Brexit Heartbreak & The Democratic Deficit

The UK’s decision to exit the EU left our generation feeling bleak and worried about the direct impact Brexit will have on our future. Around 75 percent of the 18- to 24-year-old voted remain. On the other side of the channel, young think tanks like Polis180 and Social Science Works work fervidly to make our voice heard. An Interview with Sarah Coughlan and Sophie Pornschlegel

This interview first appeared on the Polis180 blog and was edited by Anne-Kathrin Glück. It is reproduced here with permission.


Sophie Pornschlegel: Sarah, you are a Brit living in Berlin and you co-founded Social Science Works in 2016. What was the idea behind all this?

Sarah Coughlan: The main aim is to broaden the democratic conversation. In practise that means Prof. Dr. Hans Blokland, Nils Wadt and I have been devising formats through which we have been talking to groups of people that tend not to be part of the larger social conversation, specifically refugees, people who stopped voting or people who are voting for right-wing populist groups and from there contribute to the social and academic discussion about the contemporary state of democracy and democratic practices. The idea is to talk to people that no longer believe in liberal pluralistic and democratic ideas, establish how they have become alienated, and get them back in the (political, public) conversation.

Sophie: Migration has been a key issue during the Brexit campaign. Especially UKIP kept talking about wanting to close the borders, even to EU migrants. How do you explain this quickly growing anti-immigrant sentiment and Brexit to yourself?

Sarah: I have spent a lot of time thinking about this and a lot of it has been very sad. There are long-term and there are short-term factors. The short-term factors are definitely easier to understand. Immigration was as you said one of the key factors playing into the Brexit vote. Leave supporter managed to make this referendum about immigration which has been an unpopular topic in Britain for a long time. If you take that and you couple it with the absolutely dreadful performance of the Remain campaign, which was led by austerity politicians like David Cameron and George Osborne and some Labour-MPs, then… The long-term factors playing into the vote were the centralisation of power in London, deregulation of financial services, the deep divide in society, social and economic inequalities, lacking public infrastructures. All of that has left people feeling disengaged with no real representation, exacerbated by the first-past-the-post electoral system in Britain.

Sophie: The 2017 general election actually saw the highest turnout in 25 years thanks to young people registering massively and Jeremy Corbyn providing a real alternative and opposition to May’s government. The results however have left many people calling for a change in the UK voting system. What should change and how?

Sarah Coughlan and Sophie Pornschlegel at the Polis180 office in Berlin-Mitte (photo credit: Anne-Kathrin Glück)


Sarah: Unfortunately, it is increasingly clear that something is broken at the root of British society. The last months have been extremely difficult with terror attacks in London and Manchester and the fire at Grenfell Tower. Without wishing to politicise these events unduly, although I would insist that these events are consequences of political choices made by the British government over the last ten years, we are seeing the results of a deeply divided society. Likewise, in the case of the Grenfell tragedy the results of years of deregulation and cuts to social spending are abundantly clear. There are a number of things that urgently need to change in Britain, most pressingly, the austerity agenda needs to dropped. Austerity was never anything more than a political ideology which has made room for deeply damaging cuts, not least to police numbers, public housing and safety, without mentioning other areas that have suffered: the NHS, schools, social care. These issues disproportionately affect the young, the poor and the old. There are signs that austerity will be dropped by the May government, and that’s to be welcomed. But there remain deep divides in the UK that the government needs to address if we are to return to some semblance of stability. In practice this means that we need to address the inequalities that blight Britain, not simply income inequality, but also regional inequality that sees school children in the north with worse outcomes than their southern counterparts. Age inequalities that see older people’s benefits protected while discriminatory welfare policy prevents generations of low earning young people from living independently. As well as equal access to basic tenets of our society like access to justice – jepordised by the Conservative government’s cuts to legal aid which effectively prices the poor out of the justice system. This is merely the surface, this is the low hanging fruit. There is much more to be done about a society that is at its heart deeply classist, racist and increasingly isolationist. But first we need a government that is able to prevent the UK falling off a economic cliff after we leave the European Union by keeping us in the single market and retaining free movement of people. I remain skeptical.

Sophie: Can you imagine doing the same work in the UK you do here? As far as I’m concerned there are not many think tanks that deal with Brexit, young people and democratic participation. I can only think of one group of young people in the UK who decided to organise for Brexit and say that young people should have a voice in the Brexit process. And foraus Global are about to start a grassroots think tank like Polis180 in London.

Sarah: To do the same thing in Britain would be very unpopular. There is a closing of the walls. Britain badly needs some original thinking about engaging with people who feel alienated by the current political climate.

Sophie: Too be honest, I can understand that the Brits want the best deal for the UK. But what really breaks my heart is that there is an obvious shift in British society stemming from Brexit. The UK was always really open-minded and welcoming to foreigners. But when I went back to London recently, I didn’t feel like I felt in 2010. And it’s hard to say but I wish there was a way for younger generations to maintain good connections with other European countries. What we are trying to do with our Post-Brexit Europe project at Polis180 is to give young people from all over Europe a voice. We are at the same time trying to find British partners to collaborate with us, but due to the negotiations starting and the general mindset, it feels hard to find civil society organisations willing to work together. Personally, I believe the Brexit mindset has also touched society and is not only a matter for the “political elite”. In general, it seems Britain excludes themselves rather than look for cooperation. I believe it would be important to have a long-term dialogue on Brexit between UK and European partners, trying to develop common objectives and making sure that citizens both in the UK and Europe do not suffer from this political decision.

Sarah: Definitely. Although we do some academic papers on Brexit, the work that I think that SSW is doing right now that’s really important and really useful is that we are seeking out people that are voting for populist parties in Germany and trying to get them to engage in serious political discussions about their fears, resentments and hopes. I completely see the point of working with young people to strengthen the European idea. But the people that are voting for Marine Le Pen in France, for Brexit or the AfD are older people who live in rural places and they feel ignored. So I think what we do in Brandenburg (SSW headquarters) really matters.

Sophie: How do you reach out to people?

Sarah: The reaching out is really the art of the thing. What we are doing at the moment is we get in touch with people via their comments on Social Media, blogs, news websites, who express anti-liberal views. You name it racist, sexist, pro-AfD comments. We are trying to show them that we are not this kind of look-downing elite type of people. It’s very slow work but the aim is to have them sitting on round tables before the German elections this fall.

Sophie: That’s really interesting and complementary at the same time. We are trying to build a constructive vision for young people who strive towards something and you are trying to get people involved and vote. It’s absolutely crucial to have both.

Sarah: I agree. There‘s a real lack of interest at the highest levels in finding new ways to engage with people, and especially to engage with people that don’t share mainstream political views. At Social Science Works we’re trying to find new, effective means of breaking people out of their echo chambers and re-engage them in the democratic conversation. The world looks pretty fragile right now, and so getting people to talk openly about their fears and ideas is a vital step towards shoring up our liberal, democratic values.  


If you want to find out more about our Post-Brexit Europe programme area, please contact: sophie.pornschlegel(at) Also, Polis180 just launched its new campaign Demokratie braucht Dich!! The goal is to encourage the younger generations to go out, get involved and vote in the upcoming federal election in Germany.

Social Science Works is currently working on the project Deliberation against Populism, trying to find people in Brandenburg that are disengaged from the mainstream political conversation and speak to them about their fears and hopes ahead of the German federal election. If you’re interested in learning more about the project, please contact: info(at)

Sarah Coughlan is the co-founder of Social Science Works, a think tank and NGO based in Potsdam. She lives in Berlin with her cat, Georgie.

Sophie Pornschlegel is the Co-Head of the Post-Brexit Europe Programme Area at Polis180. She works full-time as a Project Manager for the independent think tank “Das Progressive Zentrum” in the “Democracy Lab”.


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