Brexit Is a Mutiny Against the Cosmopolitan Elite

06/27/2016 10:56 am ET | Updated Jun 28, 2016
Christopher Furlong via Getty Images

LONDON -- Brexit was a vote against London, globalization and multiculturalism as much as a vote against Europe.

London is the world's single most important center of global finance -- though that may be at risk now. With the surrounding southeast region, it dominates the United Kingdom's economic growth. It has some of the world's most expensive real estate and richest residents -- and absentee property owners. It is one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities. It is home to about 1 million continental Europeans. And it voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union. The rest of England did not.

Arguably, Brexit was also a vote for some version of the past. Fully 75 percent of those aged 18 to 24 voted for a future in Europe. Sixty-one percent of those over 65, along with a majority of all those over 45, voted against.

Those who will have to live longest with the consequences wanted a different choice.

The vote was grounded in nostalgia. The Brexit campaign was almost entirely negative and devoid of plans for an alternative future. It played on an old idea of sovereignty, old English ideas about the difference between the island nation and the mainland of Europe, alarm over immigrants and claims that the U.K. was somehow subsidizing Europe. This was cynical for some careerist politicians but sincere for others and, I think, for almost all their followers. But those who will have to live longest with the consequences wanted a different choice.

Not surprisingly, British citizens of immigrant backgrounds voted mostly to remain in the EU. Brexit was manifestly a vote against multiculturalism and for English nationalism. The nastiest part of the campaign was persistent fanning of anti-immigrant sentiment extending into racism and open religious bias. But it has to be said that this is a bit more complicated than it appears. EU membership mandated free movement of Europe's mostly white citizens. Combined with Conservative government quota, this actually led the U.K. to restrict access for the people of color from its former colonies and the rest of the world.

The people's frustration with Europe revealed deep-seated anger over a situation much bigger than the continent. England couldn't vote to withdraw from London or neoliberalism or globalization. But the problems many wanted to fix were rooted in these at least as much as the EU. Those who have benefited from globalization -- the well-educated and well-off, especially those linked to growing service industries in the southeast rather than old money in the Tory constituencies of middle England and the southwest -- voted disproportionately to stay in Europe. But it is telling that there weren't enough of them. Those with jobs mostly voted to remain in Europe. Those without jobs, or retired, voted heavily to leave.

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A "Vote to Leave" campaigner holds a placard ahead of the referendum. (Christopher Furlong/Getty)

Intellectual and policy elites were in denial but Brexit happened anyway. More precisely, the U.K. electorate voted, by a clear majority in a record turnout, to separate from the EU. This isn't actually legally binding, which leaves EU supporters with a tiny glimmer of hope that Parliament or prime minister might balk at actually giving the notification required under the Treaty on European Union. Actually withdrawing will take sustained negotiations. Flotillas of lawyers will be employed. Along with those financial speculators who bet correctly on the outcome, the lawyers will be among the few clear beneficiaries of Brexit.

There Will Always Be an England

In a sense, Brexit is misnamed. England voted to leave the EU. Technically, of course, the state that held the referendum and will now negotiate withdrawal was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in Europe. Wales, lacking a significant independent economy, did stick with England against Europe but that is not quite enough to make a great Britain.

Brexit is an expression of English -- more than British -- nationalism and is part of a decades-long decline in British unity. But the England that wants out of Europe is the England of vanished industry in the north, rural poverty in the southwest and people clinging to middle-class lifestyles in the suburbs of once-great cities that feel increasingly alien to them. Scotland has shuttered factories of its own, of course, but frustration at that fueled Scottish nationalism. English nationalism was reinforced by resentment of Scottish nationalism. But it grew and took on a populist character in reaction to real problems that seemed to have been brushed aside by many leaders in all major political parties. Brexit is a rejection of "Cool Britannia," the 1990s branding of a cosmopolitan, creative and united Britain as a part of a happy vision of globalization.

Brexit is a rejection of 'Cool Britannia,' the 1990s branding of a cosmopolitan, creative and united Britain as a part of a happy vision of globalization.

Arguably, the EU was a scapegoat for English anger at London, the version of globalization it has helped lead and symbolize and the politicians who have championed cosmopolitanism at the expense of solidarity with significant parts of their own country.

The England of Brexit has had vastly more trouble than London in absorbing immigrants -- largely because the economy offers fewer opportunities for immigrants and citizens alike. In thriving London, immigrants are some 40 percent of the population and mainstays of the service and construction industries.

Relatively wealthy residents rely on them for service in restaurants and don't think of them as competitors. And immigrants are less compartmentalized into quasi-ghetto residential areas than in the great cities of the rest of the country.

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Participants hold a British Union flag and an EU flag during a pro-EU referendum event ahead of the vote. (Reuters/Neil Hall)

London is home to 251 overseas banks and runs a financial services trade surplus of more than $100 billion.

London has generated the vast majority of Britain's economic growth for more than a generation and has kept most of the proceeds. It is also home to Britain's remarkably centralized government. If business and community leaders in Britain's impoverished northeast or southwest want to innovate and invest to stimulate local economic growth, they have to work with the bureaucracy in the London borough of Westminster. Britain's great cultural institutions from the British Museum to the National Theatre are overwhelmingly concentrated in London. All of Britain's top five universities are in or within commuting range of London. Londoners now joke about seceding from England -- thus confirming what people in the rest of the country always thought.

British nationalism, to the extent it existed, was anchored in the British Empire. There are more than a few today who imagine that somehow Brexit will restore Britain to its lost global prominence (even if not dominance). This couples a claim to cultural cohesion and continuity with an old-fashioned notion of sovereignty. Alas, in an intensively and increasingly interdependent world, that older notion of sovereignty has little to recommend it and relying on it is unlikely to make England or the U.K. great again.

The Brexit campaign was a close cousin to Donald Trump's quest for the U.S. presidency.

Of course, there were many complaints about the EU as such. With its expensive bureaucracy, willful inefficiencies and dysfunctional politics, it has given more than a little justification to the frustration. Still, on the basis of almost all research and evidence, the U.K. was a net beneficiary of EU membership.

The Brexit campaign was one in which accuracy of evidence didn't much matter. Politicians uttered outlandish claims, the media gleefully repeated them more often than it checked facts and even after many were debunked, voters happily embraced those that fit their preconceptions. But the real point isn't post-evidentiary political campaigns -- a bad thing, but not as novel as some think. The real point is the preconceptions.

The Brexit campaign wasn't driven by arguments about costs and benefits. It was driven by resentment, frustration and anger. It was emotional and expressive. And the grievances expressed had real foundations, even if the EU was a partially misplaced target and no practical solutions were offered. In this, the Brexit campaign was a close cousin to Donald Trump's quest for the U.S. presidency. Both are part of a still wider populist surge that expresses frustration with radically intensified inequality, stagnant incomes and declining economic security for middle and working class people in ostensibly prosperous countries.

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Trump in the U.K. as the referendum results come in. (Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg via Getty)

Populism expresses frustration equally with a version of globalization that has shifted power away from their countries and political elites who, for perhaps 40 years, told them there was no alternative. Not least, populism expresses anger with politicians who seemed not to have much time or attention for the complaints of those being bypassed by globalization. In the U.K. this includes members of the native working class who were once stalwart supporters of the Labour Party. In Scotland, many voted Nationalist. In England, they voted for Brexit. Very likely nationalism won't be able to solve their problems but at least nationalist politicians pay attention to them.

Demagogues have steered this populism to the right in the U.K., but like most populism it doesn't come intrinsically from one side of the political spectrum or the other (and indeed reveals that the notion of a clear left-right distinction may be misleading). Unattractively, demagogues have played up the nativism and indeed racism that also inform populist nationalism. They have built on resentment of urban elites who prided themselves on their cosmopolitan sophistication and made clear they regarded their less cosmopolitan countrymen as backward. Those urban elites included most mainstream politicians, so it is not surprising they struggled to be credible in this campaign.

Nationalism flourishes precisely when people feel threatened by international forces. Populism flourishes when people feel betrayed by elites.

This is not a uniquely English set of frustrations and political responses. Populism and nationalism are prominent around the world partly because since the 1970s inequality has grown sharply, and the middle and working classes of once-prosperous countries have seen living standards stagnate and economic security disappear. At the same time, migration has increased globally -- largely because of globalization itself, as well as wars Western countries like the U.S. and U.K. chose to fight in the Middle East. The world, quite simply, looks scary. Nationalism flourishes precisely when people feel threatened by international forces. Populism flourishes when people feel betrayed by elites.

The Damage Done

The referendum did considerable damage independent of Brexit itself and whatever actual institutional and market arrangements are put in place. Much of this is down to the campaigns, which were not just poorly run but travesties on both sides. That the Brexit campaign was marked by the U.K.'s first political murder in decades highlights the nastiness of the rhetoric used.

The "remain" campaign relied heavily on trying to scare people into voting for the status quo. Indeed, it was foolish of the Cameron government to allow the seemingly passive term "remain" to define the potential future of the U.K. in Europe rather than asserting an active goal for building a better future. Hardly anyone in the "remain" camp presented an idealistic argument for a European future (Gordon Brown made an attempt). The "leave" campaign had its own trouble bringing disparate protagonists together. Mainstream Tory politicians were determined to marginalize U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage and the UKIP. The Labour leadership seemed halfhearted.

One result is that people are unsure what they voted for. To a quite remarkable degree, the entire campaign failed to engage the question of exactly what would happen in the implementation of Brexit.

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World financial markets were rocked by Britain's vote to leave the EU. (AP/Eugene Hoshiko)

Markets are already roiled, in Europe even more than in the U.K. The pound and euro have both plummeted. Divorce will be costly. But the economic sky won't fall. Markets down dramatically at midday made up some ground later.

Brexit and disarray in Europe will likely speed the shift of global economic activity toward Asia; eurozone growth was already nearly stagnant. But in the short run, emerging markets were hurt as investors sought shelter from risk. And growth is spotty in the Global South, already suffering from both weak demand and weak institutions (think Venezuela and Brazil). Brexit isn't the primary cause of global economic uncertainty. It is an especially important demonstration that we live in an era of increased volatility and instability. If much of it is politically induced, it is at least exacerbated by rapid movements in global finance and weak governance structures for the global economy. Brexit is another demonstration, if we needed more, that the big global institutions built in the wake of World War II are no longer able to maintain global order.

In Britain, Brexit will almost certainly lead to the hegemony of a more emphatically right-wing Conservative Party. David Cameron, the prime minister who called the referendum -- foolishly and it appears without deep thought -- wanted to be a modernizer and a globalist, and in some ways, he was. He ran a poor campaign against Brexit and has now resigned. The career prospects of other Tory moderates look dim. Those in ascendancy are from the harder right. They campaigned as populists (even those with inherited wealth and Eton/Oxford educations) and to their shame, did not steer clear of racism and xenophobia.

Big global institutions built in the wake of WWII are no longer able to maintain global order.

But they are likely to rule as a more conventional hard right. Their nationalism will blend with strong cultural conservatism. Already, tight visa regulations may get tighter. They may try to balance the economic dominance of London by promoting home building and industry elsewhere, which would not be a bad thing. Their potential standard-bearer, Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London who campaigned for Brexit, will be erratic and prone to grandstanding but not revolutionary. Representatives of the party mainstream like Theresa May value consistency more, but are at least as right-wing.

End of the UK?

The new rulers will be emphatically and almost exclusively English, as were those who voted for Brexit. This may portend constitutional changes, even the end of the United Kingdom. As wags have started saying, they went to sleep in Great Britain and woke up in Little England. Scotland will press for another referendum on independence and likely secede. It will try to remain part of the EU. Northern Ireland may follow suit. Catholics were unsurprisingly more pro-EU than Protestants, partly because they recognized leaving Europe would mean more domination by England. But Protestant loyalists were split, not solidly pro-Brexit. Few have fond memories of border checkpoints separating them from the south.

The Brexit campaign has both revealed and deepened a range of other divisions. One is between the English and the many immigrants and expatriates living and working -- and paying taxes -- in the country.

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London Mayor Sadiq Khan and his wife lead the Pride march in London. (Chris J. Ratcliffe/Getty)

Divisions between racial minorities and the white majority are also worrying. These extend into religion -- with Muslim and Christian mattering as ethnic markers even for non-religious people. It will be important for leaders implementing Brexit to reach out to the young who didn't want it -- and indeed worry that it will damage their future prospects. It will be important to build trust among those who feel they don't fit the image of England embraced by the "leave" campaign. It is telling that Sadiq Khan, London's new Muslim mayor, used the 2016 Pride parade as an occasion to emphasize tolerance and inclusion not only for gay residents but also for EU citizens.

And the Future of Europe?

Disintegrative pressure could be just as great on the European continent. Of course this depends on the political response in 27 different countries. But there are strong signs that several -- including "core" countries such as France, Italy and the Netherlands -- may hold referenda of their own. It is entirely possible Brexit will be remembered as an early step in the unraveling of the EU. This might not go all the way. A new core Europe could form, building on the Holy Roman and Hapsburg Empires. This might still be called the European Union, but it would be an altogether different project.

The EU has helped to create its own problems. For a generation, its leaders have behaved almost as though their goal was to encourage populist revolt. In 2005, they brought a bloated basic law to referenda and were out of touch enough to be altogether startled at its defeat.

It is entirely possible Brexit will be remembered as an early step in the unraveling of the EU.

All but impervious to reform efforts, the EU has built a cumbersome, insular and easy-to-criticize bureaucracy. It has done better at opening capital markets than protecting labor (though in the era of neo-liberalism and austerity, the EU has demanded more protection for workers than the U.K. government wanted to give). Still, the EU has succeeded not just in the mission of postwar reconstruction and preventing wars among European powers (inherited from the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community). It has played an important role in providing Europeans with an impressively high standard of living and thriving cultural institutions.

The EU has also been important globally. It is among the strongest leaders in the struggle to address climate change. It is in the forefront of defending human rights. But suffice it to say, these aren't the top issues for populist voters. And the EU has faltered in confronting two of the biggest crises of recent years. In the face of global financial crisis, it abandoned the idea of solidarity as its richer members sought to protect their national interests. This exacerbated structural problems. Notably, the eurozone linked economies at very different levels of development without the political integration or governance needed for cohesive action.

Member states found it harder to agree on common policies. The signal failure in this regard came with Europe's inability to develop a common immigration policy. This started with an unwillingness to provide adequate support to Greece and Italy as they bore the brunt of new arrivals. It continued with a botched attempt to distribute refugees by national quotas (the U.K. was signally ungenerous). The failure continued to such a degree that some countries began to fortify internal European borders.

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EU far-right party leaders on May 28, 2014 at the EU Parliament in Brussels. (John Thys/AFP/Getty)

Brexit is partly a symptom of the declining purchase of the great institutional structures put in place after World War II. These include not only the EU but also the welfare states for which the U.K. and Europe have been justly admired. National institutions have been slow to adapt to changing economic circumstances and other challenges; they need rebuilding. But it is a huge question whether European countries withdrawing from the EU will have the will and capacities to fully rebuild their institutions on their own. And, as the EU faces nationalist challenges, it is ironic that its difficulties are exacerbated by the growing weaknesses of national welfare states run on the bases of market logics.

These are all global issues. Global institutions like the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are also creatures of the postwar era and in need of renewal -- if not reimagining. They have been slow to adapt to finance-led globalization and the rise of non-Western countries. New ones are being created, like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, often without full Western participation.

Brexit is part of a populist-nationalist current that will make it harder to achieve effective policies and management of practical affairs in an interdependent world. The U.K. has remained a major contributor to effective global integration even while it declined as a global power. Europe has been key to building and leading existing global institutions. If internal problems and insularity mean either plays a smaller role, the world will suffer.

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