On June 23, the UK voted by a narrow margin (52% to 48%) to leave the EU. On June 25, I wrote a blogpost about this, which I have just re-read. I received substantial support for what I said, and a few critiques. Re-reading my post, there is little I would change. I said that Boris Johnson was a likely PM, and I was wrong there. On that score, it is to boggle the mind that Theresa May, the new PM, has appointed him foreign minister. Loathed by many in Europe, he now has to deal with the European nations on behalf of his country. I do acknowledge that another cabinet minister has the post-Brexit portfolio. Otherwise, I stand by what I said then.
Where my post fell down, however, was in its failure to give enough texture to the seething anger on the part of the leave voters against the facelessness and bureaucratic character of the EU as they experienced it. As Pankaj Mishra says in a letter to the London Review of Books (July 14, and thanks to Mike Zlotnik for passing this along), “the Brexit result is another reminder that individuals and groups, especially those at the receiving end of neoliberalism, may not be inclined to validate rational-choice theory.” What he means is that the leavers voted against their own self-interest, that those who voted to leave represented “a country wounded by austerity, humiliated by handouts and enraged by a metropolitan elite alternating between callousness and mendacity.” It’s not too much of a stretch to read that last quotation as a description of the Cameron government as perceived by the leave voters.
One of the most perceptive comments I have read about Brexit is the one which asserts that the leave voters did not cast their votes in direct response to the actual question in the referendum (“should the UK leave the EU?”), but to whatever grievance was roiling in their guts at the time. “I will vote leave because I am angry about immigrants/austerity measures/closure of factories in my city/the Americans/young people today/the PO and the shop in my village being closed–and so on.” This supports the view that a referendum is a very blunt instrument, and one which should never have been used in so momentous a matter as leaving the EU.
Part of the problem is the low estate of historical memory. The EU arose out of the European Coal and Steel Community, founded by French and German citizens who were determined that war should never again afflict their continent; and in this they have been successful. However, three generations after the end of WW II, I conjecture that the keenness of the feeling among those who founded the EU is minimal on the part of many if not most of the leave voters. This recalls to me a dear aunt and uncle in Wales who chided me in 1967 for buying “a German car”–the innocent VW–22 years after the end of the war. The leave voters, however, experience Europe, under the hated name of Brussels, as not a guarantor of continental peace, but an octopus-like power with its tentacles around every small matter of daily life–the size of bananas, for example. The EU, in other words, has over-reached itself. So some serious self-examination behoves the EU around the way it both acts and is perceived to act.
The word “United” has thus become a misplaced adjective in the official names of both “Britain” and “America.” What we have is a Divided Kingdom, and in the age of Donald Trump, now the official nominee of the Republican Party, the Divided States of America. I regret that no more appealing a Democratic candidate than Hillary Clinton will stand against him. She will need to find ways of calling his approach what it is–a politics of division and fear–if she will hope to win. I shrink from the thought that I will feel called in November in another post to grieve Trump’s election as president of the US. Fifteen seconds thought about his finger being the one designated, if deemed necessary, to press the nuclear button, brings terror to heart, mind and guts.
But life continues. Many in the EU are pressing the British to get on with it, activate Article 50 of the EU Constitution, and go their way. Many in the UK are trying to find ways to neuter the Brexit decision. Meanwhile, those of us undeservedly fortunate enough to live in the Peaceable Kingdom, keep our fingers crossed at all times.