Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has plunged the country into its greatest crisis since 1945. It prompted the immediate resignation of the prime minister and a revolt against the leader of the opposition, leaving both main parties headless. It plunged the economy into a nosedive, as the pound crashed to its lowest level in thirty years and $2 trillion was wiped off global stocks in a single day. And it brought a warning from the first minister of Scotland that, since Scottish voters had bucked the trend and overwhelmingly opted to remain in the EU rather than leave, a repeat of the 2014 attempt to make Scotland independent of the UK was “highly likely,” if that’s what it took to remain inside the European club. The deputy first minister of Northern Ireland suggested that that province might also break from the UK and seek unification with the Republic of Ireland, since a majority of its voters had also wanted to remain in the EU. In a matter of hours, the United Kingdom—its leadership, its economy, its very shape—seemed to be coming apart.
On the Continent, the Brexit vote was immediately understood as a mortal threat. The twenty-seven remaining members vowed to stay together, moving fast to prevent the spread of any secessionist contagion. At a post-referendum leaders’ summit in Brussels, some of them embraced Britain’s outgoing prime minister, David Cameron; others spoke of their sadness at seeing Britain go. But then they met without him—a hard, concrete sign that Britain had become the first nation in the organization’s history to break away.
The financier and philanthropist George Soros spoke for many when he warned that the UK’s decision imperiled “the very survival of the European project.” In this view, the departure of Britain—which, along with France and Germany, has stood as one of the “big three” pillars on which the EU rests—threatens to bring the entire structure down, thereby ending a sixty-year experiment that has brought peace and prosperity to a continent that had known only conflict for a thousand years.
How did it happen? How did the once-esoteric cause of a British exit from the EU win a national vote by 52–48 percent? A decade ago the issue was so marginal as to be a national joke. It was dismissed as the obsession of cranks, pursued by two dozen inexhaustible Tory members of Parliament, tolerated with eye-rolling disdain by their colleagues, who would rise to their feet to bore the chamber about the latest directive from Brussels that, they claimed, threatened British sovereignty. They were seen as eccentrics, cousins to those Americans convinced that the United States is secretly governed by the United Nations.
Since 1993 true believers had their own political party, the United Kingdom Independence Party, or Ukip, whose sole purpose was the liberation of Britain from the grasp of the EU. But even now that party has just one member, Douglas Carswell, in the House of Commons. Before he resigned on July 4, saying “my political ambition has been achieved,” Ukip’s leader, the florid, pin-striped former stockbroker Nigel Farage, had tried seven times to become an MP—and failed each time. The outgoing prime minister, David Cameron, captured much of the national attitude toward the party when he dismissed it in 2006 as a bunch of “fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists.”
Yet on June 28, a gleeful, gloating Farage—aware that he had, for so long, been a national and international laughingstock—could turn to his fellow members of the European Parliament and say, “You’re not laughing now, are you?” He was right. There was no laughter. The referendum has transformed the prospects of a nation that used to boast of its status as a global hub so drastically that it is now threatened with a future of introversion, isolation, and irrelevance.
Any explanation of how this happened lies, at least in part, in recent history, in the impact of an economic hurricane unleashed in the 1980s and strengthened by globalization and automatization. It lies too in the failures of the EU and in the vagaries of British politics, and in a trend toward a crude, nativist populism that is visible across Europe—and that has surfaced with great spectacle in the US.
Start with the most immediate explanation. Referenda are rare in Britain; they usually come about only when a government seeks consent for an exceptional constitutional change it wishes to make. The crucial precedent was the first-ever such plebiscite, in 1975, when Britons voted, two to one, to affirm the UK government’s decision two years earlier to enter what was then the European Economic Community.
But the June 23 vote was very different. It was, chiefly, an exercise in party management. In 2013 the Tory right was restive, fearful that Ukip was threatening to eat into its vote. Cameron had just legalized same-sex marriage in England and Wales, against the wishes of both his own hard-liners and the nostalgists and social conservatives who have long formed Ukip’s core. Anxious to placate his Tory critics and to halt any momentum for Ukip, he gave them what they wanted: a pledge to hold an in/out referendum on Europe by 2017. That way, he calculated, they could be neutralized in time for the general election of 2015.
It seemed to work. Ukip polled four million votes last year, but thanks to Britain’s first-past-the-post system, it only won outright that single seat. Cameron won a parliamentary majority and set about negotiating new terms with Britain’s EU partners, terms he could then present to the electorate as a rebooted relationship. He would win the referendum and silence the bores and obsessives forever.
But Cameron did not bargain on the most popular politician in the country—former mayor of London Boris Johnson—deciding, at the last moment, to campaign for Leave rather than Remain. Johnson, a former editor of The Spectator who still writes a weekly column for The Telegraph, confessed that he had drafted two pieces—one for in, one for out—and only decided which one to publish at the last moment. Few were in any doubt that his motive was selfish: he wanted to replace Cameron as Tory leader and prime minister and knew that posing as the scourge of Brussels provided the shortest route to Tory hearts.
Nor did Cameron reckon sufficiently with the midterm syndrome by which British voters traditionally use any ballot that is not a general election to flip a finger at the government of the day. And he failed to consider how a referendum would dilute the usually toxic effect of Farage: the Ukip leader would no longer be the sole face of EU withdrawal, but one of several advocates across several political parties. (In the event, all of them were overshadowed by Johnson.) Where general elections tended to smother Ukip, so that its cause had to jostle among a range of competing issues and other parties, the binary choice of a referendum handed it the straight fight it had always wanted.
Still, the greatest oversight related to the people who would come to determine the outcome of the referendum. It was always understood that a majority of Conservative voters would opt for Leave, persuaded by the case—pushed for years by the mass-circulation Daily Mail, Sun, and Express as well as The Telegraph—that Brussels represented at best a sclerotic, socialistic bureaucracy that was choking British enterprise and at worst a German-dominated plot to destroy British sovereignty. But Cameron’s team took it for granted that those Tory votes would be comfortably offset by Labour votes for Remain. Because the Labour Party had long been committed to the European project, Westminster had grown to assume that Labour voters felt the same way. That turned out to be a cardinal error.
On the day, 69 percent of Labourites opted for Remain, with 31 percent choosing Leave. It’s those 31 percent—larger than Remain’s models had allowed for—that swung it. It’s tempting to blame some of that on Jeremy Corbyn, elected as Labour leader in 2015, who in 1975 had voted no and never quite shook off the skepticism of the hard left when it came to Europe, regarding the EU as little more than a capitalist club. Indeed, Corbyn’s lethargy—he went on holiday weeks before the vote—along with convincing evidence that his team had actively sabotaged Remain’s efforts, helped fuel the post-referendum insurgency against him.*
Yet few would argue that that 31 percent figure can be entirely attributed to Corbyn. Instead, it reflected a howl of rage, a cry of pain against the status quo, that came from some of the most neglected parts of the country. In the run-down towns of northern England, the Midlands, the English east coast, and Wales—regions traditionally described as Labour heartlands—voters on low incomes told reporters they were backing Leave not because they held Faragesque views of sovereignty or the intrusive role of the European Commission but as a protest against the way things are. For them, the ballot was less about the EU than it was a referendum on their own lives, as if Remain and Leave were synonyms for Satisfied and Dissatisfied. Europe was the proxy for a whole range of discontents, June 23 the chance to send a message of fury to the establishment—to superior, smug London especially—and they seized it.
There is an overlap here with those white working-class voters in the US who are backing Donald Trump. In both cases, they are often people who once enjoyed secure, relatively well-paid work and who have seen their jobs, and their factories, shipped eastward. Working low-status jobs on zero-hours contracts, they live in places that have been hollowed out and left behind—and then, in Britain’s case, further squeezed by the austerity program imposed by Cameron’s government since 2010, which has cut the budgets for local services. While London and other major cities gleam and sparkle with investment and regeneration, many of these English towns—post-mining, post-industrial, post-their-best—are still reeling from the Thatcher-era policy of privatization, which saw the state shut down industries it had once propped up. They have grown derelict. In each wave of change—Thatcherism, globalization, automatization—they have lost out.
It meant that the Remain campaign’s central argument—that Brexit risked Britain’s prosperity—cut no ice with these voters, because they had no prosperity to risk. Warnings from the Bank of England, the IMF, the OECD, Barack Obama, and a daily procession of business leaders might have swayed those with something to lose, but they made no dent with those who felt they had nothing.
With increasing desperation, Cameron and his chancellor, George Osborne, warned that if Britain left it would be in worse economic shape, summoning expert after expert to stoke those fears. But it was in vain. In a further echo of the Trump phenomenon, expertise was seen as just another establishment trick, a ploy by the establishment and its lackeys in the mainstream media. Revealing the wave that the Leave campaign was riding, Boris Johnson’s chief lieutenant, the Conservative cabinet minister Michael Gove, said, “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.”
While the economy was Remain’s preferred terrain, Leave’s strongest suit was immigration. Their slogan was “Take Back Control.” To the high-minded ideologues, this was a distilled message about sovereignty. But on the street, it was understood as a pledge to curb the number of migrants entering the UK by breaking free of the EU’s commitment to the free movement of people. It played best in those same impoverished places where people—often but not exclusively white—have long complained about the impact of new arrivals from the Central and Eastern European countries that have joined the EU since 2004.
The referendum confirmed a profound divide on the immigration question. In the cities, where globalization has brought tangible benefits, hostility is low: there is talk of the enrichment that diversity brings. Those places voted Remain. In London and Manchester, the margin was 60 percent to 40 percent. But in hard-up towns, migrants are blamed for pricing indigenous workers out of jobs—by being willing to do the same work for less—and for placing excess pressure on public services, so that there are not enough beds in the local hospital, not enough places at the local school, and, most critically, not enough homes to live in.
The Leave campaign pressed this neuralgic spot relentlessly. One poster suggested falsely that soon Turkey would join the EU, so that another 76 million people—Muslim people—would be eligible to live in Britain. Farage was roundly condemned for a poster that showed a snaking line of dark-skinned refugees, apparently lining up to enter the country, under the slogan “Breaking Point.” As it happens, the image showed Syrian refugees seeking a haven in Slovenia, but the point was lost on no one. The day that billboard was unveiled, a Labour MP and strong Remain advocate, Jo Cox, was shot and stabbed to death on the street in her constituency. The man accused of her murder gave his name in court as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”
On one reading, the British electorate decided on June 23 that it disliked immigration more than it valued economic stability. It associated the EU less with peace and prosperity than with a lumbering bureaucracy that had failed to handle the refugee crisis, a bureaucracy whose economy was still dogged by the troubled eurozone and that had never really recovered from the crash of 2008.
Viewed another way, it was a triumph for the view that Britain’s destiny was always to be a nation apart, not only physically separate from the Continent but temperamentally separate too. The island nation that had not been conquered for a thousand years, that knew nothing of Nazi occupation and therefore never felt the deep need shared by many continental Europeans to restrain the impulses of nationalism or to subsume them in a new, blander supranational identity—that nation had always been an outsider to the European project, a late and reluctant arrival. Brexit merely confirmed it.
The country that made this decision feels like a nation in a state of shock. That’s obviously true for the 48 percent who voted Remain. They are realizing that though they never had much affection for the institution of the EU, they were attached to what British membership meant to them: a society that was open, not closed, that was accepting of diversity and pluralism, and that offered its young the chance to live, work, or fall in love in any one of twenty-eight countries. The young feel that especially keenly: 75 percent of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds voted Remain.
It’s striking that the greatest predictor of voting behavior in the referendum was education: college graduates voted in; those who left high school at sixteen voted out. That division mapped onto age. Little wonder, since a university education used to be the exclusive preserve of only 7 percent of the UK population. During the last decade it has become routine for 50 percent.
Plenty of Britons have despaired at the immediate aftermath of the vote. Some are alarmed at the economic projections that, for example, the 1.5 percent growth forecast for 2016 will now be followed by a 1 percent contraction in 2017; that investment is set to decline by 8 percent, that unemployment will rise, tax revenues will fall, and that public debt is set to reach 100 percent of GDP. Each day has brought fresh word that the decision to break from the EU has meant a canceled contract, a scrapped project, or a threatened move of a corporate headquarters. The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk—after England’s national football team had been, fittingly, knocked out of the European championships by Iceland days after the vote—tweeted, “Winter is coming.”
Others have been appalled by the souring of the national mood. There has been a 500 percent increase in hate crimes following the referendum. A Polish center in London was daubed with xenophobic graffiti and there were reports across the country of people shouting “Pack your bags” or “Send them home” to anyone thought to be a migrant. One elementary school vice-principal reportedly told of Polish children fearful in tears that they would soon be deported.
Half-jokingly, plenty of English Remainers have talked of emigrating—to Scotland. The implication is that Scotland will soon be gone from the United Kingdom, to pursue a new future as a small, independent state within the EU. The case for a new referendum was simple, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, argued. Scots had voted by 62 percent to 38 percent to remain in the EU and would not be dragged out of it “against their will.” Most assume that the No to Scottish independence delivered in the referendum of 2014 will be reversed if there is a second vote. In other words, the exit from one union will have set off the breakup of another, older union: the United Kingdom itself. At a stroke, the UK would find over five million people and one third of its landmass gone.
The sense of national despondency at all this has not been confined to those who voted Remain. Indeed, it’s striking how little euphoria greeted the result even among those who had campaigned for it. Farage hailed June 23 as “Independence Day” but on June 24 both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove looked stunned and, frankly, terrified. Polling shows that most Leavers assumed their side would lose, seeing their vote as no more than a harmless protest. Once the result was known, many told reporters or radio call-in shows that they were suffering a dreadful case of buyer’s remorse, a syndrome rapidly identified as Regrexit.
In response, some are campaigning to undo the referendum. More than four million have signed a petition calling for a second vote. Advocates justify the idea on the grounds that the Leave campaign won on false claims—particularly that Britain sends £350 million a week to the EU—and false promises, such as to slash immigration, which Leave leaders then diluted or discarded within hours of declaring victory. Others, arguing for the primacy of Parliament, have called on its members, most of whom backed Remain, to block any Brexit legislation.
These are symptoms of denial. Most Remainers glumly acknowledge that the people’s will cannot be undone. But that does not mean the question is settled. For Leave never made clear what form Brexit would take. The UK will have to negotiate some kind of relationship with the European Union, given how closely the economies are intertwined. In this view, EU membership is less a binary matter—in or out—than a spectrum. Outside both the eurozone and the Schengen no-border area Britain was already “only 65 percent in,” as one British official put it to me. So perhaps the UK will negotiate a deal that reduces that percentage a little more—without reducing it to zero.
The next two years, once London has invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty that covers secession, will be dominated by a contest of alternative models. One is Norway: not a member of the EU, but nevertheless granted access to the single market of 500 million customers. In return, Norway has to accept the principle of free movement of people. That will be a tough sell for any British prime minister, given that the Leave vote was so clearly driven by a desire to slow down immigration.
So the future will come down to a clash between Britain and its twenty-seven former partners. Will the latter be prepared to compromise on free movement to keep Britain close—or will they fear granting an exception that will fatally undermine what was a founding principle of the European project and could encourage other states to contemplate leaving, in order to win similar exemptions for themselves? Or will a new British prime minister be able to persuade the electorate that Britons will have to be the ones to compromise, lest they face the penury of life outside the single market?
That new occupant of 10 Downing Street is now in place, ahead of the advertised schedule. On July 13, David Cameron made way for Theresa May, as she became Britain’s second female prime minister. She had served dutifully as home secretary—comparable to an interior minister—for the entire six years Cameron had been in office, unfussily getting on with a job so fraught it has destroyed more careers than it has made.
May had emerged unscathed from a fortnight of internal Tory bloodletting that made House of Cards look like Sesame Street. At first, Johnson was presumed to be the front-runner, until he was spectacularly betrayed by his chief lieutenant in Leave, Michael Gove, who announced he wanted to be a candidate himself. Watching his support drain away to his former ally, Johnson dropped out minutes before the deadline for declarations (only to return, however improbably, two weeks later as foreign secretary). Gove in turn became toxic, branded a betrayer by the Tory MPs charged with picking a party leader. That left a little-known junior minister, Andrea Leadsom, as the Leave standard-bearer, but she soon dropped out, leaving May as the new prime minister.
In her first remarks outside Number 10, and with no guarantee that words will be matched by deeds, she struck an arrestingly progressive tone, committing herself to
fighting against the burning injustice that if you are born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you are white. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anyone else in Britain to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you were educated privately. If you are a woman, you will earn less than a man.
The perverse result of these last torrid weeks is that the task of implementing Brexit has fallen to a woman who wanted Britain to Remain, but who has nevertheless vowed to honor the people’s will—and also to improve their lot.
When Gove knifed Johnson, he said the former London mayor lacked the skills to provide “the team captaincy that this country requires.” It was a telling phrase, confirming that for a group of men—and recall that Cameron and Johnson overlapped at Eton, while Gove and Johnson were contemporary debaters in the Oxford Union—this had all been a game, a tactic designed to advance one of them to the pinnacle of power. But the consequences have been disastrous. A whirlwind has torn through Britain, exposing rifts that have to be healed and destroying much that was precious. And no one seems to have any idea when, how, or if it can ever be made whole again.
—July 14, 2016