The recent Brexit vote has, as readers of this blog will already know, been of acute interest to me. Pitting fervently held beliefs about national identity against the transnational experimentation of the European Union, the Brexit campaign brings the added complication of internal tensions between the sometimes-would-be-nations of Scotland and Wales, along with the divided status of Northern Ireland, in tension with the larger quasi-federal, England-dominated United Kingdom. In many ways, anyone interested in international relations studies could find few contemporary situations of more interest than the lead-up to the Brexit vote and its bewildering and ongoing aftermath.
As were many, I was surprised by the successful outcome achieved by the Leave campaign, which struck me as primarily an emotionally driven protest movement that seemed too clearly antithetical to establishment business interests to succeed. It is rare that truly surprising news occurs in our world, which is so often managed by corporate interests who pay incredibly close attention to bottom lines that we do not often see radical shifts.
While there is simply too much to discuss in one entry, I wanted to lay out some initial reactions. Firstly, while I have, with so many others, been disheartened by much of the virulent xenophobia and nationalist resentment of many proponents of the Leave campaign, I have become fascinated by how much the Brexit situation defies any simple binary division between “right” and “left” politics. Many analysts have pointed out that the Remain campaign was spearheaded by the well-educated, urban, ethnically diverse, and better-off on both sides of the usual political spectrum, while Leave voters were often from white, working-class backgrounds in either rural areas or in former industrial zones that have not seen much development. In other words, class issues and regionalist issues have trumped the typical politics of left and right, with many of those who feel that they have not benefitted from the economic growth engendered by globalism have reacted against the European Union’s clearly globalist program. (See Jim Tankersley’s excellent Washington Post article on the anti-globalist dimension to Brexit.) I find this genuinely intriguing—even as I, like so many others, feel dispirited by the fact that the flames of worries about economic stagnation among Britons has been fanned by much xenophobic rhetoric assailing economic migrants. (For some excellent analysis of Brexit voting patterns, see the BBC’s referendum results and Will Davies’s fascinating article on the sociology of voting responses ).
Going hand in hand with internal, individualized concerns about not sharing in globalist wealth has also been an alarming rise in nationalist settlement. As I have written about here and here, nationalist sentiment has been coming into increasingly volatile contact with European Union globalism. Setting this in the context of increasing (and increasingly dangerous) nationalist sentiment in Russia and its environs, which I discuss here and here, should make us all only the uneasier.
Many analysts have argued that the Leave vote will reignite the Scottish independence movement—and it is hard not to understand why Scots, who voted by a fairly wide margin to remain in the EU (roughly 62-38) are upset that an English majority will determine the fate of the larger British state. Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon has raised the specter of an attempt to block the EU referendum vote by having the Scottish Parliament withhold consent—a measure that would have the benefit of transforming the brutally reductive nature of a simple-majority vote into one in which the regional blocs of the UK can serve as checks (see this BBC piece). It will be interesting to see whether Sturgeon’s strategy works—and it should be noted that this would bring the United Kingdom much closer to a truly federal state than a single state (an issue I have discussed in one of this blog’s many reflections on the Scottish independence movement ). If this parliamentary strategy does not work, then perhaps indeed the Scottish Independence movement will be reignited—though I also wonder if the drop in the oil prices, the very real concerns about the UK’s nuclear arsenal and its status in NATO, and the fact that the United Kingdom as a single state could form very lucrative ties with other countries that might offset the market penalties it will incur for leaving the EU might offset the Scottish nationalism that has been reawakened by this vote.
It will be interesting to soon be visiting the United Kingdom, to be able to experience first-hand how anxious Britons must be about how all of this radical change will be sorted out. Having watched yesterday’s question-and-answer session in the House of Commons (thank you, CSPAN), I was fascinated by how resigned to leaving the EU Prime Minister David Cameron seemed—and also how clearly Cameron conveyed the fact that the next Prime Minister’s work will all be about painstaking negotiations on very fine details, an environment totally alien to the emotion-driven, reductive sloganeering throughout the Remain / Leave vote. I suspect that many emotional voters will continue to have second-thoughts about the massive change that has been unleashed, if only due to the fact that so much of their future time will be taken up precisely in the kinds of bureaucratic details of trade and quotas negotiations that many anti-EU voters clearly dislike.