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Can’t Get No Learning: The Brexit Fiasco through the Lens of Policy Learning

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Claire A. Dunlop, Scott James, Claudio M. Radaelli

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)703-722
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of European Public Policy
Issue number5
Early online date24 Sep 2019
Publication statusPublished - 3 May 2020


King's Authors


It seems paradoxical to suggest that theories of learning might be used to explain policy failure. Yet the Brexit fiasco connects with recent approaches linking four varieties of policy learning to policy pathologies (Dunlop, 2017; Dunlop and Radaelli, 2013, 2018). This article sets out to explain the UK government’s (mis)management of the Brexit process from June 2016 to May 2019. Drawing on interviews with UK policy makers and stakeholders, we ask how did the UK government seek to learn during the Brexit negotiations? We consider four modes of learning: reflexivity, epistemic, hierarchical, and bargaining. By empirically tracing the policy process and scope conditions for each of these, we argue that learning through the first three modes proved highly dysfunctional. This forced the government to rely on bargaining between competing factions, producing a highly short-termist form of learning which stymied the development of a coherent Brexit strategy. We argue that the analysis of Brexit as a policy process (rather than a political event) reveals how policy dynamics play an important role in shaping the political context within which they are located. The article concludes that public policy analysis can therefore serve to endogenise existing accounts of macro political developments like Brexit.

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