The language of the Brexit stand-off is of a ‘level playing-field’ versus ‘sovereignty’. But beneath that, it’s about divergent social models.
Explanations of Britain’s half-in, half-out relation to the European Union tend to focus on historical differences. These range from the very long-term (dubious references to England/Britain as the oldest independent nation-state), through the medium-term (the empire as making Britain an Atlantic or even a global rather than European power) to the relatively recent (defeating the invasion threat in World War II).
Arguably more important today, however, are the simple facts of divergence in social structure and socio-economic inequality, highlighted by contemporary sociology.
The comparative study of welfare states has long stressed British distinctiveness. While the continued collective provision of goods, especially health (the NHS), certainly differentiates the United Kingdom from the United States, the UK (sometimes with the addition of Ireland) stands alone within Europe as representing a liberal world of welfare, distinct from both social-democratic and conservative worlds. Today, in terms of the extent of income inequality and poverty, the UK is mostly an outlier within western Europe, while the movement from passive to active labour-market policies has taken a particularly punitive form.
In similar fashion, a political-economy approach often differentiates liberal-market economies, epitomised by the UK and the US, from co-ordinated-market economies, exemplified by Germany. Indeed, analyses of financialisation often treat the UK and US as isomorphic. Within Europe the UK initiated the move away from the mixed-economy class compromise of the mid-20th century. British firms now follow US firms in their notorious focus on shareholder value and are furthest away from any form of stakeholder involvement.
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While other European countries also have extensive small private-property holdings, the UK is unique in the extent to which this property has been made fungible by the financial-services industry. This is liquid ‘lite wealth’, to be bought and sold, amortised and borrowed against, connecting the household directly into a global system of finance. It is very different from the illiquid family property of so many Italian or Greek households. Equally, while the UK is hardly the only European country with extremely rich individuals, it is distinctive in that so many derive their wealth from financial services.
While the self-image of the US is that it is classless compared to Europe, in fact no country of old Europe matches its class divide—not even Britain. Yet in many ways the British social structure is now less European than before. This is not only a question of poverty and inequality. The degradation (and denigration) of its traditional working class has gone furthest and its management has become the most Americanised.
In the past Italy, with its north-south divide, was the European country with the greatest regional differences. Now the growing gap between London and the south on the one hand and the northern cities on the other means that Britain resembles a US slash-and-burn pattern of economic growth.
Despite simplistic theories of Europeanisation (let alone globalisation), Europe’s nation-states remain distinctive national societies. Accordingly, it is unrealistic to contrast the UK with some homogenous ‘Europe’. However, in terms of different aspects of socio-economic inequality, the UK is increasingly an outlier—and so less European.
As some social historians have noticed, the origins of this divergence lie in the de-industrialisation of the 1980s. While deindustrialisation was a common process across the democratic welfare states of western Europe, in the UK it was interwoven with the Thatcherite political onslaught on the trade union movement. Far more so than elsewhere, in the UK deindustrialisation constituted an explicit undermining of social citizenship.
Any development of a ‘social Europe’ must involve not just the administrative co-ordination of social policy but the deepening of a shared social citizenship. In a social Europe, common social rights would become part of what it means to be European. The departure of Britain will remove one obstacle to that identity.
James Wickham was director of TASC (Think-tank for Action on Social Change) in Dublin. He is a fellow emeritus of Trinity College Dublin. His latest book is European Societies: Inequality, Diversity, Divergence (Routledge).