But here’s where the anger comes from, and here’s why it’ll be hard to marshal that anger.
By Sam Edwards
Brexit campaigner and former London Mayor Boris Johnson at a press conference on June 30, 2016. (Photo: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and the politicians who propelled Britain’s campaign to leave the European Union share many characteristics: a loose attachment to the truth, an ability to speak to those who feel disenfranchised by mainstream politics, and a willingness to row back on promises made just days or hours previously.
But while Trump is keen to paint Brexit as a mirror image of America’s disgust for the establishment, the Leave campaign was different from Trumpsim. The Leave campaign was not a personality cult — the fact that Michael Gove is even a contender for leadership is proof alone of that — but rather the direct beneficiary of regional and class disparities that have been brewing for decades.
Further, while Brexit was fought and won on immigration, the majority of those who voted to leave the E.U. are a long way from employing the openly racist language of Trump. The Leave camp is a ragtag coalition of libertarians, sovereigntists, and the far right, but it is the traditional Labour voters that swung the vote. Increasingly, they share Trump supporters’ antipathy for the political class, certainly, but the anti-immigrant sentiment of these Leave voters is in a comparatively embryonic stage, still largely a stand-in for the wider, less-tangible anger at decades of unemployment and social decay in parts of Britain that have never recovered from deindustrialization under Margaret Thatcher and have seen little benefit from globalization. The success of the right has been to lay the blame of six years of cuts to public services, wage stagnation, and soaring house prices squarely at the feet of immigrants and the E.U.
The most enthusiastic Remainers persist in a collective delusion that obviating or circumventing the results of the referendum is either viable or even truly desirable.
The danger for the United Kingdom is what happens next. With a Trumpian flair for untruth, the Leave campaign promised the impossible, pledging that the U.K. would be able to retain access to the E.U.’s single market while also rejecting one of the E.U.’s most important principles: the freedom of movement of people. This was, and is, pure fantasy. To imagine that Britain could secure such a deal is to willfully overlook the realities of national politics of the 27 other members of the E.U., each with their own electorates to answer to and nothing to gain from giving the U.K. a good deal — and thereby encouraging their own insurgent Eurosceptic movements.
So what lies ahead for the U.K.? It faces an impossible decision between a sharp, self-inflicted recession (if the country leaves the E.U. and doesn’t join the European Economic Area), or fudging the results of the referendum to retain a similar trade deal at the expense of fulfilling promises on immigration (thereby once again deceiving millions of voters who already have next to no faith in the political system). The reality is that both options will likely provoke a surge in anti-immigrant sentiment, and neither will fix the tide of anti-elite feeling across the country. Nor, for that matter, will either option improve the broken economies of the U.K.’s most deprived regions.
This fraught decision will fall to David Cameron’s successor, most likely either veteran Home Secretary Theresa May, who campaigned, albeit reluctantly, for Remain, or junior Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom, a prominent figure in the Leave campaign and the candidate favored by the party’s Eurosceptic wing. Attempting to re-unite the deeply fractured Tory party, last week May attempted to placate Leave supporters by declaring “Brexit means Brexit.”
It is a strange irony of the anarchic days that followed the referendum that with former London mayor and principal Leave campaigner Boris Johnson abandoning his leadership bid, liberal pro-European Britons have lost their best hope for retaining access to the single market. Johnson, a charismatic, buffoonish, mop-haired figure — admittedly here the Trump parallels return — who is widely believed to have backed leaving the E.U. in an opportunistic move to advance his career, may well have been the only person capable of selling a compromise deal — one that avoided the worst hazards of Brexit — to those who voted Leave.
May, on the other hand, will be forced to prove her Britain-first credentials if she is to win the leadership contest and hold her divided party together and fend off further assault from the U.K. Independence Party, which is already eyeing the chance of further gains should another general election be called.
While the Conservative leadership contest will drag on until September, the challenges facing the U.K. are mounting daily. The pound this week hit a 31-year low, while share prices of banks, estate agents, and homebuilders are down amid recession fears.
Stabilizing the economy should be the immediate priority, given that much of the resentment driving Brexit was borne of the Conservative party’s austerity measures, but again the argument was pulled back to immigration this week as May refused to guarantee the future of E.U. nationals working in the U.K. Both Gisela Stuart of the Labour Leave campaign and Leadsom criticized May for this refusal, claiming she was using E.U. nationals as “bargaining chips” in negotiations. This dispute testifies to the disparate coalition of the Leave campaign, which is, in fact, a ragtag collection of libertarians, sovereigntists, and disenfranchised voters — one too-easily caricatured as a solely anti-immigrant movement after a divisive, scaremongering campaign.
The likelihood that any future prime minister would advocate deporting millions of E.U. citizens is low — May is playing a tactical game — but it sets a worrying precedent. The divisions provoked by the referendum are already being felt. In the week following the result, police reported a five-fold increase in race hate crimes. Apparently some Leave voters thought that foreign nationals should leave the U.K. immediately in the wake of the vote.
Remain voters, meanwhile, are slowly coming to terms with the shock of the unexpected result, but for the most part have still failed to accept that it is irreversible, or that there are real reasons for this anger. Their surprise is testament to the chasm between the cosmopolitan, London-centric middle class and the rest of the country.
The most enthusiastic Remainers persist in a collective delusion that obviating or circumventing the results of the referendum is either viable or even truly desirable. The referendum was advisory, they argue, and should be ignored given the economic repercussions already making themselves manifest. Others argue parliament should step in to block secession. Legal action was begun this week to ensure that the decision to trigger Article 50 and begin negotiations for the U.K. leaving the E.U. would have to pass a vote in the majority pro-European Commons. Any attempts to avoid a Brexit, however, would not only be undemocratic; they would risk further fueling the anger that led a majority of Britons to vote Leave, and would present the far-right with a stick with which to beat Britain’s battered center-ground. If Remainers try to bend the rules, they risk paving the way for some kind of Trump-style demagoguery being a real contender to one day lead the U.K.