How fitting. As the Brits cast a stunning vote to quit the European Union, Donald Trump was opening a luxury golf course in Scotland and crowing that Britain did “a great thing.”
This historic victory for the British Brexiteers is part of a nationalist trend that is gripping Europe and has spread across the Atlantic. The leader of the “Leave” campaign, the blond, mop-haired Boris Johnson, is a bombastic Trump clone who defied his Conservative Party’s leader, Prime Minister David Cameron. Johnson will probably succeed Cameron, who on Friday announced his upcoming resignation.
Talking to Leave voters on the Tube, in restaurants and on the street, I heard them regurgitate populist promises made by Johnson, and by his unofficial backup, the inflammatory Nigel Farage, head of the U.K. Independence Party. Many of these promises are unachievable or based on specious data. By Friday, Farage was already backpedaling on one key pledge — that Brexit would bring a huge cash infusion for Britain’s national health service.
But, never mind. “We will get our country back,” pledged the demagogic Farage. “We will get our independence back.” He hopes his party will vastly expand on its sole seat in Parliament, buoyed by many white working-class voters who defected from the Labour Party to vote Leave. From Scotland, Trump echoed Farage and Johnson: “Come November, the American people will have the chance to redeclare their independence.”
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Of course, the differences between Britain and its onetime American colony are legion. But Americans who worry about the direction of U.S. politics should focus on what caused the political earthquake in Britain and why populists are on such a roll.
Public disaffection from mainstream political parties, and from the European Union bureaucracy in Brussels, has been growing for years. Longtime unemployment in former industrial areas created bitterness in the Labour Party’s former heartland, while Cameron’s embrace of austerity further alienated many voters. Both mainstream parties — Labour and Conservative — have lost popular trust and left openings for those who attack the establishment.
The Leave campaign produced two convenient targets to blame for economic pain: immigrants and the bureaucracy in Brussels. As a bleached-blonde woman dispatcher complained to me outside the gritty Newbury Park Tube station, echoing the Leave pitch: “People from other countries get priority. We should take care of our own.”
Make no mistake, there is an immigration problem in Britain, as social services become overburdened. And the EU bureaucracy in Brussels has failed badly in handling the euro and refugee crises. But leaving Europe offers no silver bullet on either account, and it will do the economy more harm than good.
Take immigration. Britain has admitted almost no Syrian refugees, and, unlike other EU members, never gave up border controls. Half its immigrants enter legally from other European nations. Cameron had already imposed tighter controls on their entry.
If Britain now wants to negotiate a separate trade deal with the European Common Market, as it must, Brussels will no doubt demand it keep its doors open to European migrants. As for most of the remaining inflow, a large portion come from British Commonwealth countries such as India. Quitting the EU will do nothing to stop them.
Yet nearly every Leave voter I met believed that Brexit would effectively wall off Britain from foreigners and would somehow permit the country to renew its historic standing in the world. Once again, Britannia will rule the waves.
Instead, the vote has plunged Britain into uncertain economic terrain. It will lower Britain’s international standing, not raise it. In a globalized world, operating solo provides less clout.
It may turn Great Britain into Little England, as Scotland — which wants to stay in the EU — is already pledging to hold another independence referendum.
And it will alienate the best of British youth by opening a glaring age gap. Seventy-five percent of voters age 18 to 25 cast ballots for Remain. I spoke with scores of young Brits the night before the vote, at an open house at Space Studios, an artists’ cooperative in Hackney. All said they were voting to stay because they want the right to travel, study and work freely in EU member states, and they appreciate the collaborative grants for the arts and scientific research that the EU provides.
Most disturbing, the Brexit vote may precipitate the EU’s breakup — to the benefit of populist political parties throughout the continent. The French far right is already calling for a Frexit vote, and other euroskeptic parties on both right and left will follow.
Johnson and Trump think this would be fine (and so would Vladimir Putin, who wants to see Europe splinter). Their slogans are, respectively, “Britain first” and “America first.” But for all its flaws, the EU has stood for something much more important than Brussel’s often petty rules.
Germany’s Angela Merkel, who lived under communism, gets it.
After the results were in, she said, “The idea of European unity is the idea of European peace … after centuries of terrible bloodshed (and this) is not to be taken for granted. In Europe we still feel the effect of wars.”
The failure of both of Britain’s mainstream parties to grasp the voters’ mood has left the field to populists who promise voters they will “take back control” from enemies abroad. When — in a globalized world — those promises turn to ashes, we will see whom the populists blame.
America’s mainstream parties are suffering from the same ills as Britain’s, but there is still time for U.S. voters to take notice. As tempting as populist promises may be, they will likely mean little once the votes are in.