Opinion & Analysis

Reversing Brexit: Lessons from history

Is Brexit reversible? James L. Newell examines what the prohibition of alcohol in the United States can tell us about the potential to reverse seemingly irreversible policy decisions.

Sometimes, the idea of reversing Brexit can seem like an insurmountable challenge. While in May, 55% of people thought that it was wrong to leave the European Union, a mere 7%, according to Ipsos Mori’s Issues Index, mentioned Brexit as one of the most important issues facing Britain today. However, history shows that monumental shifts in policy can be reversed. If we look to the example of the United States’ reversal of Prohibition in 1933, we find valuable lessons that suggest reversing Brexit may be more achievable than people think.

Prohibition and Brexit

Prohibition, the nationwide ban on the production, sale and transportation of alcoholic beverages in the United States from 1920 to 1933, serves as an intriguing case study. When it was first enacted with the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919, many believed it would be nearly impossible to abolish.

For one thing, it was driven by the temperance movement, which had strong support from religious and moral organisations. The widespread and deeply-held belief that prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol would lead to a more virtuous society – a bit like the belief that Brexit will improve UK society – made it challenging to question the idea of Prohibition.

For another thing, the belief that alcohol consumption led to social problems such as crime, domestic violence and poverty made it difficult for critics to argue against Prohibition without being seen as disregarding public well-being. Moreover, Prohibition had significant political support from powerful interest groups, such as the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. These organisations had significant lobbying power and were able to sway public opinion and influence lawmakers. Their political clout made it challenging to question or repeal Prohibition laws.

However, the policy, initially seen as a moral victory, soon faced widespread opposition and unintended consequences including the rise of organised crime, violence and corruption; significant losses of tax revenue, exacerbating the government’s difficulties in dealing with the Great Depression; widespread non-compliance; and the growing realisation among politicians that Prohibition was untenable. Sound familiar? The story of Prohibition therefore provides valuable insights into how seemingly irreversible policies can be reversed.

Reversing the irreversible

The key factor in reversing any policy is the shifting tide of public opinion. Prohibition faced mounting public disillusionment as people witnessed its unintended consequences. Similarly, the impact of Brexit, from economic concerns to the complexities of disentangling from the EU, has led to a growing segment of the population reconsidering their support for leaving.

As public opinion evolves, therefore, the prospect of reversing Brexit may become more feasible. Thus, while Brexit may matter less to voters than it once did, a majority of voters still identify as either ‘Leavers’ or ‘Remainers’ and, as Sara Hobolt and James Tilley point out in a recent article, this suggests Brexit ‘could become a salient dividing line in day-to-day British politics again, especially if events and political competition bring UK-EU relations back on to the front pages’.

One crucial aspect of reversing policies is acknowledging and learning from the mistakes made. Prohibition’s failure to achieve its intended goals was a significant factor in its eventual reversal. Similarly, the complexities and challenges that emerged during the Brexit process have highlighted the shortcomings of leaving the EU. By reflecting on these mistakes and understanding their consequences, we can pave the way for a more informed decision on whether to reverse Brexit.

An alternative narrative

To reverse a significant policy shift, proponents must present a compelling alternative vision. Prohibition’s downfall was in part due to the emergence of a compelling alternative narrative that emphasised responsible consumption, regulation and taxation. In the context of Brexit, those advocating for reversal need to articulate a compelling vision that addresses concerns raised by Leave supporters while emphasising the benefits of maintaining a close relationship with the EU. This alternative vision can help bridge the divide and rally support for a reconsideration of Brexit.

Leadership and political will are crucial in effecting policy reversals. In the case of Prohibition, it was a combination of strong leadership and the recognition of the policy’s flaws that led to its repeal. Similarly, reversing Brexit will require visionary leaders who can navigate the complex political landscape, engage in constructive dialogue and make a compelling case for reconsideration. By fostering a sense of unity and understanding, political leaders can facilitate the reversal of Brexit.

In short, while reversing Brexit may seem like an immense challenge, history offers valuable insights and hope. The example of Prohibition in the United States demonstrates that seemingly entrenched policies can be reversed through shifting public opinion, learning from mistakes, crafting compelling alternatives and strong leadership. As the realities of Brexit become clearer and its consequences more apparent, the possibility of reversing the decision grows. By applying the lessons learned from history, we can approach the task of reversing Brexit with renewed optimism and determination.

About the Author 

James L. Newell is Adjunct Professor of Politics in the Department of Economics, Society and Politics of the University of Urbino Carlo Bo, Italy.

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