The dilemma of Brexit: hard choices in the narrow context of British foreign policy traditions

Gaskarth, Jamie and Langdon, Nicola (2021). The dilemma of Brexit: hard choices in the narrow context of British foreign policy traditions. British Politics, 16 pp. 170–186.



Brexit threatens to disrupt the fabric of British foreign policy thinking. For decades, policymakers identified membership of the European Community as one of two pillars of British influence (the other being the ‘Special Relationship’ with the United States). Together, they allowed Britain to exercise power on a global as well as regional scale. These assumptions were repeated so often that the UK was regularly criticised for lacking policy imagination and avoiding hard choices when the interests of Europe and the United States conflicted. Brexit presents an unavoidable dilemma for policymakers as they chart a new course for British foreign policy. Interpretivism, as set out by Bevir and Rhodes (2003), offers a route to understanding how actors interpret and respond to such dilemmas, via reference to traditions. This article uses their approach to examine the expression of beliefs about Brexit and British foreign policy. In particular, it focuses on two datasets, one a ‘control sample’ of commentary since 2016, the other, the parliamentary debates on the first EU Withdrawal Bill in December 2018 and January 2019. We find a contrasting willingness to evoke traditions in a substantive fashion to understand and justify political choices. In particular, parliamentarians utilise one particular tradition, pragmatism, to marginalise the expression of abstract belief. In the process, they reduce discussion to a technocratic exercise that is unable to manage the conflicts Brexit has brought about. Meanwhile, those MPs that are most creative in their expression of traditions tend to be from smaller regional parties or on the political periphery. The resulting deadlock is evidence of the importance of traditions to interpreting and managing dilemmas of social change.

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