Causes and effects and Brexit

24th April 2019

Battle of Naseby.jpg

When thinking and writing about Brexit I often recall the wise words of the great historian Conrad Russell.

Russell set about, between the mid-1970s and the early-1990s, re-considering and then revising the matter of what led to the English civil war.

His conclusion was, in effect, that we were asking the wrong questions.

His view was that to explain causes you had to consider first effects.

Here, the passage which I keep remembering is in his The Causes of the English Civil War, the printed edition of his Ford Lectures of 1987-88:

“In investigating causes, the first necessity is to match them with effects, and it therefore seems a logical priority to begin by trying to establish the effects for which causes must be found.

“If the effects are wrongly postulated, the causes will be wrong also.

“If we discuss causes without any investigation of effects, we are simply indulging in unverifiable speculation.”

(Sentences separated out for ease of on-screen reading.)


So what are the “effects” of Brexit which we would need to explain if we are to understand the “causes” of the current predicament.

It would not be enough to explain why there was a referendum in June 2016, as the result was close and could have gone differently.

It would also not be enough to explain why there was a close Leave victory, as that would not explain (by itself) why the UK government then adopted the approach it did, from all other possible approaches.

And it would not be enough to explain why the UK government handled Brexit policy so badly after the referendum, as a great deal also came down to how EU27 responded, and this would need explaining in turn

There would seem to be no one grand cause of Brexit but a complex of different origins, any of which could have been different, and could have ended with different outcomes.

In the years to come, some historians and pundits will posit that whatever outcome we end up was inevitable all along.

(Those historians and pundits currently, however, have not any idea what will happen.)

As one great wit put it: history is a box of tricks we play upon the dead.


Russell himself contended that the “effects” of the English civil war which needed explaining were: the Bishops’ wars, the English defeat, the failure to reach settlement, the failure to dissolve or prorogue parliament, the choice of sides, the failure to negotiate, and the problems of the king’s diminished majesty.

He averred:

“The removal of any one of these seven things could have prevented the civil war as we know it.”

This was his view, of course, other historians disagree – though few if any serious historians now suggest that there was just one or two big causes of the English civil war.


The task for those of us who are seeking to explain the extraordinary contemporary phenomenon of Brexit is not to get caught up too much in the excitement of daily events, and also to not readily adopt the easy benefits of hindsight.

In other words: the key question is not only about why and how Brexit has unfolded in the way it has, but to also grasp why and how events did not go differently.


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24 thoughts on “Causes and effects and Brexit”

    1. I think he rather overdid the contribution punk made to our culture. It was a very small period in time and it didn’t really shake anything up, in my opinion. It was supposed to be the new Year Zero and all that preceded it was deemed irrelevant and dead. Well that’s not proved to be the case. Bands such as Floyd, one of the many bands castigated by Punk, are as popular as ever. People pay huge sums to see bands such as Fleetwood Mac and The Stones. Punk changed nothing.

    2. It’s anti English bile. Brexit isn’t about English nationalism or loss of empire. Out of touch remainers and liberals think this because they live in the bubble.

      1. Brexit is about distrust. Warranted or not, enough British people don’t trust Europeans, and I won’t say the EU because it is comprised only of Europeans. There are definitely elements of English nationalism in brexit because if you believe our interests are not being served by our involvement in the EU project then it’s out of paranoia or a sense of superiority – ‘we deserve better’. I don’t think loss of empire comes into it but the way people think about the country betrays an attitude developed through having once been the global super power. Saying that people don’t think these things is disingenuous because we enough of them are quite happy to say it if asked.

  1. The causes of ‘Brexit’:
    – The nigh-inevitability of continuous (weak) Conservative administrations.
    – The growing traffic of ideas on popular involvement with the EU & the electorates of Europe.

  2. Although not strictly following the stream of post referendum events , and the narrower issues around the internal dynamics of the Tory party- I do think the effects of devolution and in particular the Scottish independence referendum have been underestimated with regard to the rise of English nationalism?

  3. I think there is a relatively simple explanation for the Leave vote although it is an explanation that needs study to understand the “why”

    At its root is the difference between what voters value vs what politicians value

    Politicians focus on the macro, on stability and on economics.

    The voters focus more on the individual, on social/cultural change and – if the status quo isn’t working for them – see no benefit in stability

    We can also see this play out in how the negotiations have progressed. For all her faults, May has tried to square the circle and address the individual concerns with as smooth an economic glide path as possible

    At its heart, Brexit is a principal-agent problem.

  4. I can’t help but feel that Brexit would have been avoided if the first Blair government had thought big and brought in proportional representation. A permanent UKIP presence in Parliament would have seen to that.

  5. For once I have nothing to add – you’re right – of course, I was being economical with the truth, I always have something to add. I completely agree in terms of the way this needs to be analysed but differ from you in that I think a perfectly coherent explanation of Brexit could be constructed from what we now know.

    No, I am not going to do it because I have already done it in a dozen different arguments in a few different places. As for how it ends, well forecasting the future is always a matter of probability and possibility rather than certainty.

    To illustrate my point who here, or anywhere else, was arguing that we would be running EU Parliamentary elections in 2019 – I can’t recall anyone. As soon as you make that point you realise the futility of predicting outcomes – because we may yet not run EU parliamentary elections, but if we do, those and the May 2nd local elections, (which will happen) are likely to change the game significantly

    The old tried and tested three outcomes is what most wise people go for, sadly I am not yet wise because I think we will end up with a further referendum – when you (Parliament collectively) can’t or won’t decide, give the decision to someone else – that way you dodge the blame – a goup of men trying to decide where to eat after a boozy night out know the truth of this – why shouldn’t it be true of Parliament.

  6. Universal suffrage is a powerful tool which should be used with care. Voters have absolute discretion in how they cast or withhold their votes: they are not obliged to vote in the national interest or even in their own interests.

    The “effect” for which cause(s) must be found is as follows.

    In the face of forecasts produced by experts in good faith, a plurality of the electorate appear to have voted contrary both to the national interest (as conventionally defined) and to their own interests (again, as conventionally defined).

    The possible causes therefore include
    – the experts’ forecasts were collectively in error (and all in the same direction)
    – the experts were not acting in good faith
    – a plurality of the electorate were irresponsible and/or stupid and/or insane and/or misled
    – the conventional definitions of the national interest are flawed
    – the conventional definitions of ones’s individual interests are flawed

  7. Much of the discussion of the causes of Brexit has focused on issues internal to the UK and relatively little on the impact of external factors. This is a long-standing weakness of English historiography. I rather suspect that future historians will give far more prominence to factors external to the UK. They will point to how technology change exacerbated the unusually adversarial political culture of the UK. This same technology change had also transformed the Global financial system creating incentives which drove the UK political elite and killed off one Nation politics. The collapse of the Soviet system, fear of which had kept the separate Nations of Europe closely bound to one another, transformed the European political landscape and profoundly altered British perspectives on both the role of the UK in the EU and it’s views on the nature of the Union. If one thinks of this in Systems terms, the argument is that change arises not from within the organism by rather from the organisms response to challenges in the external environment.

  8. The English Civil War? Really?

    Historians today refer to this period as the War of the Three Kingdoms, beginning in Scotland and ending in Ireland.

    To see it as a purely English thing is to miss the bigger picture, and thereby to ask the ‘wrong’ questions.

    As for Brexit, you can look at it as a repeat of this war. Scotland voted everywhere to Remain, N Ireland voted to Remain in the areas around the Border, but Leave in the Planter heartland; and England voted Remain in the metropolitan ‘bubbles’ and Leave elsewhere. One lesson from this is that Scotland and N Ireland are of little relevance to the ‘precious, precious’ Union that some bang on about.

    1. That was the very point Russell made, and made well. And so quick were you to condemn my writing that you missed that “civil war” was in lower case.

      Nothing above goes to it being “purely” an English thing – indeed, the first two or Russell’s seven effects got to what happened in Scotland.

      1. Mea culpa. But I’m confused; the book title is in capitals, but you refer to the war in lower case. I missed that subtlety. You do refer though to the ‘English defeat’.

  9. The question should be why the EU became an organisation UK voters wanted to leave. The EU seems to be trying to do two things – create a prosperous free market for EU nations, and creating a political union that effectively binds and removes German nationalism as a political force. I think the failure to understand the tensions between those forces will break the EU unless it is resolved.

  10. “It would not be enough to explain why there was a referendum….” Indeed, but it does need to be explained, since without a referendum there would have been no Brexit.

    The immediate causes of which the referendum was an effect seem largely to relate to the management of the Conservative Party and the existence of a pool of disgruntled voters whose discontent could be mobilised to exploit long standing divisions with in it.

    A Russell-like list of things without which the referendum could not have happened would have to include (among much else) the British media and its foreign proprietors, the (again, not merely local) long-standing hostility to the EU as an obstacle to unfettered market capitalism…..

    in short, though the Russell principle certainly helps to clarify the object of the enquiry I’m not sure that it helps much to delimited the scope of the argument. Perhaps it wasn’t meant to. After all, your remark that not everyone accepts his list of necessary causes points – in both cases – to an almost limitless field of new possibilities for debate.

    1. Thank you for this, which is a treat for me as (you know) I read your books as a student.

      Here is a counterfactual. After the 2015 general election, Cameron reneges on the promise of a referendum.

      UKIP and Farage are still around, taking advantage of this broken commitment.

      Would the Brexit issue have not been forced by other means? Was it not just a matter of time before the issue had to be addressed?

      1. Certainly it would, most obviously in the first place by a revolt within the Tory party which would have replaced him by Johnson or Gove (so a battle of the press barons? interesting possibility), and not much difference thereafter. i.e. by June 2016 the battle lines were set. Not sure what that says about Brexit, but to me it exemplifies both the strength and the weakness of Russell’s approach, which was greatly influenced at first by what he saw as the determinism of Hill and his generation. Hence the focus on effects – working backwards from events – which led him in turn to look for a different set of long term causes, but perhaps (though I am wholly incompetent to make this judgement) also to over stress the contingent.

  11. The only tangible effect of Brexit seem to be that a lot of the electorate are very cross about something and they expect someone else to do something about it and that makes the others very cross as they see no way that something will ever get done to reduce the general crossness. The latest Brexit step effect is that, whoever makes laws in the UK, has ensured another EU election that those most cross are determined to either to not vote, or to turn out in large numbers to show how cross they really are.

  12. “And it would not be enough to explain why the UK government handled Brexit policy so badly after the referendum, as a great deal also came down to how EU27 responded”

    While most of the above seems relevant, with this particular point I would disagree strongly.

    I don’t wish to sound like *that* pundit, but to my mind the EU27 has responded pretty much exactly as I would have expected it to respond, in many cases because the way it responded was pretty much the only way it *could* respond, and in almost all because the response was precisely what experienced officials who had thought carefully through the available options and their consequences a few steps ahead would recommend.
    To put it a little more strongly, I find it hard to think of any example of an EU response since the referendum which I have found surprising, and very few important steps of which it has not been possible to advise and forewarn clients well in advance (in many cases even well before the referendum).

    Now, the fact that the UK government either did not take care to procure such advice, or else ignored the advice which it must have received (unless it preferred to take advice only from those saying what it found convenient to hear, certainly not unknown) does demand (even more) explanation, but I really don’t think we can pretend that substantially different responses could have been expected.

    The lack of *any* conditionality in the ECJ judgement on revocation was slightly surprising … but the positions argued by the Council and the Commission weren’t, so that wasn’t an EU27 surprise.

    The apparent degree of patience shown at various stages might have seemed surprising to some observers, specifically the implicit decision to continue indulging May by accepting “sufficient progress” after the complete debacle of early December 2017; however, this must be set against not only a primary aversion to actions likely to have dramatic effects on the internal politics of Member States, but also the knowledge that, due to the FTPA, the expected result of denying May the symbolism of apparent progress which she so clearly in no way merited would not have been for the government to fall and for a fresh election to bring about a more capable, amenable, or merely better informed negotiating partner (Labour, coalition, or otherwise), but rather to substitute even weaker and more paralysed siege-mentality Tories led by an increasingly squalid series of strident grotesques. Rinse and repeat in ever-decreasing circles…

    Here’s part of my reading of that for a client in January 2017:
    “Personally, I still think it is a mistake for them to indulge May any further as I don’t see any likelihood at all that she can deliver a viable outcome (or even that she could recognise such a beast if she ran into it by accident, tbf!). A catastrophe is already on the horizon, so better to precipitate it sooner rather than later, unless the objective is to buy time to cushion the eventual blows. Yet I imagine that the EU team know or at least suspect this, but I can see why it is not possible for them to make that call at this stage: it would require really unambiguous evidence to take such a strong position.

    “The EU team will therefore continue to negotiate in good faith because that’s what they do and what they *must* do. But they are surely no longer really expecting any viable ‘deal’ to result, and will increasingly be planning for ever gloomier outcomes. Sadly for the UK, the more they plan, the more sunk costs their preparations incur, the weaker the UK’s leverage.

    “What they *are* doing with these continuing negotiations is to accumulate a corpus of pre-debated text, together with detailed intelligence from probing UK positions at the ground level (which is another reason for them to move towards at least a phoney Phase II, even if the outcome is expected to be abortive and nothing remotely resembling a composite overall position exists on the UK side in any case). After a ‘no deal’ exit there will, of course, be many many issues that will require (particularly from the UK side) urgent escape routes, often through deep thickets of thorny and intertwined complexity. At this point there will a huge benefit to be derived from having a ready-prepared corpus of texts to hand, albeit the selections on offer will obviously be heavily skewed towards the tastes of the larger partner.”

    We *are* now, however, beyond the ‘Article 50’ deadline and thus at a sort of tipping point where the EU response will be determinant: how many extensions can the UK continue to squander before one or other Member State calls time?
    Current guess is that if we arrive at Hallowe’en as woefully unprepared as we are now, as seems overwhelmingly likely, it will be almost impossible to argue for another extension (even though preliminary discussions are certainly already taking place as to what form any such putative extension might take).

    Most likely the EP elections will toss a casual hand grenade into what passes for the UK debate, and furious arguments over the significance, if any, or otherwise of the results will further splinter and polarise positions leaving inadequate time and space for deliberation as to what should happen next, let alone to agree a consensus.

    May will doggedly continue to propose substantially the same stale old menu as has already been so roundly rejected, because there is little or nothing for *her* to win by doing otherwise.
    **A vital question to ask is what it would mean for British ‘democracy’ if a deal so conclusively rejected by Parliament were to be forced through in the end by procedural manœuvre and suffocation or immolation of all alternatives.**

    Sadly, while she is in no position to make things happen, the overweening power of the executive in the UK means that she *is* pretty much able to prevent the emergence of serious alternatives, an approach she has relentlessly over-used in the past. Meanwhile, the UK’s deadlocked polity will continue to parade it’s woeful unfitness for purpose in the modern world: while it is perfectly obvious that the key person has no incentive to allow what is necessary to happen, the political system has no way to remove or bypass her other than through the cooperation of sworn tribal enemies who would rather rely on pointing the finger of blame elsewhere, safe in the knowledge that nobody will ever definitively be help accountable.

    Wow, that turned into a long ramble…

  13. Under this approach I wonder how perception of the effects, on which we determine appropriate cause(s), will vary with distance from events.

    The day of departure, as has often been stated, is merely the beginning of a long and complicated process of extraction. Experts are talking of periods up to 10 years to sort out the trade deals alone. Even this is arguably too soon to determine impacts on the economy, demography or even on the Union itself.

    At what point therefore will we be confident to declare what the effects of Brexit are?

    If past performance is any indication of the future, I suspect that those with least to say would be the first to declare.

  14. if the ‘key question is not only about why and how Brexit has unfolded in the way it has, but to also grasp why ‘ then peer at the evidence

    As Will Hutton and Andrew Adonis have agued inequality in Britain is grotesque*;

    *Saving Britain Will Hutton and Andrew Adonis

    ‘7 of the poorest regions in Northern Europe are in England …..all had substantial leave majorites contrast those with the richest region in Europe’=Inner London

    ‘Regions in the North and Midlands and Wales are between 5 and 30 % poorer than Mississippi in the USA,’ leave votes where concentrated in these areas

    ‘Levels of inter-regional inequality in the UK are 50% higher than in similar sized economies in France and Germany’

    Hutton and Adonis argue that where there is least demand to live people voted Brexit, 27 areas of the country where property prices declined from 2004 -16 all voted leave

    They indicate that the ‘Social Mobility Commissions (SMC) 2017 Report indicate that a quarter of young people in South Ribble are not in education, training or employment. Not one former area of the Midlands or the North has bucked the trend by becoming a hotspot for social mobility 23% of them rank as coldspots’

    The ’30 regions the SMC identified as the worst coldspots for social mobility from Weymouth to Carlisle all voted leave, 21 embraced Brexit by 60% or more’

    I doubt if your waiting for your Universal Credit to arrive you really could not care less about Brexit or subscribing to Blogs, your more concerned with getting through the day, their minds are dominated by how to fund the next meal

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