Brexit signals a new era: Political science deals with questions that have multiple answers


In a 2016 referendum, the United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union. Professor Daisuke Ikemoto describes that year as being the end of one era, and the start of another. The UK’s exit from the EU has been described as a revolt of ordinary people against the rise of globalization that has been ongoing since the end of the Cold War. Professor Ikemoto, who specializes in British politics and the EU, has been researching why the UK left the EU and how that departure will affect relations between them, and in doing so has deepened his thinking about the nature of democratic politics in this new era.

Daisuke Ikemoto Professor of Political Science, Faculty of Law Daisuke Ikemoto (Ph.D., Political Science) graduated from the Faculty of Law, University of Tokyo, and obtained Ph.D. from the Department of Politics and International Relations, Oxford University. He specializes in European integration and British politics. After working as an associate professor in the Faculty of Law at Meiji Gakuin University, he assumed his current position in April 2017. His recent works include European Monetary Integration 1970-79: British and French Experiences (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), EU Politics: The Future of Governance beyond the State (co-authored; Yuhikaku, 2020) and A History of European Integration: From Two World Wars to Brexit (co-authored; Minerva Shobo, 2019).

Immigration was not the only cause of Brexit

The United Kingdom (UK) officially left the European Union (EU) in January 2020. In June 2016, the Leave camp won a referendum on whether to leave or remain in the EU. In November of the same year, Donald Trump won the US presidential election. Political scientists tend to discuss these events in terms of a backlash against globalization and a rise of populism.

A rapid rise in immigration from Eastern Europe is generally considered to be the primary cause of Brexit. Various Eastern European countries newly joined the EU in 2004 and 2007, causing a wave of westward immigration from those countries. The United Kingdom, which for various reasons had not established a transition period for the free movement of people, saw a particularly large influx of immigrants. The UK had initially welcomed immigrants as a source of cheap labor, but that situation changed dramatically following the subprime mortgage crisis. This was a serious economic blow to the UK, which had to drastically cut education and welfare budgets and reduce social services. Dissatisfaction regarding that situation led to widespread anti-immigrant sentiments and support for leaving the EU, especially among people living in rural areas and those with relatively low educational backgrounds.

While it was so-called “ordinary people” who supported Brexit for reasons related to immigration, there were also elites who supported a departure from the EU for completely different reasons.

After the subprime mortgage crisis came a global financial crisis, during which large amounts of public funds were pumped into financial institutions in various countries. The public was highly critical of such bank bailouts, which used up huge amounts of taxpayer money, prompting the EU to strengthen its regulations on and supervision of finance. However, the financial sector was the core of the UK’s economy, and there were concerns that stricter regulations on finance would severely impact the country’s overall economy. To avoid such a situation, some business executives and politicians from the Conservative Party, one of Britain’s two major political parties, came to support leaving the EU.

The fact that stricter financial regulations of the EU contributed to Brexit is not often pointed out, but I believe that a combination of two major trends accelerated separatist sentiments: popular opposition to immigration and elite opposition to financial regulations.

In 2021, the UK’s Johnson administration set “Global Britain” as its national post-Brexit strategy, and the country is now strengthening ties with the Indo-Pacific region, including Japan. Prime Minister Johnson was a key figure in the Leave campaign, but if opposition to immigration and globalization were what drove the UK out of the EU, it seems a bit odd that Johnson would now use “global” as part of his slogan. In this respect too, we can see a gap in thinking between the country’s top political leaders and its ordinary citizens, despite both supporting the same idea of leaving the EU.

The UK and the EU had a complicated relationship from the start

The relationship between the UK and the EU was not a very good one to begin with. The predecessor to the EU, the European Economic Community (EEC), was established in the 1950s, but the UK did not join until 1973, later than other major European countries. The UK has been reluctant to integrate with Europe for varied reasons, one of which is that it has historically had strong relations with other English-speaking countries such as the United States and Australia, and the country has emphasized those relations over those with continental Europe. Because the UK was late to join the organization, it had to adapt its own systems to already established EU institutions. However, many aspects of the UK’s legal and political system were incompatible with equivalent EU systems, making them difficult to adapt, and I believe that was another factor that prevented the UK and the EU from getting along.

Most famously, there were conflicts between the UK and the EC over budgets during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, who demanded that the EC return some of the UK’s contributions. After intense negotiations, a certain degree of compromise was reached. Margaret Thatcher—the Conservative Party’s first female leader and from 1979 Britain’s first female Prime Minister—was a catalyst for Britain’s globalization. Thatcher was initially in favor of joining the EU, but she became more reluctant towards the end of her term, however, and this is considered to have triggered a change in the Conservative Party’s policy regarding the EU. Recently, some have even argued that the roots of Brexit stretch back to Thatcher. I am currently writing a biography of Thatcher, in which I plan to include a wide range of topics that highlight her character, including her relatively poor upbringing, her career as a politician, and the transformation of Britain’s economy and society under the Thatcher administration.

The impact of Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic on British society

Brexit has deprived the UK of the immigrant workers that were previously a significant labor force. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened labor shortages, particularly in the food and beverage and tourism industries, where the spread of infections has forced many workers to shift to other jobs.

While labor shortages can lead to a decline in services, they are not completely bad, in that they can increase the wages of those working in the industry. Back in the Middle Ages, the bubonic plague took the lives of nearly half the population of Europe, causing the working population to plummet. After the plague subsided, the nobility had a hard time securing enough people to cultivate their lands, and this is thought to have altered the relationship between the nobility and commoners, tilting the balance of power toward the latter. Of course, COVID-19 will not affect populations as much as the bubonic plague did, but even so the current pandemic may become a catalyst for another shift in the balance between the interests of workers and managers, and between workers and consumers. For the past thirty years or so, wage levels in developed countries, including Japan and the UK, have been stagnant. I am very interested in seeing whether the pandemic changes that situation and becomes a factor for change in current social structures.

Brexit marked the end of the post-Cold War era

I became interested in international politics in my mid-teens, as the Cold War was coming to an end. The people rose up to tear down the Berlin Wall, which was a symbol of the Cold War at the time, and there was a strong sense of positive thinking, that everyone working together could change society for the better. Many specialists of international relations in my generation study Europe, and when I talk to them, they all credit seeing the end of the Cold War when they were young as what led them to this field.

The tearing down of the Berlin Wall was the event that marked the end of the Cold War era. The world has become increasingly globalized since then, with people, goods, money, and services moving freely across national borders, and the EU has been symbolic of that. Globalization has provided new opportunities for the young and the highly educated to expand their lives. However, increasingly many older and relatively less educated people feel left behind, unable to keep up with increasing immigration and societal transformations. A backlash against such globalization surfaced in 2016 with Brexit and the election of US President Donald Trump. That election was on November 9, curiously the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Some political scientists consider the election of President Trump to mark the end of the post-Cold War era, and the beginning of a new one. 2016 may have thus been a year in which the course of the world dramatically changed.

Reconsidering the nature of democratic politics

Until the election of President Trump, very few ordinary American citizens or even political scientists ever considered the idea that the United States might become something other than a democratic country. Over the past five years, however, we have seen how democratic politics can be at risk even in a developed society like the US. At this start of a new era, I would like to consider the question, “What exactly is democratic politics?”

One might say we can find an answer to that question simply by opening a political science textbook. Even so, the world of political science has long considered this as a question that must be repeatedly asked from generation to generation. I believe that the post-2016 world well demonstrates the truth of this long-held wisdom.

There is ongoing debate among political scientists worldwide regarding the question of what democratic politics is. For example, today we elect legislators to run our government, but there is debate as to whether our systems for doing so really are democratic politics. In ancient Greece, the birthplace of democratic politics, public officials were chosen by lots, based on the idea that democracy means all people taking responsibility for managing society. Modern systems of parliamentary democracy, in which politicians are chosen from among those running for office, are perhaps not something the people in ancient Greece considered as democratic political systems.

There is also debate regarding whether globalization and democratic politics are compatible, or, more specifically, whether democratic politics is a system that is intolerant of differences. Under a democratic government, everyone has a say in how society is run, which can make it difficult to treat those coming from outside as our equal citizens. Indeed, it is possible that people of different ethnicities and religions may find it easier to coexist under a dictatorship, where a ruler decides how society should be and the people just follow along.

It seems difficult to make democratic politics function to the extent of resolving the people’s grievances while still maintaining an internationally open society. As a political scientist, however, I would like to continue investigating ways to make that happen.

Courses that make people aware of perspectives other than our own

At Meiji Gakuin University, I teach international relations courses for first- and second-year students, and international organization and comparative politics courses for third- and fourth-year students. In my classes, I always encourage students to be aware that there are different perspectives from which we can look at things.

Political science deals with questions that have multiple answers. In international politics, for example, how much importance we place on military power significantly affects the way we see and think about the world. A position that emphasizes the role of military power is called realism, while a position that does not emphasize military power so much is called liberalism. I present these differing views in my classes, then explain in depth how such differences arise. I want my students to learn to be aware that even if they consider themselves realists, there are opposing positions, and conversely that even if they agree with liberalism, military power influences international politics in ways that cannot be ignored. I hope to teach classes that cultivate an ability for deepening one’s thinking through exposure to a variety of views, rather than seek immediate answers.

The Department of Political Science emphasizes the role of seminars

The Faculty of Law has a Department of Political Science and a Department of Global Legal Studies, where students can study international relations in depth. Our faculty welcomes any high school students who are interested in international affairs. The Department of Political Science, where I work, emphasizes the role of seminars in our curriculum. One characteristic of our department is that a high ratio of students enrolls in a seminar during their third and fourth years and write a graduation thesis on a very wide range of topics.

I hear that some students consider writing a thesis to be a hassle, but I believe the very act of writing a thesis helps to develop skills they will need after graduation. It is difficult to develop your own ideas, and even more difficult to put those thoughts in writing and communicate them to others. To write a thesis, students must research what they want to know, analyze the data they have collected, summarize their thoughts, then write a paper that clearly communicates them to others. The logical thinking and writing skills they develop in the process are essential skills for most jobs they find after graduation. In addition to instructing seminar students regarding course content, I also try to show them how through writing, they will acquire the ability to achieve their goals in society.

How you spend your four years in college will greatly affect the rest of your life. As the old saying goes, “there is no success without effort.” I hope our students will challenge themselves in various ways and accumulate experience as they strive toward their goals.