Brexit: A Statesman’s Gamble with Populism

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It is June 24th 2016 and British Prime Minister David Cameron steps out of Downing Street to face a mob of reporters and their flashing cameras.

Britain has voted to leave the European Union.

What stands before the press isn’t the confident, modern man who had presided over the modernisation of the Tories and guided a cautiously reformist government. Instead, someone who has been scalped by his own political gamble, and ostracised by a weary British public, delivers a sobering statement of political defeat.

Tentatively initiated by Prime Minister David Cameron before the 2015 election, the EU referendum was designed to abate factional tensions within the Conservative Party. At the time, this was thought to be pragmatic of Cameron, since the “Remain” campaign would be advantaged by having the Prime Minister on side.

Despite its sensible beginnings, the referendum’s outcome leaves no aspect of Britain’s domestic and international policy unscathed.

Britain’s connection to the EU has bridged relations between the United States and Europe. This bridge, strengthened by shared values on democracy, human rights, and global markets, has forged the two nations’ “special relationship” – a relationship with the United States unique among European powers. A potential Brexit will claw Britain away from the European negotiating table, no longer nested between the major players of the Western alliance. As such, the UK will be unable to fulfil its role as the mediator between two continents, or as effectively provide political cover for transatlantic initiatives. Because of this, Brexit will diminish Britain’s value to the United States, but make it increasingly dependent on its American ally to influence global outcomes. As stated by David Miliband, this is nothing short of “unilateral political disarmament”. The characterization of Brexit by figures such as Boris Johnson as a way to reignite “Anglo-Americanism” exposes broader ignorance about the foundation of the transatlantic alliance.

European leaders are right to gaze anxiously over the channel in anticipation of fallout out from Britain’s vote. At the same time their populist counterparts such as Marine Le Pen, eagerly envisage their crawl towards political office. It is difficult to envision Brexit kindling a complete disintegration of the EU. It will, however, embolden numerous populist movements in France, Italy, and Spain. This will rally movements buoyed by popular discontent, increasing the difficulty of governance for mainstream parties who are perceived to have reneged on the social contract. Unfortunately, this will lessen their ability to reform in favour of higher living standards, strengthening the narrative that European elites remain deaf to the masses. As a consequence, the European project, heralding co-operation and integration, may come further under threat from populist and nationalist movements. The upcoming Italian referendum will be a key litmus test against these pressures. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is imploring Italy to accept his changes to the constitution such that he may strengthen the office of prime minister . This, Renzi argues, will facilitate further economic reform most desperately needed to revive the flailing Italian economy. However, Mr. Renzi has staked his career on a vote that is likely to be hijacked by people wanting to express broader discontent, as happened in Britain. If that is so, the PM will likely resign, or call elections in which Italy’s 5-Star populists may attain representation. Either way, Italy’s government may lose its resolve to continue being an active member of the European community.

Most alarmingly, Brexit may dismember the United Kingdom itself. In contrast to England’s voting out, Scotland voted overwhelming to stay in the EU. In line with this, asserting her goal to “uphold Scotland’s national interest”, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already reached out to EU officials to solidify Scotland’s place in the continental union. Whilst independence may not be an immediate reality, it is clear that it may be the only way for Scotland to prevent itself being pulled away kicking and screaming by its southern counterparts. Scotland’s dominant strategy may be to roll the referendum dice again — and if successful, the United Kingdom would dissolve, raising questions about British influence and membership of other international organizations. Would England alone stand on the UN Security Council? What would become of Britain’s nuclear deterrent currently stationed in Scotland?

The referendum has also exposed the disconnection between the British Parliament and the British public. Around two-thirds of the parliament would have voted in favour of staying. The Prime Minister, the Opposition Leader, a majority of economists and world leaders and organizations alike rallied unsuccessfully to uphold the status quo. How, in a healthy democracy, could both major parties be so at odds with the general public? This spells for definite electoral changes in the future. As remarked by Peter Hitchens, the “old tory guard and working class” seemed to have formed a coalition rejecting the free trade, pro-business consensus that has occupied parliament since Tony Blair’s election in 1997. The electoral lines have been crudely redrawn around the winners and losers of globalisation – embodied by the North’s clear out vote contrasted with London’s majority to remain.

Seething behind the Tory majority government is a British public becoming quietly fragmented. In the 2015 election, parties such as UKIP received 3.8 million votes with one seat, whilst Scotland’s Nationalists acquired 54. With its first-past-the-post system, Britain’s parliament is increasingly not representing British voters.

This fragmentation has boasted the rise of populist parties who have bitten into the Labour heartlands of the North, and other poorer areas. In this way, the referendum is symptomatic of Britons who feel an entrenched sense of disadvantage. Compounded by the challenges of immigration, austerity, and a perceived inability to have their voices heard in Parliament, their disenchantment was thrown at the European Union in this referendum. Such political polarisation will imperil the Labour Party, already carefully engaged in a balancing act between its socially liberal constituents and its more conservative working class base. The PM’s resignation embodies its impact on the Tory party, given that the liberal faction is more than ever under threat from conservatives who oppose immigration and Cameron’s centrist posture.

It seems that without even considering the economic ramifications of Britain’s referendum, a potential Brexit will undoubtedly change Britain. Ironically, if the UK is to gain future access to the single market, it will likely have to abide the very freedom of movement that its people have rejected. Further, its absence from the largest market and pan-democratic organisation marks its gradual step down from the world kicked off by the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956.

Now globalists hope for a Norway-style relationship with EU, while Patriots dream of the splendid Isolation during the height of empire.

Either way, Britain has cast itself adrift.