Just before the “Brexit” referendum in which the United Kingdom voted on whether to leave the European Union, the “Remain” (in the EU) side was predicted to eke out a narrow victory, such that even supporters of “Leave” were starting to concede defeat on the day of the vote. As it turned out, Leave won by a percentage of 52 to 48. When I heard about this on Thursday, I couldn’t help but think of the Monty Python “Election Night” sketch where the Sensible Party candidate lost a Parliament seat to Silly Party candidate Jethro Walrus-titty, and the network anchor asked for the opinion of the poll analyst, and the analyst said, “Well, this is largely as I predicted, except that the Silly Party won.”
The results of the Brexit vote were such that they not only offended a lot of people who were betting on the other result, they supposedly offended a lot of the people who voted for Leave. In fact in the few days since the vote there have been various news stories showing a spike in British Google searches on questions like “what is the EU?”, and requests for a second referendum on the grounds that voters didn’t know what they were getting into.
The EU referendum came on the heels of two other important votes in the nation. In September 2014, Scotland held its own vote on whether to begin separation from the United Kingdom, one reason being that there is much greater support for the European Union project within Scotland than there is in England. Thus even though the independence vote lost (by a 55-45 percent margin), there has since been an implied threat that if the anti-EU movement did stage a “Brexit” that this would result in a second independence vote. And last year, Britain had scheduled a parliamentary election in which Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron had pledged to allow a referendum on EU membership if his party won a majority, a referendum which was called for because of growing unease within Britain towards the continental institution. So it’s not as though none of these issues had been outside public debate.
In reaction to the results, most Remain supporters, especially on the Left, have chalked up the results to ugly nativist racism in the UK population. Analysis reveals it isn’t that simple. The UK has already accepted non-white immigrants from India, Trinidad and other Commonwealth nations for generations since World War II, before the EU was integrated. They are a part of the culture now. Indian food is now more popular than native British food. (If only because native British food is stuff like spotted dick and haggis.) It is however true that EU rules oblige Britain to take in a certain number of immigrants from other EU countries (there were 2.3 million foreign-born in the UK in 1993, when Britain joined the EU, and there are 8.2 million immigrants as of 2014). This led to an impression that workers who were white Europeans, but from economically depressed, low-wage areas like Poland, would compete with natives for jobs and thus lower wages. This is because of demographics that are not being acknowledged.
The current leader of Britain’s leftist Labour party is Jeremy Corbyn, an old-school socialist who is against capitalism in general and the “neo-liberal” free trade policies represented by the EU in particular. In the 1970s, he had opposed the initial negotiations to enter the EU. He has since come out in favor of remaining in the organization as long as the EU and the Cameron government did not “dilute” workers’ rights, although during and especially after the vote campaign he has been criticized for a supposedly lukewarm support for the Remain position. That may be because, as it turns out, 37% of Labour voters went for the Leave side of the initiative. Thus the Left has to face at least one of two possibilities: Either not everyone who voted for Brexit is a right-wing, racist, crabby old meanie, or being a Labour voter is not mutually exclusive with being a racist, crabby old meanie.
Conservatives and other critics have pointed out that the actual maintenance of the European Union is through the European Commission, whose leaders are not elected by Britons or anyone else. As with most transnational agreements, European Union rules override those of national governments, and are determined within its structure and not those of the governments. Thus even apologists who say that the system can be reformed from within cannot refer to meaningful ways of doing so. Moreover the whole premise of the European Union is putting disparate economies on the same currency and structure regardless of what is good for the local economy. In the case of Greece in the last few years, it has no power to set its own currency policy because it is in the eurozone, and what economists say would be a better policy for depressed Greece (printing more money) is not a good policy for Germany (because the German economy is already strong) and Germany as the overall stronger country and more important factor in the world economy has more say. Mind you, I much prefer a prosperous and liberal Germany that is dominating Europe economically to a hungry, authoritarian Germany that is getting into wars every twenty years, but let’s not act like the current system doesn’t have flaws.
It’s much like the current debate in America and elsewhere over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which raises similar questions over how much say we will have over our own economic policy, something that offends both the Right for sovereignty reasons and the Left because of its favoritism to the corporate order. Well, the European Union is a good case of what a TPP would look like after more than a decade of integration, and even Britain, which deliberately did not integrate into the eurozone, can see that the more involved it is in the structure, the more painful it will be to get out, even if the drawbacks are (allegedly) outweighing the advantages. But that may mean that Continental countries that are even more integrated may feel more impetus towards their own exit movements, not less.
Pushing the idea that people voted for the Brexit referendum without knowing what they were getting into is not just a way for Conventional Wisdom to save face for being wrong about people’s opinion, it also sells the overall philosophy of such people: We’re too stupid and naive to make our own decisions. Which might be the case. It’s been pointed out that a clear majority of Britain’s younger population, including those who were more affected by the economic downturn than older workers, supported remaining in the EU. Yet, the higher the median age of a district, the more likely it was to go Leave. So we could be dealing with the equivalent of Sanders Democrats.
Given the problems with the EU, voting to Leave was probably the right choice in the long run. But it creates many, MANY problems in the short run, some of which, like the renewed prospect of Scottish independence, were known well in advance. There were enough consequences that it might have persuaded me to vote Remain, were I in Britain. The fact that the vote was both a close and clear margin for the other position ought to be taken as a loud vote of no confidence not only in the Cameron government but the presumptions of the European Union.
It also ought to serve as a warning to those in America who think they know what “the people” want and what’s best for them.