Emma Crewe is an anthropologist working on politics, governance and identity in civil society organisations and parliament in the UK, South Asia and East Africa based at SOAS, University of London. Her research into international development NGOs began in 1987 and into parliament goes back to the House of Lords in 1998-2002 and the House of Commons 2011-2013.

She is currently co-ordinating a research coalition engaged in research on parliament's role in poverty reduction in Bangladesh and Ethiopia with the Hansard Society. She has also joined the faculty of the Doctorate in Management by Research as a supervisor at the University of Hertfordshire and Chair of the INGO Health Poverty Action. She is also researching gender equality within an international NGO with the Danish Institute for International Studies.

In April 2015 her book House of Commons: an Anthropology of MPs at Work was published by Bloomsbury and a pamphlet Commons and Lords: a Short Anthropology of Parliament came out as a Haus Curiosity, one of a series commissioned by Peter Hennessy.

An anthropological take on Brexit

The prospect of Brexit is giving me insomnia. What more is there to say about Brexit when Matthew Parris sums up the arguments so persuasively? “Is there an anthropological take on this”, I wondered in the small hours this morning? After all the anthropologist and financial journalist Gillian Tett was one of the few experts to anticipate the financial crisis.

Of course no one knows what would happen if we left the EU. But we can speculate based on observation of how populations tend to respond to situations. Different views, and conflicts over them, are pervasive in all social groups: families, communities, organisations, networks. Unless we live within situations of rigid hierarchy and peace – where obedience to authority leave little room for argument – people in societies tend to engage in a process of fission and fusion. The first anthropologist to write about this was Evans-Pritchard. In the Sudan people argue within their clan until their clan is threatened by a neighbouring one and then they rally together to fight against their neighbours. Clans come together to fight as a tribe, tribes join to wage war against nations. In organisations I have worked in we identified with our department (our energy team was more efficient and honest than others I swear) until competing against other charities when we’d express heartfelt solidarity with the whole organisation.

If we apply this to the EU then the fallout from Brexit is likely to be the break up of the union, especially since Scotland is more pro-EU. In addition to dealing with the chaos of renegotiating everything as we divorce from our European neighbours, Scotland claiming independence would require another layer of negotiation and probably bitter disputes. (Divorce with Scotland would be even sadder for me than leaving the EU.) Even if that did not happen, vicious divisions within the UK would emerge because our attention would be turned onto ourselves. Presently when the EU does something we like, we don’t notice. When it becomes the scapegoat for something we don’t like – regulation, immigration, cuts – we can rage against our neighbours even when they are not to blame. Do we really want to turn that scapegoating from our neighbours and onto ourselves even more vigorously than the present?

Some of the arguments for leaving are perfectly logical in a fantasy world – not one I would like to live in, mind you – but they defy our experience of the one we inhabit. I love change generally, but this one makes no sense to me because, (a) we can reverse our decision later if we vote to remain, if we leave on a whim we are stuck with it for generations at least, (b) it will make our relationships with our neighbours excruciating and cause divisions within the UK, (c) the benefits are based on wild speculation by people who will not have the power to bring their utopia (not mine) into being. The vote leave spokespeople don’t even lead a major political party but in any case it is not earthly democratic power they would need. They would need to be gods or tyrants to realise their dreams.


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