Brexit: Was It an Anti-Establishment Vote? - Comparisons with the U.S. Election
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This article reviews the decision by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to leave the European union - a decision which was taken by referendum on the 23rd June 2016. Specifically the article will consider whether this decision was an 'anti-establishment' protest. We also look at this in the light of the U.S presidential election in November 2016, and the successful campaign of Donald Trump - a result which has been widely compared to Brexit by politicians, and across the media. But are they really comparable in the most important respects? That is an important question because if the answer is 'yes', then that has potentially serious implications for the future of our western democracies.
This article is a return to a subject I first covered In the immediate aftermath of Brexit. In June 2016 I wrote about the reasons for the referendum, and my own feelings about it. These can be found in the article 'Brexit - The Exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union'.
A Brief Background to the Referendum
Ever since the European Economic Community or EEC was first founded back in 1957, it has gradually moved towards the greater integration of its member nations. In 1957, there were just six founder members, and as the name suggests, the primary objective of the Community was economic cooperation. It was still that way in January 1972 when the United Kingdom first joined the Community, and in 1975 when the decision was reaffirmed in a referendum.
But the years since then have seen changes, almost all of which have enhanced the power and influence of the Community in areas of security, justice, environmental management and many others, far beyond basic trading agreements. A lot of people in Britain supported this ever closer integration of policies across Europe, but very many others did not, and since the 1990s, the new powers assumed by the community (now pointedly renamed as the European Union or EU) have only led to an upswelling of disenchantment with the whole institution. A new party called the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), was formed specifically to campaign for British Exit ('Brexit') from the EU. UKIP grew rapidly in support, and although this had not led to a significant presence in Parliament, the British Government eventually felt they had to instigate another referendum in 2016 to let the people decide the issue a second time. The choice to remain in the EU or to leave the EU was not divided along strict party lines, though the majority of senior politicians in all major political parties apart from UKIP were in favour of 'Remain'. And the great majority of senior government figures including Prime Minister David Cameron, campaigned to remain in the EU.
The result came as a shock to many - disenchantment was greater than had ever been imagined. 52% of the voting public supported the 'Leave' campaign message. 'Remain' had lost. 'Leave' (Brexit) had won.
The Ballot Paper for the United Kingdom Brexit Referendum
The Reasons For The Decision to Leave
Why did people vote to leave? In any referendum covering a wide ranging array of issues, an equally wide ranging array of reasons inevitably exists as to why people voted one way or the other. I cannot go into all of those reasons here, but I will outline a few of the most important.
Most people who voted Remain probably did so because they believed in the stability of a united Europe where businessmen could trade, and where the United Kingdom would be a voice in a major cooperative world trading block. They feared all the upheavals in trade and financial markets and the isolationism which may result from Brexit.
Some people voted Leave because they saw in the increasing power of the EU, a general erosion of British sovereignty and a specific loss of control on issues such as immigration. A loss of control which would only accelerate in the coming years.
But apart from sovereignty and specific policy issues such as immigration, did fear and loathing of the establishment play a part in this? That question is the main motivation for this article, and will be considered shortly. But first, we must look at another issue - the way in which the Brexit vote has been linked to another major event of 2016, the US presidential election of Donald Trump.
Brexit and the American Election
What exactly are the reasons why Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have been lumped together? Because they undoubtedly are. Brexit and the US election are almost routinely packaged together today as if the public in both countries shared similar values and wanted similar end results.
1) Both campaigns were relatively simplistic, and not as economy-driven, as are most campaigns. Both hinged more on emotional issues such as cherished freedoms, trust in politicians and nationalism. Racism, xenophobia and some elements of globalisation, all raised ugly sentiments due in part to immigration issues which both countries face.
2) The emotional nature of these issues, together with the great importance of the Brexit vote and the extreme polarisation of public opinion in America, led to increased levels of anger and resentment, during the campaigns and after the results.
4) Both results involved a vote which went against the wishes of most influential figures in the corridors of power. This is where the anti-establishment issue comes in, and the establishment view in the Brexit campaign will be a subject which is covered shortly.
5) Both results defied the predictions of experts and opinion polls.The EU referendum polls consistently showed a narrow lead for 'Remain', and most thought that when it came to the crunch, the public would shy away from such a radical option as Brexit. In America, the polls consistently favoured Hillary Clinton. Most thought that when it came to the crunch, the public would shy away from such a radical option as Donald Trump.
5) Both results have administered a major shock to the status quo. Brexit will force a seismic restructuring of Britain's relationships with Europe and the world. And Donald Trump is a president-elect like no other in American history.
6) Some individuals such as Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP during the Brexit campaign, have actively tried to foster the impression that the two votes were connected. Donald Trump himself referred to his triumph as being 'the American Brexit.'
Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP and a committed Eurosceptic, was admired by some supporters of Brexit for his steadfastness in opposing the EU. But many others dislike this controversial politician. His words are not unduly reactionary, and not racist - but it is the sentiment which may lie behind the acceptable words which worries many. In Britain, politicians like Nigel Farage have to be restrained in what they say, because the type of language used by Donald Trump during his election rallies would be unacceptable to the majority here. But the fact is that Mr Farage supported Donald Trump, and that support for the new president-elect is not shared by very many in Britain.
Brexit - The Establishment was Against it
Undeniably in the UK the 'establishment' supported 'Remain'. The leaders of all major parties - Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and the Nationalist parties of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, all argued for Remain. Most other prominent politicians also supported 'Remain'. Only one significant party leader, Nigel Farage, advocated Brexit. In addition, the majority of influential world leaders, and the majority of CEOs of large businesses and major financial institutions, all advocated that we should remain in the EU.
Leaders of the Leave campaign included several mainly minor Government politicians, and a few charismatic Conservatives who were not part of the Government, as well as members of UKIP (represented by just a single MP in Parliament), a handful of Labour politicians, a few prominent businessmen, and some others - nobody of real authority, and very much a minority of those with influence.
So it seems from a superficial reading of this, that there was an anti-establishment protest in the decision to leave. But was that really the case?
I would argue it was not, at least with respect to the National Government, and that that is a significant difference between the UK and the USA.
The Establishment - A Difference Between America and the UK
Looking on from the outside it does seem that anti-establishment mistrust played a major role in the American presidential election. There was a candidate in that election who had no political experience, and limited knowledge of world affairs. A candidate who repeatedly and blatantly lied in his presentation of facts, and exhibited gross immorality in many of his words. A candidate who seemingly openly encouraged prejudice and division within society, between cultures and races. A candidate who alienated allies in the western democracies and the NATO alliance and even within his own party, whilst seemingly courting favour with Russia. A candidate who ignores scientific wisdom on issues of grave importance, and who even implied he might not accept the democratic result if he lost. And yet he won. The reason can only be the intense hatred and mistrust of his rival, Hillary Clinton - the archetypal establishment candidate. There can be few prospective presidents in history who have had more experience of the workings of government and America's role in the world than her. These should have been great strengths, and yet it seems not. All allegations laid against her were believed, even in the absence of proof, and her establishment status must have contributed hugely to this great mistrust of her and all of her associates. It is difficult to draw any other conclusion.
But what of Brexit? The establishment wanted 'Remain', and the public voted to leave. That there was a difference of opinion between the two is beyond doubt. But we must be clear that a difference of opinion on an issue is NOT the same thing as mistrust, fear or loathing - a decision to deliberately vote AGAINST the establishment. If that had been the case the implication would be that the public looked at what the movers and shakers were saying and came to the conclusion:
'Whatever the establishment wants, we will do the opposite.'
But I do not think that was the case at all. Indeed, I am quite sure that the establishment had a small but favourable influence on the electorate. They did not unwittingly cause a victory for Brexit by opposing it - rather, they reduced the scale of the victory for Brexit to only 4% by opposing it. Why do I believe this?
1) The party most associated with 'the establishment' in Britain is the Conservative Party. And yet the Conservatives increased their majority in the last general election of 2015 and at the present time with the main opposition Labour Party in disarray, many would regard them as the only credible party of government. It's widely believed that if there was a General Election tomorrow, the Conservatives - the 'establishment party', led by Theresa May who voted 'Remain' - would win a landslide.
2) The UK's equivalent of Washington, is Westminster - the seat of Government and bureaucracy in London. The vote for Brexit will undoubtedly take power away from the establishment in Brussels (capital of the EU), but it is calculated to GIVE much more power back to Westminster. Would anybody argue that Americans wanted to give more power to Washington? The Brexit vote if anything was for a transfer of establishment power. It was not an attack on the basic concept of that power.
In the light of this, it seems the British public - perhaps unlike America - do not have strong anti-establishment sentiments. But if that is so, then why did the overwhelming voice of the establishment singularly fail to convince people to vote 'Remain'? The answer as I see it is included in the next section.
My Thoughts on the Vote
The Brexit referendum was not at all like a typical General Election. There were two fundamental differences which I believe are relevant to this discourse in that they explain why Britain voted to leave the EU, despite the advice of the establishment:
1) People in the UK have a healthy cynicism about politicians and experts, but they are willing to listen to them and respect what they say if it makes sense. However in this referendum it became difficult to separate fact from fiction. Both sides exaggerated and sensationalised even if without so many of the blatant lies which blighted the American election. And given that this referendum was based on forecasts of the consequences of Brexit, rather than on clear policy, there was little said which could be proved, and little for which any future government could be held accountable (The 'Leave' campaign was just a movement, NOT a political party with a manifesto). As far as big business CEOs are concerned, it was clear they might have vested interests with established trading links throughout Europe. Financial institutions hate change and instability, so again, their natural inclination might be to stick with the status quo. So I think on this occasion there was a degree of scepticism about the advice which was being received. And at the end of the day life after Brexit was an unprecedented scenario, so all the experience in the world of 'normal' political issues counted for little when it came to predictions about the future. Without despising the establishment, British voters felt there were reasons to not believe their advice on this occasion.
2) But this was not just about disbelieving the advice of experts. It also seems likely that the advice being given was not even relevant to the main concerns of the voters. The peculiar nature of this referendum meant that the values which were most important to many of the public, were not the same as the values which the establishment felt should be the most important. Ordinarily the public and establishment are in agreement - the economy, inflation, unemployment, health and education - these are the issues on which elections are fought, the issues which usually matter. But in this referendum, none of these were so important to the majority of the electorate who voted for Brexit. Sovereignty, the effects of immigration, the psychology of societal change - these all mattered more, and no one in the establishment is an expert on these issues. Neither is anybody else. They are nothing to do with knowledge - they are matters of the heart and the soul.
For these reasons, without despising the power of the establishment, the public felt inclined to disregard what they said.
The State of the World - A Brief Interlude
We live in frightening times. In America inadequacies in Donald Trump's personality, character and policies have been made clear. There is real fear in the world about his presidency over the next four years. In Russia we have a resurgent regime which seems to have been emboldened in recent years, asserting its muscle in ways which are proving disastrous for many in Syria, and which may lead to a more interventionist approach in former satellite nations in Eastern Europe. Coupled with that, there is the rising of China to superpower status, a status unfortunately being achieved before that country becomes fully democratic, And of course the continuing problem of extreme fundamentalist Islam hardly needs further emphasis. In the UK we have probably the most left wing leader of the opposition Labour Party that we have ever had, elected as a result of an election campaign which was legitimate, but very flawed in its thinking. Meanwhile Nigel Farage has been feted in America as though he is representative of the majority view here, and not just on Brexit. In Europe, there is increasing disenchantment with the direction in which the EU is moving, and there is a distinct possibility that far right parties may in the next few years gain control in more than one country. There is a toxic mix of extreme, intolerant and reactionary viewpoints in the world at the moment.
Why is Understanding the Nature of the Brexit Vote Important?
The last section began with the suggestion that 'we live in frightening times'. It ended with the statement that there is 'a toxic mix of extreme, intolerant and reactionary viewpoints in the world'. It is important that this toxic mix is not made even more potent through misinterpretation of Brexit. That really is the point of this essay.
Too many people have linked Brexit with the American presidential election. They see both as part of a destabilising trend, and they look for similar seismic political upheavals in other countries that they can also link to this trend. But the association can only be taken so far. It is incumbent on responsible politicians therefore to look at this from a more rational perspective.
The election of Donald Trump was hopefully an aberration. It seems unquestionable that Washington's relationship with the populace was seriously disfunctional. Too many felt they could not believe the words of people in authority, the words of the people who disseminate the news, or even those administering the election. Many ceased to care what anyone said; they just made up their own minds and decided the primary villain of the peace was the establishment. Hopefully the next four years will see a healthy dose of reality infiltrate Washington, and both the Republicans and the Democrats, and also the media, will see the need to root out corruption and deceit, and attend to the real concerns of ordinary people. Then perhaps America can return once more to normal politics. If that does not happen, then the future is worrying for America.
Is the future of Britain also worrying, as a result of Brexit? There are some legitimate concerns. The majority in Scotland supported the 'Remain' campaign, and the Scottish Nationalists see the 'Leave' result as an opportunity to try once again for independence from the UK. So Brexit could indirectly lead to the break up of the UK (indirectly because that would not be the responsibility of Brexit - it would be the responsibility of the Scotish electorate). Brexit has also led to some increase in overt racism and bigotry. Again, that is not the responsibility of the great majority of Brexit voters - just the small minority who use it to further their own vile agenda, inferring a vote to possibly control immigation equates to a vote to discriminate against people who already live here.
Of interest to me is a third, wider concern not just for Britain but for the whole of Europe. If we misunderstand the reasons behind Brexit, and if we see only the most negative of connotations, then that will give a green light to those who actually want to promulgate those negative attitudes in their own nations. That gives succour to extremists and racists. And if the anti-establishment viewpoint holds sway, then that strikes at the very heart of our democracy. If people lose even a basic trust in the workings of government and the respectability of elected politicians, then the foundations of the free societies we have in Western Europe and the USA will be shaken to the core. The next section gives my view on how we should really see Brexit, and the lessons we should learn from it.
The Lessons of Brexit For the World
The lessons of Brexit which I would like to promote are two-fold:
1) Sovereignty is being eroded by the EU and most people do not like that - they want the right to determine our own futures. The United Kingdom is an independent nation. People wish to have our own accountable government conducting our affairs.
2) Change is just too rapid these days. In the UK our society has changed so much since the last world war, and the pace of change has seemed to be increasing, and to have been encouraged by the EU. This applies across the board in social attitudes and culture, administration, international relations - everything. People see their societies which have developed over many decades or centuries as being under threat, and many feel disconcerted by such rapid change. It makes them feel alienated from the society in which they live. And again, if such changes are going to occur, then at least they want to see that our own government is answerable for this.
Neither of these desires are extremist or bigoted. They are natural human desires.
Moderate and liberal minded parties should take heed. It has been suggested that far right movements in Europe have been emboldened by the success of Brexit. That shouldn't be allowed to happen. Of the people who voted Brexit, most did NOT vote with any desire to be associated with racism, xenophobia or bigotry, nor any desire to see Russia in the ascendency, nor any desire to see fascist parties on the move in Europe or in the UK. It did not reflect a loss of trust in Westminster, in the way that many in America seem to have lost their trust in Washington.
This article has been a plea to recognise the differences, as well as the similarities, between Brexit and the US election, and to suggest that Nigel Farage and Donald Trump are wrong in the most important of respects - that this is some kind of a shared anti-establishment sentiment. The last thing we need in this increasingly unpredictable world is to exaggerate the dangers. Senses of proportion have to be maintained. Brexit, followed by the election of Donald Trump, is not a sign that the West is collapsing. But if we believe that it is, it could become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
People need to recognise the election of Mr Trump for what it is. I don't like it, but I hope he will be more pragmatic as President than he was as candidate. If not, then hopefully wiser cousels in Congress will keep him in check. Perhaps the one good that will come out of the election is that Washington will wake up to the disenchantment of the people.
As for Brexit, I hope I have made clear that leaving the EU is certainly not a reason for dismay. It may lead to an economic downturn, but as the world's fifth largest economy with close links across the globe to English speaking nations, Commonwealth nations, many other nations and - yes - Europe too, it really is the ultimate in pessimism to prophesise doom. More importantly Brexit does not mean that Britain is insular, racist and backward looking. It just means the United Kingdom, as one of the most stable countries on Earth, wants to manage its own affairs under the guidence of the British Government and Parliament. That's not being anti-establishment - it is almost the opposite of that. Hopefully the EU will heed the lessons, and rein back on its plans for greater integration. If it does not, then others may choose to follow the British example and leave, and then the European Union's demise may well be on the horizon.
The important point is that we do not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Neither the US election nor Brexit should be allowed to damage or destroy the great democratic principles which ought to bind together all countries which value basic freedoms and human rights. We may not share common viewpoints on all issues and we may want to determine our own affairs - that is why I supported Brexit - but we should never lose sight of the key principles which still unite us.
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- Brexit - The Exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union
On Thursday 23rd June 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. This article gives the author's first impressions of the referendum campaign, and the aftermath of the result
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