Brexit, Nationalism and the International Far Right
This is the lightly edited text of a talk I gave at Hamilton Third Age Learning on exclusionary nationalism and Brexit. It's a long, illustrated, post explaining the connections between the far right, the rise of nationalism and Brexit, Trump and anti-EU movements in Europe today.
Brexit refers to the referendum held on 23 June 2016 regarding Britain’s continuing membership in the European Union. A relatively simple question was asked:
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”Voters had two choices:
1. “Remain a member of the European Union”
2. “Leave the European Union”
The Result: 17,410,742 voted to leave; 16,141,241 voted to remain.
The leave campaign thus earned 51.9% of the 33.5 million votes cast – a turn out of 72% of the 45 million people eligible to vote. Thus, 37% of the total eligible electorate cast a vote to leave the European Union [or EU]. This result was widely seen as surprising.
When the idea to hold a referendum was first approved by Parliament in May 2015 it was intended as a purely advisory measure: indeed, it was argued at the time that to be a binding mandate, a supermajority of at least 60% of votes cast would be necessary. However, since June of 2016 the new leadership of the Government, itself installed as a result of the political fall-out from the referendum, have taken the view that the vote showed that the British people want to leave and have subsequently followed a course of action to make a Brexit happen. On 30 March, this year, PM Theresa May, triggered article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and initiated divorce negotiations between the EU and the UK. There is now a two-year period to work out the details of the divorce arrangement. But regardless of the deal worked out, unless a negotiating extension is agreed upon by both the EU and UK, by the end of March 2019 Britain will formally leave of the EU.
Why, after a 44-year relationship, was there a vote to consider leaving? What were the issues and forces pushing for this vote? And most importantly why did the Leave side win a plurality of the votes?
I will attempt to address these questions, first by setting out the historical context, indicating the issues that divided the campaigns, and then answering directly why I think the Leave side won. Throughout I’m going to make connections to the broader European and North American context.
To understand why there was a vote to leave in 2016, I think we need to first consider the context of the long-term relationship between Britain and the European Union. We might describe this relationship as Britain wanting one foot in, but always keeping one foot out, of Europe.
The EU’s origins go back to formation of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957. After initially believing that the Commonwealth was a suitable Anglo-centric alternative and counterweight to the EEC, British governments reversed that view in the early 1960s and came to the conclusion that Britain’s economic future actually lay with Europe. Britain applied for entry into the EEC twice in the 1960s, only to have their applications summarily vetoed by President De Gaulle of France.
On the third application, by the Conservative government of Edward Heath in 1973, Britain was admitted to the community. This was confirmed in 1975, after a referendum held on the question by the much less-EEC positive Labour government of Harold Wilson. In answer to the question: “Do you think the UK should stay in the European Common Market?” 67% of the population voted “Yes” with clear majorities in all but two of the UK’s 68 administrative counties, regions and Northern Ireland. The Labour government abided by the result despite divisions on the issue amongst its own MPs and rank and file. Indeed, many within the Labour Party distrusted the EEC and, when in opposition after the election of the Conservative Government led by Margaret Thatcher in 1979, for a while it became Labour Party policy to leave the EEC.
Key pro-Europe members therefore left Labour altogether and joined other disillusioned centrists who had formed the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981. The SDP would ally and eventually merge with the Liberal Party to create the Liberal Democrat Party, and that has been the most consistently pro-European political grouping in Britain.
Although it had been Conservative governments that had pushed for and succeeded in getting Britain membership in the EEC, a vocal group on the right wing of the Conservative Party also always opposed that membership.
Thus, what would come to be known as Euroscepticism was present in Westminster from the start of Britain’s relationship with Europe, found on both the far right and on the left of the political spectrum. Meanwhile, the more centrist wings of both main political parties, and the Liberal Democrats, have been pro-European.
After becoming Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher became much more Eurosceptic than the rest of her own cabinet. She had supported British entry in 1973, but as Prime Minister she set about re-negotiating the terms of British entry in the early 1980s. At that time Britain was paying a lot more into the EEC budget on a per capita basis than were other members. This was partly because of Britain’s late entry into the community, and partly because farm subsidies made up some 70% of total EEC expenditures, and Britain received relatively few of these subsidies. The UK “rebate” negotiated by Thatcher in 1984 reduced Britain’s contribution to the budget from more than 20 percent of the total in the early 1980s to about 12 percent today. This rebate would underlie a contentious issue in the later Brexit debate.
Thatcher’s government also kept Britain from joining the Schengen Treaty area in 1985: this was the treaty that abolished border checks at the signatories' common borders and orchestrated the harmonization of visa policies across Europe. Instead, Britain and Ireland maintained their Common Travel Area: an open borders agreement comprising the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands.
Schengen was a key step in the transformation of the EEC into the broader European Union, a process confirmed by the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993. The purpose of the EU was to integrate Europe’s nations politically as well as economically, creating a united foreign policy, common citizenship rights and a single currency. Thatcher opposed Maastricht, but the Conservative government of her successor, John Major, signed the treaty, albeit with the concession that Britain would be allowed to retain its own currency – and therefore be outside the new Eurozone.
Throughout the first 20 years of its membership, then, Britain was a self-limiting member of the European integration project. Nevertheless, membership in the new Europe did profoundly transform the British economy and many important social and cultural links were established. For those born after the 1970s, Europe has been as important a constant in national life as has the monarchy.
And from the 1990s on, substantial numbers of British people began living in other Europe states and vice versa. And, of course, the EU itself also began rapidly expanding, to what is now a union of 28 states.
All states currently under an EU Treaty
Its important to note here is that it is precisely because of the continuing influence of a Eurosceptic minority within Britain’s political class, that Britain has had the least constrained arrangement of all the EU members.
When Labour leader Tony Blair, won a landslide victory in 1997, after moving his party more towards the centre of the political spectrum, it appeared as if Britain had finally embraced a strongly pro-European Union position. The Labour Party had mostly reconciled itself to Europe by the time of Maastricht, and Blair’s government worked to build and strengthen ties with the rest of Europe. Euroscepticism in both main political parties was quite muted in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and those opposed to membership in the EU increasingly gravitated to a number of fringe political groups, which were brought together by the creation of the UK Independence party (UKIP), led after 1997, by Nigel Farage.
The main raison d’etre of this populist, far right party was withdrawing Britain from the EU. It received much positive press from the tabloid media, particularly the papers owned by moguls Richard Desmond and Rupert Murdoch. UKIP’s slow but steady rise in support over the past two decades worried the right wing of the Conservatives, who feared that even though UKIP has only ever elected 1 MP to Westminster, a sizeable portion of their own support would eventually flee the Tories in favour of UKIP.
UKIP’s main electoral success has come, ironically enough, in elections to the European Union Parliament, where because of that assembly’s proportional representation system, UKIP has matched and even outpolled Britain’s mainstream parties (27.5% of the vote and 24 of Britain’s 73 MEPs in 2014). And in the EU Parliament Farage has led the small but vocal Eurosceptic group of MEPs (now called Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy) of far-right nationalists from across Europe.
In 2007, after plans for an official EU constitution collapsed, the Lisbon Treaty was passed instead. This gave the EU Parliament more powers and further entrenched neo-liberal economic polices within the Union. However, the ratification of the Lisbon treaty coincided with the global economic meltdown prompted by the collapse of the housing financing sector in the United States.
The financial crisis engulfed much of Europe, and resulted in massive problems in the Eurozone, where the oversight of having a common currency but no common fiscal policy led to some states experiencing acute debt crises. Efforts to save the Eurozone led by Germany resulted in the near asphyxiation of the Greek economy. Britain had not joined the Eurozone but experienced their own financial crisis nonetheless.
The financial crisis, along with the unpopularity of Britain’s participation in the Iraq war, led to a collapse in the fortunes of Labour, and the election of a coalition Conservative -- Liberal Democrat government, led by David Cameron and Nick Clegg in 2010.
In government, Cameron repeatedly urged his party backbenchers to stop “banging on about Europe”. But frightened by the continued uptick in support of Farage’s UKIP, the Tory right constantly hassled him to adopt a “tougher line” with Brussels. A supporter of the EU himself, Cameron’s response was largely to appease the Eurosceptics in his Party. Against the backdrop of growing economic unrest in the Eurozone, in 2011 he passed the European Union Act, which required any EU-wide treaty to be first put to a British referendum. Then, in January 2013, in another effort to quiet the querulous Eurosceptic critics in his own party, Cameron promised that, if the Tories were re-elected as a majority in the May 2015 election, he would not only further renegotiate Britain’s membership, he would also hold a referendum on continued membership by the end of 2017.
At the time this was viewed as a pretty cynical, hollow promise on the part of Cameron: when the election was called few pundits, and certainly no one in the Tory leadership, believed Cameron would win a majority. As the graph below shows, in 2013 it seemed more likely was another coalition with the pro-European Liberal Democrats who would never agree to such a referendum.
But with the surprise majority victory in 2015, Cameron felt compelled to follow through on his promise to his backbenchers. He embarked on negotiations with Brussels to fix what he said was wrong with the EU, including changes in migrant welfare payments, more financial safeguards and easier ways for Britain to block EU regulations. Despite getting further concessions from Europe, agitation within his own Party for the promised referendum continued and In February 2016, Cameron set June 23 of that year as the date of the vote.
The announcement immediately prompted government ministers to declare their backing for either the “remain” or “leave” campaigns.
Cameron, most of the Conservative Party and most of the opposition Labour Party all backed the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign – the official Remain group. Cameron recklessly called this referendum in order to deal with a discipline problem within his own party. He was complacent about the outcome, and when it went against him, he would resign the Prime Ministership.
But a handful of high-profile Tory MPs organized the official Vote Leave Campaign. Justice secretary, Michael Gove, and former London mayor Boris Johnson, became the de facto leaders of the official “Vote Leave” campaign.
It should be pointed out in Johnson’s case, and most probably Gove’s too, this decision was driven entirely by their personal political ambitions. They saw this as an opportunity to capture support on the right of the Tory party and stake a claim to Party leadership down the road. And, indeed, given his reaction to the result of the referendum it seems pretty clear that Johnson didn’t even expect the Leave campaign to win – he certainly had no plan, no idea really, what he was going to do if it did.
Meanwhile, Farage and UKIP had a parallel campaign called Leave.EU. A small number of Labour MPs also joined Leave groups.
Crucially, however, the new Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn was himself ambivalent on the vote, did the bare minimum he could to support Remain, and that only half-heartedly.
In fact, Corbyn had long been a Eurosceptic – voting against the EEC in 1975, voting against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 – and, as a consequence, Labour’s national campaigning for the Remain side was judged at the time and after to be anaemic at best. Local Labour activists worked hard for Remain, but their leaderships did not. Indeed, at the time of the referendum Corbyn refused to even confirm he’d voted Remain.
Nature of the referendum campaign
The Brexit referendum had a plethora of organized campaigns. But their collective arguments quickly coalesced around certain disputed issues.
45% of British exports go to the EU; Britain has better trade terms because of the size of the EU
Britain could negotiate a new EU relationship without being bound by EU law. Secure its own trade deals with non-EU countries like China, India and the USA
Per household, Britain pays the EU L340 a year and gains an estimated L3,000 in return. In or out, Britain has to pay to access the EU’s single market.
Britain can stop sending L350 million per week to Brussels. This money could be spent on other British priorities, like the NHS.
Most EU regulation collapses 28 national standards into one European standard, actually reducing red tape and benefitting business.
Leaving will return control over employment law and health and safety. Certain businesses within Britain resented specific regulations imposed by Brussels.
Leaving by itself won’t reduce immigration. Countries that trade with the EU form outside have higher rates of immigration, including from EU countries, including Britain.
Britain can change the “out of control” system that offers an open door to the EU and blocks non-EU immigrants who could contribute to the UK.
At international summits, Britain is represented twice – by the foreign secretary and the EU high representative Co-operation has helped fight Ebola and piracy in Africa.
Britain has little influence within the EU. From outside, it can retake seats on international institutions and be a stronger influence for free trade and co-operation.
But these formal issues were quickly subsumed by the overall tone of the debate and by key themes that were only tangential to the formal positions.
Indeed, the Remain campaign was criticized before and after the vote for not connecting with the population – particularly in rural and economically depressed areas of Britain. Not only did Remainers fail to adequately explain, in emotionally as well as intellectually satisfying ways, why membership benefitted Britain; they relied on the authority of experts to make their case; and on the economic consequences of leaving. Partly this was because the leaders of the Remain campaign, and most significantly Cameron himself, started out entirely complacent about the referendum, thinking that the Remain side should easily win, because they believed their intellectual position, particularly the economic argument, made their case for them.
Only towards the end of the campaign when the polls indicated the vote was too close to call, did the Remain campaign ramp up its rhetoric, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne essentially threatening that if Leave won the vote the result on the economy would be so catastrophic that he’d have to immediately introduce an austerity budget the severity of which had been seen since the Second World War.
The Leave campaign, meanwhile, played unapologetically on emotional responses from the start: on nostalgia for Britain’s past, pre-EU glories; on anger with Westminster for years of austerity for the economically disadvantaged while the rich prospered; on resentment towards the political and intellectual elites for their condescension towards the masses; on hope for a different future; and, increasingly, on fear of outsiders.
Appealing to this variety of emotions was entirely calculated. During the campaign, Michael Gove famously dismissed the factual objections to Leave’s promises with the statement “the British people have had enough of experts”.
And the co-founder of the Leave.EU campaign and financial backer of UKIP, the millionaire Aaron Banks stated immediately after the vote: “Facts don’t work” for winning votes. “The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.” [Note this was five months prior to Trump winning the US election]
It is important to remember that this debate played out against a backdrop of general discontent with the British government and its attitude towards the electorate that had arguably been growing for decades, and certainly since 2008.
Moreover, the one issue that came to define the Leave campaign more than any other was connecting the EU to the migration crisis – the millions of economic migrants and refugees streaming out of North Africa and the middle east into Europe.
The mass influx of migrants and refugees was quickly seized on by UKIP and made the centre piece of the Leave.EU campaign propaganda.
Farage in front of one of their billboards. The picture is of middle-east refugees walking through the Balkans.
From a Leave.EU pamphlet. It purports to show the probable growth of the EU to include poorer Balkan countries and Muslim Turkey. Note, however, that the only countries labelled (other than the UK) are Syria and Iraq, the source of refuges, but who have nothing to do with EU expansion.
Another exacerbating factor was the fear excited by the increase in terror attacks on mainland Europe, particularly the two attacks in Paris (Jan. & Nov. 2015) and in Brussels (Mar. 2016).
Within this context, those pushing a far-right nationalist message found a ready audience among a section of the electorate. I’m going to refer to this far-right brand of nationalism as exclusionary nationalism – its a bit of a tautology, as all nationalism is predicated on exclusion: all nationalisms require an other against which the national community is implicitly defined. But the kind of nationalism embraced by the far right and populist movements in Europe (and North America) today harkens back to mid 20th Century varieties, often invoking notions of the volk, ethnic belonging, and civilizational divides.
It rejects multi-culturalism and all forms of cosmopolitanism in favour of hard cultural boundaries, or at best, demanding the complete cultural assimilation of newcomers to the ‘established’ norms of the nation. These are self-described populist movements, pushing back against elites thought to be out of touch with the realities of “authentic” society. Much of Europe’s far right nationalism today tends to proseltyze against neo-liberalism in favour of national economic boundaries, or at least for economic policies that promise to favour those economically disadvantaged within the national community as opposed to ‘globalist’ elites.
The core of the Leave vote in Britain last year were attracted to these ideas; they are fully embraced by UKIP. We can see this by comparing what we know about UKIP voters and the demographics of the referendum.
UKIP’s supporters and others who were passionate about the Leave campaign are not just single-issue Europhobes or political protestors. Their Euroscepticism is combined with clear ideas about immigration, national identity and the way British society is changing. They distrust the political elite at Westminster, who they regard, rightly, as being overwhelmingly middle-class, highly educated, socially liberal and comfortable in an ethnically and culturally diverse society. In contrast, those who vote UKIP tend to embrace exclusionary nationalism because they are uncomfortable with the way British society has changed: they find multiculturalism alien and threatening.
In a 2014 study, the political scientists Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford concluded that: “UKIP's support has a very clear social profile, much more so than any of the mainstream parties. Their electoral base is older, mostly male, working class, white and less educated.”
They found that 57% of professed UKIP supporters were over the age of 54, while only one in ten were under 35; 99.6% of UKIP supporters identified as white; 55% of UKIP supporters had left school aged 16 or under, with only 24% having attended university. Ford and Goodwin also found that UKIP's support base was more working-class than that of any other party, with 42% of supporters in blue-collar jobs. 81% believed that immigration undermined British culture, a view shared by only half the wider British population.
On economic issues, there was a divide between UKIP voters and the party itself. In contrast to the party's economic liberalism, UKIP supporters often held more leftist attitudes to the economy, with almost 80% opining that big business took advantage of working people and almost 70% thinking that privatisation had gone too far.
However, much like the situation in the USA, UKIP’s leadership, and many of those leading the charge for Brexit and espousing economic nationalism in Britain today are essentially members of the liberal elite that their own supporters criticize. UKIP and the Leave.EU campaign have been funded by multimillionaires who have benefitted from neo-liberalism. They have been given huge amounts of media exposure by billionaire media moguls, who are often interested in reducing regulation (and taxes) on their businesses, but really have no plan for (nor do they care) about the plight of the economically disadvantaged that make up the base of their support. Playing on cultural issues – immigration, sovereignty, national identity – allows them to connect at an emotional level to their supporters, despite their divergent economic interests.
The BBC helpfully produced the following charts comparing the voter profiles of Brexit and the 2016 Election:
Looking at these charts its striking how closely they resemble the data compile about UKIP supporters in 2014. Moreover, with the exception of incomes, it is also notable how closely the profile of those who support Leave matches that of those who voted for Trump in November 2016. This is not a coincidence. We now know there has long been connections among the leaders of the Leave campaign, particularly Farage’s Leave.EU and the Breitbart group led by Stephen Bannon that successfully orchestrated Trump’s winning campaign.
The social media data mining that led to the profusion of fake news being sent specifically to voters that might be swayed by it was undertaken by the US company Cambridge Analytica for the Leave.EU campaign and the Trump campaign simultaneously. An investigation of whether this broke UK election laws is currently underway.
The same tactics, the same appeals, the same rhetoric, was applied in both the Brexit and US elections, and it crops up in other nationalist movements across Europe as well.
But why did Leave win?
On the one hand, it has to be noted that the Remain side was largely ineffectual and complacent about the outcome, believing it had the “facts” on its side, until late in the campaign when in desperation it turned instead to blatant fear mongering about the possible consequences of a “Brexecution”. But “facts” were not the currency of the campaign. The inability of the Remain side to engage voters using facts about membership in the EU and possible consequences of leaving, was made apparent on 7 June 2016 – two weeks before the referendum, when only 24 percent of voters said they felt "well" or "very well" informed about the issues, according to BMG Research polling released by the UK's Electoral Reform Society.
On the other hand, the Leave campaigns were effective in mobilizing people because they pretty much ignored facts altogether or just made them up. Indeed, many of its claims were debunked during the campaign as exaggerations, mischaracterizations or outright lies.
The Leave Campaign bus with its claim that £350 million was sent to the EU each week – money that could be spent on British health care instead. This was proven to be misleading during the campaign, as government figures showed that in 2015, the UK contributed an estimated £12.9 billion – after the automatic rebate of almost £4.9 billion – to the EU budget, while EU spending on the UK was £4.4 billion. So the actual net contribution by the UK to the EU was £8.5 billion – or £164 million a week. And literally hours after the vote’s results were tallied, Farage and other Leave leaders immediately backed away from the claim that any money saved would be spent on the NHS, saying that it was a ‘mistake’ to make that claim during the campaign.
Indeed, after the referendum, the independent authority in Britain charged with ensuring commercial advertising does not employ misleading claims, indicated that many of the Leave campaign claims plastered on their billboards, posters and leaflets would have been disallowed under its own rules, compared to only a handful on the Remain side. But there is no authority policing political campaign claims for fears of impinging on free speech.
But more than just bending of the truth, as I noted earlier, Leave appealed to emotional responses rather than rational ones. In particular, Leaver campaigners played on anxiety about immigration and resentment towards cosmopolitan elites. As Gove said on a SKY News Television talk show, to much applause in the audience, “the elites have done very well out of the EU, that’s why they support it, but what about decent, ordinary people?”
Similarly, claims made by the Leave campaign that EU migrants were overwhelming the native population, taking British jobs and “stealing” welfare benefits, turn out to be misleading at best – but they spoke to those who felt that Britain was changing in a way they didn’t like.
Lets put the facts up against the emotional responses by going over some of the numbers: the population of the UK is currently about 68 million, and net migration to the UK in 2015 was 333,000, with an estimated 184,000 people coming from the EU. The number of people living in Britain but born elsewhere currently sits at about 9%; in the USA its 13%, in Canada its 20%, in Australia 27%. The government released official figures in May of 2016 which showed that around 1.2 million British migrants were living and working in other EU countries, compared with around 3 million EU migrants living and working in the Britain. Of that latter number 114,000 EU migrants were receiving some form of working age benefit from the government, or less than 3%. In contrast, 14.5% of the total working population were claiming some form of working-age benefit. Economic migrants from the EU in Britain are thus much less likely to be receiving government support, of any kind (indeed they are barred from some benefits by government policy), and their economic impact on Britain is largely positive.
But such figures were dismissed by Leave campaigners who instead held meetings in front of Polish delicatessens on otherwise ‘traditional’ British high streets, hinting rather obviously that cultural prejudices rather than economic realities underpinned anxieties about immigration.
Indeed, there was a clear racist undertone in much of what Farage’s campaign, in particular, had to say the migration and Syrian refugee crises. The fact is that Britain already does control its borders with regards to non-European migrants because it is not a Schengen state. Moreover, it processes asylum seekers because of other international treaty obligations, not specific EU ones. And compared to the rest of Europe it has received relatively few asylum applications: the average number of asylum seekers per 100,000 local population in 2015 in the EU as a whole was 260; in Hungary it was 1,799; in Sweden 1,667; in Germany 587; in France 114, and in Britain, 60. Europe is facing a major migration and refugee crisis (which is actually more cyclical rather than unprecedented), but Britain is not.
But the Leave campaign exercised passions, rather than disputed facts. No more was this obvious than in the murder of Labour MP and remain campaigner Jo Cox barely a month before the referendum by an far-right, racist Leave supporter.
In short, the Leave campaign was able to mobilize nationalism which relies on appeals to emotional attachment, ideas about national identity, and nostalgia. And while some who voted Leave embraced a relatively benign nationalist stance (and have pointed, reasonably enough, to the many flaws of the EU), many others have gravitated to a harder and less benign form of exclusionary nationalism.
Conclusion: Exclusionary Nationalism and Europe
In the early and mid-20th Century exclusionary nationalism was a powerful ideology that divided Europe (and much of the world) against itself. Although not its cause, appeals to exclusionary nationalism mobilized millions to fight in World War I. Resurgent again in the interwar years, exclusionary nationalism was further radicalized into the variety of ideologies we know as fascism. That radicalized nationalism fueled another, even bigger war, that took away tens of millions more lives. In other parts of the world across the 20th Century, exclusionary nationalism has been the ideological force behind innumerable wars, genocides and atrocities.
But the European integration project begun in the aftermath of the Second World War was supposed to stop this – at least in Europe, to that point the epicentre of nationalist conflict. The idea of a new Europe, begun with a partnership between France and Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries took root in the 1950s, and by 2010 had brought together most of Europe under its rubric. Supra-nationalist institutions, common economic interests, common social and legal protections, and a common European identity, was heralded as the antidote to nationalist divisions. One could be a patriot of France or Germany or Britain and also be a citizen of Europe.
This is not to diminish the challenges to, and inherent problems of, this new Europe. As much as its social and legal policies protect citizens, its embrace of neo-liberal economic policies has aided in the furtherance of economic inequalities, both between states and within them. Such inequalities breed resentments. Similarly, other global events, such as the current migration crisis, have become challenges that also breed disenchantment. The far right, ironically organized and co-operative across national boundaries, has fed on that discontent, and with the aid of social media, spread their exclusionary nationalist message. They have been successful in part because the great European experiment of unification has failed to adequately justify its own existence and give people, especially those socially and economically disadvantaged, a reason to support it.
The late historian Tony Judt noted in a prescient 1996 essay, “A Grand Illusion?” that “just as an obsession with ‘growth’ has left a moral vacuum at the heart of some modern nations, so the abstract, materialist quality of the idea of Europe is proving insufficient to legitimate its own institutions and retain popular confidence.” In other words, the mere objective of unification is not enough to capture the imagination and allegiance of those left behind by change, the more so in that it is no longer accompanied by a convincing promise of the indefinitely extended well-being.
We are witnessing now a rise in far right nationalist challenges across Europe, indeed the world, and the EU is one of its main targets. In the Netherlands, France, Hungary, Austria, Germany, indeed in most EU states, far right nationalist and populist groups have taken root since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, chipping away at the legitimacy of the EU. There has been a rise of nostalgia for the seeming certainties of the nation state and a call to national memories that gave meaning to the collective past. And in the last few years, due to conflicts particularly in the middle east, there has been the rise of Islamaphobia. For all these reasons, exclusionary nationalism has returned with a vengeance, to Europe, and indeed to the United States (and to India and Japan, and host of other countries).
Given the British one-foot-in and one-foot-out approach to Europe, it should perhaps not be a surprise then, that it was in Britain that the Eurosceptic far right should have had its first major success. The Leave vote in 2016 amounted to just over a third of all eligible voters. Perhaps half of that number were and are committed to the far-right nationalist views of Farage and UKIP; some had principled reasons for wanting the divorce, and I’d wager that the remainder merely wanted to send a message to Westminster – a kind of virtual poke in the eye for being ignored by government – or were swayed by unscrupulous promises made by Leave leaders.
But more than anything the Brexit vote was an attempt to turn back the clock, not 40 years, but a 140, back to when Britain could bask in splendid isolation, because it’s empire was the envy of the world and its navy ruled the waves. But this is a nationalist fantasy totally at odds with today’s world.
Let me finish by noting a sardonic commonplace in today's Russia: “the future has become unpredictable — and so has the past.” That phrase rings true for Russia where Mr. Putin plays the nationalist card because it's the only card he can play — since he certainly can't play the economic card, the bright future card. But its now true for Britain too. The Brexit vote was also a vote for revisionist history, for a vision of Britain for the British — of England for the English, really — that hasn't existed in a very long time, if ever.
Today in Britain, the future looks uncertain and the past unpredictable.
Today in Britain, the future looks uncertain and the past unpredictable.