A dispatch from liberated London.
By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
24 June 2016
A man carries an umbrella past a polling station for the EU referendum in central London Thursday. (Reuters)
London feels like a city liberated by one side in an ongoing civil war. The papers on the newsstands seem to come from a foreign country—yesterday's country. At twenty minutes to five this morning, it became apparent that Britain's citizens had voted by a 4-point margin to leave the 28-nation European Union. Most Londoners, politicians across Europe, and virtually all pundits and politicians are in a state of shock and rage.
The EU has always found, by hook or by crook, the wherewithal to forestall populist outrage against it. A poll released on election eve showed that those who favored remaining in the EU would scrape through pretty easily. But so deep is the cleavage between those who profit from the present order and those who feel screwed by it that the latter have become unfathomable to, and unpollable by, the former. Despite driving rains across Britain on Thursday, voter turnout was at record highs—72 percent, higher than in last year's general election. Within hours, prime minister David Cameron, who led the Remain side, had announced he would resign. Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn was facing a party vote of no confidence. The pound had fallen to its lowest level against the dollar since 1985, and people were dancing in the streets of various European capitals and calling for referenda of their own.
"It was a noble idea for its time," said the former conservative London mayor Boris Johnson, Cameron's rival since their days together at Eton, and now his probable successor. "It is no longer right for this country." The universe of what is politically possible has expanded—and not just for Britain.
Remain was backed by the leaderships of all three major parties, not just Cameron's Conservatives but also Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Yet British people have never particularly liked the European Union, and Remain never aspired to convince them to. Instead, in an extraordinarily well-funded and well-choreographed campaign, it trundled out one high-ranking functionary after another to warn that outright catastrophe would befall the U.K. should it retake control of its political destiny. Cameron and his colleagues coordinated anti-Leave interventions by the IMF, various economists, and even Barack Obama, who, during a visit, threatened to discipline an independent Britain by sending it to the "back of the queue" on trade relations.
People derided this coordinated effort as "Project Fear," but it was highly effective. This created a rallying and broadening of the establishment. Even the usually conservative Mail on Sunday made its peace with the EU, editorializing: "The great chorus of economists, businessmen, educators, historians, scientists and others who have urged that we remain in the EU cannot simply be brushed off as if their opinions are so much babble."
Brushing off those opinions was exactly what Leave intended to do and, ultimately, succeeded in doing. As Leave saw it, those whom Remain called "experts" were nothing more than what voters in a more democratic age used to call "bosses" and "elites." The conduct of the EU's leaders provided eloquent proof. European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker spent half his time urging Britain to unite with its European partners in brotherhood, love and solidarity; and half the time, warning that, should it decide to leave the EU, he would personally see to it that the country was chopped off at its knees. What is more, he insisted, there would be "no kind of renegotiation" of any agreements on immigration even should Britain opt for remain.
The well-read Tory cabinet minister Michael Gove reacted to this daily procession of prominent naysayers by citing an anecdote about Albert Einstein, whose theories had been denounced in the late days of the Weimar Republic, in a book called A Hundred Authors Against Einstein. Einstein replied, "If they were right, one would have been enough." To his old ally Cameron, this was likening Remain to Nazis. Cameron said Gove had "lost it." Ultimately fear was all the Remain side had.
But the Leave side did not have much more. Leave was split, rather like the Republican party of the Reagan era, between sunny free-trading libertarians like Gove and former London mayor Boris Johnson (who joined a movement called Vote Leave), and romantic pessimists, like Nigel Farage of the U.K. Independence party (who rallied behind a group called Leave.eu). This split worked to Leave's benefit. Voters in politically correct Britain, who would be embarrassed to associate with UKIP, could identify themselves with Johnson and Gove's cosmopolitans, but the issue that really rallied many of them to the Leave cause was immigration, and it was only Farage who dared mention it.
Net migration into England is perceived as being out of control. It runs to over 370,000 people a year, most of it from non-EU countries. On Wednesday June 15, Farage unveiled a poster reading "Breaking Point"—it showed mobs of Middle Eastern migrants moving across Europe towards Britain. Not a good word was said about it in the press but it made its impression. The only solution the EU has proposed for stopping this migrant flow is accelerating negotiations to bring Muslim Turkey into the Union, a process Cameron supports. Cameron could not assuage voter fears about that. Remain called it racist even to discuss such things, but it was evidently out of desperation. The migration issue was swinging polls sharply towards Leave.
And then, the following day, the whole narrative of the campaign changed. Jo Cox, a young and pretty Labour party member with a bent for solidarity campaigns abroad and multiculturalism in Britain, was murdered on the street in her Yorkshire constituency by a psychopath with ties to American neo-Nazis. The incident very much resembled the attack on US congresswoman Gabby Giffords in 2011, and it left Britons even more shaken. Two strong narratives had been established in the campaign—Remain evoked fear of chaos, Leave evoked fear of foreigners—and here was an event that seemed to support the former. If Leave had ever had a chance, it seemed to evaporate with Cox's death.
It turned out not to be decisive. Apparently there was too much at stake. Odd as it sounds, there were always signs that Britons wanted to leave. Although most polls showed roughly equal numbersvoting for each side, very different results emerged when the Independent newspaper asked people how the results would make them feel. Forty-four percent said they would be "delighted" with a Leave vote and only 28 percent would be delighted with Remain. Only 33 percent said they would be "disappointed" with an exit from the EU, versus 44 percent who said they would be disappointed staying in. The referendum resembled many such mimetic phenomena in which a people tries to work up its gumption against its elites. It is possible that two-thirds of the country wanted to leave the EU. They just didn't know whether they had elites' permission to want it.
But there were sharp divisions in how those attitudes were spread. Remain seemed to be a coalition of those who owned second homes and those for whom English was a second language. A YouGov poll showed that voters who could be described as upper-class favored Remain, 53 percent to 38 percent. What you could call working-class people were for Leave, 52 to 29. Remain won in rich London 60 to 40, and its top 3 English results came in the heavily immigrant boroughs of Lambeth, Haringey and Hackney. When Boris Johnson emerged from his house in London to head to Vote Leave headquarters, he was met by what the BBC called a "sea of boos." Remain also won Brighton, the university towns of Oxford and Cambridge, and the immigrant hubs of Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool as well as Scotland and Northern Ireland. Leave won overwhelmingly everywhere else—by margins running as high as 75 percent in parts of Lincolnshire.
At midday on Thursday, the leader of Scotland's devolved government warned that she would not see her country taken out of the EU against its will and said she had been in touch with Sadiq Khan, London's newly elected Muslim mayor, who had shared her sentiments. Such political moves were a more important and more ominous story than the various shifts in the market that the media have grown used to prioritizing—the fall the pound, the drop in home-building stocks, both of which seemed to be moderating by midday, anyway. These can be seen as merely the responsible revaluing of a mispriced asset: democratic consent.
It is worth remembering that that asset has been mispriced in every Western country, and that in all of them some turbulence will result from the British decision to leave. There will be rejoicing in the streets of Athens. In Italy last week, the populist, Euroskeptic Five-Star movement took the mayor's office in Rome and Turin. Forty-eight percent of Italians—who helped found the EU—now say they would leave if they could. Fifty-eight percent of the French want their own referendum.
And consider the United States. There was a debate on the Tuesday before the vote pitting Johnson and two Leave MPs on the side against Khan and two Remain leaders. It may have tipped the balance. Khan had little to offer but invective and shaming, accusing the other side of "lies." His sidekick, the Scottish Remainer Ruth Davidson, deferred to Obama's remarks about sending Britain to the back of the queue. But the Leavers scored points when talking about migration, bureaucracy and economics. "The European Union has 10,000 officials who earn more than the English prime minister," MP Andrea Leadsom reminded voters, "and you're paying for them." Johnson sought to dispel worries that Europe would erect tariff barriers against an independent U.K. by noting that Germans exported a fifth of their automobiles there. Did anyone serious believe they would be so stupid as to endanger that?
Indeed, Johnson's view was confirmed the day before the vote by Markus Kerber of the Germany's federal body of industries, Kerber said it would be "very, very foolish" to raise tariff barriers. This is a version of Donald Trump's notorious view that Mexico "would pay for a wall" on the U.S. border. It amounts to saying that, contrary to recent financial orthodoxy, governments consider a trade surplus an asset worth protecting. One hopes now that talk about "legacies"—which politicians indulge in with such Promethean arrogance—will now die down a bit. Legacies get figured out by historians, not by history's actors, to whom they are unknowable. The UKIP leader Nigel Farage, the founding father of the idea of British departure from the EU, can no longer be dismissed as a clown, as he was almost universally in the British press until 24 hours ago. He is a political figure of major dimensions.
Everything is being revalued. Political institutions, too. Economic issues, fear, immigration—these all caught Britons' attention and rallied them to the polls. But at its core this was a battle over definitions of democracy and freedom. This may have been Britain's last chance to exit peacefully and democratically from a democracy-destroying, elite-flattering, and inequality-producing machine. You can say that Britain finds itself in a constitutional crisis today, but that crisis was revealed, not created, by the referendum vote. Most U.K. citizens repudiate the claim of foreign bureaucrats to rule them, and yet, on what turns out to be the defining issue of British politics in this generation, 478 of its elected members of Parliament favored Remain, and only 159 Leave. That will change.
Britain is, as David Cameron said in his resignation statement, a "special country." Its citizens are going to pay a price for flouting markets and European bureaucracies. They have gambled that what they now recover—control of their own laws—makes that price worth paying. Look at their history. They are probably right.