I am an American who has lived in Britain for 42 years, acquiring a second citizenship along the way. Becoming a British subject changed my perspective on my adopted land; I lost a smugness that comes from playing the detached observer, even if I was slow to release the ability to exercise schadenfreude toward whichever of my two countries seemed to behave with greater foolishness. Being British also opened doors; I was now a full-fledged European, embracing the opportunities and perspectives offered by a growing number of other nations.
As 2018 ended, I found schadenfreude scarce on the ground. As I watch my adoptive country tumbling headlong into the chaos of Brexit in just three months, there is no solace to be found in the land of my birth. There are many similarities between America’s embrace of Donald Trump and the UK’s of Brexit, not least in the causes behind them. Is it really just a couple of years since 2016 brought us both? It seems like we’ve been engaged forever in an increasingly divisive series of arguments on both sides of the Atlantic, and part of the reason it seems that way is that both Brexit and Trump are less sui generis crises than they are the logical culmination of decades of political changes in both countries.
Brexit: How We Got Here
The 2016 referendum was a simple leave or remain question, and leave won with almost 52 percent of the votes cast. British voters who had lived abroad for more than 15 years could not vote. Leave voters cited a variety of reasons, the most common being: “control of borders” (which included a wide spectrum of anti-immigration sentiment), and “sovereignty” which covered a similar spectrum of positions, from fear of being subsumed in a United States of Europe, to “freedom” from the restrictions of laws and regulations from Brussels, to a vision of a Commonwealth (if not Empire) reborn under the watchful eye of the Union Jack. Of course the vote offered no options beyond in or out, and for that reason it was labelled in parliament as “advisory,” pending, presumably, the outcome of negotiations on the terms of leaving. These were subject to a two-year negotiation, ending on March 29 this year, as set out by article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon (article 50 was itself written primarily by a British diplomat). And there lies the first of many rubs.
The UK joined what was then the European Economic Community in 1973, a move spearheaded by Conservative (Tory) prime minister Ted Heath. I moved to Britain in 1977. In that year’s local elections, the ethno-nationalist National Front took third place in almost a quarter of constituencies. But in 1979, Margaret Thatcher came to power in part by absorbing National Front voters, offering them a mainstream way to vent their Britain-first frustrations. Post-election, her immediate target was “Brussels,” as the EEC/EU is labeled in Britain. One of her first domestic moves was to nearly double Value Added Tax, from 8 to 15 percent. Since contributions to the EU are based in part on VAT receipts, this significantly increased the UK’s bill overnight. But the Iron Lady stormed off to Brussels to “battle for Britain” and negotiated a British rebate from the EU, the first of many opt-outs which ironically provided the UK with the most advantageous terms of any EU member state.
Thatcher’s successor, John Major, signed the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, which established the European Union in name and increased the closeness of the international bonds in practice. With this, the Europhobic right in the Tory Party, euphemistically known in Britain as “Eurosceptics,” who had lain relatively dormant in the face of the Iron Lady, were revived. Major famously referred to these Tories as “bastards” (one of them, John Redwood, was just knighted in the queen’s New Year’s Honours list). It did not matter that Major had kept the pound out of the Euro, and kept the UK out of the Schengen area, maintaining British passport controls. The specter of a Britain controlled by Brussels sprang back into political discourse.
Tories and Republicans: Two Civil Wars
Britain has been evolving toward an American-style presidential system for some time, spurred by Labour’s three-time PM Tony Blair and his Cool Britannia. Indeed his successor Gordon Brown may have been credited with saving the West’s financial systems by bailing out failed British banks in the crash of 2008, but he took the blame for the recession anyway, and lost badly in U.S.-style TV debates to Conservative David Cameron and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg in 2010. Clegg’s party benefited, but then entered a coalition government with the Conservatives. Thus began eight years of austerity, in which the failed banks were restored to their bonus-mad glory, tax rates on the wealthy and on corporations were lowered, and public services were slashed, even as the government began moves to privatize the still-cherished National Health Service. Heading a shaky coalition government, Cameron offered the referendum as a bone to his right-wing critics, although he backed Remain. When he lost, he immediately resigned and Theresa May took over. Spurred by hubris at the sight of a divided Labour party led by the left-winger Jeremy Corbyn, May triggered Article 50 and called a surprise general election. Corbyn performed much better than expected, and May lost her already slim majority. A new deal, with the staunchly socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland bought their 10-seat support at a cost of a billion pounds. This from a PM who had told NHS nurses asking for a pay increase that there was no “magic money tree.”
If you’ve followed this history, you may see the similarity with the Republican party. First, as it absorbed the southern segregationist Dixiecrats following Lyndon Johnson’s passing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. Then in the marginalization of the old fashioned “liberal” Republicans — the East Coast bankers and aristocracy who felt an element of noblesse oblige and a degree of international cooperation — by the new money industrialists, the aerospace and military interests, the fundamentalists and evangelicals, the isolationists and America-firsters. Just as Thatcher did in Britain, Ronald Reagan had moved the American center well to the right; social democracy gave way to the “third way” of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Reagan also sold the idea of government as the enemy, and as a result could incorporate an idea of protest against what was presented as a liberal elite bent on controlling the lives of middle Americans. (Britons, hands up if this sounds familiar). The nascent Tea Party was now taking control of not only the Republican party, but of governments at the state levels, helped by massive gerrymandering. I have argued elsewhere that Donald Trump has to be seen as the inevitable result of 40 years of campaigning against government. As in Brexit Britain, the feeling among working people that the solutions to the 2008 financial collapse had passed them by, spurred the embracing of a candidate (Trump) who promised them the attention they felt they had lacked. And the feeling in Britain that foreigners, not successive British governments, were to blame was matched in America by the latent racism manifested in a reluctance of a large minority to even concede the legitimacy of a black president elected twice.
The Ticking Clock
As 2019 begins, Britain is headed by a minority government hanging on the cusp of its withdrawal from the union which has underpinned its place in the world for nearly 50 years. “It’ll be alright on the night” is a British phrase which has no real equivalent in American speech, but it seems to have been the basis of the UK strategy toward Brexit negotiations. Indeed, contrary to the promises of prominent Leavers (including those who were originally picked to do the negotiating) that this deal would be “one of the easiest in human history” and that Britain “held all the cards” the UK has been on the receiving end of a series of setbacks. The final deal reached by May herself cedes so much control back to the EU that many Leavers cannot see their dreams realized. The alternative, according to May, is a no-deal departure, which would literally require the UK to start over, negotiating hundreds of international agreements in effect overnight—an outright impossibility—while trading under the far less advantageous World Trade Organization rules.
It has been pointed out that Brexiteers had seemingly little reason to push for the triggering of Article 50, with its ticking clock, so soon. The government needed to take time to carefully research and set out their positions, preparing for what they should have realized would be difficult negotiations with a partner keen on making it hard for any member state to leave, much less a state which had consistently won negotiations along the way to give it a prime place among EU members.
So why the rush? Go back to Thatcher and her negotiated EU rebate after she raised VAT. The UK’s financial sector relies on off-shore bases, in the far-off Cayman Islands or British Virgin Islands or Gibraltar, or in the nearby Channel Islands or Isle of Man. These give the UK considerable advantages over much of Europe as a tax haven, as well as reducing the amount of tax paid in the UK, and thus artificially lowering the amount of UK payments to the EU, which are based on tax revenue. Many prominent Brexiteers are in banking and hedge fund operations (Jacob Rees-Mogg et al). By coincidence, the new EU regulations on offshore reporting come into effect this year.
With the clock ticking and Theresa May stalling, Britain is being forced to accept either May’s terms or the no-deal exit which almost every expert believes will be a disaster. A weakened pound. A Britain with few, delayed, expensive imports. A Europe to which travel now becomes as exotic and difficult as it was in the ’60s. A hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, imperiling two decades of peaceful co-existence after long years of brutal conflict.
Next week Parliament will return from their extended holiday (keep calm and vacation) to debate May’s Brexit deal versus leaving without any deal. They will vote on those options a week later. Calls for a “people’s referendum” — one that might include Remain as an option — are still unanswered, even though EU courts have indicated that the UK can revoke Article 50 unilaterally at any point before March 29. But getting Parliament to agree will be difficult, not least because Remainers are divided as well. Although many of the Labour party’s recent influx of young members are Remainers, Corbyn himself has always seen Brussels as a capitalist cabal standing between Britain and a socialist revolution — not the social democratic stronghold of workers’ rights and individual freedom that it is labeled by many pro-Europeans. Labour also fears that backing a second referendum will further antagonize their traditional voters who felt betrayed by the party’s inability to protect them from the 2008 crash, and turned to Trump’s buddy Nigel Farage, and his anti-immigration UKIP, with their very Trumpian, anti-government message. Corbyn would prefer the government to lose a vote of confidence in Parliament and call another election he feels he could win, even if Brexit is the result. In such a circumstance May would likely lose the support of the Democratic Unionist Party, which seems unfazed at the prospect of a no-deal Brexit collapsing the Good Friday Northern Ireland peace agreement.
Polls have indicated a reversal of the Brexit referendum vote, but the question is by how much. Changing demographics — the passing of older, pro-Brexit voters and the reaching of voting age by largely pro-Europe teenagers — is a part of that. But the question will be whether a second vote can be sold as an exercise in democracy implicit in the first referendum’s terms, or be seen as a betrayal of those people who already feel abandoned by Westminster.
2019 might be the unraveling of two years of division and chaos in Britain, or the jumping off point for even more of the same — only more widespread and more intense. Just as it might be a year of unraveling in the United States, depending on whether Robert Mueller’s and other investigations can render a Trump presidency increasingly untenable. This may be the American equivalent of a people’s vote. While Trump did not have even the small majority which brought Brexit into being, Republican control of the Senate makes an impeachment strategy a long shot. And impeachment would likely convince Trump voters of a similar sort of democratic (both small and capital d) betrayal as Brexit voters might feel. Schadenfreude used to be such a comforting thing. But now, for my two countries, I feel nothing but angst.