I recently saw an American play in London called “Sweat,” written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Lynn Nottage. It was performed previously on and off Broadway and was described by the Wall Street Journal as a play that helped to explain Donald Trump’s election as president.
Nottage had spent some time talking to the residents of a poor city in Pennsylvania which was losing jobs and its modest prosperity because of the contraction of the steel industry. Competition from cheaper manufacturers and lower-paid workers around the world had devastated an already-weak economy and provoked conflict between friends, relatives, and races.
Economically marginalized workers were also feeling culturally beleaguered. The world in which they had grown up – its values and fixed identity – was, it seemed to them, being systematically trashed. They turned – not necessarily in the expectation of answers – to a billionaire outsider who, unlike the political elites, had not yet let them down and appeared to share their contempt for the establishment.
Some politicians and commentators have sought to explain the vote for Brexit in the United Kingdom along similar lines. But while economic grievances and a generalized hostility to immigration and the political establishment help to explain the results of the 2016 referendum, they are far from a complete explanation.
The first thing to note is that while only a minority of Labour voters chose to leave the European Union, a large majority of Conservative voters in well-off areas outside London did so, as the newspapers they mostly read advised. Today, moreover, the anti-European virus in the Conservative Party membership has spread widely – though, given the paucity of Conservative members, this has not involved a very long journey.
As their numbers have fallen, Conservative Party members have moved increasingly to an English nationalist view of the world. That is not unusual. When a political party’s active membership declines, its views become more extreme, and a spiral begins: as the party becomes more extreme, membership falls further, fueling greater extremism, and so on.
Conservative Party membership has also become older. One wag recently said that virtually all Conservative activists could fit into Wembley Stadium, though they might have difficulty with the steps.
While the majority of older voters backed Brexit, the young voted overwhelmingly to stay. Gloomy forecasts have calculated that death and the arrival of new young voters on the electoral register have already demolished the majority support for leaving the EU. That calculation does not include what is now a perceptible shift in attitudes in favour of Remain.
It also seems significant that a majority of Anglican church members voted to leave, and that Leavers were likely to live outside London and to be English. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted heavily to remain. I suspect that what we have witnessed is less a feeling of economic insecurity than a sense that times have changed in a way that older, Conservative nationalists do not like.
For years after World War II, the British – and especially the English – were aware of the palpable shift in the country’s fortunes. But there was a deep aversion to accepting the UK’s diminished status. We had been a great imperial power, whose economic and political authority had been waning since the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet we were still capable of great things. Under Winston Churchill’s leadership, we played a major role in defeating fascism. But, despite Churchill’s own somewhat ambivalent attempts to teach us to adjust to a new European role in the world, we continued to see ourselves as a bigger power than we were.
Churchill himself was reluctant to say that the days of Britain’s empire were at an end, and that we earned our place at the world’s top table principally because of what we had been, rather than what we might be able to contribute – in demographic, military, or economic terms – in the future.
One of Churchill’s own wartime scientific advisers, Henry Tizard, said that we had once been a great power as well as a great nation. But if we continued to try to behave like a great power, he continued, there was a danger that we would compromise our ability to remain a great nation. The debacle of Britain’s military intervention in 1956 in Egypt to try to retain control of the Suez Canal should have taught us that we were living in a new post-imperial age.
When the UK joined the European Union in 1973, we were in danger of becoming an object of sympathy, the sick man of Europe. Over the years, we prospered in Europe, shaping it in our own interest and avoiding the bits of the European enterprise that we did not like – a single currency and social policies that would inhibit growth.
But, naturally, we accepted that to ensure the fairness and success of the single European market, we needed to pool sovereignty and share in decision-making about some European laws and regulations. Equally, as a medium-size power, we were more likely to be able to protect and advance our interests by negotiating trade and other matters as part of a bloc of other mostly medium-size countries.
But all of this has been deeply unpalatable to those who think that working with others somehow undermines our sovereignty. They fail to comprehend that international cooperation is required to solve most of the big national problems – from illegal immigration to climate change – that face us today and will face us in the future.
Moreover, on our own we would have to accept many of the rules and regulations made by others, not least in earning our living around the world. There is no point in crying about it. Gunboat diplomacy is a thing of the past, and even if it wasn’t, we have very few gunboats anymore!
Many older voters have had considerable difficulty in adjusting their aspirations to a world that has changed. We are still a remarkable country. But we can no longer get our own way by asserting our will and invoking our history. No one owes us a living.
British Prime Minister Theresa May must confront many of her supporters with this hard truth if she is to secure the UK’s national interest. She cannot deliver what many of them believe they were promised, namely that we could leave the EU without any loss of economic stability or political influence.
Recognizing that opinion in Parliament is moving strongly against leaving the EU on the terms proposed by May, with a growing number of members even in favor of a second referendum to test whether we should leave at all, some right-wingers have flirted with the idea of trying to close down the House of Commons for a time. They want the government to be able to get its own way without any democratic opposition. It is a sign of their desperation to get Britain out of the EU whatever the constitutional or economic cost.
Is May prepared to get to grips with this? If she runs away from the task, despite growing Parliamentary unease about the path we are on, Britain is in big trouble. - Project Syndicate