European Affairs

Post Brexit Letter from London—The Day After Reaction     Print

MichaelWhite2016Even Donald Trump seemed sobered by the overnight verdict of the British people when the Republican presidential contender flew into Scotland to count his golf courses on Friday and spoke blandly and in relatively measured tones to the media at Turnberry. "Basically they took back their country."

So the referendum decision to end Britain’s 43-year membership of the European Union was also a win for the Trump world view, one that is assertive, emotional and unilateralist. In an unstable world it makes his prospects in November that little bit stronger against Hillary Clinton, his own “establishment elite” target.

One such target is already taken care of. Within an hour of the official 52-48% vote for Brexit - British exit from the EU - David Cameron, whose repudiation of some Trump campaign zingers had been less than diplomatic, announced he will step down as prime minister and Conservative party leader when a successor can be found in the next three months.

Frontrunner for that job, the former London mayor, Boris Johnson, has been rude about Mr. Trump too. But he is a formidable populist too - the “British Trump” on some accounts, the “British Berlusconi” on others - who can better defend himself. Boris, as he is always known, was born in New York city. His victory speech was conciliatory and inclusive.

As such he promised a “glorious opportunity” for an outward looking and tolerant Britain to do better. As a self-styled “liberal internationalist” he probably meant it, but the Brexit campaign has been an odd coalition of free market, low tax conservatives and blue collar victims of job losses, immigrant resentment and welfare cuts: Trump meets Bernie Sanders. To bind up his coalition’s wounds, let alone the EU Remainers while negotiating withdrawal will require more skill than Mayor Johnson has yet demonstrated.

But in hitching his campaign to the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the UK Independence Party - Britain’s version of the Republican Tea Party - to clinch Thursday’s win Boris he is always Boris) has unbottled demons which may be hard to recork. In court the man alleged to have shot and stabbed to death Labour MP, Jo Cox, this month gave his name as “Death to Traitors, Freedom for Britain.”

Even before the result was confirmed the London stock exchange dropped by £200 bn and sterling lost 10% as the City realized that its complacent bet on a win for Cameron’s Remain campaign has been misjudged. “Uncertainty is the enemy of investment,” one global businessman wryly explained.

So both winners and losers were quick to seek to reassure voters that nothing will change right away. Flighty markets duly recovered some of their losses. But 3 million EU citizens living on Britain will sleep less easily as will 300,000 Brits enjoying retirement sunshine in Spain – the EU’s Florida coast. “You’re still welcome here,” Boris Johnson’s Labour Muslim successor, Sadiq Khan, declared.

Talk of triggering the EU’s Article 50 treaty clause (no firing on Fort Sumter is required) that sets a two year timetable to complete Britain’s withdrawal was also shelved. The situation is unprecedented and expertise - as distinct from Tooth Fairy hopes - is also in short supply. It will take immense effort and most of a decade to sort out this contested divorce. Brits haven’t negotiated their own trade deals since 1973.

The need to restore calm after Friday’s double shock - the result and Cameron’s rejection of pleas (even from Johnson) to stay - was obvious to all. As in Scotland’s referendum in 2014 (won for the status quo by 55-45%) it had been widely assumed that voters would draw back from a scary brink. Cameron’s tactical desire to end a damaging intra-party split overcame his never-strong strategic sense.

So, except in booming London, in Scotland with its own separatist agenda, and (narrowly) in Northern Ireland, voters in all English regions, even in EU-subsidized Celtic Wales, voter pain at the disruptive effects of globalization and immigration outweighed caution. The poor, the badly-educated and the old (the Baby Boomers last disservice to their offspring?) saw off the young and optimistic. It was Middle Britain doing what red state America does to Los Angeles and New York.

A wise old saying in politics warns that “nothing is ever as good or as bad as it looks on the day.” That is usually the case. Was not Cameron saying before his feeble “renegotiation” of Britain’s terms that the country could thrive outside the EU? He was, and it was a crucial weakness of the Remain campaign that it overegged the near-universal warning of all kinds of expert against voting to leave. Voters stopped believing him and his unpopular chancellor, George Osborne.

The Brexit camp made much of a vision of Britain, its democracy and ancient liberty freed on “independence day” from “enslavement” by EU bureaucrats, courts and red tape, above all the tide of economic migrants, asylum seekers and refugees pouring into Europe from the south and east. The talismanic word “sovereignty,” not much used around the average family table, has been freely deployed against perceived elites. For “Washington” read “Brussels.”

Critics have a point. The Eurozone has been mismanaged, condemning millions of young and poor to fiscal and monetary austerity. The migration crisis has profound and complex roots, not easily understood as small communities are asked to absorb strangers from very different cultures, high expectations and some intolerant habits of their own. The New Year attacks on women in Cologne has been as corrosive of trust in their own way as bomb attacks.

Little wonder that Europe has spawned many local versions of the Brexit rejection movement, even in wholesome social democratic Scandinavia, certainly in National Front France. NF leader Marine le Pen, challenger for the presidency in 2017, instantly demanded a Frexit ballot on Friday. Brussels eyes Brexit contagion nervously. Its own grandiose, ill managed policies have contributed to Britain’s departure and - contrary to bland reassurances in London that they need the UK’s market for BMWs - it cannot be too generous in coming negotiations (or others will start blackmailing). Officials do not want to waste time while Brits reshuffle their own deckchairs.

But, if this is another failure by elites, the situation shows little sign of being remedied by their populist critics of left or right. Syriza is reverting to Greek type in Athens. In Britain Ukip’s demagogic leader, Nigel Farage (unable to get elected except via a European “list” system to the EU parliament), has never shown inclination to accept responsibility as a minister.

The wider Brexit camp cannot agree even a rudimentary road map ahead for trade or immigration control. Fleet Street newspapers, mostly owned by oligarchs not resident in Britain for tax purposes, which cheered them on will turn against them if they fail to deliver quickly. They will take their cue from angry voters who believed some of the pain-free fantasy promises they were offered.

Under Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labour party’s mild-mannered answer to Senator Sanders, ran a half-hearted Remain campaign, against the life long beliefs of Mr. Corbyn. Core Labour voters ignored him and helped clinch Brexit’s victory. Corbyn now faces a leadership challenge of his own.

If all that was not enough, Scotland’s emphatic 62:38% vote to Remain in the EU has given Nicola Sturgeon, the Nationalist’s skillful first minister in Edinburgh, the excuse she needed to demand a second independence referendum to end the 309 year Act of Union with England rather than being "forced out" against Scotland's will.

Are the English ready for self-government? asks a Dublin pundit. But in Belfast, former IRA leader turned Sinn Fein politician, Martin McGuinness, called for a referendum on Irish unification rather than restore the 300 mile land border between the EU and the Brits.

That would be no laughing matter either. In Scotland only the relative price and availability of oil from the North Sea’s flagging fields may now stand between the UK and its dissolution. If Dublin, still in recovery from recession, can persuade Ulster Protestants that it may be the better long-term bet, who knows?

And what about the wider geo-political implications for a diminished Britain’s role--should we get used to saying England’s-- in Nato, in the UN security council, the World Bank, IMF and other post-1945 pillars of the world order? What about Russian ravanchism or Asia’s return to global ascendancy? How will Washington react to the too-dependable Brits wandering off on their own adventure, just when Turnberry’s Trump is questioning basic assumptions too?

Again, British voters, some romantic, some angry, some dreamers, were asked a difficult question in their referendum to serve Mr. Cameron’s tactical party needs and came up with an answer with profound strategic resonance.

Resourceful Britain may find that Brexit has recharged its batteries and pull through, as it did in 1940 (always a popular image) and on countless dangerous occasions. But it has opted to gamble in ways that make the downside risk more obvious than George Bush Senior’s ”vision thing.” It is a large brick wobbling in the West’s wall.

No one politely praising the dignity of Cameron’s departure yesterday called him the new Lord North, George III’s man in Downing St when those 13 tiresome colonies cut loose. That may come later.