On June 23, 2016, Britain voted — after a national referendum of unparalleled intensity — to leave the European Union. The complicated path Britain has taken to exit the EU reflects the history of the European issue — and why Britain voted rightly.
The latest twist in the saga came last Tuesday, when the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to reject Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan for a Brexit that would have kept Britain tied to the EU’s market in goods — and thus unable to negotiate its own free trade deals.
You might not know that most Brexiteers believe in free trade, because critics of Brexit love to proclaim that it’s an act of misguided populism. Last week, Harvard’s Steven Pinker — an expert on the brain, not Britain — commented that “The travails of . . . Brexit in 2018 are a reminder to supporters that populism works better in theory than in practice.”
But Brexit did not emerge in a populist storm in 2016. In fact, British opinion on the EU turned negative in 1996, as the result of a squabble over exports of British beef to the continent. The euro crisis that began in the early 2010s fueled British skepticism. By 2016, if anything, the EU had recovered a bit from its low point a few years earlier. The only thing remarkable about 2016 was that it was when the referendum was held.
And the 20 years before 2016 are just one chapter in the story. As far back as the late 1940s, Britain was profoundly skeptical about the ideas that led to the EU, skepticism it displayed in every succeeding decade. Few if any issues have been debated more deeply in Britain than Europe. Ironically, critics of Britain’s supposedly ignorant populism are themselves deeply ignorant of the issue’s history.
That history has given Brexit long legs during the battle to make it a reality. The latest poll from the ComRes firm shows that 53 percent of the British public wants to get on with Brexit. Only 29 percent wants another referendum. The stability of British opinion on Brexit reflects the fact that the British people have had so much time to make up their minds.
A common fear is that Brexit will lead to economic calamity. Having written my doctoral thesis on the subject, I can safely say that British supporters of EU membership have been playing on this fear since the late 1950s. But in reality, while the EU does matter, British prosperity rests basically in British hands.
Being in the EU, after all, is compatible with being wealthy Germany or immiserated Greece. Being out of the EU is compatible with being prosperous (and democratic) Switzerland or poor (and autocratic) Belarus. What matters most is the wisdom of your policies and the character of your people.
Brexit has been hard for Britain because of politics. It splits the two main parties: most Labour members of Parliament oppose Brexit, but many Labour voters back it. Some Conservative MPs oppose it, but most Conservative voters back it. It’s hard to find a majority for anything. Worse, while a majority of British voters approved Brexit — in the last election, more than 80 percent of them backed a party that promised to respect the referendum — a majority of the British political establishment does not. And they are the ones who have made a mess of negotiating Britain’s exit.
The idea behind Brexit is simple: people should have the right to hire and fire their government. The fact that a British government elected to make Brexit a reality isn’t living up to it makes defending the right of the people to choose their government all the more vital.
This piece originally appeared in Newsday