Why ‘Brexit’ Was a True Populist Revolt
Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has stunned political leaders, financial markets, and all those holding the theological view that EU-style governance is the world’s inevitable future. For those certain about global governance through international or “supranational” organizations, British withdrawal was unthinkable.
Then, on June 23, the British people were actually asked their views on EU membership. The “Leave” position prevailed by a comfortable 4 percent margin, 52-to-48 (more than 1.25 million votes than “Remain” received), overcoming enormous hurdles. The British political establishment, the university faculties, most of the financial-services industry, and key media outlets relentlessly argued the “Remain” position.
Prime Minister David Cameron used the entire force of the British government to produce reports, statements, media interviews and direct communications with voters, insisting that “Brexit” would be an economic and political catastrophe. Britain’s trade would collapse, they said. London would cease to be a world financial capital. Foreign investment would shun Britain. No good could come from withdrawal. So excessive were Cameron’s efforts that even senior Conservative Party leaders attacked him and his allies for promoting a “Project Fear” campaign to frighten and intimidate citizens into voting “Remain.”
It all failed, for one simple reason: During 43 years of British EU membership, UK citizens came increasingly to believe they were losing control over those governing them. Decisions were made in an utterly opaque EU bureaucracy, with British interests routinely overwhelmed by those of other EU members, especially Germany. Nonpartisan analyses concluded that approximately 60 percent of all legislation enacted by Britain’s Parliament was dictated, in whole or in part, by decisions already breached by Brussels bureaucrats or EU diplomats.
For some years, this problem was labeled the “democratic deficit,” the gap between what voters thought they were deciding in British general elections and what they actually got in terms of policy. But this bloodless phrase sounded like a technical problem, a minor defect that could be remedied as the EU grew “broader” (adding more members) and “deeper” (closer political integration). In fact, however, the democratic deficit increased over time, growing less and less tolerable for Brits who had always been suspicious of schemes for European continental unity.
No one paid any significant attention to this increasing unease until finally came the EU referendum. And the outcome, which will be studied by political scientists for centuries, was a true populist revolt. Only a few members of the elite supported Brexit, but the middle class was overwhelmingly in favor. The dispositive margin of victory, however, came not from the ranks of “the nation of shopkeepers,” but from blue collar, trade union members. More than one-third of the working class, which forms the Labour Party’s political base, and perhaps as much as 40 percent, are estimated to have voted to exit the EU.
Economically, we hear again the fears of financial turmoil, and there will inevitably be financial disruptions, almost certainly manageable. Politically, there is already upheaval in Britain, with Cameron resigning as prime minister, and the Labour Party convulsed in its own leadership struggle. All of this is to be expected. It’s what happens when political revolutions occur.
Immediately, the United States should do everything we can, politically and economically, to come to the side of our strongest ally in the world. Contrary to President Obama’s threat during his recent visit to London, Washington should put a bilateral US-UK free trade agreement at the very front of our diplomatic agenda. The Federal Reserve, along with other central banks, should offer necessary liquidity to see Britain through the near-term financial turbulence.
But most of all, we should welcome Britain’s departure from the EU. Happy Independence Day!
John R. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was the US ambassador to the United Nations from August 2005 to December 2006. This article was originally published by The Boston Globe.