Does Eastern Europe have lessons for Brexit Britain?

27678701211_6125a9b158_zSeán Hanley, Senior Lecturer in Comparative Central and East European Politics at UCL, examines lessons learned from historical political change in Central and East Europe, and asks whether any parallels can be drawn with post-Brexit Britain.

In the aftermath of the EU referendum a number of Central and South East Europeanists wrote blogs reflecting on possible parallels between Brexit and break-ups of multinational socialist states like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia in early 1990s.

There are certainly parallels to be drawn.  They lie, as Catherine Baker notes, often in the political dynamics of exiting a large multi-national structure: the desire of smaller nations (Scotland) to ‘exit the exit’; the woes of asymmetric federalism, where nations ina multinational union have varying degrees of autonomy; the changeable nature of public opinion; the EU as a symbol of modernisation and liberalism (the ‘March for Europe’, and the normalisation of  radical positions through by media coverage – and now social media ‘echo chambers).

Scotland’s (now much more likely) exit from the UK – as noted in the lead-in to #indyref – had echoes not only of Yugoslavia’s disintegration or Czechoslovakia’s ‘Velvet Divorce’ in 1992 but also – more distantly, but perhaps more pertinently –  of the dilemmas faced by small, newly independent Central European states emerging from the Habsburg Empire in 1918.

A whiff of the Habsburgs?

And back in 1970s radical Scottish nationalist writer Tom Nairn detected a strong whiff of the Habsburg empire hanging over the (as he correctly foresaw) unravelling UK state, which, by analogy with Robert Musil’s description of Austria-Hungary as ‘Kakania’, he termed ‘Ukania’.

The Scottish Government’s 2014 plans for independent statehood even envisage an independent Scotland and the rump UK forming a ‘dual monarchy’, linked dynastically, but no longer politically. Other writers see the break-up of the Habsburg Empire as offering the lessons to the EU about how the dynamics of a disintegrating multinational currency union.

But the UK is not a failing federation, still less alone a late communist federation. Casting Nicola Sturgeon as Slovakia’s nationalist strongman Vladimir Mečiar or, more kindly, independent Slovenia’s first president, the reform communist turned Father-of-the-Nation, Milan Kučan merely underlines the differences between the British and Central European. And, despite the parallels between the last days of the USSR and the travails of the European Union drawn by Ivan Krastev, neither is the EU.

So what, if anything, can the experience of (research on) Eastern Europe say to us as we head towards Brexit?

I think lessons, if that is the right word, lie less in the direct parallels, which can be hit and miss, but in getting to grips with the tempo and nature of political change, its (un)predictability and likely channels

Old institutions can fall apart – sometimes quickly

Two days before the Brexit referendum I found myself sitting in a conference in Ljubljana about Slovenia’s progress 25 years on (after democratisation and independence – in 1991). Listening to the contributions and questions playing backwards and forwards, I remember thinking just how unCentral European, the UK and its relationship with the EU were.

A core West European state, then an imperial state, then a declining and diminished post-imperial state and an EEC/EC/EU member – but one for whom membership in the Union was never about anchoring democracy and the rule-of-law, nor – ultimately – liberal economics. Market reform in the form of Thatcherism was driven by domestic politics.

But like most UK-based political scientists, I expected a narrow(ish) win for Remain, thinking (wrongly) that for key groups of voters economic self-interest and fear over living standards would trump feelings of resentment, disconnection and disempowerment focused on migration and political elites and distant political institutions.

Now, post-referendum it suddenly seems that the UK is actually is suddenly closer to the experience of small-medium Central European states and societies. Familiar, old established political structures – unions states, parties – seem set to fracture and suddenly metamorphasise or disappear before our very eyes.

If pressures for independence lead Scotland to exit, leaving a diminished rump UK, unresolved, previously unaddressed questions of national identity (especially English identity) much like those the Czechs in 1992 suddenly faced with the disappearance of the Czechoslovak state). The era of UK membership of the EU may quickly seem as quaint and oddly historical as Slovenia’s one-time membership of Yugoslavia – or even the Habsburg Empire – without any clear international or global role filling the vacuum.

But Central Europeans have always known that regimes and institutions come and go, but that society and the flow of everyday life go on, often more robust and impervious to changes to high politics and big structures than might be imagined. And, if the Brexit referendum has shown anything, it has shown the yawning chasm in many localities for swathes of people between formal politics and everyday life. Ethnographic research by Insa Koch among deprived council estate found that:

The overarching feature is that people experience politics as something that is far removed from their daily lives. Politicians are associated with the world of “them” that has conspired against the “us”, the world of ordinary people. “Them” refers to anyone who governs “us” and who can thus not be trusted – this merges together the people in Westminster as much as those who sit in Brussels.

a statement of such sharp detachment and disconnection that it is reminiscent – despite obvious differences of political context – to Václav Havel’s characterisation of the gulf between official, institutionalised public and political life and that of everyday lives of ordinary people in late communist Czechoslovakia.

Such a gap between institutions and the real lived life of society is not necessarily a pathological symptom of political repression or economic deprivation. Writing in 1940 George Orwell astutely observed that

… in all societies the common people must live to some extent against the existing order. The genuinely popular culture of England is something that goes on beneath the surface, unofficially and more or less frowned on by the authorities.

and saw this as a wellspring of potential renewal and democratic change.

But the complex, cosmopolitan island of today is not the class-divided, but culturally cohesive England of Orwell’s wartime essay, nor a small ethnically and linguistically homogenous Central European society like Czechia or Slovenia.

If the Central European experience show us that societies can subsist well alongside – and even substitute for – newly malleable or disintegrating state institutions in delivering identity and social cohesion, but not how Brexited and reconfigured UK would do it.

Experts can be blind(sided)

It pains me to even half agree with Michael Gove – whose dismissal of expert opinion was one of the low points of a low campaign – but social scientists on Eastern Europe would have to concede the ‘polite assassin’ of Tory politics something. Perhaps not that the whole of the economics profession’s warning that Brexit would come with a high economic price could be ignored with a puff of populist rhetoric, but certainly that academic experts – good at interpreting and explaining what has happened – can be (and more often than not are) blindsided by events.

The political history of Eastern Europe and the collapse of the USSR – and social science in area studies more generally – is so replete with missed calls and experts left flat-footed by sudden shifts of the tectonic plates, that we of all experts should be clear that there is little that we can confidently say about the future except that we will be significantly wrong about it.

The fall of the communism in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the USSR caught many regional specialists off guard (as later the Arab Spring did Middle East experts). Conversely, Eastern Europe’s widely post-1989 predicted descent into South American style populist convulsions under the impact of economic reform never materialised – or, if it did, materialised twenty years later in the unexpected illiberal turn of star democratisers Hungary and Poland.

Perhaps fittingly academic experts’ and specialists’ poor forecasting has itself been academically studied by Phillip E. Tetlock (focusing on measurable short- to medium-term contingent outcomes). But not even Tetlock’s teams of pragmatically-minded ‘superforecasters’ (often intelligent lay people not personally or professionally invested in theories – Michael Gove is, inevitably, a fan of Tetlock’s recent book on superforecasting) saw Brexit coming.

Academic researchers on British politics did however rapidly join up the dots, putting together explanation and interpretation of what had happened, as earlier research came sharply and drastically into focus – and judgements (for example, the strength of anti-elite and anti-immigration sentiment were re-assessed).

Anyone reading the many post-referendum academic blogs will quickly (and for free) see a well framed, well informed three-way debate: that Brexit was (1) the rise of UKIP and its constituencies of ‘left behind’ voters writ large(r); 2)  the bifurcation of politics into ‘two Englands’ – often geographically cheek by jowl, – one cosmopolitan and dynamic localities, the other inward looking and declining backwaters; 3) polarisation (at least in the referendum) between culturally conservative and socially liberal voters regardless of income, education or locality.

But, as far as anticipations and expectations of Brexit Britain, the post-Brexit EU and indeed post-Brexit Central and Eastern Europe are concerned, academic experts need to be suitably chastened and self-doubting, then – to rephrase the Samuel Beckett line  –  try again; get it wrong again; and get it wrong better.

Parties can collapse…

A discussion of Brexit has played out on the blog of my home institution headlined with Chernyshevsky’s (later Lenin’s) ever pertinent question: “What is to be done?”. Much of the discussion centred how to fight a rearguard action to stop Brexit and what the role the Labour Party and its leader, lukewarm Bremainer Jeremy Corbyn might have to play.

The political furniture of parties and their leaders seems, however to be about to shift across the floor rapidly. Not only do all parties bar the Liberals face leadership elections, but there is much speculation about a possible realignment in British party politics. The EU referendum, has thrown divisions within parties and constituencies into sharp relief and laid bare the gap between a party system formed from the political cleavages of the early 20th century Britain and real cultural and social divisions of the early 21st century.

There is, political scientists and analysts speculate, space for left-socialist party of the Corbyn persuasion; a pro-European social-liberal party incorporating Labour’s moderates and Liberals, perhaps making common cause with socially liberal Conservative Remainers; and a new nationalist, anti-immigration bloc uniting (but also replacing) UKIP with harder line Tory Brexiteers.

The experience of Eastern Europe where stable lines-ups of parties morph into new forms form election to election and some stable party systems melted down seemingly overnight underlines how rapidly such change can come. Conventional political science wisdom has been that West Europe’s long established parties could – unlike their more weakly-rooted post-communist cousins – manage diverse electorates because they could still anchor themselves in a solid (if declining) core of loyal voters and grassroots mass organisation.

… and be rapidly replaced.

The shock of Brexit raises questions about whether for British parties – perhaps especially Labour – that core has given out and the dam has finally burst. Reforms in both major parties designed to keep members by giving them greater say over who becomes party leader appear simply to have exacerbated the process, pushing uncertainties as to what parties are and who they represent wide open.

This does not mean, of course, that activist subcultures of the kind mobilised behind Jeremy Corbyn do not come together and take the or spurts in party membership (usually more of an online phenomenon) do not happen. Bursts of social and online mobilisation happen – usually around short-lived new parties – in the supposed demobilised polities of the post-communist East. But it does suggest, that here – as there – it can be a here-today-gone-tomorrow phenomenon leaving yesterday’s vibrant new movement is tomorrow’s forgotten political shell, as participants move on or move out, dispersing back into other parties.

The East European experience also suggests that we need not just watch radical populist outsider parties – the Red-Green alliance coalescing around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour and Momentum on the left, UKIP and his possible successors on the right – but also developments in the political centre.

A new party or bloc of the centre might resemble a conventional party echoing the UK’s last great experiment at the politics of the radical centre the Social Democratic Party (SDP) of the 1980s, but is equally likely to take the form of an anti-party – half social movement, half NGO or social movement –  promising new politics led by a businessman (Richard Branson? Alan Sugar?) or celebrity elbowing aside more conventional politicians. In West European society with a – as the referendum showed – the appetite for anti-politics and anti-establishment voting, the best option for moderate mainstream centre is to dress up in the same clothes.

Anyone looking for a playbook of how such movements emerge need look only at the breakthrough of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy or a colourful array of ‘non-politicians’ – ranging from aristocrats to central bankers, journalists and businessmen – breaking into parliaments across Eastern Europe over the last two decades at the end of movements promising to empower citizens, live up to European ideals, and do politics differently and better.

But as the rise of politicians like billionaire Andrej Babiš and his ANO movement in the Czech Republic highlights, a new reformist, pro-European politics of the radical centre rebelling against the old establishment can be vulnerable to capture by the politically savvy super-rich – generating a new breed of privatised political parties. The shift in the UK of figures like eurosceptic millionaire British Arron Banks from party donor to party founder may be both emblematic and a warning.


Dr Seán Hanley is a Senior Lecturer in Comparative Central and East European Politics at UCL.


NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.


This post was originally published on the blog of Seán Hanley and the UCL SSEES Research Blog.

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