Photo/IllutrationGeoffrey Evans speaks during an interview at Nuffield College Oxford University in Oxford, Britain, in March. (Photo by Akira Suemori)

  • Photo/Illustraion

With the extended Brexit departure day of April 12 fast approaching without a plan in place, the European Union and the world are anxiously watching the daily proceedings.

Britain's Parliament has voted down all revised Brexit proposals it has been presented by the government of Prime Minister Theresa May. However, Parliament itself has been unable to present a viable alternative.

The Asahi Shimbun interviewed Geoffrey Evans, a political science professor at Oxford University, who has a relatively unusual background of having first worked at a pottery factory, about why no consensus is forming in Britain over Brexit and the changes in British politics and society that are at the heart of the stalemate.

Excerpts of the interview follow:


Asahi: Three years after the referendum, which led to the decision to leave the European Union, many analysts are casting a negative forecast about the economic effects of Brexit, but there appears to be no weakening of those who favor leaving. Why is that?

Evans: It's not so much about money. It's about to a large degree social conservatism versus liberal more pro-immigration values.

When you've got 52 (percent for leaving) to 48 (percent for remaining), what we've seen since Brexit is people's sense of identity of being a leaver or a remainer and their hatred of the other side growing.

I think there's been a small drop in the number of people who want to leave. However, even on the day of the referendum, the polls were showing remain ahead. So we know that the polls, they're normally Internet-based or telephone, they have a bias, probably. We don't really know what would happen in another referendum. They could just as easily go again to a leave vote.

Q: After Parliament rejected the agreement reached with the EU by the May government, it also failed to reach an agreement on an amended agreement. Why was that?

A: As soon as you go to Europe you've got divisions in both parties and that's not going to change.

You've got basically an educated, affluent, Conservative middle class and a normally less well-educated, more rural, traditional, socially conservative Conservative. You've got your progressive, middle class, educated Labor left and then your traditional working-class Labor. And their MPs reflect these mixes.

Q: Japan had considered Britain the model for its own two-party system, but why does it appear as though the system is not working in Britain?

A: The British two-party system doesn't function well when you've got a society with more than a simple poor/rich type division. Once you've got social conservatism versus social progressive--socially liberal, more pro-immigration, probably more pro-gay rights--all sorts of divisions, then it's hard to incorporate them within the two-party competition.

Q: Do you think there will be a major party realignment in Britain in the future?

A: In a proportional system, clearly Labor would have split into at least two parties and so would the Conservatives. But it isn't going to happen because it's not in the interests of the main parties.

UKIP (UK Independence Party) picked up 13 percent of the vote very quickly indeed on the basis of immigration. It was all about immigration. They had one seat in the House of Parliament and yet proportionally they should have had over 80 seats.

You've got the new Independent Group but that's not going to work as a political party. I think for Britain, the need for proportional representation is immense but you've got the main parties in positions of power, they're not going to change, because it's not in their interests. You cannot as it were break into the system. So it's a problem.

Q: What do you believe were the main factors or catalyst that led the British public to take such a negative view of the EU?

A: One of the things I've been looking at is people's sense of being European, linked in with Europe, which is weaker than all of these other countries. Britain has always scored at the bottom of all of those things. Their overseas links obviously to the former empire, the trading links, are stronger. So for a decade or more after 2004, when the European Union opened its borders to Eastern European countries, (Prime Minister Tony) Blair welcomed them in and we had a massively higher level of immigration than anyone expected or predicated. And then you can see the attitude to the European Union started to change.

At the same time, there's a more general trend, which obviously you're interested in, and this is the trend towards consensus politics. Both after 1997 and from the 1990s onwards when Tony Blair became the Labor leader, he detached its links with the working class. He deliberately distanced it massively from that. He also made it very strong pro-European.

The Conservatives have done the same thing. Because (David) Cameron's like Blair. He's a Tory Blair, basically. So they, as it were, moved to a liberal progressive consensus. They are pro-gay marriage, etc. They've moved to the middle. Basically an educated, affluent, Conservative middle class.

I think the balance changes. Let's say you had very much a working-class society with very few people getting degrees back in the 50s and 60s, and now you've got maybe 40 percent of the population, the new cohorts, get degrees, working class is a minority.

We've seen Westminster become more and more homogenous. Far more people with degrees, no trade union representatives, very few people from a working-class background. But the old and the fact that most people still don't have degrees in our society is a situation whereby those people's beliefs had been excluded from mainstream centrist politics.

Q: Are you suggesting they represent a British version of what U.S. President Donald Trump calls those left behind?

A: If you look at America, the gap between the rich and the poor and the educated and the non-educated in turnout has been there for decades. You could see then the poor stopped voting as much in America. And Trump is a reaction amongst people there who see Washington becoming a completely centralized and liberal elite takeover.

In Britain the working class were as likely to vote as the middle class. It was only after Labor in the 90s changed their image and style and appeal, then you saw a big gap open up between the educated middle class and the less well educated working class. I think to some degree the vote against the EU was the one chance people had, who don't normally get represented, of actually making a claim. It's a simple thing. Yes, no. Your vote counts.

Q: You were born in Stoke-on-Trent, which is noted for its pottery, and started out as a laborer at a pottery factory there. How has that affected your outlook?

A: I worked for Wedgwood china. I was very unhappy. I got sacked from a lot of my jobs. I wasn't very good at working in factories. And when I was unemployed I got sent to see an occupational psychologist by the local unemployment center. He gave me some test, and I got a very high IQ score and he said, "Look, you're never going to be happy; no wonder you can't hold down jobs in factories, you've got a very high IQ score, you should go to university." So I saved up some money as a van driver and eventually went and did A Levels and then I went to university, just to escape from the miserable grinding life of working-class life in Stoke. And it's a global academic community here which is great. That means that wherever you're from in Britain doesn't really matter. It's what you do research-wise that counts. That's where I found my home. I can't say I'm working class. Do I feel like I'm part of the middle class or upper middle class or whatever it is? In some ways occasionally.

Q: How do you view the opinions on Brexit held by those in that Stoke community?

A: My parents are obviously working-class people in Stoke-on-Trent and so I meet them and they are all massively leave voters and they all hate people in Westminster. People are friendly, poor, poorly educated, in bad health, many of them no longer have jobs. The main industry was the pottery industry, it was the biggest in the world; a handful of factories left. It's a classic example of a post-industrial Rust Belt-type city. And they were very thrilled to actually win the referendum and now they're getting slightly concerned that it's all going to be taken away from them, so this one little achievement that they've had is going to be torn away by Westminster politics.

Q: Do you believe that with Brexit, British society will move toward addressing inequality and the disparity gap?

A: May has been trying to bribe Labor MPs to come and vote for her deal by offering a certain amount of money to poor working-class areas they represent, where there is a lot of leave voters. But the money that they are offering isn't going to change things very much. It's sticking plaster, it is window dressing. But you're not going to change inherited wealth, housing purchase. You need rich parents to buy a house.

What we saw is the growth of the middle class as you change from industrial to post-industrial and go to professions, management-type jobs and the education to go with them. And that has slowed down, so that means actually the more people we produce with degrees the less chance they've ever got of getting good jobs with those degrees. If you don't go to university you're probably even worse off.

We saw between 2015 and 2017 a massive realignment. Highly educated people are now more likely to support Labor and income is not as strongly related to who you support any more. I think the Conservatives are in trouble because if they don't do a hard-core exit strategy they will lose all those UKIP voters they won. And they've already lost the remain voters.

Q: How do you think future political scientists will evaluate Brexit?

A: It's a set of misjudgments by political leaders leading to a collective expression of defiance against the agenda that they were setting. Having then won the vote, the political leaders threw the game away anyway. They stopped it doing too much, and probably it, to some degree, consolidated the dismal standing of democracy. It was a fight for those people who get left out, and so at that time you could see it as well; it was an expression of the excluded groups. So it's good to see the excluded groups actually winning something. However, it looks like they probably won't have won anything. I've talked to people about this and I said to hard-core Brexiteers, there could be some economic costs to this and it might affect your standard of living or your savings, and they basically said, it's worth it.

There's a well-known phenomenon called basically a status quo bias. People are risk-averse. Because there is no stability in the European Union is probably why it didn't work. And if we get a change in situation, if Europe starts to struggle economically, I think the leave tendency will grow so it's like a delayed Brexit might help Leave as well as Remain. No one knows yet.

(This article is based on an interview by Asahi Shimbun London Bureau Chief and European Editor Tsutomu Ishiai.)