Iwan Morgan is the author of "The Age of Deficits: Presidents and Unbalanced Budgets from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush" (University Press of Kansas).
Related Link Brexit: What Historians Are Saying
Back in the 1960s British Prime Minister Harold Wilson remarked that “a week was a long time in politics.” That was a gross understatement in light of the momentous events that have taken place in the seven days following the United Kingdom’s 52-48 percent referendum vote on June 23, 2016, to leave the European Union. Here is a brief but by no means complete outline of developments:
● The morning after the vote David Cameron, who had called the referendum in the expectation of a Remain vote and led the campaign for one, announced his resignation as Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader.
● Chief spokesman for Brexit, Boris Johnson, announced that he was not a candidate to succeed Cameron because his prospects had been undermined by the rival candidacy of another leading Brexiter, Michael Gove, who had hitherto declared himself unsuited to lead the country.
● As something of a sideshow the vast majority of Labour Members of Parliament supported a vote of no confidence in the party’s left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbin, for failing to wage an energetic campaign to mobilize support for Remain among the party’s core constituency of lower-income, working-class voters.
● More significantly, Scottish Nationalist Party leader Nicola Sturgeon announced that she would seek another independence referendum for exit from the United Kingdom in view of Scotland’s overwhelming support for Remain in the EU referendum.
To put it mildly, Britain is facing an uncertain future: it has a lame-duck government; no-one in the Brexit camp seems to have a clear idea of the terms on which British exit from the European Union should be negotiated; the main opposition party is in turmoil; and there is a strong likelihood that the Brexit vote will precipitate the break-up of the United Kingdom as the odds look to favor Scotland leaving if (more likely when) there is another independence referendum.
As so often in the past – but this time with cataclysmic consequences – a dispute over EU membership has proved to be the principal fault-line in British politics. It was responsible for Margaret Thatcher’s overthrow as Prime Minister by her own party in 1990, the controversies among Conservatives that blighted the premiership of John Major (1990-97), and Cameron’s miscalculation in holding an in/out referendum in the hope of laying the issue to rest.
Americans may well ask what’s it all about. If economic interest were the sole consideration, the case for the UK to remain in the EU was overwhelming – it gains access to a vast European single market, it is the fastest growing economy in the EU, and it has far lower levels of unemployment than virtually all the other 27 states of the EU. UK angst about the EU is at root political rather than economic – and finds expression above all in the Brexit hope of regaining national sovereignty over laws and regulations. In this regard, the 23 June referendum vote may have some parallels with – and salutary warnings for – US politics.
There was a strong populist element to the Brexit vote, one that transcended class and to a large extent region. As many Brexiters saw it, a vote against the EU was a vote to make Britain “Great”= again and to end control of their lives by a distant, self-interested bureaucratic elite in Brussels. In reality, the EU has been engaged far more than the UK national government of late in providing protections for worker rights, assistance for depressed areas, and general support for social welfare program*s. For many Brits, however, it has become the whipping boy for resentments sparked by the Great Recession of 2008-09 and the evidence of rising inequality of income and opportunity since then. It is difficult to believe that a referendum taken before that downturn would have produced the same result.
As a corollary to this, many Brexiters blame free movement of labour within the EU’s single market for their growing sense of economic insecurity. Many raised the cry that London only voted Remain because its prosperous middle classes benefited from cheap services provided by EU immigrant labor from eastern Europe. The fact that skills shortages in the UK are certain to require continued immigration in the future somehow did not register. Evidence that EU migrants were net contributors in taxes to the UK Treasury also failed to dislodge popular images of them as welfare freeloaders.
Donald Trump, in Scotland to open his Turnberry golf resort the day after the result was announced, hailed the Brexit vote as “a great thing.” This view doubtless reflects his own hopes of surfing popular/populist resentments to the White House in November. Whether the vote was such a good thing as Trump imagines for the UK is very much open to question, but it surely counsels against writing him off in the presidential race.
In the meantime, the UK faces a black hole of uncertainty. The London stock market and the pound plummeted in the wake of the vote, but then recovered somewhat as realization kicked in that Britain has yet to submit a formal request to leave the EU and negotiations over the divorce settlement will take some two years to work out. No one should be under any illusions that this calm before the storm will last for long. Nevertheless, hopes among Remain supporters for a second referendum once economic problems generate buyers’ remorse are fanciful.
Britain is going to leave the EU at some point – the only question is over the terms of withdrawal. Brexiters believe they can depart the political union while remaining in the single market, but the prospects of such a deal being struck are nil. The choice facing the UK is to cut itself off from the benefits of the single market at considerable cost to its trade and general economy – or to stay in the single market on condition of allowing free movement of labor across its borders (just as currently happens).
Option 1 is the route to likely economic decline; Option 2 violates the Brexit dream of national sovereignty and immigration control; and both options make more likely the break-up of the United Kingdom. Britain is about to learn what the Chinese mean by the curse of living in interesting times.
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