The tenor—and temper—of the debate leading up to the British referendum on the United Kingdom’s continued membership in the European Union on June 23 hardly suggested the rhetorical and emotional violence of the response by the proponents of Remain to their substantial defeat by a margin of 52 to 48—a figure some of them pounced upon as being, politically and morally, an insufficient mandate for so monumental a decision, though any democratic politician today would be thrilled by the four-percent spread. The explanation for this reaction, to which the journalistically overworked adjective hysterical seems aptly to apply, is, of course, that the will of “the wrong people”—the less wealthy, less educated, less sophisticated and cosmopolitan, more provincial and rural, and above all, older ones—prevailed over that of the more elite classes. That is simply not supposed to happen in an advanced Western “democracy” today, which is why Leave’s victory was as unexpected as it was unwelcome to its opponents.
Tony Blair, the former Labour prime minister, wrote a furious piece for the New York Times in which he said (referring to the success of right-wing “populist” parties in Europe) that we know now “it can happen here” because it has, owing to an alliance between the “far right” and the “far left,” and went on to put the vote down to “isolationism” (as well as to the British public’s refusal to heed warnings by their betters, the “experts”). The referendum, he continued, promoted “disillusion” and “rancorous division,” ignoring the fact that throwing off illusion is a good thing, while division, rancorous or otherwise—to which Blair himself contributed sufficiently in his day, not least by welcoming millions of Third World immigrants to Britain—is the essence of politics. The charge of isolationism, often presented as “Little Englandism” (a reference to the late 19th century, when Gladstone and Disraeli differed on an expansive foreign policy), was widely circulated, as if England and the U.K. as a whole had pursued isolationist policies before signing on with the E.U. in 1975 and despite the fact that the debate was so clearly unconcerned with littleness or bigness but rather with sovereign wholeness. This willful blindness was compounded by the determination of the Remain side and partisans of the European Union, in the U.K. and on the Continent, dishonestly to portray the referendum as a blow against “Europe”—as if a United States of Europe had already been achieved, and Europe and the E.U. were therefore synonymous. The media (including, naturally, the American media) further promoted this unconscionable misreading of what had happened by printing sob-story interviews with young Britons accusing their selfish elders of having deprived them of golden opportunities for working, studying, and living abroad—quite as if they were about to be ring-fenced within the British Isles and the Gare du Nord in Paris would no longer be two hours and ten minutes away from St. Pancras Station by Eurostar. “But we feel like Europeans!” they wailed—also as if Britain’s assumption of full control over her immigration policy ensured that cultural exchange between the U.K. and the Continent would cease, and millions of foreign visitors would no longer be welcome north and west of the Channel.
While economic issues were certainly important, most significantly at stake were the questions of popular accountability and national sovereignty. “Brexit” is only the latest indication that what the established interests in Europe and the United States call “populists” or, alternately, the “far right” in reality are only old-fashioned democrats. The fact that Leave was willing to risk possible economic dislocation as the price of abandoning the E.U. shows that their greatest care was for democracy and sovereign independence, not material advantage. Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, a leader of the Leave campaign, and David Cameron’s likely successor as prime minister, put this well. “The truth is,” he said, “it is Brexit that is now the great project of European liberalism, and I am afraid that it is the E.U.—for all the high ideals with which it began—that now represents the Ancien Régime.” This is why Britain’s dramatic withdrawal, democratically determined, from the European project is certain to serve as an example to Continental democrats, an encouragement to campaign for similar ends in their own countries.
Western establishments are out of fresh ideas, and their peoples are out of patience. The Eurocrats will continue to insist that their project remains unfulfilled, and that if given the time and the opportunity they can make a success yet of the European Union. But of course that project, being like all left-liberal agendas open-ended, could never be concluded, while centralized power continued to accrue to it and popular resentment to grow. Every establishment, whether of the left or of the right, is self-protective and self-perpetuating—in the nonideological and nonphilosophical sense, “conservative.” If Brussels cannot learn to see itself as others see it, it is doomed, and much sooner rather than later.
The referendum was the greatest blow struck for old-fashioned liberty since 1945. It is no coincidence that the agent should have been England, the font of constitutional government and the rights of free-born Englishmen, and home to the Mother of Parliaments.
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