Brexit: Why Britain Voted Leave

Arguments about the UK’s Brexit referendum were framed in terms of the UK’s global economic and political role. But the real issues for Brits were closer to home: whether they trusted their politicians to safeguard their national institutions and whether they believed that the European Union weakened these institutions.

Commentators on the United Kingdom are bewildered. Despite the predictions of most polls, despite the impressive mobilization of European and international leaders urging Britain to remain a member of the European Union, the Leave campaign won the referendum.

Most commentators spoke about the referendum in terms of two kinds of British persons: the Atlanticist and the Europhile. The Atlanticist regards the model case for understanding British politics as the year 1941: the year of building special relationships across the sea, the year of Lend-Lease and the Atlantic Charter. The Europhile looks to an ideal of European political and economic union: he regards the model case for understanding British politics in Prime Minister Ted Heath’s decision to take Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973. These two versions of the British person mapped conveniently onto the Leave and Remain campaigns of the referendum, in order to debate the role of Britain in the world.

The Remain campaign concentrated its efforts on winning this debate. When Downing Street coached President Obama to say that Britain leaving the EU would mean it went to the “back of the queue” in international influence, it was appealing directly to the spirit of 1973. It is the kind of debate that makes sense to North American liberals and conservatives, who are generally liberal internationalists: they agree about the importance of integrating international markets, strengthening a country’s international influence through economic means, and sustaining the institutions that encourage internationalism and oppose isolationism.

But this argument speaks to a very small selection of British people—the kind that gathers in London and Oxbridge. Outside of these places, one finds very different British people. Detached from foreign affairs, European or Atlanticist, and not persuaded by the promises of either articulation of liberal internationalism, they prefer their local customs, communities, and institutions. It is this kind of British person that steadily coalesced behind the campaign to leave the European Union. Why?

There has been considerable effort to portray this kind of British person as the backwards, intolerant English nativist, whose rise made this campaign one of the more divisive and violent ever in Britain. Such an argument betrays a short memory. Britain does know a time of divisive or violent political campaigns—the Troubles of the 1970s and 1980s. The referendum campaign was a far cry from a time when systematically planned bombings, shootings, and murder of innocents were commonplace throughout Great Britain. Some have tried to connect the Leave campaign to a rise of “pernicious patriotism”; but any argument that tries to link “pernicious patriotism” of the 1930s sort to Eurosceptics hoisting national bunting to celebrate the Queen’s birthday is surely feeble. These superficial and somewhat self-serving explanations do not help us understand the appeal of Vote Leave.

The Basis of Modern British Politics

Living in Britain, I was struck by how the Leave campaign continually emphasized the amount of money the United Kingdom sends to Brussels. It then coupled that figure—£350 million a week—with an argument that it could be better spent elsewhere, “like on the National Health Service (NHS).” Exiting the EU in order to spend more on the NHS is hardly a program for robust liberal internationalism. Nevertheless, it is precisely the argument that proved more persuasive.

To understand British politics, the most relevant historical moment is not 1941 or 1973, but 1945—that is to say, the general election of July 1945, when the Labour Party of Clement Atlee faced off against the Conservative Party of Winston Churchill. Churchill was revered for his wartime leadership. With the death of Roosevelt, he was easily the most respected world leader. He commanded tremendous clout abroad, and his judgment on any international crisis instantly defined the debate. At home, Churchill was riding personal approval ratings of over 80 percent. The Conservative Party based its campaign on his popularity, and expected an easy victory. International opinion of all kinds agreed. At the Potsdam conference following German surrender, even Stalin was predicting that Churchill’s party would win a comfortable majority of about eighty seats.

The election outcome was a shock. In one of the largest landslides in British history, the Labour Party of Atlee routed the Conservative Party of Churchill. How could the British people remove a popular wartime leader, who had led the country to victory in its “finest hour”? The reason is that the British had made their politics—not international politics—a priority.

The hardships of war had driven the British people to depend heavily upon their neighbors and countrymen. In the language of social capital theorists, they trusted others to help realize their basic needs. As the war drew to an end, the British were collectively concerned about the health of the middle-aged, the livelihood of their elderly, and the economic future of their veterans. Through the campaign slogan, “Let us face the future,” Atlee’s Labour Party captured the mood of the people perfectly. Labour promised a range of social policy reforms, including full employment, social security, and a single-system national health service. The social trust built up during the war would be guaranteed in national institutions.

That, in turn, depended on the national institutions providing the services. Safeguarding the basic need of health, the NHS rapidly became the most revered institution: as any spectator of the London 2012 Olympics knows, it can even be honored in elaborate dance routines. Britons rejected Churchill and his international clout for the NHS—but they also did it to strengthen social trust among themselves. The British people now associate social trust with the well-being of their national institutions. They revere their national institutions for applying sound rules for good governance, health, and social security that have the best interests of the British people in mind. They expect their elected representatives to create these rules and protect these institutions.

But they are concerned that supra-national institutions wear down these national institutions, damaging their ability to address uniquely British concerns. Complaints about the requirements the EU sets for the curvature of bananas in Britain sound trite. However, they are addressing the concern that laws and regulations governing British life are not set by national institutions, but by supranational ones. If as much as 70 percent of regulations imposed upon national institutions are from Brussels, it is hard to believe that all of these are drafted in the best interests of the British nation. As Dominic Burbidge argued here at Public Discourse last week, the institution of the European Union, whether in the European Parliament or in the European Commission, provides the British people almost no chance to directly influence its laws and regulations.

More critically for British people, it weakens the national institution of government. No elected member of Parliament has the ability to change or alter the laws and regulations set by the European Union. As a result, Parliament is no longer a place where laws are proposed, written, and passed by elected representatives. The anxiety of the British is that their membership in the EU has caused them to give away their own self-government and has weakened the institutions they built up after the Second World War.

The Weakening of Self-Government in Europe

Like Dominic Burbidge, I look to the French political theorist Pierre Manent for explanations (Manent must be all the rage in Oxford these days). The victory of the Leave campaign is a case study in the political theory of Manent. Manent’s work traces the transitions between different political orders in the history of the West. These orders rise and fall based on their capacity to meet the basic political need of human beings: the need to govern and be governed well.

The modern nation-state has met this basic political need through the identity of the “citizen.” The citizen aspires to govern and be governed well through self-government. He aspires to individual self-government, to direct and control his own life. This includes the pursuit of his social and economic needs. But, together with people of a similar identity, he also aspires to self-government with and alongside them—what we might think of as self-determination, or collective self-government. Neither aspiration can be separated from the other. A relatively liberal but monarchical regime, like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, can effectively safeguard individual self-government. But as long as it does not allow for Hungarians to rule themselves, it will not satisfy the distinctively Hungarian demand for self-government. So the Empire must be split up, in order to create separate Austrian and Hungarian states. Only within a community instituted within the limits of a particular collective identity can one safeguard individual self-government in a way that satisfies the aspirations of the citizen. By associating self-government with individual and collective aspects, Manent shows the logic of the contemporary political form, the nation-state, and how it is in accord with human political nature.

But, argues Manent, the European Union weakens this form. Laudably, the project of the European Union is to guarantee individual self-government in a continent whose modern history is a storm of unmatched attacks on it. Through its laws, regulations, and institutions, the EU focuses on protecting and encouraging individual personal and commercial freedom: the free movement of persons in an area of freedom, security, and justice. Yet as the EU moves forward in “ever closer union” to realize this goal, it blends national identity: first with European ideals, then with human ideals. So it attempts to dissolve the nation-state and reconstitute its political form at the level of the whole of humanity.

Manent holds that this project cannot be realized. One cannot live as a universal humanity and still satisfy our basic political need. Again, one can only live politically in a community instituted within the limits of a particular identity. By denying these particular identities their importance, Manent thinks the EU is denying political nature. In its attempt to reconstitute politics at a supra-national level, the EU has failed to provide an institution within which the citizens govern themselves. No major spokesman for the Remain campaign, for example, was ever caught singing the praises of the European Parliament or Commission as an excellent example of democracy. They conceded that the EU is an undemocratic engine driven by unaccountable and unelected bureaucrats. “Very well, the citizen does not govern the EU,” they argued, “but at least the citizen is governed well.”

So the EU might fulfill the other half of our basic political need: to be governed well. It gains its political legitimacy not through democracy, but what The Economist calls “output legitimacy”: justification by its results. But when achieving these results appears to require a single European immigration policy or foreign policy, it only assaults the claims of national communities to organize and govern themselves, and weakens their capabilities to do so. The citizen does not govern the EU, and the EU does not govern him well. So the EU fails to meet our political need.

A Collapse in Trust

The weakening of self-government exacerbates unease about the future of the nation-state and its institutions, and erodes the trust of citizens that their states are fulfilling their basic needs. These pressures help explain why British people no longer trust their politicians to safeguard their needs as they did in the 1940s. The trust in the political class has now reached perilously low levels: only one in ten believe that their politicians “do their best for their country.” They see the European Union as further eroding trust. Partly because they see their London political establishment as complicit in that operation, they distrust them too. That lack of trust means that the “interventions” against Brexit that the Remain campaign orchestrated, whether it be a Treasury or IMF report or a statement from a foreign leader like President Obama, actually increased support for the Leave campaign.

Many British people care little for the views of the chattering classes in London and beyond. But they do care about the spirit of 1945. They want to know that they can depend upon their national institutions. They want guarantees that they can set their own priorities about these institutions, vote for those who will advance them at the ballot box, and see their representatives implement their wishes. To the shock of the chattering classes, these British citizens have chosen to assert collective self-government over a liberalism focused on individual prosperity and internationalism. The referendum did not cause this tension—but it has exposed how much these competing visions of the world now divide us.

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