As you may have noticed from afar, the Brexit debate in Britain is proving to be a dramatic and divisive affair, both domestically and internationally. It’s quite an event when eight former U.S. Treasury secretaries sign a manifesto urging the British to remain in the European Union, and still more of a sensation when a sitting U.S. president turns up in London to make the same appeal in person — given that about half the U.K.’s voters believe that remaining would amount to saying a final farewell to their self-governing democracy.
We don’t yet know exactly what President Obama will say later this week, but we can make a good guess. And it’s significant that the anti-Brexit politicians who invited him have been growing nervous and defensive about his speech. Obama as president has a right, they argue, to explain why it is in America’s interests to have Britain remain inside the EU.
No doubt he has such a right. But is he wise to exercise it? The last time a senior American leader attempted such public arm-twisting of a close ally was in 1954, when Secretary of State John Foster Dulles warned that if the French assembly rejected the plans for a European Defense Community, there would be an “agonizing reappraisal” of Washington’s commitment to European security against the Soviet threat. The French rejected the EDC, and things went on as before. America’s interests dictated that they should, and the French knew that.
RELATED: Brexit the the Meddlesome Mr. Obama
Doubtless Obama’s argument will be conveyed in more honeyed and less threatening words. But flattery and rhetoric can go only so far. People work out the meaning behind the words. As someone who has followed the course of U.S. policy on European integration for almost 50 years, let me put Obama’s central argument as clearly and honestly as possible:
“We Americans think that having the U.K. act as America’s trade representative within the EU is well worth the sacrifice of your country’s independence.”
Not quite the right tone, is it? Something disproportionate about the bargain. You can see that ordinary Brits might not warm to the sentiment.
That might explain why those politicians favoring Brexit don’t seem overawed by this intervention from the leader of the free world. In fact, Boris Johnson, the irrepressible mayor of London, was generally reckoned to have, er, hit a home run when he asked Obama why he wasn’t proposing to surrender U.S. sovereignty to a North American Union with Mexico, Canada, and assorted other hemispheric chums.
(As it happens, Obama would be only too happy to do so, but he can’t say so. Accordingly, Boris wins again.)
Most Brits haven’t displayed much resentment about these interventions to date, and English politeness will probably ensure that Obama, who is more liked by the Brits than vice versa, gets a good reception. But there are also deeper reasons for this absence of a strong reaction.
The first is that voters are increasingly cynical about these interventions from Olympus. They know that Prime Minister David Cameron, surprised by the apparent strength of the Leave campaign, has been touring the world, calling in chits, and asking fellow PMs and presidents to step forward and denounce Brexit as a threat to world trade, economic growth, financial stability, the chastity of women, the lives of the first-born, and not least his own survival as Tory-party leader.
Cameron’s pals (who might need his help some day) understand. Gallantly, the G20, the IMF, various Commonwealth leaders, the former U.S. Treasury secretaries, and the leaders of other EU nations (naturally reluctant to see the departure of a net contributor to the EU budget) wheel into action, responding to this appeal with the requisite tales of horror. Voters see and realize what’s going on. Some may even find it amusing: Isn’t that just like Dave? A real Flash Harry, eh? I wonder what he promised them.
This parade of notables marks the EU as a project of the political elites, both internationally and domestically.
It’s just that they’re not as impressed as they once might have been. In fact, this parade of notables marks the EU (not inaccurately) as a project of the political elites, both internationally and domestically. It is one of those organizations that give prominent politicians the chance of a second career if their first one flames out. No chance of winning the next election and becoming PM? Not to worry. The post of European commissioner (salary tax-free, plus vast pension) beckons enticingly. Serial political disaster and former Labour leader Neil Kinnock went along that route; so did his wife. His MP son is now married to the former Danish prime minister. The Kinnocks may be the first EU patronage millionaires to achieve that status all cleanly and above board. No wonder that politicians like the EU.
Political elites have never been more unpopular with the voters, however. All over the world electorates are rebelling against them. Calling in their aid is a double-edged sword. Cameron could be setting up the choice for voters as “the People versus the establishment.” And for once that would be a perfectly accurate slogan.
#share#And there’s a final reason why the international side of the Brexit debate is not arousing much indignation — the domestic debate is a just too exciting a distraction.
Only a little of that distraction is about the result itself. That’s a known unknown (to use Donald Rumsfeld’s terminology), and most people don’t think obsessively about it or about the polls predicting it. They’ll know when they know, and meanwhile they get on with life. The same goes for their patchy attention to the issue controversies on both sides: They’ll look at them in the week before the votes but, again, life’s too short to wrestle with them over months.
What increasingly grips them is something quite unexpected and personal, and smelling of drama and adventure: The political struggle to control the Tory party, alter the government, and perhaps realign the Right after the result is declared. And that is a much less simple matter than it may appear.
Note in the first place that this struggle is confined to the Tory party. All the other parties are united in favor of Remain.
Labour has a small but respected band of Leavers among MPs, a large-ish minority of its voters on that side, and in Jeremy Corbyn a party leader who is unenthusiastic about the side he backs. What was billed as his big speech making the case for Europe ran as follows: “Here are all the reasons for voting against the European Union. Now, vote for it.” But whatever that speech lacked in inspiration, it made up for it in quietly assembling a divided Labour party into a public façade of unity.
It’s a very odd situation. Britain is divided almost evenly into Remainers and Leavers on a matter of the greatest possible national interest. But only the Tory party reflects that division or contains a significant number of Leavers. The reason is simple: David Cameron is the Europhilic leader of a Euroskeptic party.
If the Tories had followed their natural instincts on the European Union, they would be fighting to Leave against a coalition of left-wing parties (Labour, Liberals, the Scot-Nats) voting to Remain. Divisions on Europe would be aligned with the usual left-right partisan divisions, and voters would be choosing between their traditional parties rather than between Leave and Remain.
But when Cameron was elected the Tories’ leader, he presented himself as a moderate Euroskeptic anxious to reform Europe along free-market and decentralized lines but willing to opt out of the EU if he failed to do so. That helped him to win and keep the Tory leadership.
David Cameron is the Europhilic leader of a Euroskeptic party.
But it also meant that he had to pursue Euroskeptic policies from time to time to keep his party united, and on one such occasion he had to offer an in-or-out referendum on membership to do so. That was never an unconstrained choice, as critics from Poland’s former foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, to Jeremy Corbyn seem to believe. It was built into his overall political situation as a leader privately opposed to his party in a matter concerning its deepest instincts. It was almost certain to happen at some time or other.
When the referendum was imminent, he had to decide how to jump. He jumped in a Europhilic direction, knowing it would split his party but likely manageably, while thinking it would be overwhelmingly popular in the country. Both calculations were wrong. He found himself opposed by far stronger anti-EU opinion in the country than he expected, and that encouraged opponents within his party to fight a much more determined campaign than they had envisaged before. Conservatives are now engaged in a full-scale civil war over Europe, with ministers attacking each other with different sets of dubious statistics. And this will not end when the result is declared.
If Leave wins, then Cameron will be finished as prime minister within a short time. His judgment will be revealed as mistaken on a key policy where he picked a fight and lost it. His internal enemies, large in number before this campaign, will swell significantly after a defeat. And it is not plausible that the man (and team) who described a withdrawal of Britain from the EU as unimaginable should be in charge of negotiating it in detail.
His position is hardly secure, however, if Remain wins by a small margin. All the same questions would be raised about his leadership, except that he would not have to negotiate withdrawal. But he would have divided his party on a matter that, because of the narrowness of Remain’s victory, would not have been put to bed. Whether Britain should be in or out of Europe would remain a central controversy in U.K. politics and probably result in another referendum. (There are many precedents for second referendums in the short history of the EU.) The Tory civil war would continue indefinitely.
If Leave wins, then Cameron will be finished as prime minister within a short time.
Only a landslide for Remain would secure Cameron’s leadership — or, since he has announced he will retire later in this parliamentary term, give his friend and putative successor, Chancellor George Osborne, a sporting chance to succeed him. That explains the unusual recklessness of Osborne’s financial predictions of economic disaster under Brexit (in an official Treasury document), which have been intellectually savaged by almost all commentators and in particular by one former Tory chancellor, Norman Lamont, as “spurious and entirely unbelievable.” Osborne must reason: If my only chance of the top job is a Remain landslide, then I might as well throw the kitchen sink at the Leavers and worry about the Treasury’s reputation for impartial statistics in the next term. Boris would be Leave’s favorite candidate, and a fancied runner, but not without rivals such as the cerebral Michael Gove.
Both Remain victories, however, would have a long-term damaging electoral effect on the Tories. Something between 60 and 70 per cent of Tory voters support Leave. That comes on top of those Tories who in the last decade abandoned their old party to sign onto UKIP. All of them care passionately about Brexit and thought that their party agreed with them. They won’t all forget.
#related#This matters. The rise of UKIP has given disillusioned Tories somewhere to go. The Tory party is already vulnerable. It won less than 38 per cent of the national vote in the May 2015 election. It would pay a heavy price in electability if only a small percentage of its current voters were to join the earlier UKIP defectors. A Leave victory, by contrast, would remove the only real obstacle to a reunification of the Right and its dominance of U.K. politics. In the last election Tory and UKIP votes together amounted to 51 per cent of the national total. Remain would keep these votes separate and opposed more or less indefinitely.
What matters more is that the Tory party would pay a still heavier price for this apostasy in its sense of itself. Toryism is rooted in a belief in the greatness of Britain as much as in a love of liberty. How could Tories think and talk intelligibly about anything if they had to celebrate a campaign of unremitting defeatism that had bullied the British people into ratifying their surrender of sovereignty to an undemocratic Leviathan?
No, my dear cousins, not even for the high honor of acting as Washington’s trade representative inside the European Union.