Brexit: What on Earth Happened?

People around the world may have heard some surprising tidings from the United Kingdom over the last few weeks. As some international news reporting has painted events here as either a revolt by xenophobic peasants or just complete chaos, I thought it was worth setting down what has really happened and the reasons behind it.

First, some history: back in 1975, the British overwhelmingly endorsed their membership of the European Economic Community or EEC, the predecessor organisation of the European Union (EU). On balance, the British decided that membership of a huge market on their doorstep was worth sacrificing some of their self-rule for. Besides, back in the 1970s, the UK was in a bad way, with widespread labour disputes, high inflation and shaky Government finances.

In 1992, the EEC was turned into the EU by the Maastricht Treaty, which was intended to be the first step towards a federal United States of Europe. The British Prime Minister at the time, John Major, declined to obtain a democratic mandate for this. The previous Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had been deposed a couple of years before when she had effectively threatened to veto the plans for a federal Europe. In the same year, on 16 September 1992, ‘black Wednesday’, the German central bank provoked the markets to devalue the British pound against the will of the British Government, causing it to fall out of the exchange rate mechanism. The combination of Maastricht and black Wednesday turned the majority of the Conservative Party against the EU. These events also destroyed the credibility of Mr Major and his Government, which lost the 1997 election by a landslide.

From 1997 to 2010, Tony Blair’s Labour Party was in government and was determined that the UK would play a full part in the EU. In 2005, in an effort to increase the democratic legitimacy of the EU, a series of countries held referendums on its new constitutional treaty, which was a further step towards a federal Europe. However, when the EU lost the votes in France and the Netherlands, the results were ignored and the constitutional treaty was pushed through anyway with a different name. Both Mr Blair and the new Conservative leader, David Cameron, also promised a referendum on the constitutional treaty but both reneged when it became politically inconvenient to give the people a say. The grand plan to provide the EU with democratic legitimacy ended up destroying its credibility because the people declined to give the answer they were required to.

In 2013, now in government, Mr Cameron again promised a referendum. He said he would renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU before the referendum and then ask the people if they wanted to Leave or Remain, based on the new terms. He hinted that, if the negotiation didn’t go his way, he might campaign to Leave. But when his negotiations duly failed to achieve anything of substance in February 2016, he announced he would, after all, campaign to Remain. His credibility as honest broker was instantly destroyed and British voters stopped listening to a word he said. They also got sick of every international bigwig, from President Obama downwards, telling the UK was doomed if it voted to Leave.

On 23 June, we voted 17 million to 15 million to Leave the EU. Everything about the vote was a surprise. No one thought Leave would win. Even after the polls closed, the betting markets implied a 90% chance of a Remain vote. Turnout was 73%, the highest in a national vote for 25 years. In short, more of the British voted to Leave the EU than have ever voted for anything else in our history.

So what happened and what happens next? The Leave vote was a coalition of three disparate groups. The campaign was led by a relatively small group of internationalist libertarians, including Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Daniel Hannan. They saw the EU as an anti-democratic and corporatist racket that was immune to reform, as the failure of Mr Cameron’s renegotiation had shown. The shock troops for Leave were supporters of Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party: mainly paleo-conservatives who objected to uncontrolled immigration (the UK must accept unlimited numbers of immigrants from the EU).

The third element of the coalition for Leave was one whose participation nobody could predict in advance. This final group consisted of working class people who nominally supported the Labour Party, but in practice rarely voted at all. Sick and tired of being ignored, and not seeing the benefits of globalisation, they came out to vote on 23 June and delivered the verdict of Brexit.

Now the UK embarks on an exciting journey. We want to continue to trade freely with the EU, but also sign free trade deals with the rest of the world as fast as we can. We’ll still welcome many new immigrants to the UK, but they won’t all have an automatic right to reside here. And the democratic control of farm subsidies, fisheries and taxation (the UK currently can’t even abolish the tax on sanitary towels) will return to Westminster. Of course, plenty of people have valid concerns about the effects of Brexit. And it is to be expected that many individuals will have invested in the status quo of EU membership, especially if the status quo has lasted for over 40 years. That does not make it a good thing. Indeed, institutional inertia and the fear of short-term consequences over long-term benefits are among the most damaging of political motivations.

As for the rest of the EU, it needs to reform quickly to gain democratic legitimacy while also, somehow, undoing the immense damage done by the single currency. Is that possible? Either way, we British wish the EU well. With Brexit, we cease to be a truculent tenant and become a friendly neighbour.

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