Scattered Thoughts on Brexit

I’m going to push back my usual Saturday links wrap until tomorrow. It’s proven impossible to ignore what happened in Britain this week, even though I’m not sure I actually have a lot of help to offer people wondering just what Brexit is or why it matters.

Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi
Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, the cosmopolitan aristocrat who pushed for a “pan-European union” after World War I – Wikimedia

I can’t explain just why the European Union has fascinated me for so long. All I know is that when I had to draft a dream résumé my senior year in high school, I actually invented for myself an internship with Jacques Delors, then the president of the European Commission. After I gave up my plan to train as an international lawyer and set my sights on becoming a historian, I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis on the movement for European integration in the 1920s (culminating in this proposal from French foreign minister Aristide Briand). I went to Yale fully intending to pick up where its EU studies project had left off, and while my research interests shifted somewhat, I always look forward to teaching about European integration in my courses.

And I’ve spent more time in Great Britain than any other European country. So Thursday night I watched hours of live news reports on the results of the historic referendum asking Britons whether they wanted their country to leave the EU or remain. As dawn broke in Britain, the BBC finally forecast a decision for Leave; it ultimately won by a margin of 1.3 million votes, with about 72% of the population voting.

Quick history lesson:

  • British leader Winston Churchill was an early advocate of European integration, first during the military crisis of May-June 1940 and then after World War II. But Britain remained on the outside of the earliest manifestations of what became the EU: the European Coal & Steel Community, established in 1951, and the European Economic Community, set up by the Treaty of Rome in 1957. In part, this reflected Britain’s commitment to a “special relationship” with the United States during the Cold War, plus its continuing role in the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia as the Empire became the Commonwealth.
  • In the 1960s, the British government sought membership in the EEC — only to be blocked by French president Charles de Gaulle, who saw the UK as a “trojan horse” for American influence in a Europe that he envisioned as a Cold War counterbalance to the US and USSR.
  • Finally, the UK joined the European Communities in 1973, a decision ratified by two-thirds of Britons who voted in a 1975 referendum.
  • But while Britain entered the Common Market and took part in other European initiatives, it has historically had a high level of “euroscepticism” among its citizens and political leaders. When the euro was introduced in 1999, Britain retained its own currency.
  • In the last ten years, the anti-EU UK Independence Party has grown more popular, finishing in first place in the country’s 2014 elections for the European Parliament. UKIP leader Nigel Farage was a key figure in the Leave movement, but some members of the Conservative and Labour parties also supported Britain’s exit — “Brexit” — from the EU.
  • To learn more about the referendum, the BBC has a good starting point.

It’s hard to keep up with all the think pieces on Brexit. So there’s not much use in me contributing one myself. But I will share a few relatively quick thoughts:

1. Don’t overreact

By any standard, this was an important vote. The EU is about to lose 13% of its population and 15% of its economic output. (Like New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey seceding from the US.) It’s clearly going to have aftershocks: for the British and European economies, for the union of four nations that seem to be on different paths (about 53% of English and Welsh voted Leave, but almost 56% of Northern Irish and 62% of Scots wanted to Remain), and perhaps for elections in other countries (including my own). It seems likely that anti-EU votes will be held in other European countries. If nothing else, Brexit will embolden right-wing politicians like Marine Le Pen, increasingly a strong contender for the French presidency next year. (Her niece, who represents the National Front in the French parliament, certainly thought so.)

But the historian in me wants to tell everyone to step back, get some perspective, and consider that it will take years, if not decades, for us to truly understand the impact of the referendum. (And that the vote itself is not necessarily the determining factor; the negotiations still to come will play a huge role, in shaping Britain’s relationship to Europe and in the potential for future exits.)

Should we contemplate what this all means? Sure. (Read on.) But don’t listen too hard to people who claim to have anything resembling knowledge of the future, whether they’re Brexiteers insisting that this will only strengthen Britain’s economy or those on the other side proclaiming that liberal democracy has started to consume itself.

2. Americans: Don’t Americanize

Full disclosure: my heart and mind had me strongly on the side of Remain. Almost all of my friends in Britain are horrified by what happened Thursday, and it’s hard for any historian who studies the two world wars (or anything else) to view the reversal of European unification too happily. (It’s certainly hard to see how Brexit is a good thing for university students and professors.)

But I’m not British, nor European. And I caught myself doing what Americans tend to do: Americanizing things.

If so, I wasn’t alone. It was fascinating to watch American responses on social media. What was Brexit about, according to them? Trump, of course. (He certainly thought so.) Or freedom from a tyrannical power. (1776 analogies from conservatives?!?) Or racism. Or the need for tighter borders. Or…

I’ll make one such connection myself in a moment. But let’s pause to consider that a four-point margin of victory in a British referendum suggests that local issues — issues that well-informed Americans couldn’t even name — probably mattered a great deal. And the way the campaigns were run on the ground probably mattered at least as much as the potentially global issues in play. At the very least, every major political party in Britain is due for an agonizing reappraisal: Who will lead the Tories now that David Cameron’s great gamble has failed and he has announced plans to step down? How on earth could Labour let so many of its strongholds (including the one represented in Parliament by former leader Ed Miliband) go Leave? Does UKIP still have a reason for existence? Should the Liberal Democrats even be in a list of “major parties”?

3. Is unity possible?

Map of Brexit referendum results
The vote by district, with green indicating Remain majorities and blue Leave. The darker the color, the larger the majority. (Creative Commons – Nilfanion)

One way or another, it’s clear that a vote about the relationship of the United Kingdom to the European Union revealed a great deal of disunity. Remain advocates can’t understand how those on the Leave side can still resist the centripetal forces of history. Meanwhile, Brexiteers want to believe that this referendum showed that national identity is stronger than its more cosmopolitan alternatives. But what does Brexit tell us about what it means to be “British” when nearly half of Britons opposed that decision? Or even “English,” given how little the voting patterns in London and other places with younger, more highly-educated populations resembled the rest of that country?

But even more troubling… I wonder the degree to which supporters of either side can see their opponents as rational. Again, I’m pretty strongly sympathetic to Remain, but I’d like to think that (were I British and the stakes not simply intellectual) I could still take seriously Leave questions about the nature of democratic governance in the EU rather than simply dismissing all Brexiteers as xenophobes, bigots, or selfish old people. (Or, at the very least, I’d ask why it is that the EU, six decades into its history and having effectively rendered another European war unimaginable, still evokes so little enthusiasm among so many Europeans.)

Indeed, one of the most interesting Britons on social media in the weeks leading up to the vote was comedian John Cleese. While his advocacy for leaving the EU left him responding sarcastically to tweet after horrified tweet from fans of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, he also stepped back a few times to warn about the nature of the debate.

I hope that Britain — whether it continues to exist as a United Kingdom or takes a new form — can model for the rest of us how to restore some meaningful degree of unity in the wake of a divisive decision. Because it’s easy — if I can disregard my second point for a moment — to see how Americans might be in this same spot in five months.

And it just deepens my belief that the church’s best witness is unity, that its mission is inseparable from reconciliation. As I explained earlier this month, British Christians were also divided on the Brexit question. But I hope that they agree with how one British evangelical put it on the eve of the referendum:

…the church must see this mission of reconciliation as part of the role it can play. It’s another reason that makes me cautious about demonstrating too much passion on one side or another, since that could make it harder for the church to be a place where people can come together when, regardless of the outcome, about half of the population will be very disappointed.

…UK churches have a crucial role to play after the EU referendum vote. But it has to be about more than a church service of unity. Reconciliation requires accepting the hurt and the pain, but also working to rediscover and celebrate the image of God in each other.


2 thoughts on “Scattered Thoughts on Brexit

  1. The passage you closed with reminded me of a more general question I have been thinking about lately, namely how Christians practice “the ministry of reconciliation” and how we might make such work “about more than a church service of unity”.

    While I might share the general sentiments of the believing Brit you quoted, I don’t think either historians or Christians can be satisfied with “accepting the hurt and the pain”. Truth is at least as important as empathy, especially the truth about ourselves. We can’t reconcile by avoiding the issues through stories told in passive voice, or by lamenting disagreements because they hurt feelings. If historians avoid blame by omitting the subject (as in “X occurred” rather than “people X took action Y”) they end up offering vague narratives of no analytical use. Similarly, Christians can’t confess their sins without using the first person, and if we say we have not sinned the truth is not in us.

    I think this link between failing to tell proper history, failing to confess sins, and failing to actually reconcile is all around us if we look for it. To invoke a famous example from US history, Americans did build a kind of unity following the Civil War as they abandoned reconstruction in the south and found a new mode of white supremacy that Free Soilers in the North and Southern Whites could agree on. Toward the end of the war, Lincoln did make a stirring speech designed for reconciliation at his 2nd inaugural (possibly the best speech of any president), but its condemnations of slavery made no apology for, or repudiation of, the racism that drove the entire slave system (which remained unaddressed or redressed). Unity and the ministry of reconciliation can oppose each other.

    So, I don’t see how any honest analysis of Brexit can pass over xenophobia, and particularly attitudes toward Slavic immigrants and refugees within Leave. I also wouldn’t encourage Brits to try and find unity with each other by denying links between the way pub-goers talk about “the Jungle” in Calais, the rise of nationalist groups in so many EU countries, and the brutal public murder of Jo Cox. HOWEVER, I would also suggest that conversations about EU integration should include race since the very idea of “Europe” seems to hinge on particular (if quite subjective) notions of whiteness. The EU has consistently rejected the applications of countries like Morocco and Cape Verde for essentially this reason. Talk of “geography” is exposed as euphemism when you accept Greek Cyprus (geographically part of Asia) and reject Turkey (part of which is undeniably in the continent of Europe), and this despite Turkey’s truly indefatigable efforts to “get in”. Europeans don’t like to admit this of course, and it astounds me how many French atheists start talking about Christendom when the subject of Turkey’s membership comes up, but I find the conclusion unavoidable.

    Those who know a great deal more than I do about both Europe and the UK can say I am proffering a shamelessly oversimplified narrative, and I don’t disagree. I would suggest that the wide angle lens is one valuable way to view history, and that virtuous community healing starts with very honest (and uncomfortable) confessions.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful response, Noel. It’s an important corrective to my instinctive appeals to unity, and actually helps me develop a post on historians and confession that I’ve been thinking about for a month now. But frankly, I don’t see any shortage of people (scholars and others) out there who thrill to tell uncomfortable truths, to confess the sins of other people. But confession in the Christian tradition is meant to strengthen community — so if we shouldn’t silence truth to sustain false peace, we also shouldn’t tell truth in such a way that splinters communities into ever-smaller clusters of the like-minded.
      I’m sorry if I’m seemed dismissive of the role of racism. (The coded language that’s been part of right-wing politics in Britain for at least half a century was surely present in the Leave campaign. Listening to Farage chortle about Brexit as a triumph for the “real” and “decent” people of Britain was a low point of that night…) I just meant that Americans should beware understanding racism purely through the filter of their own historical experience.
      As to the role of historians here… Historians probably shouldn’t try to make meaning yet of a days-old past, but whenever they do take up that task, I hope that they don’t engage in a kind of truth-telling that flattens complexity. (Not to say that you are: your point about the EU’s construction of “Europe” is very well taken, anything but “overly simplified.”) For example, any historical account of this particular vote should probably try to account for the minority of British Muslims (about one-third, polls suggested before the 23rd) who backed the Leave campaign — perhaps out of resentment of a Europe that excludes Turkey, or out of a desire for Britain to shift its focus to Commonwealth connections with Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India. Such an account will have to allow for the perspective of, say, Chuka Umunna, who backed Remain in public debates but used his referendum night time on the BBC as a change to urge Labour to rethink its position on immigration in such a way that responds to the concerns of its many constituents who voted Leave.

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