Like so many important events, “Brexit” – the decision by British voters to withdraw from the European Union (EU) – is the outcome of both social forces and human agency. It offers important political lessons for how to maintain Western democracy and cooperation.
The successful campaign to withdraw Britain from the EU was the work of disgruntled Tories who have not gotten over the loss of empire, the decline in unquestioned authority and privilege of the upper class, and who share the delusion that independence from Europe could somehow restore this bygone era. For decades, these backward looking Tories were consigned to the backbenches of the Conservative parliamentary party. Their moment came in 2013 when Prime Minister David Cameron pledged that the people must “have their say” on Europe and promised to hold a referendum if re-elected. In February 2016, Cameron honored his pledge, announcing a referendum in June. Those voting to withdraw from the EU won a narrow victory – 52 to 48 percent.
The English, the elderly, the rural, and the uneducated voted disproportionately in favor of leaving. But among young voters, 75% wanted to remain in the EU, a percentage almost matched by Londoners, voters in several other major cities, and those in highly educated communities like Oxford and Cambridge. The young are justifiably angry that the opportunities the EU offered them have been taken away by the same generation that has increased their tuition fees and made house ownership an impossible dream. Like many educated and cosmopolitan British people, they have multiple identities, and European is one of them.
Leaders are rarely, if ever, the prisoners of public opinion, and all the more so on the question of the EU in Britain, where nearly half the population supports remaining. So how and why did David Cameron create a crisis that would have been so easy to avoid? The answer lies in his exaggerated fear of UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party) and its leader, Nigel Farage. Committed to leaving the EU and reclaiming British “independence,” by 2014, the UKIP benefitted from the defection of two Tory MPs – one of them appropriately named Reckless – and were doing well in the polls. Tory backbenchers were increasingly outspoken on the EU, and David Cameron agreed to hold a referendum, hoping the promise would keep his party united and present further defections to UKIP. This was a huge miscalculation by the prime minister. Support for UKIP had already gone flat and the Conservative Party easily weathered the defection of a couple of disgruntled members. Moreover, the 40 or so MPs pushing for withdrawal constituted a small faction of the 330 Conservative MPs. Collectively, they might have brought the government down, but did not do so because of the greater expected cost to themselves.
Cameron’s better strategy, evident to many at the time, was to tough it out and hope that the UKIP challenge to the Conservatives would decline. And indeed it did, as voters returned only one UKIP MP in the May 2015 national election, despite major efforts by the Party. The appropriate historical analogy is the appointment of Hitler to the German chancellorship in January 1933 by President Paul von Hindenburg. In the July 1932 election, the Nazis won 230 seats, making them the largest political party. They were on the decline by 1933, and the Nazi threat would have receded if Hindenburg had hung tough.
Cameron’s willingness to support a referendum was also a sign of political naiveté. It removed the decision from Parliament to voters who had little knowledge of the issue and were, it is now apparent, readily manipulated by the Leave campaign, whose leaders spread lies – that Britain pays 350 million pounds a week to the EU, never mentioning how much of this flows back – and offered false promises – stopping immigration, and redirecting large sums to the National Health Service and infrastructure.
The Leave campaign also benefitted from the charismatic figure of Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London. Expelled from The Times for his lies, and caught in multiple lies testifying before parliamentary committees, the politically ambitious Johnson played fast and loose with the facts in the referendum campaign. The Remain campaign, by contrast, had no effective leaders. Cameron sought to convince voters to remain by negotiating some fig leaves from European leaders, and his subsequent switch from lukewarm to positive on the EU was not convincing to voters. Jeremy Corbyn, head of the Labour Party, and a former opponent of the EU, was even more lacklustre in his performance. This has created its own knock-on effect, with nearly a dozen members of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet resigning on the grounds that it illustrated his incapacity to lead. The strongest and most effective voice for the EU connection was Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon, and Scotland was the region that produced the highest majority to remain.
Must Britain leave the EU? Parliament is supreme in Britain in a way Congress is not in the United States. It is the final arbiter of all policy and is not constrained by a written constitution or a supreme court with the power to overturn legislation. And within Parliament, the power of the House of Lords has been significantly reduced; it can delay but not prevent legislation. Thus, no British government is legally committed to activating Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which sets in motion a British withdrawal from the EU. The House of Commons will soon receive a petition with a large number of signatures calling for “HM Government to implement a rule that if the remain or leave vote is less than 60% based a turnout less than 75% there should be another referendum.” There is good reason to hesitate. The vote was close, and many pro-Brexit voters have already expressed public regret. Polls suggest that half of Labour’s supporters were unaware that their Party favored remaining. The economic price of leaving was made evident by the sharp drop in the value of Sterling, and more bad economic news will follow, according to most economists.
If Britain is to remain, two conditions must be met. Parliamentarians who favour remaining in the EU – by far the vast majority – must act collectively to form a national, cross-party government or tolerate a Tory government that promises to hold elections and abstain from activating Article 50 beforehand. Such an election would take the place of a second referendum. Parliament’s actions would be justified by a simple fact: the referendum vote was advisory and carries no legal mandate. For the remain side to win a majority, the Labour Party would have to campaign effectively against Brexit, and under a new leader.
The EU must give Britain time to come to its senses. It must restrain politicians like Martin Schulz, president of the EU parliament, who are already calling for immediate activation of Article 50. Such pronouncements reflect anger, but also concern for discouraging breakaway movements and referenda in other countries. This is extremely ill considered because pushing Britain out quickly will not deter others from wanting out. But activation of Article 50 will make it all but inevitable that Britain will leave. The EU must display restraint and sympathy for the half of Britain that wants to remain part of Europe. In the longer term, the EU must do something about its notoriously undemocratic, bureaucratic nature. For decades, smug EU officials have brushed aside complaints to this effect, and not only from the British. Now they must face the fact that it is time for them to reform, not to either push Britain out or make them tow the line.
More broadly, both Britain and the EU must confront the larger social forces that propelled the Leave movement to the prominence it has enjoyed so far. The Leave majority was built on the wave of populism that has been rising in Europe and North America for some time, and is now also evident in the Asia-Pacific. It is largely a response to the failure of globalization to deliver prosperity with at least some modicum of equality.
In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, policymakers promised that globalization would deliver widespread development and growth through a combination of privatization, deregulation, liberalization and regionalism. The widespread misery caused by simultaneous economic and political reforms in Russia and Eastern Europe in the 1990s was described as a short term expedient – an inevitably painful midwife on the road to modernity. In reality, these events were the precursor of a global trend.
The strong sense of being left behind and marginalized has generated widespread anger. It is sometimes directed against the banks and corporations – as Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has managed to do successfully – but more often, politicians have been able to deflect anger and uncertainty against minorities, immigrants, and the educated. The populist backlash made possible Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian and nationalist leadership, but it also found expression in the democratic election of a far-right wing government in Hungary, and a lurch to the right in Poland despite its enviable economic record. Powerful right-wing nationalist movements have subsequently emerged in wealthier, Western European countries such as Austria, France, Denmark, Germany, and in the United States with Donald Trump. These populists have made political hay by encouraging scorn for the values and policies of elites, technocrats and “experts” in favor of sound bite solutions based on lies that are unworkable and dangerous like the Mexican wall, zero immigration, and the alleged economic benefits of Brexit.
While it seems that the populists have had their say in Britain, Parliament still has a chance to block the tide of nationalist sentiment that is threatening to engulf the rest of Europe, and it should do so. No less than the future of Western democracy may hang in the balance.