Like most everyone else this weekend, I’ve got Brexit on my mind. It’s been years since my last visit to England, so I have zero sense of how things feel there. But here in Paris, I’m at least near the action (on Friday the Paris stock market actually fell more dramatically than London’s), and the professors I hang around with tend to lead Euro-influenced lives– lots of EU-sponsored cross-border conferences and research projects, students from all over, a Europe-wide academic job market. The EU has become a big part of university life, even for non-Europeans like me.
So it’s on my mind, but here “on my mind” doesn’t translate as “having a clear-cut stance.” Even three days after the voting, I still can see reasons for going either way– and that’s before you get to the fact that the real impact won’t be known for years. Take this post as a first effort to think it all through.
Of course, the first stop in any thinking-through has to be acknowledging the sleaze factors in the campaign. Could any Brexiteer really feel good about voting with the likes of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, and Michael Gove? Hours after the results were in, these guys were already explaining how they didn’t really mean it about some of their big campaign promises (like, that leaving the EU would save Britain a ton of money, which they’d put straight into the National Health Service). But then you look at the other side, and you’ve got the unspeakable, over-privileged David Cameron leading the Remain side, with back-up contributions from Tony Blair (whose consulting firm takes millions from regimes like Kazakhstan, not to mention his part in the Iraq War) and Germany’s Wolfgang Schaüble (last seen enthusiastically pushing Greece into poverty). The sleaze roughly balances out.
But sleazy leadership isn’t the only component of the “look at those guys on the other side” argument– we’ve also heard lots about the voters’ sociology, especially that of the pro-Brexit voters. The basic line is, Brexit appealed to the old, the under-educated, the less successful, and the non-metropolitans. (For outstanding analysis, check out the stories here and here; that’s where the numbers below come from.) On the other side, the fast-track hotspots voted overwhelmingly to remain: Oxford by 70 percent, Cambridge 74 percent, central London about 75 percent. It’s no surprise what lots of commentators make of these statistics. Brexit, they’re telling us, is a typical populist backlash, the squawk of those trying to preserve the old ways in a changing world, those non-U rubes who think they can stop progress and don’t like living in a racially-diverse society.
Now, it’s easy to find blood-curdling xenophobic/racist rhetoric among the Brexit voters; and apparently now that rhetoric is merging with xenophobic/racist actions. But when at least half of your country finds itself this unhappy with how things are playing out, isn’t it a little lame to explain it all in terms of white anxiety, anti-modernism, and loser-dom resentment? Shouldn’t you worry when half your society feels strongly that it’s getting screwed? Shouldn’t you have worried even if the Brexiteers had lost?
Questions like that get sharper when you look more closely at the post-election data. Take the “oldsters = Brexiteers” correlation. Sure, apparently 60 percent of the over-sixty-fives voted to leave– but then it turns out, the great divide in Thursday’s vote actually started at age forty-five: 56 percent of those in the forty-five to fifty-four age slice voted leave; even in the thirty-five-forty-four group, Brexit got 48 percent of the vote. In other words, we’re talking about responsible adults, right in their prime working years, people with homes, families, and jobs. The Brexiteers weren’t just pensioners hoping to bring back the good old days of the British Empire.
In fact maybe it’s worth turning that stereotype around, and asking whether doubts about European imperial grandeur didn’t play some role in the Brexit vote– because a big theme in the EU’s recent history has been relentless eastward expansion, with all the costs and risks that usually go with expansionist foreign policies. Having absorbed Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria, the EU is already right up against the Russian border, and there are possibilities of going farther still, say by including Turkey.
That expansionist streak goes with some pretty imperial-sounding rhetoric. As one example, consider the Oxford historian/public intellectual/Guardian columnist Timothy Garton Ash, who in yesterday’s column described the Brexit vote as “the biggest defeat of my political life.” What the column doesn’t mention is, Ash has spent the last couple of years aggressively touting the EU’s civilizing mission, especially in the Ukraine. Back in September 2014, he wrote “The European Union must develop a 10-year plan for Ukraine. This plan will also define what Europe itself will be a decade hence… If it succeeds, a characteristically European version of liberal order will have prevailed over the conservative, nationalist recipe for permanent, violent disorder represented by Vladimir Putin. If it fails, Europe fails again.” (For a another version of this line, check out the prominent Labour Party MP Hilary Benn’s statements here. For a more neutral overview of all the places the EU is involved with, see here.)
I’m not saying the Brexiteers had all this in mind when they voted. But they certainly had grounds for wondering what kind of project the EU is, and whether it’s what they actually signed up for when Britain joined. I mean, a ten-year program for remaking the Ukraine? Really?? What if you have doubts about installing Europe’s “liberal order” world-wide? What if you’d just rather use that money back home, say on the National Health Service?
There are plenty of yahoos on the Brexit side, but there are also heavy-duty political issues here, and they deserve serious treatment.