe at that point. And the membership of the European Free Trade Area, EFTA, had not brought any particularly significant economic benefit. And you know, there's quite a bit of a debate about what was the impact of on Britain's economy of us joining the European Economic Community. And if you just look at the raw data, Britain actually was underperforming relative to countries like France and Italy prior to joining the EEC, but we actually have performed quite well since then.

There's a debate about what really drove that. I think it was a combination of things. It was the competition that the European Union, brought to the British economy, was pretty significant. So that we've done rather well in the services sector and the sort of high tech, high skilled parts of manufacturing, a little bit like the American economy in some sense. But of course, it's hard statistically to separate out the effects of important things that were done domestically by, particularly by Mrs. Thatcher, you know, we, Mrs. Thatcher came to power after a period of, we had a lot of strikes. The late 1970s were a period of distinctive social unrest and I think history will show the timing, the trade unions pushing us into the single European market, did actually benefit the British economy. But as Laura pointed out, we'd had this sort of secular decline in, and I think the financial crisis and the economic austerity that a lot of people aren't able to, it's easy to blame the EU, but in fact, a lot of decisions made by the British government that actually led to economic harm to people in those areas.

Dr. Laura Beers 
And Ian's earlier point about, you know, the majority of MPs being in favor of remain and you know, Parliament being supposedly sovereign, I truly agree with this as what Edmund Burke had agreed with it. I mean, he basically said, you know, in the 18th century that an MP should never shill for you know, I mean, they're not a voice for what their constituents want, their representative of their constituents' interest. But I think the fact of it is become that despite the fact that Britain is not a country that routinely holds referenda that that kind of political discourse has given a legitimacy to this result that would make it difficult to turn back on without at the very least a second referendum. I don't think there really is a possibility that Parliament could just say, this is suicidally self-defeating for us as a nation so we're not going to do it. Despite the referendum result.

I guess the one note I would end on is, again thinking about even as the sky is falling, even if as Chicken Little's predictions are coming true, it's not clear from public opinion polling that if there were a second referendum today, that leave wouldn't win again. And I think that that does bespeak a real failure of those who wanted to remain to make the positive case for Europe. And that is a real weakness. And that was a real contrast, I think, to the '75 referendum where there was an effort to glorify what was good about membership in the European Union. Not just to say it was a way to stave off economic decline in a period of economic decline for Britain, but to say that it was a positive good and that argument still, I don't think has been effectively made and I think helps explain why so many people are still committed to leaving even when almost everyone under the sun says it's going to be economically painful. Even the ERG say, in the short run, it will be painful, but in the long term, it will have benefits. But even when bringing the pain is kind of inevitable, people still want to go ahead with this.

Eric Michael Rhodes 
Well, we'll have to wrap it up on that note. Thank you very much to our guests, Doctors Ian Sheldon and Laura Beers.

Lauren Henry 
Thank you, everyone. This episode of History Talk was brought to you by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, an online publication of the public history initiative, the Goldberg Center and the history departments at The Ohio State University in Columbus and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Our main editors are David Steigerwald, Stephen Conn, and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer and our audio producers and hosts are me, Lauren Henry and Eric Michael Rhodes. Song and band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcasts and more on our website, origins.osu.edu, on iTunes, Stitcher and SoundCloud, as well as wherever else you get your podcasts. And as always, you can find us on Twitter at @OriginsOSU and @HistoryTalkpod. Thank you for listening and we'll see you next month.