Three Things: Brexit Battle over Britain

Union Jack Brexit

Brexit has happened. Britain will be out of the EU. The people have spoken, what will follow now is just the business of a lot of i-dotting on new contracts as the old ones have just been torn up. This is a given. Except, democracy and politics are more complicated than that. So are the reasons why 17.4 million people voted for Brexit. The vote has already proven divisive, and not just in the one way it way meant to be. It has pitted families against each other, friends against friends, and at least in a general sense, generation against generation. It has proven disastrous in the short run, and could prove even worse. It could, as defines a crisis, of course, also lead to a better tomorrow. Though the crux here is not just in the question „For whom?“ but also in its oft-ignored but highly relevant cognate „In whose perception?“ What has helped me the most in making sense of it all comes from the end of a blog post on UK pollster Lord Ashcroft’s website:

What did they expect?
Seven voters in ten expected a victory for remain, including a majority (54%) of those who voted to leave. Leave voters who voted UKIP at the 2015 election were the only group who (by just 52% to 48%) expected a leave victory.
The impact
More than three quarters (77%) of those who voted to remain thought “the decision we make in the referendum could have disastrous consequences for us as a country if we get it wrong”. More than two thirds (69%) of leavers, by contrast, thought the decision “might make us a bit better or worse off as a country, but there probably isn’t much in it either way”.

It appears that this is why so many protest votes were registered. People just did not think much would change either way. This is sobering, and should be considered in every analysis of the vote. A huge number of voters could not fathom their votes would actually matter. That they were enveloped by an establishment in which nothing would change. Under these circumstances, a Leave protest vote does not feel all that consequential.

Brexit Map
Brexit on the European Map

To understand why, one must look not just for one reason, but for a set of reasons. This bit is a bit obvious, but sometimes we have to say obvious things because they deserve to be obvious and they do not remain obvious if they are not pointed out occasionally. So I will point out more obvious things to myself. If ever you are tempted to think that there is one underlying reason for something that involves a whole nation, know that you are wrong. And your chance to be in the ballpark of accuracy does not necessarily increase by much if you increase the number of reasons by just one or two. It is a messy, messy, world.

In Our Time

Maybe an example from the British media that for a change has nothing to do with Brexit helps make the point. The only time I can ever recall palpable disagreement, almost to the point of fisticuffs, on that stayed BBC Radio 4 favorite, Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, was when the panelists discussed the industrial revolution. „Historians like to give three reasons for everything,“ Bragg intoned. Then he asked historian Pat Hudson of Cardiff University: „What were the three reasons for the industrial revolution?“ She refused to give them to him. Her view was that structures mattered much more than individual inventions. Bragg kept pressing. Hudson kept on refusing. (This was never a major news story, but a few mostly partisan views can be found here, here, here, and here).

On a program known for its sometimes boring digressions into the high minded corner offices of the ivory tower, this came close to a revolution. It was uncomfortable to listen to. „Come on“, I thought, „this is mass media, do you seriously think anyone will engage with the history of the industrial revolution more than just superficially? I want to know, what were the three reasons?“ But after the program had run its course, the exchange stayed with me. Something was wrong here. When it finally occurred to me, I felt like I had initially failed at one of the simplest tasks asked of people in my profession: consider the context. Hudson had done just that and come to a conclusion that was not supported by the literature Bragg found convincing when it came to explaining the industrial revolution. Now I agreed: she was utterly right in her insistence. If she believed the industrial revolution was not reducible to three things, then letting a radio presenter and politician, as erudite as they might be, dictate that she nonetheless do so, would be a pointless exercise. I would normally make a point here about the fact that male Bragg’s dressing down of a female historian likely says something in and of itself and then connect that to its importance for the current poitical fracas, but while I believe gender and its perception are always important factors in analysing the world around us, Lord Ashcroft’s Brexit opinion polls show no difference in how men and women voted. Such a list of random bullet points would not teach anything. Worse, it would support beliefs untenable to her.

BBC Radio 4 is where Melvyn Bragg's "In Our Time" airs.
BBC Radio 4 is where Melvyn Bragg’s “In Our Time” airs.

Three things would not just not get the whole picture across, they would significantly skew the picture in people’s minds. If she truly believed that structures and therefore dozens, maybe hundreds of factors were at play, then picking three and running with those was akin to choosing to cross the Atlantic in a plane reduced to only the most essential components for take off. Sure, you could get it in the air with just the wings, the engine, and the wheels. But you would miss the windows pretty quickly, and the speedometer and the fuel gauge, and the artificial horizon. And that would make the ride dangerously unbalanced.

This, incidentally is a fitting metaphor for Brexit: it was a plane crash. Whether you were for or against it, the metaphor works: like a plane crash it was a completely unexpected anomaly in the supposedly normal workings of politics. It was, to stretch the metaphor a bit, decidedly not an automobile accident. While the former can easily kill hundreds of people and dozens of things have to go wrong at the same time for it to occur, it takes only one small mistake to wrap the family car around a tree, but likely only half a dozen people at most will be immediately affected.

Because Reasons

Many things on many levels contributed to Brexit becoming a reality. The gaps between voters came in terms of age, in terms of class and education, in terms of geography and culture, and in various other ways. The news stories, for the most part, have fixed on dichotomies and one-word explanations. These need to be exploded to be explained more. Most notably, the dichotomies were:

Old vs Young.

Old people overwhelmingly voted for Leave, young people voted for Remain. Yes. But the story overwhelmingly implies old codgers with hardened opinions willfully gambling away the future of the young. Older voters may well have been motivated by trying to help their daughters, sons and grandchildren. After all, they got to grow up in a UK that was not part of the EC/EU, and opportunities had beckoned then. Old and young live in different worlds, with different frames of reference. While such a view does not take away the dichotomy, it helps elucidate the result more than a “cranky old people” narrative would.

Voters vs Nonvoters (the former typically old, the latter typically young).

This is the natural counterargument supposedly invalidating Old vs Young. Fewer young people voted than old people. And surely many of the young who did not vote are now unhappy with the result. The next step, however, is an insidious type of victim-blaming that goes something like this: The young had a chance to care enough and vote and they did not, so if the result is not to their liking it is their own fault. This also does not carry far enough. While older voters had an inkling of just how momentous this vote was by dint of the fact that referendums are extremely rare in British politics, younger voters had no such chance to understand this from experience. If any previous vote they could have cast was a chance to be scyllad by a constantly re-self-disintegrating Labour Party or charybdized by Tories who apply austerity as if it was a snakeoil tincture, and thus seemingly no vote ever really mattered, then why should this vote be any different? That young people had every chance to educate themselves about the implications of the referendum is true. But history read and taught, sadly, is never as viscerally felt as history eyperienced.

Racists vs Immigrants.

While it is true that the racist right overwhelmingly voted to Leave, not all the Leavers are racists. And not all racists, for the sake of completion, are Leavers. 4% of UKIP voters were against Leave. It is safe to assume at least some of them shared anti-immigrant sentiments still. I have to admit, however, that this one carries special weight, considering the Lord Ashcroft polls published in the Brexit aftermath; and also considering very real attacks on foreigners and foreign-looking people in the UK immediately following the vote.

Referendums are bad vs Referendums are the democratic will of the people.

Now voices abound of political scientists saying that the referendum should never have been called. That it was the wrong tool for the job. Others say that more direct democracy is needed, not less. These are not analyses, however. They are pre-held opinions on the tools of governance and governing. A narrow majority, in Britain’s first-past-the-post election system, has always meant a win. It would upend British democracy as a whole if this was not followed now.

The British Houses of Parliament. Where should decisions be made?
The British Houses of Parliament. Where should decisions be made?

More generally, there is a fascinating construction at work in any referendum: that a simple question, asked on a specific day in specific circumstances is inherently more democratic than a decision taken by a democratically elected governmental body after extensive deliberation. That referendums represent the „will of the people,“ itself a fascinating construction because it equates a majority-held belief with a universally held one. Shades of Tocqueville much? Democracy is a practice as much as it is an ideal, and the way it is defined in practical terms is both highly important and highly changeable.

Why, those who want to void the referendum, ask, was it not made binding? This is indeed a good question, but one that presupposes that there would not have been any scenarios in which a non-binding referendum would not have been the best possible solution. It is easy to imagine such a scenario, one in which the result is much narrower, say 49.9% vs 50.1%. Add to that accusations of defrauded voters through some bureaucratic foul-up or partisan intervention, and a binding referendum with essentially a 50/50 split giving the edge to a tiny sliver of a majority would have been hard to defend. Nigel Farage ironically even set this bar at 48/52 had the vote gone the other way. A tiny majority might have led to immediate dismissal of the election results. One of 1.6 million people cannot, and should not.

In fact, betraying the outcome of the referendum now would be a seriously bad decision. Only unrest can result from ignoring a democratic dictum (as inappropriate as the tools by which it was arrived at may have been). And on the part of the EU, it does not want Britain to reconsider now. Never fully committed to the European project, Britain was all too often a stumbling block in its completion, wanting special deals and pressuring the EU to give it more than others. To have to keep in a UK in which a majority of the people have voted out would be to welcome a potential blackmailer with open arms. Overall, this might do more damage to an already-weakened EU. It would be doubly unable to move anywhere without British consent. This could be worse than having to scrape by without the world’s fifth (or, depending on the current state of the pound, sixth) largest economy.

What Price Brexit?

It still is possible that the decision could be reversed, but this would have to be in the wake of a decisive victory in an early election by politicians and parties who clearly support remaining in the EU. Failing this, what beggars belief is how the Brexit boys could possibly not have foreseen the horrible negotiating position they have maneuvered Britain into. As German chancellor Angela Merkel already pointed out, there can be no cherrypicking in negotiating future trade deals with Britain. If Brexit ends up benefitting the UK somehow, that is one thing. If it benefits the UK in the shape of more favorable terms than would have been possible under EU membership, then it endangers the whole European project. If you can trade happily with the EU but do not have to abide by the regulations it imposes you do not like, then you won’t be the only one wanting that in the future.

Thus, the British decision leaves even the most fervently pro-British EU negotiator only the option to steer a hard line against capricious wishes such as wanting access to the single market but not accepting freedom of movement. Plainly, if Britain does not emerge from an EU exit significantly worse off in real, tangible ways, then these negotiators will not have done their jobs well. Because these jobs, whether they like it or not, also include keeping together the rest of the European Union. And the EU cannot hold if it does not stress the benefits of being a part of it, which makes it necessary to emphasize the disadvantages of not being a part of it.

The ostensibly accepted narrative is that the existence of the referendum in the first place is all David Cameron’s fault. That he risked too much with too little information. David Cameron, after all, is the poster child for an elite bubble existence. His world is that of Pippi Longstocking: according to his own creation. Such delusions led him to make a stupendously bad judgment call. We are here because of a stunt gone horribly wrong. Perhaps.

Perhaps, however, there is a compelling alternative story, or even several stories to be told. And even if not: to what degree is Cameron’s decision a result of hubris or outside pressure, or of a fundamental misunderstanding of the way Britain actually felt by a collective class of ruling elites who will not be overly affected by the outcome one way or another? Boris Johnson, who, as Timothy Garton Ash wrote in a brilliant post-Brexit commentary — and as several news stories have also pointed out — “veered around like a shopping trolley” before declaring for Leave, is another Oxbridge-Eton-elite politician for whom this description is apt. This elitism is one piece of the puzzle. But if you ask people a simple question and they answer one way and not another, there has to be something has to their decision. To be more precise, specifically not “some thing,” many things.

In the meaning-making department, the department that has been in full swing since the vote, what do reactions to the vote mean? Take the almost unquestioned acceptance of Nicola Sturgeon’s knee-jerk reaction to call for a second referendum for Scottish independence. To a huge contingent of europhiles this seems a wonderful idea. That way, you both keep, at least geographically, almost half of the UK in the EU and weaken the newly exited Britain right out of the gate, perhaps with hopes of quickly luring them back on terms more palatable than any last-ditch turnaround (i.e., the UK never invoking article 50 in disregard of the referendum) would allow.

SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon
SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon

The alternative view is that Sturgeon represents a detestable nationalism. One blog post arguing this was published by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. It further took issue with people cheering on a host of Tweets disparaging US presidential candidate Donald Trump in colorful terms for, essentially not knowing very much about either Brexit or how Scotland had voted in it. The author linked all of these to Scottish nationalist “Cybernats”. This is an angle not considered in many reports. The reason may be that it is an unpopular view. Or it may just not pass muster.

The point here is that we like, once again, our narratives neat: because Brexit, Scottish independence. No mentions of what other reasons Scots have or claim to have for independence. Not many mentions of the irony that Scotland voted to remain part of the UK also to remain part of the EU. Nationalism is not akin to nationalism. And is Scottish nationalism inherently less legitimate than a British nationalism which has always had an uneasy partial congruence with English nationalism and which fuelled the Leave camp?

William Goldman and James Caan
William Goldman (left), pictured with actor James Caan in 1976. Photo: Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989, Nummer toegang 2.24.01.05 Bestanddeelnummer 928-5444)

Nobody Knows Anything

One underlying truth of Brexit is starting to dawn: No one knows what to do, because hardly anyone really thought it would happpen. No one has done this before. The jockeying we see all around, be it from Farage grandstanding in the European Parliament asking MEPs for a fair deal and insulting them in the same sentence, from Boris Johnson pretending nothing much happened, from Liberal Democrats promising to run on a platform of revoking Brexit in a potential early next election, to EU leaders or US Secretary of State John Kerry, who suggests the UK leaving the EU could be “walked back” are all just a result of this. “In this town,” US screenwriter William Goldman said about Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything.” He meant the success or failure of movies. But you could just as well apply it to Brussels right now. As unprecedented as Brexit is, the general modus operandi of the EU, however, at least seems to be able to generally deal with the unexpected. As Alexander Stubb, Finland’s former Prime Minister tweeted:

For the EU’s sake, but also for Britain’s. If there is no strong EU as a trading block, no strong Britain can emerge in its vicinity to trade with it. In a tweet to Stubb, meanwhile, Economist columnist Tom Nuttall reported that while there had not appeared to be a strong pro-European movement in the UK before, now there seemed to be one forming.


The faces of protesters dressed in blues and yellows as well as reds, whites and blues, surely suggest that. Maybe Brexit will be remembered as the wake up call the European project needed to reinvigorate and reinvent itself for the twenty-first century. If the EU can truly reexamine what it does and does not need to do, then what could emerge would perhaps be a truly European demos, whether it has existed before and is now finally showing itself with flags literally flying, or whether it is newly formed. In a 2008 article, I quoted former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer saying that “in an an institutional way we have just now reached the level of the Federalist Papers,” adding that these fundamentally important documents for US constitutional history were published in 1787 and 1788. If the EU goes forward, it will continue to be a halting, contradictory process. It will be infuriatingly slow and fast at the same time. Whatever our wishes for its future, we can only hope there will not be the equivalent of an American Civil War to either dismantle or complete it.

The European Parliament
The European Parliament

In varying degrees regarding various things, we are all petty, thoughtful, prejudiced, high-minded, idealistic and moronic individuals. Individuals who decide with their heads, hearts, or guts or combinations thereof many times a day. We are caught up in structures we can partially control and change, but sometimes just have to live with.

And we are going to have to make this work. “We” are all of those somehow affected. To do that, it is not helpful to dismiss some options out of hand. And it is just as unconstructive to jump to rash conclusions and let hot-headed ire prevail. Those who, in the next months and years, will combine zeroes and ones into letters and analyses, those figuring out the intricacies of UK’s out on all sides must be well aware that unthinkables exist everywhere, and that they can be the ones to help make them thinkable if they deem this helpful.

One man had this figured out years ago: Nigel Farage. To make a British EU exit possible, he had to first make it thinkable. If his destructive brand of silver-tongued and cynical parochialism is to be countered, then we will need minds at least as flexible as his.

Torsten Kathke
Torsten Kathke is a historian specializing in the United States and Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries. His book "Wires That Bind: Nation, Region, and Technology in the Southwestern United States, 1854–1920" is due out in July from Transcript publishers. Torsten earned his doctorate in American Cultural History from Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany in 2013. He subsequently worked at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC and at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. He is a lecturer in American Studies at the University of Mainz and an adjunct lecturer in History at the University of Cologne.

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