Brexit: A British perspective

All political careers end in failure, so the mantra goes, but David Cameron’s decision in 2013 to call a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union will go down as arguably the greatest political miscalculation in modern British history, the magnitude of its domestic consequences far greater than Tony Blair’s commitment to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Anthony Eden’s complicity in the Suez crisis in 1956. Like Eden, whose 20-year career at the top of British politics is forever overshadowed by the Suez debacle, Cameron will be remembered for posterity as the prime minister who gambled Britain’s membership of the European Union for the sake of maintaining the unity of his Conservative Party, for whom the “European issue” has now destroyed its last three prime ministers – Margaret Thatcher in 1990, John Major in 1997, and David Cameron in 2016.

Shortly after he became Conservative leader in December 2005, Cameron urged his party to “stop banging on about Europe” in an attempt to heal the rifts that had simmered since Thatcher’s downfall in November 1990, an act of self-inflicted infighting that many in the party never fully forgave their colleagues for. However, Cameron himself struggled to balance the party’s vociferously anti-European element with its more pragmatic wing, and one of his first acts as leader was to pull Conservative members of the European Parliament (MEPs) out of the mainstream center-right bloc in favor of a more extreme political grouping of hardline “euro-sceptic” parties from across EU states. Once he became prime minister of a coalition government in May 2010, Cameron’s balancing act became harder as many of the new Conservative members of Parliament elected that year held very euro-sceptic views and particularly disliked having to govern in partnership with the strongly pro-EU Liberal Democrats.

Cameron made his fateful pledge in January 2013 to hold an “In/Out” referendum on the European Union by 2017 – if the Conservatives were still in power – in response to two factors. The first was the increasing number of party rebellions on European issues in 2011 and 2012 as backbench MPs voiced their opposition to government policies on the EU while the second was an attempt to undercut the drift of Conservative voters to the single-issue United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) ahead of the 2014 election to the European Parliament and the general election scheduled for May 2015. At the time of his pledge, few predicted that the Conservatives – or any other party – would secure an outright victory in the 2015 general election, and Cameron himself may never have expected to have to act on his promise, which became inevitable after the party confounded all the polls and won a small overall majority of seats.

Britain emerges from Thursday’s vote in a state of stunned disbelief and social and political polarization amid the multiple fault-lines – very roughly between urban and rural areas, young and old, England/Wales and Scotland/Northern Ireland – that deepened during the divisive months-long campaign. Feelings of alienation from a political class at Westminster that was perceived to be out of touch with ordinary people came powerfully to the surface in an anti-establishment wave similar to that which has propelled Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the U.S. presidential primaries. Thus, warnings about the perils of Brexit from Cameron as well as from every living former prime minister went unheeded, as did similar interventions from European leaders and President Obama, as well as from business figures and the financial sector in the city of London.

There are many uncertainties going forward that portend a period of unprecedented political and economic volatility for Britain. Initial reactions from Cameron and the leaders of the Leave camp have suggested that the UK will wait until a new prime minister is in place in October before activating Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon and starting the two-year process of separation from the EU. French and German leaders, by contrast, have urged the UK to act quickly to begin disengaging from the EU in a bid to minimize the period of uncertainty, and they may also try to enact a high price from Brexit to dampen any moves toward similar referendums in other member states. However, the decision to trigger Article 50 lies with the UK, not with the EU, and the British government may wait for as long as it can while it tries to reach a negotiating position for the rearrangement of Britain’s future relationship with the EU, or, indeed, tries to put off indefinitely any such move. If or when Article 50 is set in motion, the herculean task will then begin of unwinding more than 80,000 pages of EU agreements and directives and deciding whether and how to disentangle them from post-Brexit UK legislation.

Separately but inseparable from Brexit, the very survival of the United Kingdom is also at stake as Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, immediately pledged Scotland’s commitment to a future within the EU and indicated that preparations would begin for a second vote for Scottish independence, less than two years after the 2014 decision to remain within the UK. The relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland may also be reassessed if it is not to imperil one of the signature diplomatic achievements of the past two decades – the 1998 Belfast Agreement that ended decades of political violence and fostered a de facto reunification of social and economic life on both sides of a “soft” border that may now reassume a harder form as a boundary between the EU and the UK. Other issues of acute concern include the city of London’s future as a potentially much diminished global financial hub, and the status not only of the three million EU residents within the UK but also of the 1.3 million British expatriates in the EU who voted overwhelmingly to remain but who now face an uncertain future.

Above all, the populist mood sweeping through many Western democracies means the lessons from Brexit must not be ignored by political elites and “establishment” circles. The severity of the austerity measures that have been imposed on European – and British – societies in the wake of the 2007-9 financial crisis has bred a dangerous disillusionment with the status quo, just as it has in many areas of the United States. UK leaders have found out the hard way that a “business as usual” approach to politics that ignores or downplays the deeper roots of anti-establishmentarianism is unsustainable in the current climate; it remains to be seen whether such forces have a similar impact on the outcome of the U.S. presidential campaign in November.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a British citizen who lived, studied and worked in Cambridge and London for 16 years prior to moving to the United States and joining the Baker Institute for Public Policy in 2013. During this period, he obtained a Ph.D. in history from Pembroke College, University of Cambridge, and worked at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He remains an Associate Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London.