Enough time has passed since Britain’s June 23 vote to leave the European Union (EU) for the political consequences to be felt, and for analysts to register their post-mortems. The political consequences were stark: Theresa May replaced David Cameron as prime minister; Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn suffered statements of no-confidence and group resignations among his leadership; politicians who aimed to ride the Brexit wave to higher office, namely Boris Johnson, saw their ambitions thwarted.
Weighing the post-mortems, however, the precise meaning of the Brexit vote is as muddy as its political outcomes are clear. There are many meanings. Three, however, emerge more clearly with some context. First, that the process of the Brexit vote was not democracy’s finest hour, whatever one thinks of the outcome.
Second, that the “Leave” vote rested on a solid base of anti-EU sentiment in Britain, the strength of which was underestimated. Third, the economic benefits and drawbacks of the EU are subject to hyperbole in a way that deflects attention from its actual structural issues.
wIn The New York Review of Books, British author Zadie Smith captures the shortcomings of the referendum as a tool of democracy in language any political scientist would envy:
“A referendum magnifies the worst aspects of an already imperfect system—democracy—channeling a dazzlingly wide variety of issues through a very narrow gate. It has the appearance of intensification—Ultimate democracy! Thumbs up or thumbs down!—but in practice delivers a dangerously misleading reduction. Even many who voted Leave ended up feeling that their vote did not accurately express their feelings.”
Not only does a effective referendum require an electorate to educate itself on a potentially new topic, its result is not nuanced enough to allow a voter to express a precise opinion if s/he has one. This encourages simplified, black-or-white thinking about complex issues. This, in turn, opens the door for propaganda and hyperbole to drive the debate.
In a previous post, I shared Alexander Hamilton’s words in Federalist #1. Hamilton’s audience was also heading into a referendum: New York’s vote whether to adopt the Constitution. He raised this very concern: vitriol in place of informed debate was itself an enemy. A democratic electorate is fully capable of deciding an issue on its merits; but it may not make the effort to do so, and to wonder whether it did after the fact is to undermine the outcome. Given that many Britons began educating themselves about the EU after the Brexit vote seems to bear out this concern.
Anti-EU sentiment—“Euroscepticism” in its mildest form—has a unique history in Britain that long pre-dated the Brexit vote. As the financial crisis became a global downturn, the UK Independence Party (UKIP)—founded on Britain’s rejection of the EU—gained strength.
In response, Prime Minister David Cameron announced in January 2013 that an in/out referendum would be held no later than 2017. That provided Cameron with several years—an eternity in political time—to focus on the priority of re-election in hopes that an economic upswing would neuter UKIP support and ensure a “Stay” decision when the referendum came. The timeline of the political calculation made sense; underestimating the extent of British Euroscepticism did not.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has shared his views on the Brexit results. However, his thoughts on the EU in his 2010 memoir—predating even Cameron’s pledge for a vote—shows the EU headwinds that British leaders faced. Though he is now vilified by many on the left for his support of the Iraq War, it is worth remembering that Blair came to power as a centrist, “third way” politician eager to break with polarized thinking about many issues.
This excerpt from Blair’s memoir A Journey is a two-paragraph outline of where opinion towards the EU stood in the preceding decade’s Labour government:
“In general terms, for me, Europe was a simple issue. It was to do with the modern world. I supported the Europe ideal, but even if I hadn’t, it was utterly straightforward: in a world of new, emerging powers, Britain needed Europe in order to exert influence and advance its interests. It wasn’t complicated. It wasn’t a psychiatric issue. It was a practical question of realpolitik.
I regarded anti-European feeling as hopelessly, absurdly out of date and unrealistic. It was also the product of a dangerous insularity, a myopia about the world that I thought affected adversely the whole psychology of the country. It was a post-Empire delusion.”
Quite why Britain has taken this Eurosceptic attitude so much was a curious question. My theory—but this may be total nonsense—is that our problem with Europe is that we didn’t invent it; or at least weren’t a founding member. Then when Harold Macmillan sensibly decided we should join, de Gaulle said “Non.” This, combined with the strong imperial feelings that still lurked beneath the surface of the British psyche—part superiority complex, part insecurity complex—gave us a national narrative about the EU that was deeply unhelpful (pages 533-534).”
For those parsing Brexit’s meaning, reading that a former prime minster is as perplexed as anyone about the UK-EU relationship is reassuring and frightening. Blair’s comments, however, point to the deep well of anti-EU feeling in the UK that sounds not unlike attitudes towards the United Nations on the U.S. political right. Cameron underestimated this well of EU resentment, which was exacerbated by economic conditions but not created by them.
Finally, above the political finger-pointing there is discussion of what Brexit means for the EU’s future direction. Mervyn King, former Governor of the Bank of England, asks this question in the New York Review of Books. King cautions that the impact of the vote will bear no resemblance to the hyperbole on either side:
“It was and is simply false to claim that exit from the EU will result in Britain becoming either a land of milk and honey, on the one hand, or a land of plagues and locusts on the other. In truth, the economic arguments are much more evenly balanced. My own guess – and it can be little more than that – is that the effect of EU membership on the level and growth rate of national income in the long run will be much less than either camp would like to claim. But we cannot know today.”
King wrings out the hyperbole around the Brexit debate in a paragraph that on the one hand reassures—the EU cannot kill us (or save us)—and demurs—we cannot know what it can and will achieve. King’s statement has a humility in common with Blair’s. It is rare these days to hear members of the policy elite—that faceless group vilified in today’s politics for ostensibly “controlling everything—clearly at a loss to provide answers. You do not often hear the powerful sounding powerless. It is a veiled message to voters in the next referendum: if you are protesting elites who think they have all the answers, think again. Reality is scarier. Nobody really knows.