Is Brexit like banning booze?

By Stephen Fisher.

Various historical comparisons have been made in discussion of the Brexit process. Last year there was the suggestion that, just as the 2008 financial crisis bailout legislation passed Congress only at the second time of asking after a negative market reaction, so the Meaningful Vote might do so. Not only has Theresa May’s deal failed to pass so far, but there has not been any major market reaction to the three defeats.

Tonight’s statement by the prime minister suggesting cooperation with Labour means she might, as Jacob Rees-Mogg anticipated she might, follow the example of Robert Peel in splitting the Conservative party by pursuing a policy that relies largely on opposition support.

This post explores comparison with the Prohibition of alcohol in the USA. The 18thamendment of the US Constitution prohibited the, “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” It was approved by big margins in the House and the Senate in 1917, and eventually achieved ratification by the required three-quarters of the states in January 1919. What followed was a dismal story of increasing crime, institutional hypocrisy and disrespect for the law. Public support for prohibition dropped heavily by the early 1920s, and it was repealed in 1933.

Since starting to write this I’ve found that others have said that Brexit is another policy mistake like Prohibition that the public will want to row back from eventually. That might turn out to be true but it is not the analogy I wanted to draw. Regardless of whether you think Brexit is a mistake or not, comparison with Prohibition raises a number of intriguing parallels and questions to ask about the Brexit process.

My starting point for this post is something I heard at a conference nearly two decades ago. (I don’t normally find panels at big US political science conferences very memorable, but this comment stuck with me.) It was a response to a theoretical paper which argued that legislators, for reasons of political survival, always vote with their constituents over their own personal policy preferences. The fellow audience member offered as anecdotal evidence a claim that many of the Congressmen who voted for Prohibition did so against their better judgement for fear of their voters.

Whether many politicians in 1917 really voted for something they thought would turn out to be a bad idea we shall never know. If they were anxious to please their voters then they certainly would not have wanted to publicise their concerns. We do know, however, that the votes for prohibition in Congress, were highly correlated with indicators of the level of support in their districts, consistent with the idea that politicians were indeed following the voters.

There was also a remarkable number of so-called wet-drys who drank themselves but accepted prohibition in their districts or states. Their situation has some parallels with the so-called inbetweener MPs: Labour MPs who voted Remain but represent constituencies that voted Leave.

As Eilidh Macfarlane and I discuss, the large number of inbetweener MPs is partly the product of the geographical distribution of Brexit sympathies. Just as Remain voters were concentrated in the cities and Leave voters the majority elsewhere, so a century ago the wets were predominantly urban while the drys held sway in the more numerous rural districts. The geography mattered so much to the House vote that prohibition strategists in 1915 worried that, given the high rate of rural to urban migration, if the amendment did not receive the necessary two-thirds majority before the 1920 reapportionment then the window of opportunity might be closed.

The notion that the political outcome was sensitive to demographic change is also relevant to Brexit. Some argue (hereand here) that the mortality of older, predominantly Leave, voters, and the introduction of younger more Remain supporting citizens into the electorate since June 2016, means that, even if nobody changed their mind, Leave would no longer have a majority in another referendum.

There are also intriguing parallels in developments in what Prohibition and Brexit meant. Dominic Cummings argued that it was advantageous to the Leave campaign in 2016 not to set out details in advance of what would happen if Leave won. Similarly, for reasons of political expediency, the 18th amendment did not define what “intoxicating liquors” were. The term liquor refers primarily to distilled spirits. But after the amendment was ratified, the Volstead Act, the enforcement legislation, banned the manufacture, sale and transportation of “intoxicating beverages.” These were defined, to the surprise and dismay of many voters, to be drinks with more than 0.5% alcohol. Political debates about Brexit since the referendum have been in large part about what it means to leave the EU, what the voters were voting for, and so what it means to honour the referendum. If the UK leaves the EU, especially if it is without a deal, then the experience of Brexit is likely to be rather different from what many Leave voters imagined it would be when they voted for it.

There are obviously many important differences between Prohibition and Brexit, and some of the points above apply to other historical cases too, but the experience of Prohibition was so bad that it does raise particularly important questions about when politicians can exercise their judgement to ignore public opinion.

With Brexit there is a referendum result to consider, with Prohibition there appears to have been an even stronger wave of public support. Resistance should be easier for opponents of Brexit than it was for the wets, unless referendums are particularly difficult to undermine. Brexit is an unusual example internationally of a referendum for something most MPs opposed. However, the Irish and Danish undid three examples with further referendums. Norwegian voters opposed membership of the European Communities in 1972, after which the politicians settled on arrangements not so very different from membership, and which MPs in the UK are now considering.

One justification for politicians sometimes give for ignoring public opinion is that they can better anticipate potential problems with popular policies.  Criminality under Prohibition was anticipated in advance, but did not provide enough political impetus to resist the prohibitionists. Contrary to the spirit of good public policy making, one eventual president, Harry S Truman, wrote in a letter that he was thinking of getting in early on the moonshine business. He probably didn’t. Most of those who did probably didn’t write about it in advance. By contrast, warnings of the negative consequences from Brexit have been written a plenty.

Most of the observations I’ve made about Prohibition come from Daniel Orkent’s excellent book, Last call: the rise and fall of Prohibition. A review of it in the New York Times, back in 2010, said, “Okrent resists the chance to link Prohibition to the current political scene. But the comparisons are tempting, to say the least. About a century ago, a group of determined activists mobilized to confront the moral decay they claimed was destroying their country. Their public demon was alcohol, but their real enemy was an alien culture reflected by city dwellers, recent immigrants and educated elites. Always a minority, the forces of Prohibition drove the political agenda by concentrating relentlessly on their goal, voting in lockstep on a single issue and threatening politicians who did not sufficiently back their demands. They triumphed because they faced no organized opposition.” Presumably that reviewer would be all the more tempted to say something similar about US politics post 2016. I’ll leave the reader to draw their own judgement as to how much relevance this has for the politics of Brexit.


Thanks to various people I’ve discussed some of the ideas here with. I won’t name them to spare their blushes.

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