After a recent trip to Leicester, England, I glanced at how the region voted in the referendum. The city of Leicester itself voted to Remain in the European Union with a razor-thin 1.1 percent majority. But the county of Leicestershire, and the entire heart of middle England, voted overwhelmingly to Leave.
Intrigued, I checked Leicester Labour MP Liz Kendall’s voting record. In the past, she had voted for gay rights, smoking bans, LGBT marriage, European human rights and E.U. integration, and every single military adventure abroad. She voted to Remain, as well as for fewer MPs in Parliament and Iraq War investigations. Her voting record was the same as that of Conservative MP Anna Soubry, another Remainer (though not necessarily a conservative), who recently threatened police action against a random heckler because he called her a Nazi during one of her pro-E.U. speeches on live television.
This relatively moderate English city encapsulates the causes of Brexit betrayal—Britain’s Versailles moment. Leicester has a typical middle England city center. On my recent visit, I saw benign roadside tables selling books promoting the virtues of “Koranic matrimony,” while right next to them a couple of yobs smoked weed under the famous clock tower. Everyone coexists peacefully, perhaps aided by the unarmed and bored “police-couples” with fluorescent uniforms (it’s often a man and a woman in England) who haplessly loiter amid indifferent people.
Five hundred yards away, toward Leicester Cathedral, you find English streets, tea joints, and pubs with pots of overhanging limonium. In the huge cathedral grounds you can find apathetic twenty-somethings with cheap camo jackets munching kebab on the lawn. I impressed the lady of the cloth inside the cathedral by talking about the Battle of Bosworth.
Leicester Cathedral is the final resting place of Richard III, the last English king to die on a battlefield. Nothing could be more typically English than a single man going down with his double-handed longsword drawn for a hopeless cause. Richard died at the Battle of Bosworth in his early thirties, after reforming the English judicial system. The presumption of “innocent until proven guilty,” which forms the basis of English common law and jurisprudence, came from this “mad” king.
Richard died to save England from what he saw as a foreign invasion. As I walked through the cathedral during the age of Brexit, the symbolism was stark. Even for someone as reform-minded as Richard, the sanctity of English borders was paramount. He understood that you can’t offer justice and stable, peaceful life to citizens and subjects unless you define the territory and population over which your writ and jurisdiction last.
Leicester, situated in England's heart, reflects a divided Britain: two nations inhabiting one territorial space, betrayed by the elite—a singular political class regardless of the different political parties. Brexit was born from betrayal, and it is leading to another. The bipartisan consensus in Britain prevalent since 1992, under Tory (John Major, David Cameron, and now Theresa May) and Labour (Tony Blair, Gordon Brown), has eroded the country from the inside. This consensus, based on an internationalist liberalism/social-democracy hybrid, meant practically open borders with millions of migrants and job seekers flooding the labor market and crushing austerity due to E.U. diktat. It defied logic: the political class lamented rising crime, sexual assaults, and rape gangs while gutting law-enforcement measures; it imported cheap labor while lamenting joblessness and homelessness. And it cut the armed forces and police force. The British police under government-mandated compulsion is gender-neutral and focuses on social media thought crimes, diverting attention to cultural campaigns while neglecting rape, stabbing, hooliganism, and thuggery on city streets.
British governments have lost the people’s trust. Parliament's supremacy in lawmaking has declined since ’92 because of the E.U. David Cameron committed a grave elite error when he gave in to his traditional plebiscitary, direct democracy instincts. The people of Britain voted to Leave by a majority of around two percent, despite the solemn warnings from every single state-funded institution, elites in media and academia, and the unelected House of Lords and boffins of the Bank of England. It was as brave, bedeviled, and as British as the charge of the Light Brigade.
The inevitable “resistance” followed a nationalist-conservative reaction that started in Britain and the United States. In both countries, it boils down to this: The ongoing march to a global, integrated, institutional government, which started under the church of liberalism/social-democracy, was kicked to the curb by the people across the West. Something unimaginable happened, and it had to be reversed. History must be progressive, and anything that stops progress is by definition illiberal and must be terminated. In the strangest twist of irony, the erstwhile ’60s radicals who are the establishment during these tumultuous times are now besieged by Metternichian nationalist conservatives.
The British elite, save for a handful, never wanted to leave the E.U. A section of Brexiteers agreed with them: They voted Leave, but never expected to win. In any democratic mandate, the worst cards are not shown on the table during negotiations. If the British elite were united to follow the commands of the majority of people who voted for Brexit, they would have prepared for a No-Deal Brexit under WTO terms, while simultaneously starting talks with Ireland and Spain, the two E.U. countries that have borders with British territories, and bipartisan trade talks with eager U.S., Australian, and Japanese governments. The security cards—that is, conditional British naval power currently providing deterrence east of the Danube and in the Mediterranean and Arctic—would have been on the table during negotiations. Instead, there were standard processes of bureaucratic leaks and skulduggery, subterfuge, public demonstrations and “civil society” activism, a now familiar scene in the Western world. Democracy, whether plebiscitary or parliamentary/presidential, depends on accepting the results. There will always be a losing side in every democratic process. That a section of ideologues are leading the losers to question the legitimacy of an institutional process and to initiate direct action is a new phenomenon. And this is not limited to Britain.
Two options lie ahead. A perpetual delay in Brexit purgatory (a second referendum, and then a third) until Brexit is reversed or diluted, but which might unleash social forces beyond the imagination of the British elite. France and Italy are cautionary tales. A second, more likely option, is a No-Deal Brexit and a WTO negotiation, which is a better long-term course for Britain, even though in the short term it is painful and tedious, and perhaps disastrous for the E.U.
The European Union must make Brexit deeply painful for Britain if it is to deter centrifugal forces within the boundaries of the empire. It is an empire in the making, without any actual centralized hard power (yet!), but it dwarfs Britain when it comes to economic power. The ultimate choice of British policymakers is to decide under which future order they want to operate: A nationalist, free market, open-seas, hegemonic Anglo-American one, or a social-democratic, centralized, technocratic, hierarchical European one.
Unfortunately, British leadership—Gramscians and feminists under an old Trot on one side, and closet liberals pretending to be conservatives on the other—is busy squabbling over power in Westminster, as dissent simmers under the surface and Britain stares into the abyss.
Sumantra Maitra is a writer, risk-analyst, and doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK. His research is in great power politics, and neo-realism. He can be reached on Twitter @MrMaitra.