Last Thursday, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. They executed a Brexit. Polling suggested that the vote would be close; still, I thought it likely that Remain would win. Young people, Millennials, voted overwhelmingly to Remain. The problem was that not enough of them bothered to vote at all (the figure I saw was 38%). This was, as it happens, a vote about the future of the United Kingdom. But it turned into a vote in which the future of young people was determined by old people.
I spent last week trying to blog about the Brexit vote. I drafted blog after blog, only to discard them all. I realized that I simply did not know enough about English or European politics to comment usefully or thoughtfully. So I tried to give myself a crash course on the subject, only to feel more and more foolish with each draft.
What I was able to determine was that there were very good arguments made on both sides of the Brexit issue. There are excellent reasons for British voters to resent or dislike or even despise the EU, and to want to vote Leave. There were equally excellent reasons to Remain. To some extent, Leave engaged in misleading advertising; undoubtedly, so did Remain. I would have voted Remain, but I don’t regard those who voted to Leave as dunces, racists, or fools. To me, it would have been something of a tough call. (I would have suggested that the UK use the leverage of a threatened Brexit to force a renegotiation with the European Parliament over a number of matters, especially the EU continued policy of economic austerity. Which has to be reckoned a catastrophic failure).
What is interesting is how, immediately after the election, both Liberals and Conservatives over here, in the US, recast the vote so it reflected our own polarized politics. Leave became the conservative stance; Remain, the liberal one. Conservative commentators and journals crowed over the ‘courage’ of the British for standing up for national sovereignty. Liberals saw the Leave victory as a triumph of ascendent Trumpism. And that all strikes me as both illustrative and very interesting.
Leave was certainly a vote for national sovereignty. Even the more contentious issue of immigration was couched in terms of nationality; what kind of nation is one that can’t control its own borders? But it goes well beyond the single issue of immigration. Brussels issues all sorts of pettifogging regulations over all aspects of British economic life. One of the more entertaining spectacles in the run-up to the Brexit vote was a pitched sea battle using water cannons in the Thames between fishing boats trailing Leave banners and a yacht owned by Sir Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats band, slinging water balloons for Remain. Comical, sure. But illustrative; fisherman were furious over EU regulations over when, what, how often they could fish.
To conservatives (at least over here), then, Leave was a reaction to intrusive Big Government, a rejection of heavy-handed statism and bureaucratic overreach. I get that. I respect it. Conservatism rejects statism; is skeptical of government generally. That’s a principled position.
Of course, that’s not all that Leave stood for. A lot of Leave voters were vocally opposed to EU policies of free immigration, for reasons that do strike us Yanks as uncomfortably redolent of The Donald. When you see voters talking openly about wanting to keep out ‘that sort’ of people, we hear echoes of Trump’s cover of The Wall. (As for Trump, he was, as the Brexit vote unfolded, in Scotland, promoting his golf course. Because that’s what Presidential candidates do, hold press conferences to extol the exceptional bathroom fixtures in the luxury suites at the golf course he just renovated). We all saw those post-Brexit images; angry older white Brits wanting to Make England Great Again.
Of course, liberals in the US are as interested in exploiting Brexit for our political purposes as the Trump campaign is. And so we conflate a part with the whole, and craft a narrative in which Brexit is Old White Racists rejecting immigration. But that’s unfair. Surely, for most Leave voters, arguments about national sovereignty and economic freedom were more compelling. By the same token, American conservatives are genuinely worried about encroaching statism. If we liberals genuinely do want to eradicate poverty, we need to recognize that free markets will do more to accomplish it than any combination of government initiatives and agencies and programs.
But, here’s the thing. That’s not the only thing ‘conservative’ means. Conservative can also mean a resistance to radical change. Part of conservatism, it seems to me, is a concern about unintended consequences. Ill considered government actions could make things worse; programs can exacerbate the very problems they’re meant to solve. So, for example, conservatism’s skepticism to anti-poverty programs. Won’t those programs lead to welfare dependency? Won’t they provide incentives for people not to work? Shouldn’t work be the goal? And so, in the history of American politics, we see progressive program after progressive program proposed by liberals, and opposed by conservatives. And that’s not because conservatives are all a bunch of hard-hearted meanies. Conservative concerns are legitimate. Will this program work? How do we pay for it? If we raise taxes, will that hurt the economy? That’s why our government works best when any bill has the benefit of both approaches; liberal passion, conservative skepticism. That’s why government requires compromise, and the forging of alliances.
And that’s also why Brexit is a bad issue. It’s purely up and down; Remain or Leave, with no middle ground in-between.
But isn’t it also seriously weird that LEAVE is the de facto conservative position?
I mean, seriously. If there’s one thing Leave will mean, it’s chaos and uncertainty. What will happen to Britain’s economy? No one knows. Could it be catastrophic? Oh, sure, of course it could. It could easily lead to a recession, and that recession could spread to the rest of Europe and the US. What will the EU do in response? No one knows. If the UK invokes article 50, what happens then? What will the EU/UK negotiations be like? No one knows. Will Scotland Leave? Possibly. What about Northern Ireland? Is it possible this could leave to an Ireland/Northern Ireland merger? Seriously? Bad things could happen, good things could happen; this becomes, genuinely, Anarchy in the UK. If there’s one thing conservatism should be presumed to oppose, it’s their world turning into a real-life Sex Pistols album.
A few days before the Brexit vote, Paul Krugman wrote a column about it. Paul Krugman is a Nobel Prize winning economist, but he’s also a well-known liberal political commentator. And in his column, after soberly describing the Leave and Remain positions (and the reasons each of them had merit), he decided he would probably vote Remain, if he had a vote. Why? Because Leave was just too dangerously radical. It could have really terrible consequences. And if you vote Remain, you could always change your mind later. Better be safe than sorry.
In other words, one of liberalism’s leading writers declared for Remain for what are fundamentally conservative reasons. Remain is a vote for the established order, for things not changing. And leading conservatives declared for Leave, supporting, therefore, massive, chaotic change, a leap into the void sort of change, exactly the kinds of change liberals generally like. What a topsy-turvy, radically de-centered world we seem now to inhabit!