New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Politics
  2. Brexit
23 June 2021

How Brexit changed us: The referendum was always a solution in search of a problem

Political decision-making ought to be a matter of knowing how to identify real dysfunctions in social life and public policy, and then working out what can and can’t be changed.

By Rowan Williams

I can remember at the time of the Brexit vote describing the proposal as a solution in search of a problem. This is not simply an appeal to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” principle. Political decision-making surely ought to be a matter of knowing how to identify real dysfunctions in social life and public policy, and then working out what can and can’t be changed, with what consequential costs or benefits in other areas of life and policy. What was and is startling about Brexit is the sheer fluid vagueness around all this; which is not to say that the Remain advocates did any better with specifics.

And the trouble is that licensed chaos on this scale sets a precedent for other matters to be dealt with in the same unfocused way, so that the eyes of the government will be fixed on what tomorrow’s media plebiscites will present rather than on seeking a shared analysis of what’s wrong. If you have that, you can start disagreeing about how to mend it; but there can’t be intelligent disagreement without some convergence about what needs resolving.

Against this background, the sustained confusion through the pandemic period about what exactly the problem is has been just what the Brexit debate helped to foster. Punch-and-Judy oppositions have been set up – economic recovery! Medical stability! Mental health! Educational standards! Freedom! Safety! – on the basis of opportunistic readings of public opinion. We have a political culture more than ever in flight from the substantive issues of what kind of society we could or should be in relation to the long-term changes in our world (economic, environmental, epidemiological) that
can’t be wished away. Like far too many other nations in today’s world, we settled for an instant, consumerised political discourse at just the moment when we desperately needed analysis and foresight.

Rowan Williams was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012

This article is from our “How Brexit changed us” series, marking five years since the referendum.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

Content from our partners
ADHD in the criminal justice system: a case for change – with Takeda
The power of place in tackling climate change
Tackling the UK's biggest health challenges