Most explanations that have sought to understand the “causes” of Brexit have tended to focus on the idea of a “left-behind” white working class who were exercising a protest against a liberal elite. Other approaches have cited the roles played by a broader demographic in Britain, or have identified “cleavages” between “nationalist” and “cosmopolitan” normative codes. However, such approaches typically fail to address the complexities of longer-term social processes which have been fundamental to Brexit. The analytical models used to explain these cleavages have tended to conceptualise the relationships between the two codes as irreconcilable opposites, rather than as shifting balances in the context of changing social conditions.
In this paper, we focus upon understanding Brexit as part of a set of longer-term developments in human figurations involving moves towards greater integration with concurrent countervailing disintegrative pressures. These shifting patterns of integration and disintegration involve changes of habitus, balances of power (such as functional democratisation), and expanding and retracting spans of emotional identification. The relationship these processes have to early nation-state formation in Europe are critical, exposing how the dualisms in national codes have been fundamental to the formation of national identities since the Renaissance.
Our central argument is developments in these areas of human interdependence have contributed to recent centripetal shifts towards more nationalistic normative codes, and the resulting cleavages being witnessed in Europe, the United States, and indeed, across the world. We explore these shifting relational dynamics and show how a longer-term developmental approach helps to move the debate beyond present-centred and static considerations.