Theresa May
Theresa May; drawing by James Ferguson

Thirteen weeks after the British referendum on EU membership of June 23, it is still too soon to know what its consequences will be.1 Westminster closed down for the August recess and the new prime minister, Theresa May, took a fortnight’s holiday in Switzerland. Three of Brexit’s most prominent supporters—Boris Johnson, David Davis, and Liam Fox—have been charged with securing the UK’s departure from the EU. But since they appear to have given no previous thought to the matter and are deeply divided in their views, it will take them time to agree on just what sort of future relationship with Europe they want to achieve.

May has already said that she will not invoke Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, declaring the UK’s intention to leave, before the New Year, and despite clamor by the more intransigent wing of the Leavers, she may delay the decisive step until after the French and German elections of 2017 and possibly even later. She might call a general election herself. If and when Brexit does happen—it is not absolutely certain that it will—the immensely complex task of disentangling the country from its European commitments, revising forty years of EU legislation, and establishing new relationships could take many years and absorb a huge amount of administrative time, legal argument, and public money.2

Seen in historical perspective, the result of the referendum was only too predictable. Ever since its refusal in 1950 to join the Schuman plan for a European coal and steel community, Britain’s relationship with successive projects for European union has been ambivalent, halfhearted, and sometimes positively hostile. The UK had emerged victorious from World War II with its empire intact. Europe’s postwar problems were not Great Britain’s. By 1961, however, the empire was on the way to extinction. Alarmed at the prospect of a world divided into “the Russian sphere, the American sphere and a united Europe of which we are not a member,” Prime Minister Harold Macmillan applied to join the European Economic Community (EEC). The bid was twice vetoed by Charles de Gaulle; only at the third attempt did Edward Heath in 1973 secure British entry.

Even then, there was a continuing concern to retain the “special relationship” with the US, to maintain ties with the Commonwealth, to hold on to “sovereignty,” and to function as a world power “punching above its weight.” The Labour Party took a long time to shed its conviction that the EEC was a capitalist club, while the Tories grew increasingly suspicious of its social legislation.

During the 1980s the Thatcher government established the UK’s reputation as the EEC’s most reluctant and unconstructive member. Britain’s halfway position became obvious in 1992, when in the Maastricht Treaty creating the European Union, the UK opted out of the single currency and the “social chapter” (which allowed majority decisions on social policy). By this time the right-wingers in the Conservative Party were becoming aggressively Europhobic. Impotent under the Labour and Coalition governments of 1997 to 2015, whose relations with Europe were much more positive, they came into their own on the eve of last year’s election. The need to keep them on the Conservative Party’s side and to defuse the appeal of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which would go on to poll nearly four million votes in 2015, led David Cameron to put party before country and promise a referendum.

A direct appeal to the people is not easily reconciled with the notion that sovereignty lies with their elected representatives in Parliament. The referendum was advisory, not mandatory. Yet as soon as the result was known, it was widely agreed that the people had spoken and their will had to be respected. Theresa May delphically announced that “Brexit means Brexit.” She followed this up by saying that there would be no second referendum. Although a majority of Conservative MPs had voted to stay in, the government is now committed to leaving.

The referendum was hasty and ill-prepared. There was no government white paper setting out the facts, like the elaborate, though partisan, document issued by the Scottish government ten months before its referendum on independence. Last June voters were given a simple choice between in and out, but no opportunity to choose the specific terms of Britain’s departure. Particularly reckless was the ruling that this most momentous of decisions should be decided by a simple majority, 52 percent to 48 percent as it turned out. In the US an amendment to the Constitution requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and approval by three quarters of the states. In Britain even a cricket club would hesitate to change its rules without the consent of two thirds of the members. Unsurprisingly, the claim by government lawyers that Article 50 can be invoked without the prior agreement of Parliament is currently subject to legal challenge.


Referendums are notorious for generating a demagogic simplification of the issues. In this case the Remainers argued, reasonably enough, that a decision to leave would damage the economy, threaten jobs, and endanger London’s role as a financial center. But they supported these claims with implausibly precise financial projections, denounced by their opponents as “Project Fear.” The Leavers were shamelessly mendacious, grossly exaggerating the size of Britain’s financial contribution to the EU and suggesting that the money could be diverted to build a new NHS hospital every week. Their leaflet, pushed through every letterbox and containing many erroneous or misleading “facts” about Europe, was deceitfully labeled “Official Information.”

The population at large knew little about the EU, almost certainly less than their continental counterparts. The study of European languages in the schools is dwindling and Britain is linguistically the most inward-looking country in the EU. Turnout for elections to the European Parliament has rarely been above 35 percent and even the usually well-informed are unlikely to know the name of their local representative to it.

Decades of Europhobic propaganda in the right-wing newspapers have created the caricature of a remote and unaccountable bureaucratic machine, intent upon regulating everything from the shape of bananas to the way that farmers plow their fields. When Barack Obama, the IMF, the Bank of England, and nearly the whole economics profession warned of the financial consequences of quitting the EU, the response of the Leavers was that they were all stooges and that the country had had enough of experts. In relentless headlines the tabloid press targeted EU immigrants as shiftless benefit-seekers who were clogging up the NHS, flooding the housing market, and taking jobs away from British workers. On the day of the vote the Daily Mail warned its readers that talks leading to Turkey’s admission to the EU were about to begin, with the implication that the UK would soon be overrun by millions of Turkish migrants.

The vote revealed a divided country. Older people voted for Leave, younger ones, better educated and more cosmopolitan in outlook, for Remain. Scotland, Northern Ireland, and most of the big English cities were for staying in. The post-industrial, rural, small-town, and suburban areas of England wanted to leave.

There were many ironies in the voting pattern. Fear of immigration was a major issue, yet London, perhaps ethnically the most diverse city in the world, was solidly for Remain, whereas those parts of England with the least experience of immigrants, like the northeast, were all for Leave. So were the regions most in receipt of funds from the EU, like Cornwall and Wales, both of whom are now demanding that the UK government make up their loss.

The poor, the unemployed, the former mining areas, the ex-industrial towns, and those whose real wages had long been falling were overwhelmingly for Leave. These neglected victims of globalization were only too easily persuaded that their hardships were the result not of global capitalism and the Tory government’s austerity policy, but of the machinations of the EU and the flood of immigrants. They had only to “take back control” and their woes would be over.

Their resort to isolationist nativism was characteristic of their counterparts in both Europe and the US, as the appearance of the former UKIP leader Nigel Farage at one of Donald Trump’s rallies recently made clear. It is good that the referendum has belatedly brought the plight of the downtrodden to the attention of the political elite. The tragedy is that their vote has delivered them into the hands of a neoliberal, right-wing government, which, despite Theresa May’s protestations about the need to fight the “burning injustice” of social inequality, will probably make their condition even worse.

For middle-class Leavers the main attraction of leaving the EU was that it would restore democratic sovereignty and “make Britain great again.” A Daily Telegraph journalist suggested after the result that “our mindset should be that of a colonial country preparing for independence.” Most subscribers to this resurgent nationalism seemed not to appreciate that the idea of an absolutely sovereign nation-state is an anachronism in a world of great military-political power blocs, international banks, global corporations, digital communications, easy travel, and fluid identity. The UK’s sovereignty has always been subject to a host of international conventions, treaties, and agreements. The most serious problems the UK faces—climate change, terrorism, energy security, Internet governance, Russian expansionism—cannot be resolved on their own, but require international collaboration of the kind provided by the EU. The appeal to Little Englandism is seriously regressive.

Throughout their uneasy relations with projects for European union, British politicians have always perceived the issues as a matter of the national interest, narrowly defined, rather than seeing them as in the interest of the larger human community. The Remain campaign focused exclusively on the economic benefits of membership and said nothing about the ideals that underlie the European project. We were not reminded that there is no precedent for this voluntary bonding of nations that have been each other’s enemies for centuries, yet have come together in a joint commitment to liberty, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. The extraordinary achievement of bringing years of peace to a war-torn continent, creating the world’s largest single market, legislating to improve working conditions, protecting the environment, and allowing people to travel and live wherever they please was seldom mentioned.


The positive benefits of immigration were also neglected. The UK is entirely composed of immigrants: in the early Middle Ages, Angles, Saxons and Jutes, Vikings and Normans; in early modern times, Flemings, Walloons, and Huguenots; in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Germans, Irish, East European Jews, West Indians, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, East African Asians, and many others. Whether they came as conquerors or refugees or economic migrants, they were often resented or even hated.

Yet in due course the newcomers were assimilated and made vital contributions to national life, whether as Flemish cloth workers, Dutch engineers, or Huguenot silk weavers and silversmiths. Where would the study of history be without Namier, Gombrich, Pevsner, Elton, Berlin, Hobsbawm, and, not least, Marx? More recently immigration has brought the Royal Society its current president, London its mayor, Oxford and Cambridge its present vice-chancellors, and the country a Noble laureate economist, an Olympic double gold medalist, and its leading playwright. In the final game that made the Leicester City soccer team this year’s Premier League champions, its eleven starting players included two from Germany, one each from Austria, Denmark, and France, and other players from Algeria, Argentina, and Japan. Only three were born in Britain and one of them plays for Jamaica.

Until we know the terms on which the UK will leave the EU, it is impossible to assess the long-term importance of June 23. But it is virtually certain that the EU will not allow Britain to stay in the single market if it refuses to accept freedom of entry for EU migrants. The Cabinet’s apparent decision on August 31 to give priority to tighter controls on immigration could have damaging economic consequences, collapsing the value of the pound, obstructing trade with Europe, weakening the City of London, and discouraging foreign investors. The Leavers defiantly claim that Brexit will open up “new opportunities,” but the US, Japan, and Australia have already made it clear that their trade with Europe matters more to them than that with the UK. Meanwhile the Brexiters point triumphantly to the resilience of the British economy after the vote, but omit to point out that the UK is still in the EU and that only in the long run would the economic cost of leaving become apparent.

Brexit may also end the inflow of European students and academics that has helped to make British universities much the best in Europe3; it has already resulted in cuts in European funding for research in the sciences and the humanities. It may lead to a radical reconfiguration of the party political system. The Labour Party, split between pro- and anti-Corbynites, could face obliteration in the next general election, leaving UKIP to rebrand itself as the nationalist, potentially fascist, party of the underdog. The Liberal Democrats will gain new supporters with their call for a second referendum.

It is hard to know how seriously the continuing existence of the United Kingdom is threatened. Theresa May has stated that she will not invoke Article 50 until a “UK-wide approach” has been agreed. Scottish independence is, for economic reasons, not a realistic option at present, but Scotland voted 62 percent for Remain and Nicola Sturgeon—the first minister of Scotland and the leader of the Scottish National Party—has made it clear that the Scottish Parliament may not agree to repeal the obligation to comply with EU law that is part of the devolution settlement of 1998.

This creates an interesting constitutional dilemma for May’s government. The position of Northern Ireland, heavily dependent on EU funding, is even more difficult. Brexit would turn the border between north and south in Ireland into the UK’s only land frontier with the EU. Without it, EU immigration would continue unchecked. Yet it was a fundamental condition of the Good Friday agreement between north and south in 1998 that the border should stay open. British and Irish membership in the EU was also presupposed.

A cross-party constitutional reform group has proposed a new federal constitution for the United Kingdom as the only way to save the Union; but the will and imagination for that may be lacking. And what is to be done about poor, forgotten Gibraltar, which voted 96 percent for Remain, but is now threatened by a renewal of Spain’s claims to it and the closure of the frontier over which thousands of Spanish workers pass each day?

These are only some of the intractable problems that the leaders of the Leave campaign failed to anticipate. They were equally indifferent to the potentially devastating impact of Brexit on the EU. Instead of proposing much-needed reform from within, they have encouraged others to follow the UK’s example. As the historian Michael Howard has rightly observed, Britain’s exit may “hasten a process of political, economic and military disintegration that will ultimately destroy the world order that has been painfully created over the past half century.”

Many supporters of Remain are wholly unreconciled to the referendum’s outcome. They are sad that so many idealistic people should have been ready to throw so much away for the sake of an ultimately unattainable sovereignty; and they are sickened by a result that they believe was in large part the product of xenophobic and racial hatred, deliberately fomented among the poor and neglected. The vote has split families and broken friendships in a way that ordinary political differences in modern times have never done.

Many young people plan to seek citizenship elsewhere. They are ashamed to live on an offshore island that has jeopardized its long-standing reputation for tolerance, rebuffed its European friends, and detached itself politically from a continent whose music, food, architecture, philosophy, art, science, and literature have been an inspiration for centuries. Meanwhile, in Essex on August 29 and 30, six teenage boys were arrested for allegedly murdering an immigrant because he was heard speaking a foreign language.

—September 23, 2016