It is more than 40 years since the United Kingdom last went to the polls to vote on its relationship with Europe. In 1975, the question was whether the country should continue to remain part of the European Economic Community (familiarly, the Common Market) into which the Conservative Party had taken it two years earlier. Under the Labour Party government that had been elected in the interim, the UK was in its worst postwar economic doldrums. So when both Labour and Conservative politicians alike (including Margaret Thatcher, then four years from her premiership) presented the Common Market as an economic benefit to the UK, the British people were persuaded and voted by a two-thirds margin to remain.
In the years that followed, the Common Market developed into something very different from the unified trading bloc of the 1970s. In the early 1990s, following the eventual ratification of a pact called the Maastricht Treaty, it was transmuted into the “European Union,” run out of Brussels. The new name shrugged off any pretense; the EU was a political as well as an economic union. The process of ever-closer fiscal union under a common currency was just one element of what was to follow. The reality of a transnational political confederation was now its overarching purpose. What had begun for Britons as an arrangement to trade well with our European neighbors turned into an expansive exercise in cohabitation under one roof.
Of course the inexorability of this political union had its setbacks. But the increasingly detached and ever-less-accountable officials in Brussels never allowed these to actually set them back. When the French and Dutch were allowed to vote on the latest iteration of the EU Constitution in 2005 referendums, both publics rejected it. The EU steamrollered on anyway. From then on, whenever countries were granted votes on further unification and cast them “wrong” (such as Ireland’s rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in 2008), they were ordered to redo the vote until they came up with the “correct” answer. The EU’s will was not to be resisted. Any individual country suspected of holding back the project was threatened that the consequence would be destruction of the whole, with all the financial and political costs that was said to entail.
It should not be surprising that between 1975 and today a degree of popular ill will has grown toward this metastasizing project. Nowhere has that pain been more keenly felt than among British conservatives. The narrow ratification of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 occurred under John Major’s Conservative government; the process produced a set of startlingly close votes in Parliament and bitter divides within the party. This fight and others hit right at the nerve centers of the British conservative tradition, not to say philosophy.
The principle of “sovereignty” is often cited by conservative Euroskeptics, as is the increasing lack of democratic accountability in Brussels, not least the appointment of unelected bureaucrats with lifetime tenure to the all-powerful European Commission, which makes and implements EU policy. But these, along with warnings of the consequences of fiscal union without further political union—meaning either financial catastrophe or enforced further political union—and the impact of allowing people to travel with no restraint across national borders (the so-called Schengen rules) in the heart of Europe all went unheeded.
In the years after the fight over the Maastricht treaty the image of the EU-obsessed Conservative politician became a staple of the national comedy as well as a shorthand cliché for politicians in Brussels depicting political “backwardness.” The “federasts” (to deploy the historian-journalist Noel Malcolm’s name for the supporters of the European Union) described their opponents as “swivel-eyed” bores who inexplicably spent their time “banging on” about overenthusiastic regulations as though they were totalitarian diktats. And although the Labour movement included those who objected to the EU for its intrusions into union laws inside Britain and the flooding of the UK with cheap and often more diligent workers from elsewhere in the EU, it was on the right that the grief was most keenly felt. After Maastricht there even arose a break-away party called UKIP (or the UK Independence Party)—a single-issue grouping that only in more recent years has became a focal point for national identity issues unrelated to the EU.
Now, four decades on, the British people are going to vote in June on what has been called the “Brexit”—whether Britain should remain part of the European Union or should withdraw from it.
The latest referendum is not so much the result of a grand awakening as it is an inglorious consequence of internal Conservative Party politicking. Going into the general election of 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron made an effort to stem further electoral leakage from his party. In an effort to unite the right and gain a majority (rather than have to strike another ignominious alliance with the Liberal Democrats with whom Cameron’s Tories had struck an alliance to form a government in 2010), the prime minister promised that if returned with a majority, he would give the British public a referendum on the EU. So, after being duly returned with a small majority, Cameron was in the unfortunate position of having to fulfill this commitment; his only advantage was that he was able to decide the date of the poll and the nature of the question. Like much of the rest of his party, Cameron has long posed as a Euroskeptic to maintain the affections of his grassroots but in practice has always been intensely relaxed about the intrusions of Brussels. But he was left without a comfortable corner to hide in.
So earlier this year Cameron went to Brussels and spent several days in supposedly tough negotiations with his European counterparts. The business allowed Cameron to pretend that he was returning to the British people with a wholly new deal and permitted the EU to pretend that it could be flexible. With that in mind, the public could decide whether they wished to stay in this “reformed EU” or get out altogether.
In fact, he came away with what friends and foes agree was to be the better part of nothing. His “tough renegotiation” basically involved the UK’s being able to claim it possessed greater control of certain migrant working benefits than it had had before. To say that even Cameron’s friends could not pretend he had come away with a good deal is a statement of fact, because immediately after the referendum was announced, two of his dearest friends—Justice Minister Michael Gove and London Mayor Boris Johnson—announced that they would campaign to “Leave” rather than “Remain” in the EU.
By making Britain’s vote an all-or-nothing choice, the prime minister is banking that the innate conservatism of the British people will persuade them to remain in the EU, because what might happen if we leave is less certain than what will happen if we stay. A vote to leave, he constantly reiterates, is a “leap in the dark.”
From the moment the referendum campaign began, the vast majority of Britain’s political class signed up for Remain. Even the new Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, rejected a lifetime’s far-left opposition to the EU and declared himself a supporter. Cameron’s bet appeared to be that, as in 1975, the key figures lined up in opposition would be a ragtag of eccentrics, wilderness-dwellers, and gadflies. For example, the radical-leftist aristocrat Tony Benn and the right-wing prophet of immigration doom Enoch Powell had campaigned alongside each other against the Common Market in 1975, and this was what “Remain” was hoping for from the “Leave” forces. Right on cue, at the outset of the Brexit campaign, the outrageous Ba’athist George Galloway appeared with UKIP leader Nigel Farage at a Leave rally. But the presence of Gove, Johnson, and other highly intellectual, thoughtful, and (crucially in 21st-century Britain) culturally diverse figures in the leave camp made Cameron and his allies up their game.
In the weeks that followed, 10 Downing Street swiftly orchestrated daily announcements and letters to the press from business leaders and others—an effort Leave dubbed “Project Fear.” A letter from former armed-forces chiefs urging the British people to remain in the EU for security reasons fell apart when one of the signatories turned out not to know anything about any letter and another confessed that he actually disagreed with the sentiments his name had been put to. But the message of Project Fear was unmistakable: “With Brexit, the country will be taking a leap into the unknown with the possibility of becoming a basket case and causing a world war.” Memories of the mid-1970s were conjured up: the three-day work week, the uncollected rubbish, the unburied dead.
The arrival of President Obama at the end of April was the Remain camp’s strongest moment. Apparently as a quid pro quo to David Cameron for his uncritical acquiescence in the Iran nuclear deal, the president not only urged the UK to remain in the EU but added that were the UK to leave, then the country would start “at the back of the queue” in any future trade deals with the United States. There would be no special treatment, he said. The historic alliance between the UK and the U.S. would count for nothing. Once Britain was on its own, it would have no more purchase on the trade affections of the United States than would Ecuador or Laos.
Three major media outlets in UK have called it for LEAVE.
This bodes well for the anti-elite movement that’s been happening all over since the India vote a couple years ago.
Now, let’s see….
Does the USA have an anti-elitist, anti-Washington DC beltway candidate?
I do believe we have.
Edited to add:
The Dow futures (the GOPe and Dems) responded by a free fall of -613 down.
Live link (perhaps rebound?) here: http://www.marketwatch.com/investing/future/YMU6
Congratulations to the British voters who did not succumb to the fear-mongering from the “remain” loons who did their best to destroy their Nation.
Cameron, Obama, Soros, the senior bankers, the Euro elitists, . . . all lied without providing any solid reasons during their fear-mongering. Obama’s blathering idiotically with threats to the voters was embarrassing. And Clinton wants to prevail with his uninformed impositions?
Can’t believe the timing of Trump being over there for a just in time speech tomorrow.
Globalists and bankers just got slapped in the mouth, then kicked in the ass. Perhaps they’ll listen? . . . . . Nah.
@Nanny G: #1
. . . and Trump is on the right side of history, against all odds, all polls, all professed experts. This is a major moment in international economics, and international affairs.
And, they’re leaving. If the politicians don’t find a way to nullify the vote, that is.
Where there’s a will…
Scotland is considering a re-do of their Leave UK vote.
Two years ago they voted a slim Stay in UK.
France’s LePen is also considering a French Leave vote.
Looks like the EU is over.
Now if only the sore-loser #NeverTrumps will get their heads out of their butts, and realize that a contested convention can only result in imploding the Republican Party, delivering through their narrow-mindedness the presidency to “The Woman Who Would be Queen” (Hillary) and the socialist-fascism under a far-left “Progressive” tyranny.
@Ditto: Xenophobia prevailed in G.B. Trump leads the movement here. Expect a challenge at the Convention
Congratulations to the British for throwing off the shackles of the EU.
SOROS made billions again betting that the British pound would collapse again
Exit interviews included some for whom the TEAPOT issue was the straw that broke the camel’s back, EU-wise.
Seems Brits love their tea.
They brew a hot pot in the AM then keep the pot warm after the morning rush for later cups after the kids leave.
The EU made a law against British tea warming devices.
Too hard on global warming, they said.
That was the tipping point for at least some Brits.
Now, if you looked at the lines to vote, did you notice?
No muslims voted.
They all want caliphate.
Congrats to the people of Britain for getting their independence back. They proved the pundits and odds makers (who claimed ‘remain’ would win by a close call) wrong by not only voting to leave, but did so by a vote margin that wasn’t close.
When you look at European history, the EU was bound to crack sooner or later. It’ll be interesting to see if this inspires the people of other countries to push to leave as well. Perhaps even the governors of this country will use it as a reference to tell this administration that it better quit shunning the Constitution and abusing its power or the same could happen here.
@another vet: #11
Another vet, there’s little doubt that other nations will follow, in revulsion to dictatorship coming from affar (Brussels). They’re also screaming “no” to that foreign bureaucracy to which they have relinquished sovereignty.
Meanwhile, as the news was coming of this major event, CNN was beating the rest of the media to the insults, accusing the Brexit supporters of racism and xenophobia, completely ignoring the reality that this was principally a rebellion against faceless bankers and globalists. The NO to immigrants who refuse to assimilate, was secondary.
In this age of Obama, all dissenters will be called racists — regardless what the issue.
@James Raider: The left is way too predictable, aren’t they? We knew they were going to blame Orlando on guns, conservatives, and Christians before any of the facts were out and that they would continue to do so even though the facts refute their claims.
A few years back while I was in my last semester working on my second Bachelor’s, I told a European history professor (a lefty of course) that the EU would begin splitting because the whole concept of one Europe simply defies the continent’s history of nationalism and that the immigration issue, in addition to bailing out countries like Greece, would be what pushed it over the edge. The Brits are Brits first and foremost just like the Germans are Germans first and foremost etc. Naturally, he said it would never happen just like the DIA analyst who told me I was crazy in ’88 when I told him the Soviet Union was going to collapse for some of the same reasons.
This should also be a lesson that when a person (like Obama) or an organization (like the EU or UN) becomes too dominating, people will eventually get sick of it. That is why dictators rule the way they do- “to keep the people in line”.
CNN and much of the MSM are in bed with the globalists. The misuse and overuse of the term “racist” is undermining real racism.
@another vet –
If you recall, the UK wasn’t too keen about becoming part of the EU. And, those doubts have lingered through the years. It fueled their resistance not to join the Euro currency system, which has its separate issues (particularly with the real value of the currency). Moreover, the Brits have largely thought of themselves as Brits, not as Europeans.
For those believing there may be an impact on the coming presidential election, it is not likely. The conservative politics in Europe is by no means is equivalent to conservative here, but more like just left of center here. Their immigration concerns are largely more a concern about their social welfare programs collapsing under the weight of having to serve more.
Ditto, . . . and yet Obama is doubling down today, sending his goofy second-in-command to Ireland with,
Do these two have a clue about anything?
It appears that RW is just as clueless. He too thinks Brexit was only about “racism.” When cries of “racism!” is the left’s only comment for people choosing democratically to reject the establishment-elite’s globalist policies, you know they have no real argument and are desperate.
@Ditto: Xenophobia is aversion to foreigners, strangers,, their politics and cultures. Not the same as racism.
Good luck to G.B. They’ll need it.
Trump noted the decimation of the British Pound will help tourism at his Turnberry Golf Course. He began his speech by pointing out the magnificent sprinkler system. he’d recently installed.
Yes, we know however that Xenophobia often is used to infer racist connotations. Leftists all over the web and MSM are ranting that Britain is leaving the EU because they are “bigoted racists,” so we are not surprised that you are jumping that propaganda bandwagon.
Being fed-up with the ‘progressive’ elite’s globalist agenda and heavy-handed central control from Brussels is neither xenophobic nor racist. It’s simply a desire of the British people for national self-rule, instead of being told what to do by a remote and disassociated EU oligarchy.
@David: Those facts don’t matter. It’s all about xenophobia.
@another vet #20 –
In the end, “Brexit” doesn’t matter a whole lot. The EU will still have economic, trade and currency issues to go along with immigration, failing social programs and security issues. The UK, formerly of the Common Market (better known as the EEC, then EU), will still have economic, trade and currency issues to go along with immigration, failing social programs and security issues. And, us, for letting an opportunity slide past us because of a lack of imagination.
It seems that voting for it wasn’t enough, the politicians decide when to do it.
Hmmmm… maybe never…..