Democracy & Government

Brexit Anyone? Why the US Should Care About Thursday’s Vote in the UK

Like its former colony, Britain is in the midst of an ugly debate over national identity.

Why the US Should Care About Thursday's Brexit Vote

A Brexit supporter in Bolton, England during a visit by UKIP leader Nigel Farage. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The murder of a Labour Party member of Parliament, Jo Cox, just a week before Britain’s referendum on its membership in the European Union, stunned the entire nation, briefly suspending an increasingly shrill national debate as the “Leave” and “Remain” campaigns attempted to recalibrate their messages and soften their tone.

In an incident eerily reminiscent of the 2011 assassination attempt on US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), Cox was fatally shot and stabbed on her way to her weekly “surgery” — where MPs meet with constituents to discuss local concerns.

Cox’s accused attacker, Thomas Mair, is far-right fanatic with links to the US’s neo-Nazi National Alliance. When asked to identify himself at a court hearing on Saturday, Mair responded: “My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” While Leave campaigners reject any link with their campaign, Mair’s call for freedom is echoed in the pro-exit side’s rhetoric, which states that Thursday, the date Britons cast their ballots on the so-called “Brexit,” could be Britain’s “Independence Day.” Cox had been pro-European and deeply involved in advocating for migrants and refugees from the Middle East.

Like its former colony, Britain is in the midst of a divisive and at times ugly debate over national identity and the nation’s role in the world, with accusations of bad faith the order of the day. And, as in the US, the fissures are not so much along traditional party lines as they are between internationally oriented elites and those who feel misled, undermined or usurped by them and their interests.

Just hours before Cox’s death, Nigel Farage, whose United Kingdom Independence Party led calls for a referendum on Europe, had launched his party’s official referendum poster – a picture showing thousands of Middle-Eastern-looking men queuing at the border of the European Union with the words “Breaking Point” emblazoned across it. The clear implication: Europe is being overrun by outsiders, a fate that Britain can only avoid if it leaves the EU. On the other side of the debate, European Council President Donald Tusk has gone so far as to say that Britain leaving would be a fatal blow to Western civilization itself.

Internationally, there are fears across Europe that a British exit would trigger a rise in support for the continent’s isolationist, populist parties, weakening democracy on the continent and giving succor to Vladimir Putin in his expansionism. How would a weakened, dissolute Europe react, perhaps, to a Crimea-style Russian incursion in member states such as Lithuania and Latvia, which border Russia?

Leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) Nigel Farage poses with the party's new EU referendum poster on June 16 in London. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) Nigel Farage poses with the party’s new EU referendum poster on June 16 in London. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Farage, who has almost singlehandedly brought Britain to this point, is one of the most recognized figures in British politics, perhaps the closest we have to a Donald Trump figure. He has a flair for the outrageous sound bite (suggesting, for example, that people with HIV should be banned from entering the UK), and a casual disregard for the truth that veers from amusing to alarming. During one recent publicity stunt, Farage was seen smoking cigarettes as he led a flotilla of fishing boats up the river Thames to the houses of Parliament. When Daily Telegraph writer Michael Deacon asked why Farage was smoking, having previously given it up, the party leader replied that he believed doctors had “got it wrong on smoking.” Like Trump, Farage rails against immigration, though he has twice married immigrants. Within his own party, he is seen as overbearing, and does not cope easily with party colleagues such as the eloquent Suzanne Evans taking any of what he sees is his limelight. Similar to Republican Party leaders’ reaction to Trump, the UK political establishment still seems unclear as to whether Farage is a joke or a threat, even as he sets the agenda.

If Leave wins, there would be a strong case that Farage is the most influential British politician never to have sat in Parliament. Ironically, the smoking, drinking, PC-baiting UKIP leader’s only legislative service has been in the European Parliament in Brussels. Even so, Farage has campaigned for Britain to leave the EU for more than 20 years, and now is his moment. And, just as Republican Party leaders in the US are being accused of dog-whistling Trump into political existence, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron could end up taking the blame for Farage. Cameron pledged the referendum before the 2015 general election, in hopes of keeping his party’s Euro-skeptic wing from abandoning him in favor of UKIP. As it turned out, UKIP inflicted damage on Labour, with many traditional regional working-class voters viewing the party as out of touch with concerns on immigration. So Cameron’s gamble now looks foolish: rather than confront the naysayers in his party who have never loved him (as Thatcher and Blair did in their time), he took a huge risk. His judgment and his job will be questioned if Remain loses, or even if it wins by a narrow margin. Prominent Conservative Leave campaigners, including former Mayor of London Boris Johnson and Justice Secretary Michael Gove, are waiting in the wings should Cameron be seen to fail.

Membership of the European Union has consistently been an issue of contention in British politics since the UK joined, under a Conservative government, in the early ’70s. Those from left and right who wish to leave the Union believe that its byzantine structures of councils and commissioners mean the EU is essentially undemocratic; there are fears of a “United States of Europe,” with common taxation system and even a common military. Hanging over everything is the word “control”: control of Britain’s finances and, crucially, control of Britain’s borders. Freedom of movement is a cornerstone of the European project, but there is a sense that the UK is a soft target for immigrants for Eastern Europe and the many thousands fleeing from conflict in the Middle East and North Africa who manage to make it to Britain.

The Remain side speaks of Britain’s place in the world being stronger within the European Union, giving the UK greater bargaining power in the world. Remainers point to President Barack Obama saying a lone Britain would have to go to the “back of the queue” in negotiating trade deals with the US (bizarrely, some on the exit side picked up on Obama’s use of “queue” rather than the American-English “line” as proof that he was being briefed directly by the Remain campaign). Remainers say that any post-Brexit negotiation with Europe would leave Britain still subject to the Union’s rules on trade and movement while unable to influence them from the inside.

Many in the country are not in the mood to be told what to do by politicians.

Yet, in spite of UKIP members’ lack of electoral success (the party took 13 percent of the vote in 2015, but due to Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, gained just one member of Parliament), theirs has been the prevailing narrative in Britain for the past year: the metropolitan elite, the story goes, is not listening to the majority of the population who are forced to compete for health care, housing and benefits with newly arrived Europeans who enjoy freedom of movement across Europe’s borders. The parallel with Trump’s campaign is not hard to see. The Leave campaign says it will “make Britain great again,” but seems largely to be built on isolation, nostalgia and promises of all things to all men: there will be more free health care, less bureaucracy and fewer but better immigrants.

Leave has made much of the possibility of Turkey’s eventual ascension to membership of the European Union and the imagined ensuing mass migration by Turkish Muslims to Britain. Though this prospect remains almost entirely hypothetical, it has not stopped it being a central theme for many “Brexiteers.”

Actual facts are thin on the ground. The Remain campaign has been widely accused of running a campaign based on fear, telling the population that households would lose thousands of pounds per year, and that home prices would fall in the event of a Brexit. This is partly based on the economic uncertainty that would inevitably follow a vote to leave, but to many it feels like bribery, even blackmail.

And then there is the simple fact that many in the country are not in the mood to be told what to do by politicians. An enormous gap of trust has opened between the political establishment and much of the electorate. One poll this week showed that 46 percent of people planning to vote leave believed it was “probably true” that the referendum would be rigged. The paranoid style of politics has arrived in Britain.

It would be easy to dismiss this anger, but the fact is that it is grounded in reality. For many who live there, Britain and Europe do not feel like happy places right now. In Britain, the possibility of ever buying a house is fast running away from millennials, as the real-estate price bubble continues to grow, and the government shows no real will to meet social-housing building targets. The government appears intent on radical overhaul of institutions such as the National Health Service and the British Broadcasting Corporation, with many believing the real aim is to scrap them entirely. The decline of heavy industry such as steel, and even domestic retail chains such as British Home Stores, has left Britons feeling unanchored in a globalized economy. Terror attacks in Europe have made people across the continent feel less safe, and the EU’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis has been weak. The response for many has been to retreat. In spite of the more optimistic messages put forward by some Remainers of breaking the shackles and forging new partnerships in the world, the campaign has struggled to get its message beyond the bureaucratic. It seems impossible to make a case for Europe as a cultural, as well as political and economic entity, without sounding like the dreaded metropolitan liberal elite (“But the wine! The cheeses! The opera!”).

Against this backdrop, the death of Jo Cox, a committed internationalist, at the hands of a far-right white nationalist in her home constituency in the north of England, felt like a terrible vision of the extremes to which Britain could be pushed by the Europe debate. A close result either way come Friday morning could mean the debate will rage for some while yet.

Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is editor of London-based magazine Little Atoms. Follow him on Twitter: @mePadraigReidy.