The signs are increasing that Britain, after a period of muddle, will not exit the European Union after all.
Prime Minister David Cameron, the man who caused this needless mess by creating a referendum to try to paper over a factional dispute in his Tory party, is stepping down. But Cameron has made clear that he will not invoke the formal exit process under Article 50 of the E.U.’s Lisbon Treaty. He is leaving that to his yet-to-be-voted successor.
As The Guardian observed, Cameron is thus handing his successor a “poisoned chalice.” As the horrific implications of British withdrawal are becoming clearer, and as many voters who supported Brexit are having buyers’ remorse, it is hard to imagine the next British prime minister invoking Article 50 without an affirmative vote of the House of Commons,
And with about three-quarters of M.P.s opposed to Brexit, it is even harder to imagine the House of Commons voting to approve leaving.
But wouldn’t that be violating the will of the British voters? It would not. The state of public opinion is better informed and drastically different than it was a week ago. Polls show that at least a million people who voted to leave now want to stay. At last count, more than 3.4 million Brits have signed a petition asking to reverse the verdict of the ill-considered referendum.
What, then, was the narrow British vote to leave the European Union really about?
In recent days, you have read commentaries with variations on the following themes, ad nauseam. All of them contain pieces of the truth, but all miss the basic point.
Irrational Racism. This vote was a mostly racist reaction on the part of Brits who resented dark-skinned foreigners in their midst, and mistakenly blamed the E.U. Britain actually has more control over its borders than most E.U. members, since London never signed the 1985 Schengen Agreement, which got rid of border controls for travelers throughout most of the union. Before entering Britain, Europeans must still go through passport control, just like Syrians or Americans.
Scapegoating the E.U. for Economic Frustrations. Britain actually has a better deal than most E.U. nations. For starters, it retained its own currency, and controls its own monetary and fiscal policy. But as a member of the E.U., Britain does get to send tariff-free exports to the continent and London operates as a major European financial center. All of this now at risk.
The E.U. Had It Coming. Brussels is a remote, unaccountable bureaucracy, imposing regulations beyond democratic control. The vote, rightly or wrongly, was a yearning for lost national sovereignty.
Rejecting Liberal Internationalism. Britain has grown at a good clip since joining the E.U. in 1973. Globalization is here to stay. The people who voted for Brexit are badly informed flat-earth types, failed to understand that they were shooting themselves in the foot.
What’s wrong with these commentaries? All fail to grasp that there is more than one brand of liberal internationalism. The kind represented by the E.U. since the 1990s (and Thatcherism since the late 1970s) has been operated largely by and for financial elites.
When the original institutions that later became the E.U. were created in the 1940s and 1950s, the international system was designed on the ashes of depression and war to rebuild an economy of full employment and broad-based prosperity. The system worked remarkably well.
In the 1980s, as a backlash against the dislocations of the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher came to power in Britain (and Ronald Reagan in the United States). Their policies returned to a dog-eat-dog brand of capitalism that benefited elites and hurt ordinary people. By the 1990s, when the European Economic Community became a more tightly knit European Union, it too became an agent of neoliberalism.
Policies of deregulation ended in the financial collapse of 2008. The austerity cure, enforced by the gnomes of Brussels and Frankfurt and Berlin, is in many ways worse than the disease.
Rising mass discontent has failed to dethrone the elites responsible for these policies, but it has resulted in loss of faith in institutions. The one percent won the policies but lost the people.
So yes, the Brits who voted for Brexit got a lot of facts and details wrong. But they did grasp that the larger economic system is serving elites and is not serving them.
The challenge is to put a more balanced and progressive E.U., more in the spirit of 1944, back on the menu. But the exit of Britain will give even more power to Angela Merkel’s Germany, architect and enforcer of austerity. Paradoxically, general austerity serves Germany—a big exporter well—but wrecks most of the rest of Europe.
Europe is at risk of becoming more like Greece economically and more like the British right wing politically. If Britain goes, there will be more far-right populist movements for other nations to quit the E.U. This has already begun in France and the Netherlands, two of the founding nations of the European Community—and ones that also benefit, on balance, from the E.U.
But what about race? Didn’t race play a big role in this vote?
It surely did—and let’s distinguish race from immigration. The British right-wing reaction was not just a backlash against the recent influx of refugees and economic migrants from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Since the 1950s, when Britain rebranded its empire as the Commonwealth, Britain has had a relatively liberal immigration policy for its former colonies—one part carrot to promote allegiance, one part guilty conscience.
Even as early as the 1960s, Enoch Powell, a right-wing Tory, was already campaigning against immigrants, and slogans like “If you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour.”
By 2001, 15 years ago, Britain was already 8 percent nonwhite. As traditional industry declined and living standards crashed, nonwhite populations increased, creating resentments against both economic misfortune and racial change.
The more recent influx of immigrants, both from lower-wage E.U. member countries (the proverbial Polish Plumber) and from the Middle East, added to the tensions.
But the history of right-wing populism is invariably a mix of economic factors and nativist ones. In the 1960s, when Europe had full employment, there was little backlash against foreign “guest workers.” Anti-Semitism was never far below the surface in Europe, but it took the German economic collapse of the 1920s and early 1930s to produce Hitler.
Right-wing revolts are always substantially irrational, as was the vote for Brexit. But when downwardly mobile Brits grasp that the E.U. and the larger model of neoliberalism aren’t exactly on their side, they are grasping a truth.
What makes this vote so tragic is the absence of enlightened leadership, either in Britain or on the continent, to propose something better. Prime Minister David Cameron, who proposed the reckless gamble of a referendum as a tactical feint to paper over an intra-party schism, may now be responsible for the dissolution of two unions—not just the E.U., but the U.K., as Scotland secedes. He could be remembered as the worst British prime minister ever, a near-tie with Neville Chamberlain. He will be something of a hero only if he uses his remaining influence to reverse the verdict, as he seems to be doing. Remember—Cameron called this referendum to kill Brexit, not to promote it.
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who said he opposed Brexit but refused to actively campaign against it, was not much better. Britain’s two major parties are now both in disarray.
But the silver lining here is not just a refusal of the House of Commons to approve Brexit, but some possible improvements in both parties. Corbyn behaved disgracefully. He is likely to be replaced. There will also be a new Tory leader.
My bet is an early general election, on the issue of Brexit, maybe with some kind of coalition of forces that want Britain to stay in and improve the European Union. They would win. But meaningful realignment of British politics is a longer shot.
What Britain needs more than anything is a modern social democratic party. Not a Blairite Labour Party—but real social democrats.
There is actually one such British leader, maybe the only grown-up in British politics, and she stands head and shoulders above all the rest. That would be Nicola Sturgeon, head of the Scottish Nationalists and the First Minister of Scotland. The Scots have something approaching a real social democracy, with free college tuition and a far better health service.
Were she not so committed to Scotland, Sturgeon should be voted British Prime Minister by acclamation.
A reversal of the British vote is a chance to recast politics and political choices. If Britain proceeds with exit, we are in for a grim era in which ultranationalists and neo-fascists keep gaining ground.