Angry people in the UK seemingly got their way last week when the referendum on EU membership favored Leave by a slim margin. Disagreement on the long term consequences is widespread, but the immediate result was clear: the UK was cast down into the deepest level of hell while the delicate seams of the remaining EU began unraveling and Vladimir Putin laughed a super villain laugh somewhere off camera. But every breakup has an initial rough patch filled with blackout drunkenness, and before I knew it columnists everywhere were spouting reasons why Brexit might not happen—“It’s not really over. She still loves me!”
I for one hope they’re wrong.
The Brexit results seemingly caught everyone off guard—even Leave campaigners. I’ve been scratching my head wondering why. A number of EU countries have seen dissatisfaction over the EU—fusions of extreme right and left that at the very least wants Brussels to ratchet down the regulating and at the most want their countries to exit, stage left, right along with the UK. Journalists are already handicapping whether additional Brexit-like referendums will happen in other countries. Months ago when Greece’s economy teetered on the edge of a black hole, the voters tried their hardest to send the EU a populist message by electing the most anti-austerity guys they could find only to have the iron-spined, pro-Grexit, willing to go all in before the flop Tsipras government bend the knee and accept arguably humiliating terms to remain in the EU. For all the talk among the political elites of an ever closer union, the sentiment is having as much success reaching the people as wealth did with trickle-down economics.
Meanwhile across the pond a virtually unknown socialist from Vermont and widely loathed businessman from New York read history’s cues perfectly and dusted off the handbook for American populism. Thanks to a crowded field and winner take all rules, Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination while Bernie Sanders was reminded that close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Both men, despite a myriad of policy differences, have been running on the same idea: that ordinary people can’t get ahead because the system is rigged by an elite class. They’ve sounded off against free trade and its impact on the domestic job market. Trump has thrown down a wall-shaped gauntlet on immigration.
As the UK ramps up toward the historic referendum, it’s watching populist anger rear its head in multiple western countries. The motives are different but the scapegoats are the same: the unaccountable elites in charge of the system. And have there ever been more unaccountable elites than there are in Brussels—bureaucrats and regulators elected by no one who make decisions that impact the laws of 28 countries?
David Cameron, despite the pasting he’s taking from some critics on holding a referendum that he couldn’t win, may have started out as the cleverest guy in this whole affair. By promising the referendum he captured voter discontent and made it work for him. He also claimed a weapon to use against the EU in negotiations—a smart move given Boris Johnson’s statement that the EU only negotiates when they hear the word “No.” But either the weapon was less impressive than Cameron hoped or he wielded it poorly because he didn’t win the concession—his “emergency brake” on immigration—that many believe would have led to a Remain victory. The referendum Cameron promised is a perfect example of handing someone a gun when one doesn’t know where the gun will get pointed.
But it’s the aftermath of the vote that interests me. The last couple days have seen piles and piles of spin over how Brexit might not happen. Cameron won’t start the process before he resigns from office—arguably a move of political cowardice that underscores his late stage failure in losing the vote. There’s question over whether or not Parliament has to consent. It’s been suggested that the referendum, which technically isn’t binding, should be treated as advisory and then ignored. The idea of a second referendum has been floated—no doubt because Remain voters are certain they can win it. Someone must be watching Dumb and Dumber because I can here Lloyd saying, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.”
These machinations in support of a Remain result rising out of a Leave victory remind me of the American Republican primary—and not because various commentators have tried blaming both on xenophobic white people. But rather that as the campaign went on and Trump picked up a little speed and then a little more and then a little more, the “establishment” darlings—Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and (to a degree) Chris Christie all tried pushing back only to be rewarded with electoral smackdowns; the darlings would hit Trump on his lack of Republican bona fides only to be rewarded by shrugs from voters who either didn’t agree with those supposed bona fides or simply didn’t care about them anymore. As the field winnowed down conventional wisdom suggested that Trump would hit a ceiling and voters would rally behind a remaining establishment candidate. But there was no ceiling, and as Trump’s foes diminished his victories became more impressive. Prominent Republicans talked (and some still do) of using convention shenanigans to avoid nominating Trump only to see polls underscore that Republicans in general think the winner should, in fact, win--that even if they don't support Donald Trump they don't support a cabal of GOP politicians stealing the nomination from him in some back room. I wonder how UK voters would feel if polled on a similar question about the referendum; I'd be willing to bet that some Remain voters would grit their teeth and respond identically.
If Trump and Leave are what happens when voters—feeling ignored by politicians and pundits and elites—are no longer willing to simply go along with what leadership tells them and instead register their dissatisfaction by voting for extremes, then what happens when the politicians and elites simply ignore the voters’ choice? What’s the response from the Leave camp if the UK government ignores them? What’s the response from people in other EU countries if a referendum on EU membership is disregarded? All these people dismayed by a looming Brexit who seem to think—and maybe hope—it won’t happen should cast their eyes down the road a little ways toward what happens if this great mass of angry people continue to feel ignored or betrayed by their leaders. The implications of Leave may be frightening now, but imagine the thing that comes after it if half the UK feels betrayed.