Brexit: Some Thoughts

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on July 2, 2016


In the immediate aftermath of the 23 June referendum vote in which the United Kingdom chose to leave the European Union there was a good deal of chaos in British politics. The Prime Minister resigned, a full-scale revolt erupted against the Leader of the Opposition, the pound plunged to its lowest level since 1985, and a nasty spate of racist incidents were recorded across the country. At a week’s remove, some order has begun to re-assert itself.

Domestic politics is of peripheral interest to me and the national debate over the E.U. referendum—conducted as it was at an extremely low level—was a good example of why. The mendacity of the leader of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) Nigel Farage—who, incidentally, was not a part of the official Leave campaign—is now well-documented. (The vacuousness of UKIP and its leader motivated one of the few posts on this blog about British politics.) The baseless hysteria of Remain supporters, who insisted that everything from the arts to the wildlife of these islands was threatened by secession, is rather less recognized, but formed a key theme of this episode.

I have long supported leaving the E.U., so cast my vote accordingly—indifferent to what passed for the official debate. My reasons can be roughly summarized as four:

  • Sovereignty: Not as central to me as I know it was for some, the federal project of the E.U., the supremacy of European courts over the British Parliament, and the unaccountability of a European Parliament whose commissioners are appointed without reference to—and cannot be removed by—British voters does not seem to me the best future for the country. The attempt by Prime Minister David Cameron to refashion sovereignty as influence did not play well, and the talking point that it would be a cost to Britain to have no say over the crafting rules it would then have to apply in trading with the E.U. was silly. London has no say over Japan’s laws either but has to conform to them when exporting to Japan; this does not require that Britain apply Japanese laws, which would be ill-designed for Britain’s particularities, domestically, where the vast majority of British business is done. The ability to control certain specific policies—immigration and its attendant influence on inequality the most important for many, but others such as those surrounding the deportation of criminals—is greater from outside the E.U., as was largely conceded by the Remain side.
  • Improved relations with neighbours: Removing Britain from the E.U. machinery is likely to foster better relations between Britain and the E.U. states. Benjamin Haddad wrote a thoughtful essay in which inter alia he pointed out that it would have made much more sense to have started “with something that is at the heart of national sovereignty—defense—[in] the construction of a unified Europe,” but instead it started with “technical and economic integration,” largely because of British concerns. This is a restatement of the problem: British voters would not support a vision of Europe that puts British soldiers under foreign command, and working around that creates an E.U. that does not work. Now, the remaining E.U. states, whose visions more closely align, have no need to attempt to find ways of making palatable things the British public would be more hostile to the more they understood them, and can integrate further politically without the irksome Brits raising objections, and deal with London as a separate entity, removing a point of friction between Britain and its European neighbours.
  • Stability: This applied in two senses. First, telling the population—true or not—that policies that large majorities wished to see enacted are impossible because of Brussels undermines the government’s legitimacy and that of the capable political elite, leaving space for demagogues and worse, who threaten Britain’s political stability. Second, the stability of the E.U. is by no means certain. The framing of the debate as the continuation of an imperfect status quo against a reckless gamble in leaving struck me as incorrect. On present trajectory the E.U. has numerous problems coming: Britain leaving might cause changes that avert some of those problems, and if not Britain has been extricated from the worst of the fallout, though of course any trouble in Europe would inevitably affect Britain.
  • Obsolete: Perhaps above all it seemed to me that the E.U. was simply out of date. Originating in the 1950s, it came from a time when geography was destiny. With the internet and cheap air movement, this is no longer so. Britain can have a relationship with a United Europe, but it makes no sense for Britain to shackle itself to a customs union, with its external tariff and sclerotic bureaucracy, in just one part of the world. It is not to deny that there were nativist and isolationist strains within the Leave camp to point out that some of Leave’s leading spokesman made an explicitly globalist case for the Brexit, and that most of the people who led the successful campaign to prevent Britain doing her internationalist duty in 2013 and enforcing the taboo against the use of weapons of mass destruction are now claiming the mantle of “internationalism” to keep Britain tethered to an inward-looking trade bloc.

There were some serious risks to consider. One was that a vote for Leave would trigger the breakup of the United Kingdom. Sadly that process is already well-advanced, and this vote seems unlikely to do anything but affect the timing if such an outcome is to occur. If Sinn Fein does call a referendum to separate Northern Ireland from the U.K., this will be because the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement—by which an operationally defeated Irish Republican Army was granted political legitimacy—allow it to. Scotland might perhaps call a second referendum on independence, though this seems doubtful, not least because Scotland has no guarantee of automatic E.U. access. Moreover, if a second referendum is held, there is no reason it has to be on the same terms as last time, specifically the exclusion of Scots who live in other parts of the Union.

The E.U. was also said to have brought democracy to Greece, Spain, Portugal, and the Captive Nations. There is an element of truth in this, but it mistakes cause for effect: the E.U. is an outcome of a peace secured by largely Anglo-American arms, not the instigator of that peace. And while the E.U. has proven a useful model to both attract states out of dictatorship and bolster fragile democracies, it is a hindrance to high-functioning states.

Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin supporting the Brexit was also held up as an argument against its sagacity. This was the argument that gave me the most pause. At its most alarmist the argument was that a Brexit would lead to fascism in Britain and Russia taking over the Continent. One question here is political, to do with allies. Remainers might see the futility of this argument if it is reversed: do they feel themselves bound, morally or otherwise, by the fact that Dianne Abbott, Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson (who is not exactly hostile to Moscow), and Anjem Choudary supported Remain? On the substance of Russian-related security concerns about a Brexit, it is difficult to credit that—before this was needed as a campaign issue—anybody really believed the E.U. was a stern bulwark against Moscow; that role belongs to NATO. With the E.U. admittedly-nascent but the West at the height of the “unipolar moment,” a Russian client was able to turn former Jugoslavija into a slaughterhouse until NATO stepped in and, again in the E.U.’s backyard and this time with the organization more mature, Russia has been able to seize parts of Ukraine. More broadly, the Brexit’s impact on Britain’s security is minimal: intelligence-sharing in Europe has always been aspirational at best, and London’s meaningful intelligence and security relationships with her English-speaking allies are essentially unaffected.

In the aftermath of the referendum, there have been suggestions from figures as eminent as MPs and international lawyers that the result can be circumvented. The arguments essentially came down to three: avoiding economic calamity, the sovereignty of Parliament, and the dishonesty of the Leave campaign.

The short-term shock to the markets—not helped by their lack of contingency planning for a Leave vote—now seems to be at an end. It was shrewd politically for anti-Brexit campaigners to make the departure from the E.U. seem as abrupt and traumatic as possible—a campaign that continues in a small way with the pressure to enact Article 50 so that the two-year countdown to Britain’s formal exit begins, applying pressure to London since there is not yet even a team in place to negotiate the exit. In truth, leaving the E.U. is an unexciting and gradual process of unwinding E.U. law in areas of policy that properly belong to a national government.

The constitutional question is real: Britain now has a popular mandate demanding an exit from the European Union, and a Parliament whose members overwhelmingly support staying. Still, this was known in advance, and is a case against having a referendum at all. This case is actually not difficult to make and is eminently defensible: referenda are alien to the British constitutional model; what should have happened is that a party with Brexit in its manifesto got elected to a majority government in Parliament. But the referendum cannot be undone, and a surreptitious revoking of the result would have politically toxic results, damaging the authority of government institutions still further and strengthening anti-system parties like UKIP—which is currently struggling because its issue has been annexed to the mainstream, making it superfluous to all-but a hard core and those who need it for career advancement.

It is very unlikely Cameron believed he would have to keep the promise of a referendum; the expected result last May was another hung parliament, and the referendum could have been traded away in negotiations with the Liberal Democrats. Once it was clear that the referendum promise would have to be fulfilled, Cameron doubtless saw opportunity—to blunt the UKIP challenge and forever close the Europe question that has been so painful for the Tories. It is also true that among the most visible campaigners against Cameron, for the Leave side, were men who suspected—as Cameron and virtually everybody else did—that the vote would be to Remain, and were in fact engaged in internal party politics rather than a dispute about the fundamental constitutional structure of the country. So there was plenty of dishonesty to go around.

A variant of this argument about Leave’s dishonesty applies to the voters, rather than the campaign’s leaders, and relies on the idea false consciousness: they said they were voting for one thing (namely independence) but were in fact voting for another (in this case racism). This case was put at its boldest, as might have been expected, by Vox:

Understanding this as bigotry matters. … [I]f the Brexit vote was rooted in xenophobia, rather than rational opposition to immigration, then the conclusion should be very different [i.e. British politicians should not be conceding to the demands of voters].

Civil rights prompted a racist backlash from Southerners, yet nobody seriously believes the 1964 Civil Rights Act or the 1965 Voting Rights Act were mistakes. You don’t give in to bigoted pressure to restrict people’s rights—in this case, the right for people to live where they want. You fight it. …

British voters made an unjustifiable and irrational decision, grounded in fear of people who spoke different languages or whose skin was darker than theirs. The response shouldn’t be to restrict immigration further. It should be to figure out how better to make the case for the fundamental human right to migrate.

The ability to restrict immigration was indeed a key driver of the Leave vote. But restrictionism is not a bigoted position—even if bigots hold it, which some certainly do. But it should be obvious that fifty-two percent of Britons are not racists, and that telling a majority of a population that their views are illegitimate and have to be fought—presumably by the government—is, while a perfect expression of the maxim that Brecht did in fact mean sarcastically, an extremely dangerous idea that can only lead to the breakdown of democratic structures. As David Frum recently phrased it, “When you say, ‘Nobody but the fascists will address this problem,’ the voters are going to say, ‘Who are these fascists of whom you speak, and what’s their phone number?’ It is the job of responsible leaders to deny the issues to [extremists and demagogues] … because the issues are real’.” The creation of functional state institutions that prevent mass-violence is a recent and relatively rare phenomenon: taking risks that test the durability of these institutions is grossly irresponsible.

Immigration became such a large topic because it is the most visible proxy for a catalogue of issues to do with a layer of the population at the middle- and lower-income level who have lost out to globalization. It wasn’t scapegoating for these voters to feel economically under pressure from foreign workers—and waving the GDP figures at them to explain why immigration wasn’t a problem only underlined for such voters the distance between themselves and the country’s business, media, and political elite, who receive the benefits from immigration and almost unanimously advocated Remain. The more ephemeral sense of some voters, especially in the north of England, that they are outsiders in their own country—whatever the objective state of such a concern—is a political fact to a significant subset of the population and telling them their concern is illicit runs the risks outlined above.

It was the fact that the “left behind” demographic lined up behind Brexit that inspired the comparisons with the potential election of Donald Trump, who supported the Brexit and draws significant support from this section of the population. The comparison is not wrong, exactly, but it does miss out some key differences. To illustrate a primary one: I was in the United States during the referendum and the immediate fallout, and opinion was fairly solidly on the side of Remain—quite often with the emphasis on such a vote as a cultural expression of cosmopolitanism as against reactionary exclusion, rather than any fixed view of the impact on economics or politics per se (see below). The case for Britain in the E.U. from an American vantage point is easy enough: a more pro-American voice in the councils of Europe, less protectionist for U.S. goods, and less isolationist. Very few Americans, however, would consent to a structure like the E.U. governing the U.S.: NAFTA suffered enough from accusations of supra-nationalism and eroding sovereignty as it was; if it included a panel of commissioners from Canada and Mexico who couldn’t be removed by American voters but could make internal American laws the opposition would have been near-unanimous.

It was genuinely alarming to witness a rise in racist and xenophobic attacks in the aftermath of the vote. That most were non-violent in nature was cold comfort. This indicated that bigots felt validated—not, as some claimed, that all Leave voters were bigots. These incidents seem to have subsided but it is nonetheless urgent that Brexit supporters loudly and repeatedly condemn this thuggery and make absolutely plain that the Leave vote included no concession of any kind, ideological or political, to such views. It is a real social advance that even verbal expressions of racism became taboo, and that must be upheld no matter the political arrangements in Britain.

In a column for The Week, Damon Linker put his finger on where the real energy against the result had come from. The reaction “in the days since the Brexit vote is not necessarily worry. It is shock. Fury. Disgust. Despair. A faith has been shaken, illusions shattered, pieties punctured,” Linker noted. Both sides turned the question of Britain’s membership in the European Union away from a cost/benefit analysis and toward a question of identity, but one side didn’t realize they were doing it. “It would be one thing if progressives understood their universalistic moral and political convictions to constitute one legitimate partisan position among many. But they don’t understand them in this way,” Linker wrote. This “quasi-eschatological faith in historical progress” leads to a reaction that treats opponents less as political adversaries and more like heretics.

The transition in the Tory leadership is likely to be relatively smooth once the candidates are worked out. The fact that, as James Bloodworth put it, even a coup in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party “takes as long … as getting a loaf in a Soviet grocery store” is not likely to forestall the outcome. Freed from the need to defend unpopular elements of E.U.-imposed policy like free movement and without Corbyn, Labour is likely to see a rise in its fortunes. There might well be further economic downturns associated with the actual process of leaving the E.U., assuming it happens, but it seems likely that in the medium- and long-term the sky-is-falling predictions of the last week or so are not going to be vindicated. The fears of Brexit triggering a catastrophic unravelling of the E.U. in toto are likewise almost certainly unfounded: the Eurozone countries are not leaving the E.U. anytime soon and the other eight states have very good reasons to stay as well. Life will go on, in other words, and it might even get better.




Post has been updated

4 thoughts on “Brexit: Some Thoughts

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