On Thursday, the citizens of the United Kingdom chose, by a slim majority, to withdrawal from the European Union. Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to the referendum due to mounting pressure from members within his own Conservative Party, who chafed at the various rules imposed by the EU and viewed the costs of membership (monetary and otherwise) as outweighing the benefits. Of particular salience was the desire to regain control of the Great Britain’s borders, especially with regard to economic migration.
Cameron supported Britain’s remaining in the EU. Yesterday he made the painful decision that he could no longer lead the UK, given the newly established mandate. He agreed to step down as Prime Minister by the fall. His concession speech was remarkable for its grace and humility, at great contrast to the whining petulance we often hear from U.S. politicians when their agenda does not succeed.
And yet despite the fact that this vote occurred overseas and under parliamentary processes, there are significant parallels to U.S. politics.
First and foremost are the similarities between the arguments made by the “Vote Leave” campaign and the strains of populism, nationalism, and isolationism that the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns have both harnessed. There is a vast distrust of globalization from both sides of our political spectrum. Trump specifically has gained support from working class voters whose wages have stagnated over the last decade, whose job prospects have diminished due to automation and global trade, and who feel that the policy elites in their own party have ignored them for too long.
The “Vote Leave” campaign was noticeable in its rejection of economic experts, who foretold of grave consequences for British and global markets. (1) This mirrors a disturbing trend in American discourse, as politicians and voters alike dismiss expert opinion, whether on climate change, foreign policy, or the safety of immunizations and genetically modified food.
Second is the unreliability of polls. Prior to the vote, the polling data suggested a win by the “Remain” camp. Yet the numbers indicate that likely “Exit” voters were less likely to answer candidly when asked face-to-face or via phone call than when they responded to anonymous Internet surveys. A similar dynamic is at work with potential Trump voters, calling into question the current lead that Clinton holds in national polls. Further, “Vote Leave” gained victory despite a divided UK Conservative party. Democrats in the U.S. who assume that the disarray in the Republican Party will automatically translate into electoral defeat may be dismayed come November.
Finally, the Brexit vote once again demonstrates the perils of direct democracy in the form of voter referendums. (2) By their very nature, such ballot questions must distill complex policy considerations with into grossly simplified yes or no questions. (“Should I Stay or Should I Go?”, to quote the Clash.)
The irony is that such a simply stated choice will ultimately result in an extremely complex policy process. Withdrawal in and of itself will be a two-year process. But beyond that, the UK must now renegotiate the myriad policy agreements that were painstakingly worked out over decades of integration into the EU. Scotland, whose population overwhelmingly voted to remain in the UK, will see its independence movement reenergized. Voters in Northern Ireland demonstrated a similar preference and may very well seek to reopen the discussion of reunification with the south. Whether that would ultimately be a peaceful process remains to be seen.
Robert Wright, in his powerful book “Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny”, writes that even as the world grows complex, we experience- at the personal and national level- a drive toward greater cooperation and problem solving that is inherent in the cultural evolution of the human species. Ultimately it was up to the voters of Great Britain, and well within their rights, to determine the cost-benefit analysis of staying within the EU. But it certainly feels like a large step back from the forward progress of global integration and cooperation that’s occurred over the last century, a process that in the aggregate has been overwhelmingly positive. Time will tell if the “Brexit” vote will lead to a greater global unraveling. I for one certainly hope not.
Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense.
(1) The British pound has subsequently crashed to its lowest levels in 31 years
(2) California Proposition 8 is an obvious example. Madison’s classic “Federalist No. 10” remains the quintessential treatise on the benefits of representative democracy.