Monday, June 27, 2016

Perfidious Albion

“Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last five hundred years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians. Divide and rule, you see. … We tried to break it up from the outside, but that wouldn’t work. Now that we’re inside we can make a complete pig’s breakfast of the whole thing.”
—Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne) explains to minister James Hacker (Paul Eddington) Britain’s real strategy for Europe, in the March 24, 1980 Yes Minister episode, “The Writing on the Wall”
Gobsmacked is a great word that they use here on this side of the Atlantic. It perfectly describes the reaction politicians and journalists in both Great Britain and Ireland to Thursday’s referendum. It is not often that so many people are taken by so much surprise in such a widespread public way. Never mind the politicians and journalists. Imagine the emotional state of investors and bookmakers who had placed their bets, confident of a victory for the Remain side. Usually, people with real money at stake in an issue take the trouble to get things right and are hence generally reliable predictors. Not this time.

Even supporters of the Leave side were in shock. Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, had more or less conceded defeat after the polls had closed. Two last-minute polls (not exit polls), held for release until just after the vote, assured everyone of a win for Remain. It was all settled, done and dusted. Then the actual votes were counted, and everyone’s world changed.

The results have been analyzed to death. Voters in London, Scotland and Ulster voted Remain. The Welsh and the English (outside London) voted Leave. Sixty-four percent of voters under 25 vote to stay. Fifty-eight percent of voters over 65 voted to leave. The anguish among the urban young was heartbreaking to behold. They have never identified as anything other than European and feel particularly bereft. Why, they ask, do old voters get to have the deciding voice in their longterm future? It was not hard to imagine a youth revolt with repercussions reminiscent of Logan’s Run or Wild in the Streets.

It is more difficult to have sympathy, however, for the dazed and confused journalists. It is their job to investigate and report, not simply to convey ahead of time what is supposed to happen. If they never saw the Brexit victory coming, it may be because everyone they knew was against it. In their world, the people who were for it existed only in theory. Think about it. A majority of all members of Parliament were in favor of Remain, and Remain was the official position of both major political parties. Most of the television coverage seemed to focus on the Remain arguments. So how did it all go so wrong?

The first clue should have been last year’s general election. The Conservatives won by an unanticipated majority (polls again failing to forecast correctly) after David Cameron promised to hold the Brexit referendum. It was a strange calculation and, in hindsight, a fatal one. Cameron himself was against Brexit but was swept back into office on the promise of giving voters a say on the issue. UK and EU politicians did themselves no favors by making spiraling threats about all the bad things (many by definition self-inflicted) that would happen if the referendum passed. To top it off, President Obama came to visit and explicitly threatened to send Britain to “the back of the queue” if Brexit passed. All of these so-called leaders essentially dared voters to go against them as a point of national pride.

That has always been the problem with the EU. When the rules and arrangements are worked out among the various countries’ political classes, everything is fine—on the surface. When specific treaties or questions are put before masses of actual voters, they often do not fare well. Needless to say, the reaction among much of the political class is not that they need to be more in touch with voters but that there should be less voting. It is especially rich to watch those politicians and pundits, who rhetorically favor the working class, excoriate that same working class for voting against their own self-interest, i.e. their self-interest as perceived by the more enlightened political class.

Many have blamed xenophobic and racist currents for the result. Certainly, there were ugly motives among a good many, but it is too broad a brush to paint the entire voting majority. The immigration/refugee issue, to the extent it was used by both sides, was to my mind something of a red herring. Being outside the Schengen Treaty area, Britain has always been in control of its own borders when it comes to non-EU citizens. Having said that, there has obviously been discomfort with the continual addition of new EU countries reaching farther and farther east.

As dramatic as Thursday’s vote was, that will not be the end of the issue. There is actually a provision for exiting the EU, and the Brits have two years to negotiate it. In the short term, everyone is too busy sulking to work on it seriously but, when heads start to clear, do not be surprised if the EU tries to make some concessions that would justify another referendum. Enough individual UK citizens have already signed a petition to require Parliament to consider calling a new referendum, and Scotland seems to think it may have the legal right to trigger one as well.

This thing is not over. Not by a long shot.

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