“Keep Calm and Carry On” has proved little more than a fairytale facade as panicky Britons wholeheartedly embraced a toxic mix of nationalism, racism, and irrational rhetoric.
Yesterday, British voters opted to leave the European Union, the project with origins in a post-World War II desire to bind together the economies of European countries out of a classic liberal belief that states that traded with each other would not go to war against each other.
Britain was a latecomer to the EU's predecessor organizations (it joined the common market in 1973), but in 1975 its public voted by about 67% to remain a part of the expanding project. However, there were always dissenting voices, in the early days most notable on the left. Since the late-1980s, however, hostility toward the European Union manifested itself most frequently and violently within the right-wing of Britain's Conservative Party. Margaret Thatcher stoked a sense of British exceptionalism in the late-1980s that fed the "Eurosceptic" wing of her party, who held her successor John Major hostage for much of the 1990s.
Back in government since 2010, the Conservative Party's internal drama became the business of the nation and a continent. Anti-Europe hysteria helped to drive the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party. Powerless in the British parliament, UKIP sent representatives to the European parliament, and made the Conservatives worry that they were at risk of being outflanked on their far right. Prime Minister David Cameron pandered to his party's far right and promised a referendum on the question of Britain's EU membership.
During the campaign, he further relaxed control over his party, allowing some of its most charismatic and least responsible members to campaign for the British exit (Brexit). Cameron announced his resignation this morning, having failed to persuade the public to continue their country's productive participation in Europe, but he bears significant responsibility for the result that ended his premiership.
Not only has he pandered to the far right of his party, only realizing this morning that there are consequences for indulging extreme nationalists. His economic fundamentalism and crippling austerity have been responsible for creating conditions of economic uncertainty that left Britons more receptive to the xenophobic, racist, and jingoistic language of the pro-Brexit campaign.
Because although Britons parted way with most of their empire 60 years ago, the deep strain of racism and exceptionalism that was both essential to empire-building and a legacy of its position at the heart of Britain’s political-economy, remains strong. Britons were happy to take migrants from the former empire when they needed to staff their new public services in the aftermath of the Second World War, but have largely taken a harsher tone since.
The expansion of the EU and the opening of borders and markets within Europe created great anxiety about an influx of "scary" eastern Europeans. And Britons reacted churlishly to requests that they join other European states in taking in refugees from conflicts that they and the U.S. have generated and fueled with their neocolonial ambitions.
Brexit campaigners, backed by the most powerful and irresponsible media in the country, used racism, xenophobia, a narrative of British exceptionalism, and some highly dodgy economics to persuade the public to abandon the EU.
I would be the first to admit that the European project is deeply flawed. EU institutions (as opposed the consequences of EU policies) feel remote to many on the continent, can be highly undemocratic, have done great violence to small nations, too often embrace neoliberal economics, and have not successfully integrated political, social, and economic institutions.
But the EU has also facilitated human mobility; cross-continent connections between students and universities; funding and resources for research and development; regulations that however much they might offend some business leaders have real and positive consequences for people’s health, safety, and livelihoods; and the emergence of an identity that transcends poisonous and murderous nationalism.
In practical, economic terms, EU membership also made some sense for the British economy. While commentators are fussing over a plummeting Pound, longer-term economic consequences outside the realm of finance seem likely to be more serious.
A responsible campaign would have been for reform of the European Union. It would have targeted the still too unrepresentative nature of its governing bodies, its embrace of facets of economic neoliberalism, and similar features.
But the right-wing politicians who led the Brexit campaign made it about an exit rather than reform, and about an obsessive sovereignty rather than equality or the welfare of Britons and their fellow Europeans. UKIP and the Conservatives are in no way committed to policies of economic and social equality, and so they were in no position to criticize the EU from a point of principle.
They argued that they could follow a Norwegian model of strong ties to Europe with a greater degree of sovereignty. But it is easier to negotiate such favorable conditions while making a partial entry than while storming off in a huff. And Norway has recognized that it cannot reap benefits of EU ties without also making good on its responsibilities, whereas the entire logic of the Brexit campaign was to forswear British obligations to the EU. British voters might find that they can’t have their cake and eat it too.
Nor did they use reasoned arguments with any basis in fact. Their campaign was one of misinformation that pandered to the public’s basest instincts. Like the fascist demagogues on the rise in the United States, they made a series of claims with no relation to reality, repudiated fact-based knowledge, and relied on generating a panic.
The Brexit campaigners claimed that they would save 350 million pounds per week by Brexiting, and that they would throw all of this into Britain’s popular National Health Service. No sooner were the results clear last night than they were repudiating the claim.
Michael Gove, a British cabinet member who made his reputation as a man of sober (if unkind and often unreal) numbers, as a responsible technocrat, campaigned for the Brexit by comparing actual experts to the Nazis. In the aftermath of the vote, he crowed that the public have had enough of experts and their facts and reality-based policymaking.
Boris Johnson, the jingoistic, racist, lazy former mayor of London who is angling for the premiership, joined UKIP leader Nigel Farage in leading a campaign of shameless fearmongering. This morning Farage celebrated an “independence day” that had been won “without a single bullet being fired,” while Johnson predicted a glorious future after their collective rhetoric incited the deadly shooting and stabbing of a Labour member of parliament campaigning against the Brexit.
Like most historians, I’m wary of morning-after predictions. But the Brexit will have serious consequences for the economic circumstances of Britons, for the existence of the United Kingdom (Scottish voters preferred to stay within the EU and are likely to hold another referendum on their continued membership in the UK), and for the future of the EU and other transnational endeavors.
I hope it doesn’t spell the end of a European project which, however flawed, was based on the idea of larger forms of solidarity, cooperation, and socio economic progress.