t is more than 40 years since the United Kingdom last went to the polls to vote on its relationship with Europe. In 1975, the question was whether the country should continue to remain part of the European Economic Community (familiarly, the Common Market) into which the Conservative Party had taken it two years earlier. Under the Labour Party government that had been elected in the interim, the UK was in its worst postwar economic doldrums. So when both Labour and Conservative politicians alike (including Margaret Thatcher, then four years from her premiership) presented the Common Market as an economic benefit to the UK, the British people were persuaded and voted by a two-thirds margin to remain.
In the years that followed, the Common Market developed into something very different from the unified trading bloc of the 1970s. In the early 1990s, following the eventual ratification of a pact called the Maastricht Treaty, it was transmuted into the “European Union,” run out of Brussels. The new name shrugged off any pretense; the EU was a political as well as an economic union. The process of ever-closer fiscal union under a common currency was just one element of what was to follow. The reality of a transnational political confederation was now its overarching purpose. What had begun for Britons as an arrangement to trade well with our European neighbors turned into an expansive exercise in cohabitation under one roof.
Of course the inexorability of this political union had its setbacks. But the increasingly detached and ever-less-accountable officials in Brussels never allowed these to actually set them back. When the French and Dutch were allowed to vote on the latest iteration of the EU Constitution in 2005 referendums, both publics rejected it. The EU steamrollered on anyway. From then on, whenever countries were granted votes on further unification and cast them “wrong” (such as Ireland’s rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in 2008), they were ordered to redo the vote until they came up with the “correct” answer. The EU’s will was not to be resisted. Any individual country suspected of holding back the project was threatened that the consequence would be destruction of the whole, with all the financial and political costs that was said to entail.
It should not be surprising that between 1975 and today a degree of popular ill will has grown toward this metastasizing project. Nowhere has that pain been more keenly felt than among British conservatives. The narrow ratification of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 occurred under John Major’s Conservative government; the process produced a set of startlingly close votes in Parliament and bitter divides within the party. This fight and others hit right at the nerve centers of the British conservative tradition, not to say philosophy.
The principle of “sovereignty” is often cited by conservative Euroskeptics, as is the increasing lack of democratic accountability in Brussels, not least the appointment of unelected bureaucrats with lifetime tenure to the all-powerful European Commission, which makes and implements EU policy. But these, along with warnings of the consequences of fiscal union without further political union—meaning either financial catastrophe or enforced further political union—and the impact of allowing people to travel with no restraint across national borders (the so-called Schengen rules) in the heart of Europe all went unheeded.
In the years after the fight over the Maastricht treaty the image of the EU-obsessed Conservative politician became a staple of the national comedy as well as a shorthand cliché for politicians in Brussels depicting political “backwardness.” The “federasts” (to deploy the historian-journalist Noel Malcolm’s name for the supporters of the European Union) described their opponents as “swivel-eyed” bores who inexplicably spent their time “banging on” about overenthusiastic regulations as though they were totalitarian diktats. And although the Labour movement included those who objected to the EU for its intrusions into union laws inside Britain and the flooding of the UK with cheap and often more diligent workers from elsewhere in the EU, it was on the right that the grief was most keenly felt. After Maastricht there even arose a break-away party called UKIP (or the UK Independence Party)—a single-issue grouping that only in more recent years has became a focal point for national identity issues unrelated to the EU.
Now, four decades on, the British people are going to vote in June on what has been called the “Brexit”—whether Britain should remain part of the European Union or should withdraw from it.
The latest referendum is not so much the result of a grand awakening as it is an inglorious consequence of internal Conservative Party politicking. Going into the general election of 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron made an effort to stem further electoral leakage from his party. In an effort to unite the right and gain a majority (rather than have to strike another ignominious alliance with the Liberal Democrats with whom Cameron’s Tories had struck an alliance to form a government in 2010), the prime minister promised that if returned with a majority, he would give the British public a referendum on the EU. So, after being duly returned with a small majority, Cameron was in the unfortunate position of having to fulfill this commitment; his only advantage was that he was able to decide the date of the poll and the nature of the question. Like much of the rest of his party, Cameron has long posed as a Euroskeptic to maintain the affections of his grassroots but in practice has always been intensely relaxed about the intrusions of Brussels. But he was left without a comfortable corner to hide in.
So earlier this year Cameron went to Brussels and spent several days in supposedly tough negotiations with his European counterparts. The business allowed Cameron to pretend that he was returning to the British people with a wholly new deal and permitted the EU to pretend that it could be flexible. With that in mind, the public could decide whether they wished to stay in this “reformed EU” or get out altogether.
In fact, he came away with what friends and foes agree was to be the better part of nothing. His “tough renegotiation” basically involved the UK’s being able to claim it possessed greater control of certain migrant working benefits than it had had before. To say that even Cameron’s friends could not pretend he had come away with a good deal is a statement of fact, because immediately after the referendum was announced, two of his dearest friends—Justice Minister Michael Gove and London Mayor Boris Johnson—announced that they would campaign to “Leave” rather than “Remain” in the EU.
By making Britain’s vote an all-or-nothing choice, the prime minister is banking that the innate conservatism of the British people will persuade them to remain in the EU, because what might happen if we leave is less certain than what will happen if we stay. A vote to leave, he constantly reiterates, is a “leap in the dark.”
From the moment the referendum campaign began, the vast majority of Britain’s political class signed up for Remain. Even the new Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, rejected a lifetime’s far-left opposition to the EU and declared himself a supporter. Cameron’s bet appeared to be that, as in 1975, the key figures lined up in opposition would be a ragtag of eccentrics, wilderness-dwellers, and gadflies. For example, the radical-leftist aristocrat Tony Benn and the right-wing prophet of immigration doom Enoch Powell had campaigned alongside each other against the Common Market in 1975, and this was what “Remain” was hoping for from the “Leave” forces. Right on cue, at the outset of the Brexit campaign, the outrageous Ba’athist George Galloway appeared with UKIP leader Nigel Farage at a Leave rally. But the presence of Gove, Johnson, and other highly intellectual, thoughtful, and (crucially in 21st-century Britain) culturally diverse figures in the leave camp made Cameron and his allies up their game.
The 2015 visits of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to a bankrupt Greece were routinely interrupted by mass protests depicting her as the Führer.
The arrival of President Obama at the end of April was the Remain camp’s strongest moment. Apparently as a quid pro quo to David Cameron for his uncritical acquiescence in the Iran nuclear deal, the president not only urged the UK to remain in the EU but added that were the UK to leave, then the country would start “at the back of the queue” in any future trade deals with the United States. There would be no special treatment, he said. The historic alliance between the UK and the U.S. would count for nothing. Once Britain was on its own, it would have no more purchase on the trade affections of the United States than would Ecuador or Laos.
But the predominance of such scare arguments unintentionally emphasize something that is missing. Arguments both for and against the European Union have always been characterized by two aspects: the practical and the romantic. The practical case for EU membership has serious arguments for and against. The virtues of trading in one large bloc as opposed to existing alone as a less formidable but far more adaptable entity have been argued over endlessly. And the romantic case for ‘Leave’ is also clear and has certainly been prominent in the debate so far. Johnson, Farage, and others are perfectly capable of speaking to the UK’s heart, reminding the country that we were far from nothing before 1975 and that we actually did rather well in the centuries before the EU. They remind the country of what we might be once more if we only controlled our own borders, were subject to our own laws, and chose our own future through the clear democratic vehicle of a truly sovereign Parliament. This is the one place in which Leave has an advantage.
For although there was a time when the Remain camp might have told a romantic tale of its own, its silence suggests that even the most devoted Europhiles are now aware that the romance of the EU is pretty much dead. The romantic tale once proclaimed far and wide was that the EU was the guarantor not just of prosperity but of peace, that it represented a new high-point of civilization, and that in lieu of the internecine struggles of the era of nation-states, the solution lay in a post-state, post-borders, post-historical entity.
The successive eurozone disasters of the last decade put paid to at least one aspect of that narrative. It became harder to argue that economic union brought the continent together when the 2015 visits of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to a bankrupt Greece were routinely interrupted by mass protests depicting her as the Führer. Worse still, the decision by Merkel and the European Commission to open the borders to provide humanitarian relief to the suffering people of Syria created a disastrous refugee flood numbering in the millions. This highlighted not only the European Union’s common capacity for atrocious decision-making, but the legacy of atrocious decisions of the past—for the security nightmare of the refugee crisis was exacerbated by the elimination of many internal borders throughout the Union (save Britain). For while the free movement of people may be a joy for a Parisian who wants to head to Belgium for the weekend, it also allows a jihadi from Brussels to head to Paris for the night (and head back to Molenbeek when that night is over). Across the continent, the British people can see the electoral results of the EU’s unwillingness to correct the errors of its own creation, and one consequence is that we see parties that are either justifiably or otherwise called far-right taking the lead across Europe. David Cameron’s decision to rush his referendum was, among other things, a cynical attempt to win the vote before the all-but-certain expansion of the migration crisis during the warm months of the summer pushes larger numbers of Britons to see the EU not as the guarantor of peace but as its destroyer.
This is why those arguing Remain from the prime minister down nearly all start their arguments with an acknowledgment that the EU is a terrible mess, with impossible attributes and atrocious processes. It is an understandable tactic. For if they attempted any other approach, they would be laughed at until defeat. The EU is the only trading community in the world to have experienced zero growth in recent years, so its benefits are invisible right now. And the idea that the EU is a guarantor of peace or stability simply looks crazy when we have just had a suicide bomber detonate outside the European Commission’s headquarters.
Imperfect as it is, this is the decision that the British people are stuck with—in or out. It is often characterized as a battle between heart and head, with Remain urging people to vote with their heads and Leave urging people to vote with their hearts. If this were a fair fight, then the fact that there is a Leave argument that can address the head while there is no serious Remain argument with the ability to penetrate the heart should guarantee Leave’s victory. But the organized gang-up of the financial sector and business leaders at a time of worldwide economic uncertainty seems likely to provide a Remain win. The polls—and more important, the bookies—all suggest as much.
For what it is worth, I will be voting Leave. I am 36 years old and have never had a chance to vote on Europe before, and I believe that we would be best to disentangle ourselves politically from the nightmares I foresee in the years ahead. American friends of both a liberal and a conservative stripe often tell me that I should vote Remain because they believe that the UK can “moderate” the EU’s socializing tendencies or avert its migration into an anti-American bloc. Nobody who makes such calls can have spent any time studying the entity. It is as though a Trans-Atlanticist like myself urged America (for reasons of moderation and British self-interest) to engage in a union of the Americas in which Americans were subject to laws from Chile, taxes levied by Canada, and all organized by a Parliament headquartered in Costa Rica.
Like many of my countrymen, I would like to live in an independent nation with all the risks and opportunities that condition entails rather than remain in a safety net at the very moment its supports are giving way. I believe voting to remain will mean we will be in a worse negotiating position than we have ever had, leading to further loss of sovereignty and democracy and an unending subjugation to the whims of Brussels. But I am probably in the minority. And so we will head in the same direction as the rest of the continent, and only in time will it become clear that what the world will get will be neither peaceful nor prosperous.