Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

As a British expat happily living abroad, I considered it inappropriate to cast a vote in the Brexit referendum but have watched the process with hope, exasperation, confusion, and, latterly, irritation.

I was at a dinner party in Manhattan on the night of the original vote, along with my English friend and fellow Brexiteer, Francesca Murphy. As I later wrote at First Things, early despair turned to hope and then joy as the result was announced. The following year I was in my home village in the Cotswolds the week before the general election, watching in disbelief as Prime Minister Theresa May made repeated unforced errors in the campaign and somehow snatched a catastrophic result from the jaws of what had seemed an easy victory. Early this year, I lost track of the parliamentarian gymnastics and endless tweaking of the Brexit deal. Finally, on May 26 I was once again home to witness the success of the Brexit Party—and the political and cultural establishment's continued refusal to accept that over half the British people voted to leave the E.U. in 2016 and are now angry at their leaders' failure to honor the result.

The success of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is remarkable. Even though this was a European Parliament election, made unusual by the possibility that Britain will leave the E.U. on October 31, it is hard to dismiss this as a typical protest vote. Huge numbers supported a party founded just six weeks before the election. Alastair Campbell darkly hinted that Russian money was behind the party’s success, but as with all the hoo-hah about Russian interference in the American election, this trope both patronizes voters and sidesteps the need for serious reflection on the election result.

In the British media's coverage of both the original referendum and the European Parliament election, two things stood out. First, the establishment's failure to realize that Brexit did not cause Brexit; and second, its venomous contempt for those who voted Leave.

Some historical context is helpful for understanding the first point. Britain joined the E.U. (then the European Economic Community) in 1970. The name change is significant: The British people never voted for the political, legal, and cultural union which now exists. That is not to say that such a union is wrong, but it is to say that it has never had any popular mandate. During the intervening years, it became clear that the E.U. was going to take a form dictated to the people of Europe by their leaders, no matter what. Indeed, E.U. history offers a number of obvious applications of the wisdom of Robert the Bruce: If at first democracy lets you down, try, try, try again. Denmark rejected the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum, and Ireland did the same with the Treaties of Nice and Lisbon. In each case, both countries then held second referenda and the treaties were ratified.  

The fact that the E.U. did not emerge from the democratic desire of Europe’s various peoples or their cultural commonalities is a problem. The union can be no stronger than the cultural ties between its constituent peoples; and they are not strong. The oft-trumpeted model of the United States simply does not apply. Europeans do not share a common language, and their common history is one of conflict, not unity in the face of a common foe.

This has an impact at a basic level. If a truck driver in Florida loses his job, it would not be odd for him to move to California to find employment. But if a carpenter in Cardiff loses his job, he is unlikely to head to Budapest—or even Paris—to find work. Indeed, even London might be a stretch for a patriotic Welshman. The sense of a common history, a common culture, a common space, and a common future are simply not there; and such things cannot be confected by bureaucrats.

By this account, Brexit did not cause Brexit. Rather, Brexit is a function of the European political classes' failure to persuade ordinary people of the desirability, or even the plausibility, of the project—even though they have had nearly fifty years to do so. The fault for Brexit lies with them. As Trump did not divide the U.S. but emerged from its deep divisions, so Brexit is not the cause of Britain’s evident polarization but simply its latest and most politically dramatic symptom.

This leads to my second observation: the establishment's venomous attitude toward those who voted for Brexit. Rather than examine their own failures, the political classes have found many scapegoats: the old (and by implication senile); the economically illiterate (should a post-graduate degree in macroeconomics now be required before registering to vote?); and the bigoted. Vast swaths of both Conservative and Labour Party supporters have been dismissed as racists. Politicians have always attacked each other, but now they openly attack the very people who might actually vote for them. From Hillary’s “basket of deplorables” to the “Little Englanders” and “neo-Nazis” that fill the declarations of Remainer politicians, political rhetoric today is designed to reinforce division among the population at large.

This is also true in the wider culture. A recent article in Standpoint pointed out that comedians no longer punch up and ridicule those with cultural power. Instead, they simply flatter their establishment audiences by sneering at those who do not have it—among whom the ordinary people who voted Brexit occupy a prominent place. Such comedy is no longer about speaking truth to power, to use the Left’s favored cliché; it is about reminding the audience in good Pharisaic fashion that they are not like other men—such as this Brexit voter or that Trump supporter.

The idea that some might have supported Brexit because of the evident waste and lack of accountability in E.U. political structures—as pointed out so often by the late hard-left MP, Tony Benn (probably not a neo-Nazi racist)—and because they thought that a break with Europe just might galvanize British democratic institutions, is never countenanced. Yet the Brexit mess surely points to the urgent need to revitalize precisely those institutions and that culture of democratic accountability which Britain—and the West—needs.

My sister and brother-in-law live in a village within walking distance of my mother’s house—where we all grew up. She is a supply teacher at local elementary schools, he cuts grass and trims hedgerows. My sister is hardly a figure of the far right: She affirms gay marriage, has no religious convictions, is without doubt my favorite feminist, and typically votes Liberal Democrat. But she and her husband also voted Brexit and therefore did not bother voting at all on May 26.

Why should they? Their own party is committed to ignoring the referendum result and has decided that people like my sister and brother-in-law are ignorant racist nationalists. But they are not that at all. They simply love their home village and their way of life and want to have some say in how their country is run. For them Europe is an irrelevance, a waste of time and money, a politically correct behemoth, a political construct of no real substance at all. 

If Europe is not so, then one can only conclude that the political classes have failed to persuade people like my sister otherwise; and these same classes are disenfranchising those same people as punishment for their own failures. Those who fear the rise of political extremism might do well to reflect on the implications of that—rather than Brexit or Trump—for the health of our political future.

Carl R. Trueman is a professor in the Calderwood School of Arts and Humanities at Grove City College, Pa., and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Faith and Freedom.

Photo by ChiralJon via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

Like First Things on Facebooksubscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.  

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles