On June 23 the people of the up-to-this-point-United Kingdom made a historic, and in my view, very foolish and shortsighted decision: to leave the European Union. The vote was 52% for “leave,” and 48% for “remain.” My first point: this was far too important a decision to be made on the 50%+1 basis. It should at least have required a two-thirds majority, if not a three-quarters. If the condo in which I live requires a three-quarters majority vote of agreement between the residential and commercial sections of the building in order to change a by-law, the government of the soon-to-be-gone David Cameron should have required something similar.
David Cameron, then: why did he call for a referendum? For what now seems to me to be a very weak justification: to deal with the split in the Tory party on the subject of the EU. He was being hassled by those who became the leavers about Britain’s membership in the EU: and to shut them up, and consolidate his own control of the party, he agreed to a referendum. Cameron’s Folly, historians will call it. I shrink from the thought of Boris Johnson as PM, but it is a very likely possibility.
So who voted for it? Predictable groups: the less educated, the unemployed, the “Little Englanders,” the fearful, the resentful, and–a particular point of unhappiness–the older generation. Most young people who did vote voted to remain. Now their access to Europe has been severely curtailed. One example. They are free to go to France for a cycling holiday, let’s say; but if they fall off their bikes and need medical care, they will have to pay, rather than take advantage of the integrated system of health care which presently obtains. They will no longer be able to move freely in and out of the rest of Europe for reasons of work or love (Freud’s names for life’s two major concerns).
I’ve named the resentful as one of the cohorts who voted to leave. By this I mean to refer to the cohort in the UK very like the cohort in the US which supports Donald Trump. These are very largely the white males who have been left behind in both countries by the effects of globalization. They are unemployed, or working for less, or fearful of losing their jobs to immigrants. They are angry that the American dream or its UK equivalent seems to have moved farther and farther out of reach. Globalization has produced waves of social change which have left this cohort feeling helpless and angry.
And speaking of immigrants, let’s give a nod to the godfather of Brexit, George W. Bush. Bush’s military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq launched what has become the steady stream of refugees and immigrants which continue to see in Europe, the UK included, a place of stability and peace where they can raise their families without fear of bombs or a midnight knock on the door. Resentment of immigrants and a desire to reduce or halt the arrival of immigrants in the UK has been a major factor in the decision.
I spoke at the beginning of the soon-to-be-disunited Kingdom. It’s very likely that Scotland, which voted massively to remain, will now take steps to organize its own referendum on independence, after which it will apply on its own for membership in the EU. The “borderless” border between the two parts of Ireland will vanish, inasmuch as the Republic of Ireland remains a member of the EU, and Northern Ireland, as part of the UK, will be excluded. Ominously, this necessitates a review of the Good Friday peace accord. It’s far too soon for a referendum on Irish unity; but there will be people pressing for it. And then there’s Gibraltar, which also voted massively to remain. Does this mean that Spain will now be able successfully to press the UK to yield Gibraltar to Spanish sovereignty? It has been preventing from doing this with much energy because Gibraltar, as a dependency of the UK, was considered as much part of the EU as is Spain. But now?
It’s also instructive to see who has welcomed the decision, Vladimir Putin being the chief. A disunited Europe–and who knows whether some other nations will follow Britain’s lead?–will be vulnerable in a new way to his machinations in Ukraine and elsewhere. All the right-wing nationalist parties in Europe are also happy. Marine le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, both quasi-fascists, are the best-known leaders of such parties. The decision also decreases the ability of the EU to offer political and economic counterweight to the world’s other heavy hitters: Russia, China and the US.
Small-mindedness, short-sightedness and fear–what Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party and the soul-brother of Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, has been peddling for years. I wonder how long it will take the UK to wake up to the enormity of the stupidity of their “democratic” decision, and to begin in ways we can’t currently foresee to heal the breach they have created with the peoples of Europe. May it be sooner rather than later, for their sake and ours.