British voters recently voted to leave the European Union (EU)—the largest single-market trade pact on earth—by a 52% to 48% margin. It was a clear majority and may be the most important non-violent, international political act of the century. The day after, the British currency suffered its worst single-day loss in the history of the Empire and stock markets closed on average 3% down. The markets have rebounded already, but Sterling is still suffering from a loss of confidence.
Commentators who regularly tout the inherent goodness of free trade were quick to defend the sovereign voice of the people. The “Leave” campaign was founded on sovereignty. A majority of voters believe they have ceded control to a bureaucracy in Brussels. To be sure an organization of 28 sovereign states—they still are—drives a slogging bureaucracy. The truth is, however, no state was given more deference in Brussels than the UK.
The UK was a reluctant entrant to the EU in 1993 and its predecessor, the EEC, twenty years before. It casts a cautious eye on Europe’s tendencies toward integration and national disassociation. There is long-standing fraternal animosity born of centuries of royal rivalry, and it is wary of a history of military competition among its continental cousins. Surely a part of its reluctance reflected that it once ruled most of the world under an empire without equal in history. As such its entry was negotiated with various off-ramps, exclusions, and special rules. It did not join the Euro, yet it maintained an exalted position among other powerhouses who did. It was not, contrary to “Leave” champions, subject to the EU’s immigration policies as related to refugees though many millions of Europeans live, work, and contribute to the UK economy under EU freedom of movement policy just as many UK citizens live throughout the rest of Europe and contribute to other nations’ economies as well as the UK’s. The truth is Great Britain continued to exercise its sovereignty throughout its existence in the EU.
“Brexit,” as this vote has been called, offers Americans two lessons in the nature of democracy. The first is that nativism and populism are often stoked on half-truths and outright falsehoods. “Leave” leaders, “Brexiteers” in media-speak, are slowly walking back promises and talking points. They campaigned on diverting the £350M per week the UK supposedly pays the EU to the national healthcare system instead. The number according to The Economist is closer to £250M and nets £115M when EU subsidies and payments to the UK are accounted for. On British Sunday talk shows Nigel Farage and Iain Duncan Smith, two Brexiteers, said separately that the promise was a mistake and an “extrapolation.” Farage said on Fox News that the downturn of Sterling and stocks had nothing to do with the vote. This is the kind of economic know-how that strenuously urged Brits to leave the world’s largest stable single market. Many leaders deny anti-immigrant fervor drove votes, though polls by Ipsos MORI clearly showed immigration policy to be a major issue. On BBC Radio following the vote, “Leave” campaigner Nigel Evans would not give a straight answer on whether immigration could be “brought down” by Brexit. As a side note, Farange resigned this week as head of the UK Independence Party saying that he wanted his “life back.” After helping commit his countrymen to years of economic turmoil, he needs some time to just be him. As they say in the British Isles, how quaint. While these purposeful attempts to mislead British voters are all disturbing, the second lesson is more disconcerting.
Voters’ sometimes vote against their own best interests. Theories of Economics assume individuals, corporations, financial institutions, and governments—from micro to macro—are rational actors, i.e. they will always do whatever is in their best interest. Brexit proves that such is not the case with regard to an electorate. Geographically, “Leave” voters came from English industrial and rural areas hit the hardest by globalization and the depletion of natural resources, something neither voter anger nor a resurgence of sovereignty will ever bring back. “Remain” strongholds were in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and the British diaspora, all of whom have their own tenuous relationships within the UK, itself a conglomeration of different nations cobbled together over time for economic reasons. Those relationships may not survive this particular burst of interest in sovereignty. Metropolitan areas, particularly London which is one of the world’s great financial centers, also went strongly to “Remain” in the EU. Demographically, “Remain” voters were younger, well educated, middle to higher income, Northern Irish, Scots, and citizens of international descent. “Leave” voters were older, low to middle-income, and less educated English men and women. “Leave” voters then had the most to lose with the uncertainty, inevitable trade barriers, and increased competition involved in leaving the European single market, having previously failed to retool to the new and very real economy occurring under globalization. Pub conversations across the industrial north and rural south no doubt were filled with laments that they had already lost to a world clearly outpacing them. Then too there is growing evidence, purely anecdotal at this point and not at all statistically significant, that some “Leave” voters wished only a protest vote thinking a majority would vote to stay in the Union and save them from themselves. This might explain the starkest example of voters casting ballots against their interests.
Cornwall, a picturesque county on England’s southern coast that is also one of its poorest, receives £60M every year in subsidies from the EU. These go primarily toward infrastructure and education, and the county would not function well without them. A majority of the county’s Members of Parliament and 56% of its citizens voted to leave. Realizing now what they’ve done, their MPs are vowing to ensure those subsidies are a top priority of negotiators in talks that will sever Britain’s ties with the EU. Best of luck with that.
While all of this is a clear indictment of voter knowledge, very smart people can also be caught up in moments of great import where sovereignty is supposedly at stake. George Will, a Washington Post columnist, cheered the vote for British “nationhood” and the recapture of one of the world’s great power’s sovereignty. He said, the “Remain” campaigners offered no compelling, fact-based argument and voters rejected them. It is ironic for a man who has unaffiliated himself with his long-time party because populist voters decided on a presidential nominee he cannot support to, in turn, toast the same kind of populist uprising across the Atlantic. It is now clear that he is also wrong. It was the group of Brexiteers who offered no compelling, fact-based arguments to leave. It was they who offered no plan beyond the vote itself, who have distanced themselves from their own promises, and who have begun to say there is no rush to invoke the article that will begin the great European divorce. Why not, if leaving is such an imperative? It is their leaders, who have shrunk from the responsibility that comes with leading such a movement, one by one falling away and refusing to bring to conclusion the cataclysm they have wrought. They offered only a fiction without any plan for what they might do if too many people believed them. Most unfortunately and apparently to their great surprise, a majority of voters backed them. They did what all cowards do. After talking the big game because they could not conceive that what they asked might actually occur, they backtracked or simply ran away. There is clearly a lesson for voters there too.
Populism and nativism rarely lead to improved political or economic order, since they are built on emotion rather than the factual bases of well-honed policy. These appeals to emotion are troubling because large numbers of voters can be persuaded to vote against their interests. When that happens there is no mandate, only ambiguity in the disconnect between desires and actions. We cannot succumb to the idea that the people have spoken in a clear voice. On the one hand we must question voters’ motives. On the other, we remain bound by their decisions so democracy may survive. To temper such outcomes an electorate must educate itself, attempting to restore the rational actor, and disavow emotion and the sense of loss for a past it cannot change. There is no place for protest votes founded on illusory nostalgia. Votes, and the elections they decide, have very real consequences. Let these be the lessons we draw from the precipice the UK’s citizens have freely, though without understanding, chosen.