Brexit Would Mean the End of the UK, not the EU


Brexit is really about Britain, not Europe


            Ever since Charles De Gaulle vetoed Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community in 1967, Britain’s attempt to integrate with the continent has been fraught.  Constant calls for leaving, or renegotiating, have been the leitmotif of British politics for the past half century. Brexit won for four reasons: immigration, uneven distribution of the benefits of EU membership, to get rid of David Cameron, and to educate the voters of Britain about the benefits of membership because only by trying to leave will people come to appreciate that it is impossible.


The major change in the form of the British government, introducing the fixed five-year term in the 2010 election, almost dictated a Brexit win. There have been 53 prime ministers in the past 300 years, an average of about six years per term.  Cameron cowardly dodged the EU issue during the election campaign in 2015 by promising a referendum on the E.U.. His reward was a surprising, solid Conservative majority. Cameron is the 22nd longest serving prime minister.  Was he really good for ten years?  Is he one of the great ones? That’s what an In win would have meant.   David Cameron is a solid, decent man, but six or seven years is the most that can be expected in modern times, absent extraordinary individuals or events. Sometimes people elect the solution, and sometimes they elect the problem and force it to govern. The Brexit win is the latter. Now, a pro-exit prime minister must be the person who shows that leaving is impossible.


Historical Perspective


            I was saddened, but not so shocked by the Out victory in the Brexit referendum. The global astonishment was caused by the fact that the Exit win was so stupid and self-destructive.  I recently read in English scholar of Poland Norman Davies’ No Simple Victory that the British stood alone against Hitler, not because of bravery, but because the British see themselves as innately superior and were simply obstinate.


            By coincidence, I had just finished The Decline of Bismarck’s European Order: Franco-Russian Relations 1875 – 1890 by George F. Kennan, if not the architect of the containment theory that won the Cold War, then at least its’ intellectual midwife. In his search for the causes of World War I, Kennan concludes: “It appears reasonably clear that in essence the nationalism in question was the expression of a crisis of identity on the part of great masses of people displaced by the over-rapid social and economic changes of the nineteenth century – displaced from those positions in the structure of society to which they and their families had long been accustomed. It was from these traditional vantage points that they had learned to relate themselves to the national community – to establish their rights, their duties, their claims to respect. The Russia of the decades with which this book deals held millions of people for whom, sometimes because of upward social movement, sometimes because of downward, sometimes because of educational experience, sometimes because of the change from country to city, these familiar and reassuring points of orientation had been lost. Yet the great mobility of wealth and the prevailing love for ostentation wherever wealth existed, raised false standards, set up painful contrasts, heightened differences, inflamed sensitivities, and created artificial sources of snobbery. Particularly among those who had little education (but not quite enough) and a little money (but again, not quite enough), there were great underlying uncertainties. And these uncertainties could be relieved, if not removed, by identification with one’s people as a whole, identification with them on the basis of the most obvious – and probably the most primitive – of criteria; that of speech. In this cultivation of the myth of collective glory – the glory of the national society to which one belonged – one could lend to the individual experience a meaning, or an appearance of meaning, that the artificiality and insecurity of the individual predicament was unable to supply. Thus, millions of people, not only in Russia but almost everywhere else in Europe as well, found in the flag-waving, the brave rhetoric, the sentimentalities and exaltations of nationalistic fervor, the impressive image of themselves which individual experience could not convincingly provide.” (p. 418 – 419)


            Kennan wrote this in 1978, about the Russia of 1890, yet changing a few nouns is all that is necessary to make it applicable to Brexit, or the nomination of Donald Trump. Polls show that the Brexit voter is over 65 with less education and income.  The Remain voters were young, educated and better off.  So the elderly, those who will be dead in twenty years, are threatening the economic future of the young, those who will be voting in the next twenty years but were not allowed to cast ballots because of their age. Sacrificing the future of the young to the fantasies of the old is a formula for disaster. The million and a half British dead from World Wars I and II, buried in graveyards abroad prove that. Brexit is almost an insult to their memory and sacrifice; but unfortunately, today’s voters are ignorant of history. When surveying the carnage at the end of World War II, Europe’s leaders asked themselves what could they do to stop the fratricidal wars that had killed millions over the previous thirty years.  The answer was for former enemies to integrate into a supranational unit to thwart future appeals to belligerent nationalism as cited above by Kennan.  Starting with the European Coal and Steel Community of France and Germany, the European Union is the result.


            Should England seriously pursue leaving the EU, Scotland and Ireland will leave the UK. Since 1885, the period of Kennan’s book, there had been a movement for Irish Home Rule within the British Empire.  The thirty-year struggle was on the point of success when World War I intervened. As a stop-gap measure, bowing to political necessity, the six Protestant-majority counties of Northern Ireland were split off from the 26 largely Catholic counties of the rest of the island which was promised independence (to prevent the mutinying of Irish troops fighting with Britain in France) which was eventually granted in 1922.  Since that time, Ireland has been split between an independent south and a north that is part of the UK.  The six counties of Northern Ireland voted to Remain in the EU by 4:3, so Brexit is a fillip for the irredentists.


Lack of Leadership


            One reason Brexit won is that of a lack of leadership. Months before the vote, I wrote to David Cameron, when the pro-EU campaign was being called Stay, suggesting that Maurice Williams and the Zodiac’s Doo-Wop hit “Stay” be the theme song of the In campaign. The lyrics of this 1 minute 36 second 1960 hit, the shortest record ever to become #1, are: Stay-ay-ay-ay-ay just a little bit long-ger,/ Please please please please please tell me that you’re gonna/ …Stay-ay come on come on come on Stay-ay/(Come on come on come on)/Stay-ay come on come on come on stay-ay.” Stay, familiar to blue collar baby boomers throughout the English speaking world, might have responded positively.


            Ironically, although Maurice Williams and the singing group were black men from Tennessee, the Zodiac came from the British-built luxury version of the Ford Zephyr, a car they came across when their station wagon broke down in Bluefield, West Virginia.  “Stay” would have appealed to just the voters who supported Brexit while simultaneously making a positive statement about the benefits of internationalism.  The Remain campaign should have been a love song. Instead, it was a balance sheet.  However, my larger point is that I never even received an acknowledgement, and I was doing more for the In campaign than my British neighbors in New Jersey. I know the mindset. I couldn’t vote so I didn’t count.


            Furthermore, distance from the generations who fought in World Wars I and II have created a type of opportunistic politician who cares only about career advancement regardless of the consequences for the people they represent. Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Boris Johnson and Chris Christie are poster boys for this kind of person. This opportunism also applies to the mainstream media, now that it is losing the competition with the internet and social media. It perforce must become more and more outrageous and entertaining to retain its viewers and protect its profits. Rupert Murdoch and Les Moonves are prime examples of media moguls whose power comes not from informing the public, but from manipulating and keeping them in ignorance.  Moonves, the head of CBS, even said about Trump that “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” He said this, as his network continued to give hundreds of millions of dollars worth of free air time to The Donald’s outrageous and racist remarks. And CBS uses airwaves that are owned by the government and supposed to be used in the public interest. Government and entertainment are almost opposites, and the consequences of confusing the two can be catastrophic. But of course, in a culture where news has become synonymous with entertainment, it is no wonder that the young and old are ignorant of their history.


            In 1969, I worked on the re-election campaign of New York Mayor John V. Lindsay doing polling. The wife of my boss had been a prep school friend of the wife of Dr. David Owen, then Foreign Minister in Harold Wilson’s government. After the campaign, I went to Europe and reconnected with my boss in London where he was trying to sell his polling services to Labour, which was contemplating holding a snap election sometime in the spring of 1970.  As part of the sales pitch, because I was the most knowledgeable about the details of polling seeing as I had been doing the actual work while everyone else was supervising, my boss asked if I would join him for dinner at Dr. Owen’s house on Narrow Street.


            It was a pleasant evening discussing the technical details of political campaigns.  Dr. Owen said that Labour was ahead in the polls and that Wilson was thinking of calling an election. I answered that, based on my recent experience in New York, polls could not be trusted.  Most people do not give serious thought even to their political opinions until there is some way to act on them.  Voters procrastinate, often for good reason in the interest of gathering as much information as possible before deciding, even in the United States where the date of the election is known in advance.  In parliamentary systems, where the date of the election is unknown, people pay even less attention to politics in the off-season.  Owen seemed unconvinced.


            Dr. Owen did regale us with one wonderful story. He said that he had been invited to dinner at 10 Downing Street by the Prime Minister and, after having been gotten terribly drunk, found himself agreeing to run the election campaign against and then taking the country into the Common Market six months later. Dr. Owen also volunteered that he did not take the underground.


            After the dinner, I resumed my peregrinations, and feeling the need to relieve myself near Windsor Castle, entered a public bathroom.   On the wall was written, “If you want a Niggerian for your neighbor, Vote Labour.” Assuming that someone who did not use the underground also did not use public toilets, I wrote a note to Narrow Street stating that here was the real hidden issue of the political campaign and that it was not going to show up on any poll.  Labour called the election and lost to the Edward Heath’s Conservatives, who then took Britain into the European Economic Community.


Britain’s History and the Failure of the Intellectuals


            The reason that a victory for Brexit seemed inconceivable is that repudiating Europe is so contrary to Britain’s history.  I became worried when I heard on election night that Oxford had voted less for Remain than the polls predicted. . Then I read a column by Edward Chancellor, who holds a Masters of Philosophy in Modern History from Oxford,  who reluctantly cast his mail ballot for Out because of his sympathy for the Greeks and Spanish, who were suffering so egregiously under EU-imposed austerity, in contravention of David Hume’s theories of self-government. Perhaps Mr. Chancellor considers it ancient history that Greece was traditionally considered part of Britain’s sphere of influence and, in the person of Harold Macmillan, a fellow Oxford graduate like David Cameron, virtually ruled the country in the wake of World War II to prevent the triumph of communism. Now, it is with a heavy heart that these intellectuals, who haven’t had the discipline of a bottom line in generations, are disappointed in their handiwork and are throwing in the towel. At this moment, Britain is engaged in bombing Syria. It supported the war in Iraq. It has been waging war around the world for centuries to promote its brand of government and economic development.  Within my lifetime, Britain has helped to overthrow the government of Iran, invaded Egypt, fought in Malaya, Korea, Kenya, Brunei, Kosovo, Afghanistan and fought Argentina in defense of the Falkland Islands. Even in those areas that Britain has relinquished, India and Palestine, it has left a situation in its wake that has cost millions of innocent lives.


            When I was a child, and the Middle East was in conflict, my father told me that the reason was that, “The British left it such a mess because if they couldn’t have it, they wanted to make sure that no one else could have it, either.”


            Now, by voting to pull out of the EU, Britain has made another mess, if not just of Europe, then of the entire world. Britain is acting like a spoiled child in a game where, if it can’t have its way, it’s going to take its ball and go home. It would be nice to have a sanguine or phlegmatic reaction to Brexit except, we’ve been down this road before.  Hopefully, when the actual details of the divorce are examined in the light of day, the British will come to their senses and rejoin the human race as equals.


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Contact: Joshua Leinsdorf