For a long time, Britons who wanted their country to leave the European Union were regarded almost as mentally ill by those who wanted it to stay. The leavers didn’t have an opinion; they had a pathology. Since one doesn’t argue with pathology, it wasn’t necessary for the ‘remainers’ to answer the leavers with more than sneers and derision.
Even after the vote, the attitude persists. Those who voted to leave are described as, ipso facto, small-minded, xenophobic, and fearful of the future.
Those who voted to stay are described as,ipso facto, open-minded, cosmopolitan, and forward-looking. The BBC itself suggested as much on its website. In short, the desire to leave was a return to the insularity that resulted in the famous—though apocryphal—newspaper headline: fog in the channel: continent cut off.
If insularity is indeed on the rise, it is affecting increasing numbers of Europeans. According to the latest polls, nearly a half of the Italians and Dutch want their countries to leave. Discontent with the Union is also widespread in other countries. The French have a poorer opinion of the European Union than do the British, but because the French believe it to be reformable, fewer want to leave. Before the vote, the danger of Brexit to the integrity of the European Union was described in the French media in pathological terms, as a possible “contagion,” rather than merely an example to be followed—or not, as the case might be. And now the Union is faced with a dilemma: on the one hand, it will not want to make Brexit too painless for Britain, in case other countries, such as Sweden, follow suit; but on the other, it will not want to disturb trade relationships with one of Europe’s largest economies. Britain’s trade with Europe is largely in Europe’s favor, but it’s easier for Britain to find alternative sources of imports than for Europe to find alternative export markets.
There is now a race between the breakup of the European Union and the United Kingdom itself—for the Scottish leader has threatened another referendum on independence. This breakup would be even more difficult, especially for Scotland; Germany has already said that it would welcome Scotland into the Union, but if Scotland thinks that it would then be able to escape George Osborne’s policy of so-called austerity—which is to say, his feeble attempts to balance the budget—it might get a nasty shock when dealing with German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble. And, if Scotland were to sign up to the Schengen Agreement, a ridiculous but real and damaging land border between England and Scotland would suddenly become a reality. This is something not seen for hundreds of years.
The vote might also lead to a unification of Ireland, for the Northern Irish also voted to remain in Europe. Sinn Fein has already called for a referendum on unification. Such unification would be a great blessing for England, but not necessarily for Ireland.
One possible reason for the success of the Brexit campaign was President Obama’s ill-conceived intervention, when he threatened that if Britain voted to leave the Union, it would have to go to the “back of the queue” as far as any trade agreements are concerned. This sounded like bullying, and was not well-received by much of the British population, which had already been subjected to quite a lot of such bullying from others. If I were an American, I shouldn’t have been pleased with it either, for Obama spoke not as a president with a few months left in office, but as a president-for-life, or at least one with the right to decide his successor’s policy.
Among the many subjects not properly discussed during the campaign was whether large and fundamental political changes should be made based on 50 percent-plus-one of the votes cast in a single plebiscite. The House of Commons is not constitutionally bound by the results, and most members of Parliament support remaining in the European Union. They could argue, not without plausibility, that a vote representing no more than three-eighths of the total electorate isn’t quite the groundswell of opinion that should be required for fundamental change. If they acted on this argument, however, violence might erupt.
Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
It’s not the economy, the price of gas, or war in the Middle East that has working- and middle-class people from Bangor, Maine to Bangor, Wales mad as hell. It’s immigration. They’re fed up being forced to accept unlimited numbers of migrants and refugees from cultures that in many cases don’t share Western democratic values. They’ve had it with the internationalist coalition of elite journalists, establishment politicians, and financial grandees telling them that if they oppose the principles of open borders and centralized decision-making, they are no better than white-sheet-wearing racists.ReplyDelete
Whether in West Virginia or the West Midlands, people see and feel their culture changing, and see their leaders taking away their right to slow or blunt those changes. Brexit is one response. Donald Trump is another. It may be a backlash, it may be reactionary, but it’s a legitimate political expression of exhaustion, anger, and powerlessness.
For half a century, a politically cohesive Europe was the dream of the continent’s ruling classes. It would be run peacefully and efficiently by a cadre of highly educated experts—the best people, with the finest tastes and a clear vision of centralized authority that could one day provide the template for a successful world government. Of course, the Germans and the French and the British and the Dutch—being the best of the best—would do most of the decision-making. You don’t build a palace out of Baccarat crystal and then hand the keys to the Polish gardener.
With yesterday’s Brexit vote, the European dream could be coming undone, and the experts are rattled. Financial markets are tanking, and Euro-boosters with bruised egos are rooting for the British pound to bottom out.That’ll show those ignorant bastards, seems to be their thinking. A recession would be nice, too, especially if it fell hardest on those working- and middle-class Swindon slobs who voted in high numbers to leave.
It’s funny how unhinged the best people become when they don’t get what they want. You’d think that manners, breeding, and higher education would dictate that they keep their decorum at all times. It never seems to work that way. The loudest shrieks and the shrillest commentary come from the halls of academia and the urban salons. Patriotism befuddles them. Why should you take pride in being a Briton—or a Texan, for that matter—when you could be one of us?
Politics is persuasion, and the cosmopolitans in the “remain” camp—based largely in and around London—failed to make their case. They lost, which in itself isn’t surprising. What’s surprising is the pouting that journalists, establishment politicians, and financial masters of the universe engage in when the people don’t behave as they are supposed to.
Leaving the European Union may or may not be in the U.K.’s long-term interest, but respect for the democratic process and its occasionally suboptimal outcomes surely is. Democracy is a system, as Winston Churchill observed, only marginally better than the alternatives. That’s all that counts.
It used to be said that the sun never set on the British Empire, so vast and geographically dispersed were its territorial holdings. The end of empire was thought by some to be a fatal blow to the British character. Rest assured that, in Europe or out of it, Great Britain will see the sun rise tomorrow—and tomorrow, and tomorrow.
Matthew Hennessey is a City Journal associate editor.