Rob Sutton is a medical student at Oxford and a member of the Labor Party who is conducting research at Yale. We sat down with Rob to ask about his views on Brexit.
The Politic: Commentators have proposed many potential reasons why the UK voted to leave the European Union. Some have emphasized the importance of economics, for instance claiming that immigrants take away jobs from British citizens. Others have perceived a more abstract sense of resentment—the belief that there is a loss of sovereignty, power, or control over UK territory. Yet others have identified the darker cause of xenophobia. Which of these do you think is the most powerful motivating factor, and to what extent are they interrelated and mutually reinforcing?
Rob Sutton: Leading up to Brexit, and probably around the ten years before when I was sort of paying attention to newspapers, a lot of the front pages would be about resentment about immigration in particular, in terms of numbers, and I guess that sort of ties into sovereignty, and that there was a sense of frustration that the UK government didn’t really have any real power over controlling those numbers. And so there were successive governments coming in, saying things like “we’re going to control immigration.” That generally failed because of the legal structure of the EU and the necessity of free movement of people in [the EU].
So yeah, leading up to it, there was this general sense of that jobs were being lost to other countries and that immigrants were coming in and taking those jobs away, and that was a big part of the frustration.
And to what degree would you say that frustration is economic, or would you say it was born out of a fear of immigrants in general that might exist even if some economic analysis suggests that it is not actually bad for the country?
That’s difficult for me to answer…I’m not sure. I mean, definitely if you look at some of the demographic split for places like London; Oxford, where I’m studying; Cambridge, where there is a large number of young people pursuing advanced degrees and advanced training, [people there are] looking at the EU as this big source of potential jobs and potential study. Those [cities] overwhelmingly voted to remain, so they perceived it as a good thing.
On the other hand, when you think about communities which have seen a sort of economic downturn where traditional jobs in manufacturing have moved abroad to cheaper locations, etc….I guess you have seen the same sort of thing with Trump: a sense of resentment about the economic downturn of certain locations within the country—while other locations like London for instance have done very well with the European Union.
One of the other demographic splits that arose from Brexit is the split between old and young. Young people were much more likely to vote to remain. Why do you think young people were so much more likely to vote Remain, and what do you think it says about the future of UK politics?
I think it’s probably what I was sort of saying before, about a lot of young people view it as this incredible opportunity to travel, to live in different countries, to work in different countries, to study in different countries, and there is a sort of sense of resentment that a predominantly older population has taken that opportunity away from them by voting to leave.
In what ways would you say Brexit has changed the political landscape of Britain, particularly with regard to the trust levels toward both major parties and political engagement?
I think we are seeing an incredible amount of political engagement which I have never seen before in my life. Recently we saw this march in London in favor of the people’s vote, which is essentially a second referendum, they worked really hard to organize that and ultimately over a million people showed up from across the UK to protest against the current government.
Has Brexit exposed a split that might be more substantial, or at least an important split, not between Labor and the Conservative party, but between being pro-globalization and anti-globalization?
This is very frustrating for people to watch I think, because both within the Conservative party—the party in government—and within Labor in the opposition, both have struggled to get a very clear picture of what they want from Brexit, and that is because within those parties you have got a breakdown of MPs [Members of Parliament], you had constituencies who voted to leave and constituencies who voted to remain. So you get this internal clash within party conferences of people struggling to get a clear narrative moving forward.
It’s probably more obvious in the Conservative Party, just because they are in government at the moment. There are remainers in the Conservative Party, and there is obviously the same problem in the Labor party but that’s less prominent because we are not in a position to make policy.
What do you see as the implications for the EU, for instance with other governments who are increasingly euro-skeptic (perhaps most saliently right now, the Italian government that is potentially facing sanctions from the Eurozone for exceeding its deficit limits)?
I think that’s going to depend on how proceedings go. If the EU manages to look strong and negotiates a deal which is overwhelmingly in their favor, then Britain is going to become increasingly more reluctant to actually leave, I mean right now there is some uncertainty as to whether we will leave; we have applied for further deadlines which look as if they are going to be at least in June, possibly the end of the year. But if we get out on good terms, which seems unlikely, then probably that would increase the ammunition that euro-skeptic European countries have to say “let’s actually leave the European Union.” So yeah, if it goes well for us, which doesn’t look likely right now, then probably it would weaken [the EU’s] position. But if we end up out in the cold, I think it is unlikely anyone is going to be voting to leave the bloc anytime soon.
What do you see as the most likely outcome? It seems a no-deal Brexit is becoming increasingly more likely.
Just thinking about what the timeline looks like right now, the withdrawal agreement has been brought before the house three times and it has lost every time. Before the most recent time we were given an extended deadline of April 12, so after it failed a third time, Theresa May’s written to [President of the European Council Donald] Tusk again saying can we apply for a further extension. I think it seems likely we’ll get that extension, he’s floating this idea of 12 months, and, I mean a lot of the uncertainty comes from the fact that, whatever we go to the EU requesting, we need a unanimous agreement from them. I think they will lean to keeping us in as long as possible just because of the economic instability. It won’t be in anyone’s favor for us to leave suddenly and to go into this no-deal scenario where we get a sudden re-introduction of the border and real economic uncertainty in terms of movement.
So I think what’s going to happen immediately is that we will get this extension, things will settle down a little bit. The Labor Party have just come out of talks with the Conservative Party saying that the political declaration, which is the sort of substantive part of the agreement after the withdrawal, they’ve not made any progress there, so it’s really unclear how that political declaration is going to move forward. I mean, the withdrawal is sort of set as to how that’s going to happen, but right now things are going to settle down a bit if we get that extension. Beyond that, I have no idea.
We may end up with a general election before we actually decide on leaving. If that happens, [and if] the polling which indicates that people increasingly want to remain is correct, and say that Labor do get into power, and say a second referendum comes out, we may just end up never leaving.
Turnout for Brexit was 83%, as opposed to the 63% of the last four elections. Why do you Brexit generated so much more political engagement? Is it somehow perceived as “above politics” by some of the UK population?
I think part of it would’ve been that a lot of the momentum it had was built on frustrations that had been continuing for successive governments. As I said before, for decades tabloids had been complaining about that and it has sort of ingrained itself in the public consciousness, that the EU is this bureaucratic, unaccountable system, that frustrates a lot of people. Not my view but yeah, that was the feeling.
So it was partly just the length of time these things had been going on for; [and] partly a very aggressive campaign on both sides, Remain and Leave, in terms of advertising which seemed to go on forever, and generated, rightly, an enormous amount of publicity and headlines.
In your personal experience, how deep a divide has Brexit created between people in the UK? Is it the type of issue that you think has divided many families, is it the type of issue where the political gets tied up with the personal? Especially because this might affect a lot of people’s capacity to even stay in the UK.
I am honestly not sure. The city I live in voted pretty consistently for Remain, so I don’t speak to a lot of people [who voted leave], or least I don’t speak to a lot of people who admit to have voted Leave. But I did see in my class, at least in the immediate aftermath, that a lot of people who admitted that were stigmatized for doing that, and people who had been friends for a long time were looking each other differently. So I guess it depends on the community and how variable the split was in the vote where you go. Certainly it is very emotional as an issue and something that probably families who were split on the issue avoid talking about.
What has been the reaction on college campuses and from student organizations in the UK to news about Brexit?
Most of the organizing I’ve seen has been for Remain. I am sure there are vocal groups who are very aggressively in favor of leaving, but certainly the most aggressive campaigning I’ve seen has been in favor or remaining. [For example, at] the London march, there was an enormous number of students. There was an enormous number from all demographics there but students represented themselves very well at that, so I will say it seemed that the Remain group on campus seemed to be doing the best job in terms of organizing.
What is your personal stance on Brexit, and how would you say your personal background influenced that position?
I was born in Cardiff, in South Wales. Wales voted in favor of leaving by about 53%. Cardiff itself was in favor of remaining. I went to university when I was young, so I think I was shown quite early the opportunities that the EU provided for young people.
I mean, it sounds like selfish motivations on both sides, but for me the EU provided a lot of opportunity, about the things we spoke about already, so people who feel sort of left behind by that, like I understand why you would be angry or frustrated by the system and vote to leave. I empathize very much with people on both sides, and when I hear people voted to leave I don’t hold it against them.
Would you say that the ideas proposed by those defending Leave as to what the cause of the difficulties that people who voted Leave are going through are accurate? So for instance, many perceive Brexit as a rejection of a system that favors the politically powerful, perhaps those in more privileged positions, who are better able to access international institutions. Would you say that those institutions, or those people in power, through enfranchisement into more international systems actually bear some of the responsibility, or would you say it is mostly a misleading idea that may have harmed even those who voted to leave?
I don’t know enough about the sort of specific demographic and economic breakdown behind it, but I think that when you are in a position of power, and you have a large group of your constituents—the people you are representing—feel that they are not being represented, then it almost doesn’t matter whether you are doing a good job or not: you have a duty to convince people why you are in this together and what benefits it gives you, and if, after decades, people do not feel they have received any of these benefits, then I think that is partly a failure of the institution.