Yes? No? Stay? Go? Two British academics argue about their country’s exit from the European Union.
What would Winston Churchill have said about Brexit? Photo: Kirsty Wigglesworth AP
We Brexit supporters have become accustomed to questions from our European friends about what’s gotten into us. "Have you gone mad?" "Don’t you like us anymore?" "How can you?"-in response to these naive, sometimes touching questions, I take a deep breath and try to be brief. It has nothing to do with disliking Europe. Many leading Brexiteers have close European ties. I myself have spent most of my professional life writing about France and teaching European history. I know Paris better than London, the Pyrenees better than the Highlands, Berlin better than Liverpool.
So how do you explain the Brexit? A common view is that the British – especially the English – are different. This is sometimes seen as praise (democratic, independent), sometimes as an accusation (isolationist, self-centered). One should be careful with essentialist explanations. One reason: The referendum result of 2016 led to a narrow majority. Another: attitudes toward the EU in the U.K. are not very different from those in France, Germany or Italy. The basic explanation for the Brexit is simple. First, we were allowed to vote on it. Second, we were not in the eurozone, otherwise we would certainly have voted for the EU for fear of financial upheaval.
It would be a mistake to see the Brexit as extremist or irrational. It is simply rational. Many continental Europeans, from their recent history, have an emotional attachment to the idea of a united Europe – we Brits, from the 20th century to the present. We are less traumatized by the twenty-first century and see it more as an economic relationship. If it’s no longer of any use to us, why stay in it?
Our economic ties with the eurozone are important, but their importance is declining. We trade less with the EU than any other member state, but our exports to non-EU countries are growing thirteen times faster than those to European Union countries. The regulated, protectionist single market is not beneficial to the UK economy as a whole. Free movement of people means income stagnation, fiercer competition for jobs, and housing shortages. A simple free trade agreement with Europe would allow us to negotiate disruption-free trade with more dynamic global markets.
But the fact that we voted to leave in 2016 wasn’t enough for Brussels. Danes, Dutch, Irish, French, Italians and Greeks have all voted against EU policies at one time or another, and all were persuaded or forced to change their minds again. Many thought we would too, and did their best to make that happen.
For me and many others, this became the central point. Were we still a democracy and an independent country, or was that a facade? Every political party had endorsed the 2016 referendum. In the 2017 election, Labour and the Conservatives both promised to respect the result. But as time went on, it became increasingly clear that they did not respect it, and that they were even planning to reverse the original result. The threat to the legitimacy of our polity was obvious. Our status as a sovereign nation deciding its own future was at stake. A large part of the elite – in politics, business, the media, universities – refused to accept a democratic mandate.
It could not be allowed to happen. And despite anti-Brexit propaganda, it was not allowed. If common sense and enlightened self-interest prevail, Brexit will not be a disaster, economically or politically. We want to trade with the EU on an equal footing. We will still contribute more than average to Europe’s defense and security – British troops in the Baltics will remain, and our intelligence services should continue to benefit our European allies. In the future, we will align our policies less with Europe-what else would we build two huge new aircraft carriers for? -but we will remain a European nation.
Stay or go? In 1975, Margaret Thatcher campaigned to stay in the EEC Photo: PA Wire Archive/dpa
Brexit strengthens cohesion in the UK, which is why nationalists in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales hate it. Unintentionally or not, the EU encourages separatists like in Catalonia – as long as the UK is part of the EU, Scottish nationalists can imagine emulating Slovenia or Luxembourg; after Brexit, an independent Scotland would not be viable.
No doubt: for the "European project" of the 1950s, Brexit is a historic failure. But it is in everyone’s interest to build friendly cooperation in the future and end the antagonism that some EU politicians have promoted for more than three years.
Robert Tombs is emeritus professor of French history at Cambridge University and author, among other books, of ‘The English and Their History’
Why should we just accept the doom called Brexit? A treacherous government and a characterless opposition have simply ignored the fact that the majority of Britons do not want Brexit at all. Leaving the EU is a huge, self-imposed trade sanction, it damages good social policy, and it destroys freedoms. It takes away rights from people, opportunities from the young, and it impoverishes a socially unfair state. The maudlin 50 pence commemorative coins that read "Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations" proclaim the biggest lies of Tory governments since the Brexit referendum.
England today is a misogynistic place where a few winners get everything. The stench of a system corrupt to its core is becoming increasingly unbearable: the gap between rich and poor, between the privileged and the unprotected, the disparity between regions, the contractual poverty in the low-wage sector, the sense of entitlement in the monarchy. The electoral system embodies – and reinforces – inequality. MPs roar on the parliamentary benches to silence dissent.
But can the government really trust that disenchanted Millennials, who grew up in the era of austerity, will not doubt the pretense of good governance?
The "new" government is pompous and gloating. It dismisses its responsibility for dividing this inherently tolerant island. Instead of hunting down the cheats who line their pockets at the expense of the general public, it demands subservience, commands allegiance, and complacently ducks away should the people express doubts. The trick is: You wanted this, didn’t you?
But why destroy opportunities for young people just because the old people wanted it, most of whom never want to or will travel abroad? If they had any idea about world politics, would they still believe the nonsense that Britain can become great again, when instead only the privileged and the rogue will retain freedoms and international influence? The young and the informed of all ages are ashamed of this.
But British school leavers know too little about their own politics and society; they lack knowledge of how majorities are formed, how government, parliament, local government function and how political decisions are reached, how an independent judiciary works, or what lies behind human rights enshrined in law. Young Britons know even less about how democracy is practiced and protected in Europe; there is also too little education about the EU.
Many people, up to middle age, have never voted. Out of shame or desperation, they defend their attitude of refusal, not realizing that they are empowering governments to turn their backs on them. Indifference and provincialism often in reality conceal a sense of powerlessness in the face of a government that says one thing and does the opposite without any consequences.
But can the government really trust that disenchanted Millennials, who grew up in the era of austerity, will not doubt the pretense of good government? Do they seriously need to follow the orders of their masters simply because their expectations are low and they feel contempt for a system that excludes them from any opportunities and ideas for the future?
Calls for electoral reform are not based solely on the desire to have the distribution of seats in Parliament fairly reflect the distribution of votes. It is also about more justice and the desire to create consensus in political decision-making. The British electoral system is designed for confrontation. It embodies a class society in which wealth, no matter how it is acquired, secures entitlements and power. Why should a government bother to build consensus when targeted micro-voting with bots is enough to produce "democratic" will? Why even pretend that a government wants the best for the people?
The Brexit exposed this fraud of a flimsy minority democracy. Why are MEPs, EU, European parliamentarians playing in this game of lies and destruction? It is time to clean out the pigsty. Britain belongs to the EU and will rejoin.
But the EU must also recognize that Britain has shown its sore spot. Brexit is a challenge to which the EU must respond. It must politicize the apolitical, who see no difference between a parliamentary election and voting in a TV show. It must empower the vigilant who realize how their personal data is being misused for private profit. Brexit is a warning to us all.
Juliet Lodge is a founding member of the Women for Europe group and former director of the Center for European Studies at the University of Leeds.