Athens, Greece — It was clear by early Friday that the British electorate has given two fingers to the European Union, and voted for “Brexit.” It is less clear how Britain will extricate itself from its treaty obligations to the EU, whether the EU’s leaders will carry out their threat to punish the British for their patriotic disobedience, and what the economic gains and losses will be. We can, however, see the political winners and losers after a referendum that will surely mark a watershed not just in British history, but in the history of that sorry collision of ideals and reality, the European Union.
The first casualty is Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron campaigned for reelection in 2015 by promising to hold a referendum on the question of Britain’s EU membership. The election strengthened his position in the Westminster Parliament — he shed the Conservative party’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners — but left him hostage to his election promise. Favoring the “Remain” camp, Cameron dismissed the “Leave” campaign as economic illiterates and provincial fanatics; “Little Englanders,” an insult from the days of Gladstone, was bandied about. But he had misread the mood of the country, and of his own party and cabinet.
Cameron shot himself in the foot; his own party then stabbed him in the back. His charismatic frenemy Boris Johnson, he of the eccentric hair and Churchillian oratory, was first in with the knife, along with the two most thoughtful members of the cabinet, Ian Duncan Smith and Michael Gove.
Attacked from without and within, Cameron was hoist by his own petard. His Remain campaign never took the initiative, but devolved into a series of rearguard actions. By the spring, Remain was in such trouble that Cameron was looking to the Labour party for help.
Labour’s current leader, the Trotskyite relic Jeremy Corbyn, is a lifelong opponent of the EU. Until, that is, the referendum. Hoping to exploit divisions among the Conservatives, Corbyn discovered that the EU was not a neoliberal conspiracy, but a social-democratic paradise. This conversion on the road to Brussels failed to sway the voters. Wheeling out the last Labour prime minister, the generally loathed Gordon Brown, didn’t work either.
This morning, as the FTSE Index shed £100 billion, Cameron did the right thing. He announced his resignation, and promised to respect the will of the people, or at least the 51.9 percent who voted to leave. Corbyn, whose entire career has been a series of wrong things, will surely succumb soon Roman-style, probably ambushed in the Senate by the vengeful allies of Tonius Blairus.
#share#The big winners, domestically at least, are Nigel Farage and the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP). But for how long?
UKIP draws the support of both traditional, middle-class Conservatives and the remains of the old Labour working-class vote. Farage, one of the few significant British politicians to have worked outside politics, is not so much a dog whistler, as a gatherer of canines by use of a megaphone. The refrain in his bellowed melody is always a chorus about immigration. This morning, he called for June 23 to enter the calendar as “our Independence Day.”
Unsurprisingly, UKIP has attracted the support of neofascists. But they are less numerous in Britain than in the EU countries. Will Farage’s larger number of recruits from the Conservatives and Labour remain loyal, now that Brexit is also the policy of the larger parties?
Over the English Channel, in that barren speck of land know to the islanders as ‘The Continent,’ the biggest loser is the EU itself.
Over the English Channel, in that barren speck of land known to the islanders as “The Continent,” the biggest loser is the EU itself. The drive to “ever-closer Union” ran into the sand in 2005, when the French public rejected the idea. The Brexit vote repudiates the purported ideals of the Union, and excoriates the actual failings of the Brussels government. We may see in Britain what we saw in Ireland, the Brechtian spectacle of the public being told to vote again and to get it right this time. But a “United States of Europe” has never looked so improbable.
So we can add Vladimir Putin to the list of winners, and Turkey to the losers. The EU has no army, but Britain is its strongest military power. An EU without Britain, its economy stagnant, its defenses down, and its American friend uninterested, will be music to Putin’s ears. Expect more adventurism in Eastern Europe — especially with the U.S. election looming.
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Turkey is always the bridesmaid when it comes to the EU. Usually, it is the French who jilt Turkey. This time, it was Britain, which has consistently supported Turkish entry into the EU, albeit in the hope of loosening the bonds of Brussels.
Those bonds are now to face what may be their final stress test. The news about Brexit reached me in Athens, whose early inhabitants would meet on the Hill of the Pnyx to engage in direct democracy, mass voting on key issues. “Brexit?” more than one local asked me in the days before the vote. “And then Grexit?”
#related#If the British can go it alone, then the smaller countries of the EU’s southern tier will be emboldened. In Greece as in Italy and Spain, the temptation to escape decades of debt to Germany by floating a weak drachma, or lira, or peseta may prove irresistible. If you are taking a European holiday this summer, expect lots of hot weather and plenty of economic turbulence. And take plenty of U.S. dollars, too.
Talking of which, one of the many low shots in a vulgar referendum campaign was Cameron’s use of President Obama for the Remain camp. The president delivered a press conference like an emperor upbraiding the impertinent subjects of some ramshackle border province. At the time, and right up to the eve of the vote, the polls swung back and forth, and the commentators hedged. We should have known: If Obama was for Remain, then Leave always was the strong horse.
— Dominic Green is a historian and a critic.