To most foreign commentators, the EU membership referendum in the United Kingdom seemed extraordinary. Why should the UK wish to leave a powerful bloc? Did it not realise that the West and the world find immense value in maintaining such blocs to promote global stability? Did the British not appreciate that they were supposed to keep the EU in line with American interests and ensure that it did not clash with NATO? How could so many of them be so foolish as not to listen to Obama, Merkel, JPMorgan, the economists’ lobby, and so on? Why must democracy deliver such catastrophes as Brexit?
The last was a key issue. Democracy was taken by many as a one-way bet, only acceptable if it delivered the “correct” results, which, what a surprise, were the conventional progressive ones.
In practice, much of the British electorate was unconvinced of the value of the EU and of the nostrums of the free movement of capital and labor, as well as the pooling of interests and the subordination of national identity to cosmopolitanism by diktat. Writing this piece as the electorate voted, and deliberately not waiting till hours later would have been it easier to explain the result as apparently inevitable, I can say that the scare tactics of the “Remain” campaign did work well: “Stay in the EU or you will lose jobs and assets.” However, what was notable was the marked lack of enthusiasm about the EU. Its supporters have substantially conceded that it is corrupt, dysfunctional, unable to deliver growth or to control unprecedented migration flows, but have said that “mummy knows best” as the alternative is worse.
Furthermore, Remain gained ground by demeaning their critics and opponents. Snobbery plays a major role in British politics, and the idea that those who support Brexit are foolish, xenophobic troglodytes was persuasive given the strong desire to appear fashionable.
In practice, David Cameron, despite unexpectedly winning the 2015 general election, failed to win much when he sought to renegotiate membership. This was a failure he felt deeply (ignore what he said in public), but that also indicated the “democratic deficit” (a weasel phrase for the anti-democratic oligarchy) that lies in the core of the EU, impregnating its practices and ideology. Much of the British electorate understood this. Not enough, as there should have been a strong voice for a new democratic start, rather than the profoundly divided nation that has been revealed. Cameron found himself in an exposed position during the referendum debate, obliged to defend British membership in the face of considerable public reluctance on the issue and of a Conservative Party that was totally and very publicly divided. In place of positive arguments for continued membership, the general tack from the Remain side was touting the dangers of being outside the EU. They painted a dire picture of national isolation. This picture reflected a sense that the United States could not be relied on to support Britain’s interests, and also an awareness of a new set of international challenges different from but just as grave as those of the Cold War. The difficult economic and fiscal situation of the country proved to be a key context, as it was throughout the Post-war period. Indeed, the referendum revived many of the tensions and issues of contemporary British history. These included immigration and the “British question” of unity between Scotland and their southern neighbours. Popular worries about immigration played a potent role in the debate. The immigration issue was not, in fact, solely about the EU, as many immigrants came from non-EU countries. Moreover, much of the public discussion was ill-informed, not least failing adequately to appreciate the value of immigrants or to address the ethical issues involved.
Conversely, the fear of an unsettling rate of change was palpable among the public, some of whom claimed to be “overwhelmed.” Brexit campaigners predicted that continued membership would rapidly lead to a UK population of 80 million, and focused on the dangers of Turkish accession. Given high unemployment rates in much of the EU and attractive minimum wage provisions in Britain, continued inward movement at a high rate appeared likely.
At a different level, the question of British cohesion came to the fore as it was widely anticipated that a Brexit vote would trigger another Scottish referendum on independence, despite the economic and fiscal problems created for Scotland by the fall in the price of oil. The net effect served to underline the range of uncertainties that faced Britain at the close of our period. What’s more, this uncertainty was augmented by the instability of the wider world. A world of unprecedented population growth provided a context for the debate over migration within Europe. Instability in the Middle East and Russian saber-rattling threw attention on Europe’s inability to work out effective defence and foreign policy arrangements. Concern over American leadership accented the situation. And aside from Britain, there were fundamental questions about the long-term stability and viability of the EU—questions highlighted by serious public order issues in France in 2016. A lack of linkage between the populists of the Left and Right and the drivers of the European “project,” as well as the matter of unfunded liabilities and our dysfunctional fiscal system, created questions about the ability of the EU to solve its problems, and this would be the case whether or not Britain was a member.
Americans, consider yourself fortunate that you are not forced into the dishonest compromises the EU entails. You may have a maddening political situation, but at least you are not governed by the regional equivalent of UN direction.