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Dora Kostakopoulou – When Tomorrow Is Yesterday: The Manufacture of an EU Membership Referendum (Part I)

By Professor Dora Kostakopoulou (Warwick Law School, University of Warwick)

W. B. Gallie, who articulated the ‘essentially contested concepts’ thesis in the mid-1950s,[i] published a book entitled Philosophy and Historical Understanding in 1964. In it, he made a plea towards a more historical understanding of theories, concepts and moral judgements.[ii] He correctly pointed out that philosophical enquiries have always had an agonistic character, that is, they have been characterised by an unimpeded questioning and competition among possible explanations.[iii] His basic premise was that public narratives, that is, stories, play a very important role in socio-political life. For this reason, the second chapter of his book was entitled ‘What is a Story?’. There, Gallie raised two rather simple questions which he then proceeded to answer. The first question was ‘what is a story?’, and the second ‘what does it mean to follow a story?’.

Gallie’s answer to the first question was that ‘every story describes a sequence of actions and experiences of a number of people, real or imaginary.’[iv] And further ‘whether or not the main characters respond successfully to this predicament, their response to it, and the effects of their response upon the other people concerned, brings the story to within sight of its conclusion.’[v] Following a story, on the other hand, requires us to ‘appreciate, without needing to articulate to ourselves, many of the reasons and motives and interests upon which the story’s development up towards its climax depends. It is only when things become complicated and difficult – when in fact it is no longer possible to follow them – that we require an explicit explanation of what the characters are doing and why.’[vi]

In other words, Gallie noted that there is a flowing unfoldment of the characters’ actions and reactions and a natural sequence of events, actions and experiences that grip our attention and enable us to understand what is going on and why. As he put it, ‘following a story is a form of understanding’.[vii] Gallie’s insights are apposite to the discussion about the EU membership referendum in the United Kingdom.

Several reasons underpin the above argument. First, it would be incorrect to view the latter as an event. True, both political commentators and academics have treated it as a factum and have proceeded to provide in depth analyses of the UK’s position, arguments for the negotiations that have been, and are, conducted and the possible implications of a Brexit for the UK and for the EU respectively.[viii] However, scant attention has been paid to the fact that it is an unfolding story and that neither the Conservative party’s electoral success in the May 2015 general election nor even the Prime Minister’s decision to bring this issue to the fore of his policy agenda in 2008 constitute singular events. The latter form important parts of a story’s sequence of actions and events. In this respect, as is the case with all stories, in order to understand ‘what the characters are doing and why’, one has to adopt a historical discursive approach. The latter requires not only the identification of the right place for the story to begin, but also an examination of the presumptions, arguments and ideological underpinnings of the actors involved in a political game aimed at achieving two objectives, namely, ‘less Europe in the UK’ or, otherwise put, ‘a much more reduced role for Britain in Europe’ and ‘defending a sense of country’, or national sovereignty.

The story began a long time ago, and to be more precise, with the Tory Euro-rebellion in the mid-1990s. What we have been witnessing is the unfolding of the story which will reach its conclusion on the 23rd of June 2016. For the purposes of this post, I will refrain from guessing its conclusion, that is, the outcome of the prospective referendum. Nor will I discuss the possible implications of a Brexit. This issue has been commented upon extensively.[ix] In this respect, my presentation is not forward looking. Nor does it involve a policy analysis of the ‘British question’.

Quite intentionally, it is backward looking. I gaze at the past and argue that, if we examine the arguments, political manoeuvres within the Conservative party in the mid-1990s, which were mainly a reaction to the political turn in the European integration process and the entry into force of the Treaty on European Union (1 November 1993), we could easily discern not only continuities between the present and the past, but also that the emergence of the EU membership referendum question in the new millennium necessarily follows. We might also concede, if we are brave enough, that many developments in this story could have been predicted. In fact, the similarities between the present and the past (i.e., what happened two decades ago) are so striking, that one might even be tempted to transcend the division of temporality into present, past and future, thereby bringing everything within the ambit of a single phase.

Reversing the arrow of time will thus enable us to follow the story and, as Gallie observed, the latter is a form of understanding.[x] Understanding the process of conjuring up an EU referendum in order to respond to intra-party exigencies will, in turn, reveal that it would have been impossible to follow it ‘unless the game had shown a certain amount of continuity – of shape, character and quality – in its development to date.’[xi]


Editor’s note: You can find and download the Power Point slides of Professor Kostakopoulou’s DELI Lunchtime Seminar of 23rd February 2016, upon which this post is based on the DELI website.



[i] This paper was first delivered to the Aristotelian Society on 12 March 1956; ‘Essentially Contested Concepts’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Vol. 56, (1956), pp. 167-198.

[ii]W.B. Gallie, Philosophy and Historical Understanding (London: Chatto and Windus, 1964).

[iii][iii] Ibid, pp. 153-156.

[iv] Ibid, p. 22.

[v] Ibid. p. 22

[vi] Ibid, p. 22

[vii] Ibid, p. 32.

[viii] The House of Commons Library has produced a helpful bibliography of the relevant literature.

[ix] For a list of sources, see the Brexit Blog hosted on UACES’s Ideas on Europe.

[x] Ibid, p. 32.

[xi] Ibid, p. 38.

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