Lessons Already Learned From Brexit
The United Kingdom’s revolutionary decision to leave the European Union stunned pollsters, financial markets, European and American political commentators and even London’s bookies. Indeed, the June 23 referendum stunned everyone who had failed to pay attention to British grievances with the EU’s increasingly arbitrary, opaque and unrepresentative governance.
“Brexit” was not about immigration, insularity or economics. It was about self-government. Because Euro-skepticism is high across the EU, Britain’s declaration of independence means that the EU as we now know it is unlikely to survive. Although the full ramifications of Britain’s escape will take decades to unfold, certain lessons are immediately clear. Americans need to understand these lessons as much as Britons, for crosscurrents in UK politics have often reflected similar tendencies here.
First, Britain’s “Remain” supporters and EU leaders badly misread what UK voters were complaining about. Prime Minister David Cameron had promised to secure significant changes in Britain’s relationship with the EU, then put the new relationship before the voters. But the changes he sought were insignificant and he failed to obtain even those.
Cameron’s failures — stemming from his crabbed, tactical view of politics and policy — were mirrored by his EU counterparts who refused to budge from their insistence on the EU catechism of “ever closer union.” They could not or would not see that their intransigence simply confirmed for most Britons the utter futility of significantly reforming the EU; it would only become more intrusive, sclerotic and expensive.
In Brexit’s immediate aftermath, prominent EU political leaders are showing they haven’t learned a thing. That bodes poorly for the UK’s exit negotiations. If the EU pursues a “beggar thy neighbor” approach, everyone will feel the pain. The best hope is that continental business leaders knock sense into their respective governments so trade and investment ties do not suffer. Ironically, EU intransigence, based on fear of the Brexit contagion spreading, will simply spread it faster.
Second, the referendum changed UK politics significantly — but not the way most pundits predicted. Having failed in his “Remain” effort, Cameron’s resignation as prime minister was honorable but inescapable. Conservatives now have the chance to select a successor who can dramatically open up Britain’s economy through lower taxes and reduced regulations, spurring growth and eviscerating the economic arguments of Brexit’s opponents.
Or the Tories can leave the revolutionary path for more conventional politics and squander the opportunity. Bill Cash, a leading parliamentary Euro-skeptic, stressed that the next prime minister has to be completely committed to fulfilling the “Leave” mandate, not taking mere half-steps. If the Conservatives follow his advice, they could have a long run as Britain’s dominant political party.
Republicans, take note.
Tory prospects are dramatically increased by the Labour Party’s internal chaos. The increasingly ugly confrontation within Labour was predictable and inevitable; Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader was a freak accident, leaving many aghast at what poorly conceived rules changes had permitted. Corbyn’s opponents, therefore, were sure to seize the first opportunity to rebel, and that is what is under way.
However, Labour’s problems are far deeper than simply a leadership crisis. The UK Independence Party already was eroding its base of support and, on the day after the referendum, UKIP founder and leader Nigel Farage boasted that he would continue poaching Labour votes. Of course, Farage then surprisingly announced his own resignation a few days later. Whether UKIP, having achieved its stated objective, withers or transforms itself into a broad-based populist party, and whether Labour shatters, remains unclear. They depend in large part on if the Conservatives are capable of grasping what clearly is a historic opportunity.
Third, the UK is not going to break up because of Brexit. Wales actually voted for leaving the EU and Northern Ireland, despite voting to remain, largely reflected the continuing Catholic-Protestant divisions that have existed for centuries. Of course Sinn Fein wants to join the North with the Irish Republic. It isn’t going to happen.
As for Scotland, calls for a second secession referendum were boringly predictable. If Scottish nationalists had not seized on Brexit as the excuse, they would inevitably have seized on another pretext. Separatist advocate Nicola Sturgeon’s contention that Scotland’s parliament could block Brexit, evoking the doctrine of nullification, makes her the John C. Calhoun of contemporary British politics.
If Scotland tried to split off, the EU would not immediately welcome it, as Sturgeon found in her lonely journey to Brussels after the referendum. At a minimum, Spain (fearing the secession of Catalonia and possibly the Basque country) and Italy (for similar reasons) will not want to encourage their domestic secessionists. And if London pursues pro-growth policies, Scotland will be far more prosperous inside the UK. than under the EU’s regulatory shackles.
For Americans outraged at the remoteness and unresponsiveness of government in Washington, understanding what British voters did in choosing Brexit provides considerable food for thought and debate before the November election.
John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was the US permanent representative to the United Nations and, previously, the undersecretary of State for arms control and international security. This article was originally published by The Pittsburgh Tribune Review.