Dear friends and associates across the pond.
I’ve noticed a great interest in Brexit among you in recent days. It’s a momentous event, so of course people who take an interest in current affairs should be interested. But it’s becoming evident to me from the tone of discussion, as well as in the articles that I see repeatedly shared as explanations of what is going on, that the subtext for at least some of your discussion is an attempt to read the tea leaves for your own presidential race, in particular where it concerns Trumpism.
I would like to suggest that Brexit is less useful as an analogy in this respect than might seem superficially the case. There are some commonalities, which I will discuss later, but at the risk of repaying your assumptions with some of my own about an American political context I am less than well-versed in I would like to suggest some of the ways in which the campaign for Britain to leave the EU emerges from and reflects a very different cultural and political context.
It is popular among the commentariat to characterise the vote for Brexit as an incoherent, logic-free howl of protest by ‘the left-behind’ against the elite. It is simply assumed that the EU is by definition a good thing, and that objections to it must therefore represent a nihilistic, under-educated anti-politics stance oriented more towards backlash than positive political change. It is hence less popular, at least among that substantial section of the media that is in favour of the EU, to explore the possibility that many of those objecting to the EU might actually have a case – let alone to explore what that case actually is.
The campaign for Britain to keep its distance from the European Union is as old as the European Union itself. Though it has often been painted as such by the prevailing consensus, it is not merely a hobby-horse for ideologues and eccentrics but (admittedly along with a share of eccentrics) a serious campaign with coherent arguments and a lengthy, thoughtful tradition, covering economic, cultural and constitutional issues. I will not attempt to sum these arguments up here, except to provide some links to places where the case is stated better than I could myself.
Brexit: The Movie is a 90-minute documentary created to put the case for leaving during the referendum campaign. It was crowdfunded and created outwith the official Vote Leave campaign by a coalition of long-term Brexit campaigners, and documents some of these well-established arguments for leaving the European Union. It makes the case for an open, globally-oriented free-market Britain trading not with the EU’s protectionist customs union but with the world as a whole.
Lexit: The Movie was less well-publicised, because created and released later in the campaign, but does a similar job reviewing and putting forward the left-wing case for leaving the European Union.
Elsewhere, this extended essay from the civil society think tank Civitas does a good job of setting out the history and development of the UK constitution, and the extent to which this settlement has been eroded by the radically different assumptions and priorities of the EU mode of government.
Finally, this campaign is not without proposals for the future. The long-running Brexit campaign has a well-developed proposal for a phased withdrawal from the institutions and acquis of the European Union – with the slightly ungainly name Flexcit – that sets out a pragmatic, de-risked and market-oriented process that, far from being a grand rupture, would see a staged separation between the UK and the European Union that optimised stability and positive relations on all sides.
While I am here at risk of myself projecting my own assumptions onto a political context with which I am not deeply familiar, it is not my impression that Trumpism has any equivalent long-term campaigning history, core arguments, political objectives or worked strategy for getting there. If I am wrong I would be grateful to learn more from you all about how and in what ways.
It scarcely bears repeating, but the islands that make up the British Isles have an ambivalent history with the European continent that stretches back some 2,000 years. From the Roman conquest of England to the Anglo-Saxon invasions that drove the Celts into the hills of Wales and Scotland, to the Anglo-Saxon fight under Alfred against the counter-invasion from Scandinavia, to the Norman conquest that added a Scandinavian/French aristocratic superstructure to a Saxon peasantry. The incursions of the English Crown into France in the Middle Ages, the combative race against other European nations to colonise the world through the early modern period, and the eventual English defeat of Napoleon’s attempt at a unified Europe. And of course the role played by Britain in ending another attempt to create a unified Europe, a century later, in the carnage of World War II – a continent-wide catastrophe that itself forms the backdrop for the creation of the European Union.
This essay is not interested in passing moral judgement on the events and interactions that form this narrative. But it is clear that the history of British relations with the countries of Europe is a complex, sometimes explosive blend of cultural interchange, invasion and counter-invasion, intermarriage, interaction, intervention and immigration. The guilt-ridden post-colonial narrative of this being ‘a mongrel island’ comprising influences from all these pasts chooses to highlight the cultural interchanges that have shaped the British Isles but tends to omit the conflicts that annealed that shape. It is at best perversely ahistorical, if not downright irresponsible, to attempt to understand the British cultural reaction to the steady encroachment of European Union governance onto these islands without reference to this deep history of interchange and ambivalence.
(It should be emphasised of course that the UK is not unique in this deep history, though our position as both culturally interwoven with but geographically distinct from Europe does give our perspective a particular tilt. But the presence of equally complex stories in nations across the continent helps to account both for the elite enthusiasm for the European project, and also the ambivalence of many ordinary Europeans to the same project.)
Returning to our theme of parallels (or their lack) between Trumpism and the Brexit movement, I struggle to see how equivalent issues of deep history and cultural memory might inform Trumpism, though again I would be grateful to be corrected on this front.
What the EU actually is, does, and aims to achieve. (The democratic case.)
It is far from clear to me what impression Americans in general have of the European Union. Indeed it is far from clear to me that many in the United Kingdom have more than the most superficial understanding of its operations, ambitions or relation to individual member states. The popular perception among many who support it seems to me to be of a sort of benign superstructure that guarantees certain rights, in some indefinable way makes foreign holidays cheaper and which generally encourages everyone to travel and be nice to one another. The slightly more detailed view perceives it as a trading bloc, permitting tariff-free commerce and harmonising regulations across a continent in order to ensure prosperity and mutual benefit all round.
But one need only read the European treaties to realise that the EU is none of these things – or at least to describe the EU as any of those things is a little like holding an elephant by the tail and describing it as being somewhat like a pencil. As trenchantly set out by Ben Kelly, the EU is not just a trading bloc and was never intended to be a democracy. Its ambition is to become a single federal state, and the slow accretion of treaties pushes each time inexorably in this direction: extending beyond trade into justice, foreign policy, law enforcement and immigration with the Maastricht Treaty, expanding to new territories with the Treaty of Amsterdam, further geographical expansion with the Treaty of Nice and effectively introducing a state constitution by the back door with the Treaty of Lisbon. The Five Presidents’ Report, the 2015 white paper that sets out the broad objectives for the next EU treaty, proposes in the interests of saving the eurozone from further crises to introduce further integration in areas as diverse as banking, tax, social security, company law and property rights, and replacing individual nations’ representation in key international bodies with a single EU representative.
Each of these changes requires what is described in the EU as ‘pooling sovereignty’. This euphemism in fact means the surrender of key national competencies to the supranational jurisdiction of the EU Institutions.
By analogy, the formation of the European Union is equivalent to inviting the United States to support the creation of a Pan-American Union, with a parliament situated – say – in Mexico City, and a stated ambition of creating a federal Americas bringing together the entire continent. This political construct could then grant freedom of movement for all the peoples from Canada through the United States to the nations of South America, to live and work wherever they liked in the Americas. These nations could then begin the process of harmonising tax, labour, property, social security and criminal justice practices under a single system, and like the other member states the USA would be required to give up the supremacy of its Supreme Court for a Pan-American Court whose job would be to enforce the terms of the Pan-American Treaties and any laws or directives emanating from the government in Mexico City.
Should someone suggest such a project, it is likely that objections would be widespread in the USA. It is also unlikely that those doing the objecting would be solely dispossessed blue-collar Americans. Indeed, should an observer from another continent seek to present the project as wholly benign, and those objecting as the illiberal, under-educated, backward-looking losers of globalisation’s great leap forward, it is likely that the mildest possible response to this interpretation would be that it might be worth considering the situation from a few different perspectives before drawing this conclusion.
Having said all of this, it cannot be denied that there is common ground between some aspects of the EU referendum moment and the rise of Trumpism. While the issues I have outlined briefly above represent a political and cultural context with (to my eye at least) no clear parallels across the Atlantic, it is also true that the long-running campaign to detach the UK from the European Union has been amplified by a growing gulf between the political elites that continue to drive European integration, and the populations of the countries they seek to integrate.
This has found its clearest outlet in protests against European freedom of movement, which for a minority has fanned the flames of xenophobia but which for many more represents a proxy issue for the loss of democratic control implied by ‘pooling sovereignty’, as well as impacting materially on the earning capacity of those at the unskilled end of the labour market. Additionally it has raised questions of identity, belonging and cultural cohesion that the elites who benefit most from freedom of movement, wedded as they are to a decontextualised New Left model of identity, are simply without the conceptual framework to address. In this highly contested field of globalisation, international trade, migration, community and identity there may well be some parallels between the angry proletariat that has mobilised for Brexit, and the angry American proletariat mobilising for Trump.
In summary, then: the case for Brexit is complex, well-established and coherent and – whatever you think of its merits – should not be mistaken for Anglo-Trumpism. However this is not to say that the British Isles is not also experiencing a revolt similar to the one that has propelled Trump so far into the presidential race. That said, I would be cautious about extrapolating this common ground too far, beyond saying that globalisation is (to be trite) a global phenomenon and it is probable that the proletarian pushback against its downsides has only just begun. It is my view that the European Union is one of many ways in which the global political order has been steadily adjusted over the last five decades or so, in the interests of an elite that benefits hugely from globalisation while externalising its many downsides, and that this adjustment has occurred in many ways at the expense of popular sovereignty. Those in countries with a tradition of democracy, but without any recourse to the corridors of power other than their vote, are rapidly waking up to the attenuation of that vote and are beginning to clamour for their franchise back. This is likely to lead to further upsets over the coming years.