National Security & Defense

Reflections on the Shock of Brexit

“Leave” campaign signs in London, June 15, 2016. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

All the signs of a Brexit victory were there in the weeks leading up to Thursday’s vote in Britain. The polls kept shifting but suggested a tight race, often with a small-to-medium lead for Leave. Reports from constituencies told of crowded debates in town and village halls. Major televised debates were gripping affairs. But there was a strong tendency to disbelieve that it could happen. Bookies were offering good odds on a Remain victory several hours after actual vote-counting showed Leave ahead. And when it finally happened, there was a shock throughout not only politics, not only the U.K., not only Europe, but the whole world.

Our favorite New York Times headline was: “Alarmed Britons Ask Pollsters: Why Didn’t You Warn Us?” About what? About how we were going to vote, of course. My goodness yes, if only we had known we might vote for Brexit, we could have sought an intervention. Nanny State, don’t ever let us down like that again.

It rings a bell, doesn’t it? That old Scottish joke about the sufferings of the damned who cry to the Almighty: “Lord, Lord, we didna ken.” After which the Lord looks down in his infinite mercy and says, “Well, ye ken the noo.”

There must be some reason why Brexit has shocked so many people. It’s becoming clear that Brexit is one of those events, like the decision of the Hungarian Communists to let East Germans escape to the West via their country in 1989, that tell us our world is changing in important ways. Hungary’s cutting of the wires on the border was only a modest liberal gesture in itself, but it signified the end of Communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall only months later. What does the shock of Brexit signify?

Not, it seems, shock at the market collapse of the pound and securities, which such distinguished experts as Bank of England governor Mark Carney had predicted would be just one of the harsh punishments invited by the sin of Brexit. Transitional instability in the currency and stock markets was predicted by all economic commentators, including those advocating Brexit. It’s par for the course. And when it came, the media reported it in apocalyptic terms. Doom was nigh. But the markets, while taking a hit, gradually stabilized as the changes were factored into prices. A BBC financial correspondent was scandalized when an experienced Wall Streeter forecast this chain of events. How did he know?

Well, replied the old Midas, I’ve been round the block a few times. And what happened later in the day more or less bore him out. All Carney had to do was promise to spend some $250 billion dollars he had earmarked to steady the markets. Indeed, the U.K. market index finished up on the week.

There’ll be wobbles for some time yet, but if the Brexit financial shock is worse than, say, the 1987 stock-market crash — and so far it’s nowhere near as severe as that — then the reason would probably be that experts such as Carney and institutions such as the IMF both warned that Brexit meant instant perdition while also assuring markets that it really wasn’t very likely to happen. If they had been trying to spook the markets, they couldn’t have done better than that. But the roof has not fallen in. It looks as if their analyses were either mistaken or else driven not by economic analysis but by political considerations. And if their predictions for the long-term economic Brexit shock are equally accurate, then ordinary British voters (including those who, shockingly, lack a degree) were quite entitled to reject their advice on how to vote. Indeed, they would have been foolish not to do so.

Similarly, the straightforward political shocks for Britain and Europe have also been handled calmly and expeditiously. Tory leader David Cameron resigned with dignity in order to make room for a Euroskeptic prime minister who can negotiate Britain’s leaving the European Union with greater plausibility. Boris Johnson leads a large field of papabile candidates, and it looks as if Johnson and Michael Gove, his chief ally, will between them arrange the former’s coronation at October’s Tory conference, followed by the choice of a new broad-based cabinet that would represent a shift within Toryism not so much towards the right as towards a more buoyant, cheerful, and patriotic conservatism that might gradually absorb the UK Independence party.

Liberal journalists, representing elites throughout the advanced world, have reacted with indignation to the fact that 52 percent of U.K. voters (many without degrees) have rejected the EU system of supranational government.

Then the possibility of a second referendum on Scottish independence was cautiously hazarded by Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, as only “likely.” Maybe that was because her devolved government lacks a majority in the Scottish Assembly; the collapse of the oil price has demolished the economic basis of Scottish independence; the Spanish government would oppose Scotland’s entry into the EU in order to avoid a precedent for admitting Catalonia; and the Scottish devolved government lacks legal authority to hold an independent vote on independence. Finally, the European Commission, doubtless anxious to halt the contagion of Euroskepticism before it spreads further, has already invited the Brits to submit their application and plans for withdrawal. Most of the pre-vote threats from Brussels have been dropped, and there looks to be a possibility of amicable cooperation between the divorcing partners.

If most of the expected shocks haven’t materialized, what about the shock that has? As several commentators, from Megan McArdle in The Atlantic to Rupert Darwall in National Review, have noticed, many liberal journalists, representing elites throughout the advanced world, have reacted with indignation to the fact that 52 percent of U.K. voters (many without degrees) have rejected the EU system of supranational government of which the elites approve. Naturally, these journalistic spokesmen argue, the common people could not possibly have good reasons for such an act of multinational vandalism. So they must be inspired by, er, racism, xenophobia, fear of globalization, and related other thought-crimes.

That account doubtless condenses and oversimplifies the elites’ response to the Brexit shock, which is just one small skirmish in a new class war in advanced societies between geographically mobile, liberal, skilled, high-earning professionals and more rooted, communitarian, particularist, and patriotic citizens (or what British journalist David Goodhart calls “nowhere” people and “somewhere” people). “Nowhere” people simply didn’t grasp the outlook of “somewhere people” in the referendum, not seeing that many decent people who voted for Brexit had such respectable anxieties as loss of community or, one step up, the transformation of their country as motives for casting their votes. So the elites thought the worst. They were still making the same mistake in their television and columnar explanations of the result on Friday morning. But what was remarkable was the Darwall-McArdle thesis that in other countries the elites reacted to the Brexit shock as if personally or spiritually affronted in their own lives. Alarmed, they asked: Why weren’t we told that they might vote for Brexit?

It’s a hard question to answer.

One aspect of it, however, is ideologically fascinating. Among the central arguments of those favoring Brexit was that the Brussels system was dangerously undemocratic and that British voters and MPs had lost the power to propose, amend, or repeal failed or oppressive laws. This was a passionate concern among English people who had grown up in a self-governing democracy, who may have fought for it in wars, and who simply couldn’t understand why the loss of their democratic rights didn’t worry their opponents. Yet again and again liberal journalists treated this passionate belief as either abstract or a cover for more primitive emotions and bigotries. Democracy as such was rarely given weight in Remain or liberal debates on the cost/benefit analysis of Brexit. They treat multinational political institutions as such unalloyed goods that it would be impolite to raise questions about such defects as a democratic deficit. Has the knowledge class/meritocracy/cognitive elite/nowhere people/etc., etc. developed not only an intellectual snobbery towards the rest of society, but even an impatient, dismissive contempt for democracy that cannot be openly avowed but that does influence its other political attitudes?

This is not an entirely theoretical problem. In the next day’s wrap-up of the results, some Remain supporters expressed such boiling anger at their defeat that they came up to the very brink of demanding a second referendum or some dilution of the decision to leave the EU. One can imagine their seeking to do either or both of these things when interest and enthusiasm have evaporated. That’s why the observations of the distinguished Scottish-American political theorist Richard Rose on the significance of this referendum are so key:

The referendum result was doubly decisive. . . . Given a chance to cast a ballot in which every vote counted equally, the turnout was 72.2 percent, higher than at any general election since 1992. The total vote cast for exit, almost 52 percent, is higher than that won by any British governing party since 1931. It is almost half again as much as David Cameron’s party gained in winning a majority of seats in the House of Commons at last year’s general election or that Tony Blair took in leading Labour to victory at the 2005 general election . . . a margin of more than 1.2 million votes in favour of exit is more than enough to satisfy the classic British stand that a margin of one vote is enough for victory.

In other words, this is a verdict that parliamentarians or ideologues will not be able to challenge at some later date. It has ironclad political legitimacy. As our own recent troubles with the First, Second, and Fifth Amendments currently show, however, the best rules are useless without men and women courageous enough to defend them.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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