For American liberals, the European Union is a bastion of social justice, secular humanism, and civic virtue. Taxed gratefully into equality, its subjects spend their days recycling kefir containers and protecting the realm from genetically modified foods. Only this wise, collegial institution prevents a recrudescence of World War II. After Bush v. Gore and Trump, it’s to this land of milk and honey—or crème fraîche and Cointreau—that disgusted Democrats have threatened to decamp, although my compatriots rarely seem to go. That may be fortunate. Fantasies rarely survive close scrutiny.
For it’s more the case that the EU is a bloated bureaucracy packed with pampered timeservers inventing gratuitous regulations to justify their sinecures. A fine idea when first conceived as a free-trade bloc, the profligate, power-hungry body has warped into a centralizing political project without asking the irrelevant little peons it governs whether they want a federated Europe. Originally meant to mutually benefit a handful of similarly scaled economies, the now unwieldy alliance has since absorbed a plethora of far poorer countries and is thus also evolving into a transfer union—to many a German’s dismay.
The EU is antidemocratic by design; as the popularly elected European Parliament cannot originate legislation, its most considerable expenditure must be crate after crate of rubber stamps. Brussels’s vaunted “freedom of movement” would be a pleasing arrangement as an exchange of labor—a British engineer moves to France, a French carpenter moves to the United Kingdom—but is unworkable when migration gushes all one way. It is NATO that keeps peace in Europe. During the slow-motion car crash of the euro, the EU is more a source of discord. Should the UK’s departure prompt some soul-searching humility, even a rethink about the EU’s ultimate ambition to subjugate and effectively abolish the European nation-state, having one of its largest and oldest members walk out could theoretically do the high-handed cabal a world of good.
Yet American coverage of the surprise victory for Vote Leave in the UK’s 2016 referendum was aghast. The bigoted barbarians had overrun Buckingham Palace with pitchforks and torches. Curiously, my compatriots rarely consider that we’d not want our country to join an autocratic bloc whose laws and courts supersede our own. (Well . . . maybe we would just now.)
A UK resident for three decades, I doggedly out myself at London dinner parties as a Leave supporter—though I might skate safely on the chummy assumption that of course, as a halfway sane person, I backed Remain. I’m surely pitied and deplored behind my back, for even face-to-face I’m regarded as an exotic if slightly repellent zoo specimen. Declaring myself here is bound to have the same effect or worse. Yet perhaps, as a rare bird of a different color amid the monochrome flock of American columnists writing about Brexit (“economic suicide,” according to Thomas Friedman), I will at least offer up another happy occasion for recreational contempt.
I lived for a dozen years in Belfast. Questioning daily why I gave a toss about arcane Troubles politics, I clung to what was really at stake: whether terrorism paid off. As I’ve watched Brexit grind on, what seems increasingly at stake is whether democracy pays off.
Even if EU membership is indeed an economic advantage, is a higher GDP worth the price: the spectacle, conducted on an international stage, of the people’s will in a democracy coldly defied? I don’t think the answer is obvious.
With 73 percent of Parliament having supported Remain during the campaign, Brexit has been awkward from the get-go. Parliament delivered a decision to the people. The people gave the wrong answer. Ever since, Parliament has been trying to take the decision back. After all, what happens when you ask powerful people to do something they don’t want to do? They don’t do it.
The effort to subvert the electoral verdict really took off with the ingenious contrivance of the “hard” and “soft” Brexit, when the choice on the ballot was binary. The referendum itself did not present the option of “leave sort of but not really.” These textural distinctions never arose during the campaigns, and only became common currency once the incorrect vote was in.
As branding, the “hard” and “soft” polarity is inspired. Softness calls up kindness, compassion, agreeable toilet paper, and bunny rabbits. Hardness evokes obduracy, mercilessness, uncomfortable seating, and extremism—e.g., “hard right.” At a stroke, anyone advocating actually leaving the European Union—hitherto known as a Leave voter—was an intransigent kook from the reactionary fringe. Thus 52 percent of the electorate was neatly exiled to beyond the pale. Advocates of a “soft” Brexit—such continuing entanglement with the EU as to make the whole fandango of “leaving” utterly pointless—are Remainers in Groucho glasses.
Most Remainers have never accepted the referendum result. Like the American press, British Europhiles immediately pilloried Leavers as racist for wanting to control their own immigration laws, though the immigrants to whom EU membership was germane were preponderantly white. Critics declared that representative democracies should never hold referendums, an argument Remainers never advanced in the days when they assumed they would win. Wishing the referendum had never been run became a form of magical thinking, as if marshaling sufficient regret could un-run the poll. Insults hurled at Leave voters—impugning the capacity of these half-wits and moral misfits to evaluate complex issues that were over their heads—echoed historical arguments against women’s suffrage and the enfranchisement of the working class.
Fatally for Leavers, after David Cameron fell on his sword, Conservatives selected a party leader who’d supported Remain, and who as prime minister would therefore spearhead an extraction that she didn’t believe in. Oh, to start, Theresa May talked a good game, eternally perseverating, “Brexit means Brexit!”—a mantra that, tellingly, quite vanished from her speeches by last summer. Like the name of the lobbying group Leave Means Leave, the tautology suggests insecurity over the government’s commitment to honoring the referendum. Otherwise Brexit would clearly mean Brexit, right?
The claim that British broadcasters, not least the BBC, have consistently displayed a Remain bias is barely even controversial. News anchors eagerly embraced the hard and soft paradigm, and have constantly referred to the UK’s departure without a deal first as “crashing out,” a train-wreck expression that blithely assumes the conclusion.
Pundits and politicians alike have argued for neutering the referendum result because Leavers didn’t have all the facts, had been misled by their politicians, and “didn’t know what they were voting for”—allegations that could probably be made about most electorates in the world. Multiple parliamentarians have asserted knowingly that “no one voted to be poorer!”—although when polled in 2017, more than 60 percent of Leave voters were willing to accept “significant damage” to the British economy in return for political independence, and nearly 40 percent would even accept losing their jobs. Besides, if unintended consequences were grounds for invalidating a vote, we’d have to nullify most elections, or simply stop bothering to hold them to begin with.
Despite the tough “Brexit means Brexit!” rhetoric, Theresa May sent an ardent Remainer civil servant to negotiate with Brussels, from whose key decisions her pro-Leave “Brexit secretary” was often excluded, and two Brexit secretaries in a row resigned in dismay over the direction the negotiations were headed. At every vital juncture, she has accepted the EU’s terms and often ludicrous underlying assumptions—most lethally, that the UK is responsible for devising arrangements on the Irish Republic’s side of its border with Northern Ireland and that so much as a camera on that border is the end of the world. The resultant withdrawal deal overwhelmingly rejected by Parliament in January entailed a high degree of regulatory alignment, continued subjection to the European Court of Justice, the sacrifice of £39 billion with no strings attached, and potential entrapment in an EU customs union literally forever, with no mechanism of escape beyond “Mother, may I?” No wonder May has also stopped reciting the aphorism from her party’s 2017 manifesto, “No deal is better than a bad deal.”
In the political pandemonium following January’s legislative rejection of May’s withdrawal deal, all the soft, softer, and softest options entertained were so close to de facto EU membership as to make the whole exercise a farce. The one scalp the prime minister waved to the public was an end to EU freedom of movement. Yet among Leave voters, only 22 percent endorsed her deal, and 58 percent didn’t believe it respected the referendum—belying the notion that Leavers care solely about immigration.
As for still another referendum, it might sound democratic. If some voting is good, then surely more voting is better? The EU has a history of making electorates go back to the polls until they get their minds right. But early this year, Britons believed by 47 percent to 39 percent that a second referendum was antidemocratic. The sole purpose of a so-called People’s Vote—a tag both bizarre and insulting; I’m sorry, but who voted last time?—is to overturn the 2016 result. (Only one in eight Leavers would countenance a do-over. Even if Leave support were unflagging, the question could be rigged—by splitting the Leave vote, or by taking an authentic departure off the ballot.) It’s even argued that because some older Leave voters have died and younger Remain supporters have come of age, the vote must be run again. But that logic sets a dodgy precedent. Close elections would be reenacted continually if the votes of dead people didn’t count.
Yet here’s a radical proposition: maybe Brexit, however it ends up, isn’t as important as it’s made out to be. Like many a protracted contest, Brexit long ago became crudely about who wins. Leavers thought they won in 2016, only to find the implementation of that triumph entailed yet another fight. But are the consequences of which faction prevails really so momentous? While the short term could involve disruption, in the big picture the UK would probably manage well enough outside the EU; England as an independent nation goes back a thousand years, its union with Scotland three hundred. Likewise, after participating in the European project for forty-seven years, the UK would endure bravely, I dare say, through forty-eight. Even a proper UK departure from the EU was never going to topple the bloc.
By embracing the campaign motto “Take Back Control,” Leavers were chasing a feeling. Yes, they hoped to tap the brakes on mass immigration, but the majority of UK incomers are from outside the EU. Leavers were more broadly motivated to restore British sovereignty, and so to revive national pride and a bolshie islander independence. It was gratifying to refuse to vote as they were told to.
For Remainers, the referendum was also emotional, and also concerned with identity. They were sophisticated Europeans, not “Little Englanders.” (Do my compatriots ever refer to “Little Americans”?) Emulating the very haughtiness that puts their opponents off about their friends in Brussels, Remainers have been driven by a sense of superiority, a certainty that they are right (I’ve often allowed that on Brexit I might be wrong; I’ve never heard a Remainer say the same), and a disgust that these ignorant troglodytes could be allowed to victimize the whole population. Remainers have been intoxicated by a messiah complex. Their nation’s very survival being at stake more than justifies attempting to overturn the biggest electoral exercise in British history.
Yet as a thought experiment, let’s give each faction what it wants.
1. The UK cuts all institutional ties with the EU. Street parties in Leave constituencies festoon pedestrianized town centers with bunting. Cakes are iced with Union Jacks. Breweries release commemorative batches of Freedom Ale. Stands hawk the tacky gilded coffee mugs of the sort produced for royal weddings.
But most victories are fleeting. Once the paper flags are swept up, most of these voters’ lives aren’t faintly improved. They may have resented the bureaucracy in Brussels, but the British invented bureaucracy. Being clobbered by regulations from Westminster (whose tax code is twelve times the length of the King James Bible) proves little different from being hit over the head by the EU’s common rule book. Since tweezing EU diktats from domestic legislation is like picking crabmeat, Parliament keeps most EU laws on the books anyway. Money is still tight. The weather still sucks. Marriages still founder. When anything subsequently goes wrong, whether politically, logistically, or economically, Leavers get the blame, including for what would have gone wrong without Brexit. The party sliding to hangover, that stirring sensation of emancipation subsides.
Meanwhile, stewing in antipathy, resentment, and self-pity, Remainers plot to rejoin. Any fallout short of the apocalypse they predicted is annoying.
2. Either BRINO (Brexit in Name Only) is locked in or the referendum is overturned outright. Remainers are smug, not to mention sniffy about submitting to so much turmoil only to sustain the status quo. But arch self-congratulation and palpable relief rapidly evaporate. History doesn’t stand still, and EU membership offers no safe harbor. Another, truly epic Mediterranean migration crisis, say, may oblige Britain to accept a large share of new arrivals, despite a crippling shortage of housing. Or fiscal collapse in Italy may force the UK to help bail out foreign banks on a ruinous scale.
But here I challenge my own thesis:
For Leavers, the perfidy kicks off nationwide consternation. As the UK nestles back into the European fold, dissenting commentators warn feverishly that the double cross will foster a catastrophic breach of public trust in democracy. These threats consistently sound hollow, like the Big Bad Wolf vowing to huff and puff and blow a little pig’s house in when the abode is made of brick. That’s what Remainers had figured out years earlier: widespread embitterment doesn’t matter. Democracy never works all that well; votes are always diluted to the point of absurdity, like the active ingredients in homeopathic cures. The populace is always disillusioned with politicians. So big whoop. A citizenry that doesn’t believe in the legitimacy of its own elections affects neither democracy nor a sham of a democracy.
But Brexit-Schmexit might have electoral consequences. Should the Tories own the betrayal, incandescent Leavers could put Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in power by default. Lo, a Marxist prime minister poses a graver threat to Britain’s well-being than Brexit ever did. To accommodate the scale of capital flight, they could finally have to build that third runway at Heathrow.
Yet this isn’t France. Disgruntled voters don’t burn cars and smash up Oxford Street. Earlier this year, the comment pages of the Tory Telegraph predicted that forsaken Brexiteers would: park in the wrong place; burn driver’s licenses; buy yellow jackets; carry placards; cancel their BBC television licenses; pay council tax late (but not withhold it altogether), or even pay the tax in person—in pennies. Ooh-ooh.
In all probability, they don’t even risk a parking ticket. The British are a biddable people, easily cowed by authority. Roundly deceived, defeated Leavers still pay their taxes on time—no pennies.