Brexit is not that hard to explain, but it’s not that easy either. I will rely on a recent text by Christopher Caldwell, who broke Brexit down brilliantly just before the December election that settled the matter, in depth and with extraordinary scholarship and a profound understanding of issues, in the Claremont Review of Books.
One can disagree with Caldwell’s own preference for Brexit, instead of Remain, and still come away seriously impressed by the strength of his arguments and the way he looks at every nook and cranny related to the matter.
Unlike most of my editors over the years, I will assume some degree of knowledge about the subject on your part, reader. If you need a very basic primer on Brexit, and you’re not quite sure where the UK is on the map, this is not for you. Sorry.
Moving along. First off, a reminder that the now wildly successful Boris Johnson, who won in December the biggest victory for the British Conservatives since at least Margaret Thatcher, was, remains — and will for ever be whatever happens — a loser, a clown and a dullard in the eyes of the prestige press the world over:
Incoming British prime minister Boris Johnson’s first address to the House of Commons on July 25 coincided with the arrival of a heat wave so devastating it sparked talk of a global-warming apocalypse. Steam rose out of the Thames, overhead electrical wires melted on the London-Luton train line, and the Cambridge University Botanic Garden registered the highest temperature (102° F) in the history of the British isles. Naturally there was joking among political pundits about “hot air” and a government “meltdown,” but there were darker grumblings, too. This was a descent into “populism,” one could read in the pages of the Guardian, the Independent, and papers from the European continent. That the Conservative Johnson had moved into the prime ministerial townhouse at 10 Downing Street meant that Britain was now under the control of a “clown,” a “saboteur,” or, worse, the British equivalent of U.S. president Donald Trump.
You see, all those who think Boris is a sabotaging clown can also recite the first lines of the Iliad in the original Greek:
Nobody ever had such strong opinions about the non-ancient-Greek-speaking Theresa May. Remember her? In Dec. 2018, I was in the London-Bristol train line with two British, female banking executives. They were happily mocking the hapless PM. I said:
“There’s a good thing about Theresa May, though”
“What?” they asked.
“Years ago, feminists used to say that full equality with men would only be accomplished when a woman who is not bright and not accomplished and not worthy becomes Prime Minister. Thanks to May, full equality has been accomplished, right?”
There was a long, awkward silence after that. A silence that, Philip Larkin might have written, filled the space between Maidenhead and Twyford.
Johnson’s Conservative predecessor, Theresa May, found the job of implementing the referendum’s mandate either beyond her powers or not to her tastes. More than three years later Britain remains stuck in the E.U. Johnson has taken a different tack—he has burned his ships. He nominated Dominic Cummings, an architect of the referendum campaign, to mastermind the implementation of Brexit, and filled his cabinet with convinced Brexiteers, purging every last “gloomster,” to use his vocabulary. He solemnly told a divided Parliament that “under no circumstances” would he appoint a new U.K. commissioner to the European Union. And he announced that, should Britain’s European neighbors prove unwilling to let the country go its own way, he would leave the E.U. without agreeing to a deal—a course Theresa May considered too fraught with danger to undertake. One of them—either May or Johnson—is going to be vindicated in the eyes of history…
It depends on who writes history, as always. It has little to do with actual, objective reality.
The (large-c) Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron assented to the 2016 referendum in order to silence a rebellion of his (small-c) conservative colleagues. He did so reluctantly, and put himself at the head of the pro-E.U. “Remain” forces. Although experts doubted voters would want to pull out of the E.U., Cameron well understood that those experts were complacent. That is why he turned the 2016 campaign into “Project Fear,” to use an expression one of his own campaigners had coined for a different referendum two years earlier. He enlisted British businessmen to describe Brexit’s dire consequences for employment. He commissioned studies from the Treasury to illustrate the deadly impact of Brexit on the British economy, and used government funds to have these studies printed in brochures that were distributed to every household in the country. (Those projections have turned out to be spectacularly off-target.) He invited leaders from around the world to warn Britons of the contempt in which the international ruling class would hold the United Kingdom if they favored London over Brussels. United States President Barack Obama went so far as to tell British voters that if they chose to leave the E.U. they would find themselves at “the back of the queue” in their dealings with the United States.
Foreign meddling! Invited by the PM! Yeah, I know nobody gives a fuck.
These elaborately manufactured and precision-timed bombshells were lobbed at the rate of one per news cycle throughout the spring of 2016. Shortly before the vote, Cameron even gathered veterans of World War II to his side as he warned that, should his listeners be rash enough to exit the E.U., the United Kingdom might soon reacquaint itself with what he called the “serried rows of white headstones in lovingly tended Commonwealth war cemeteries.”
It was, in short, a thoroughly unfair campaign. But because the side against which the deck had been stacked won, the referendum seemed to have a calming effect. Turnout for the election had been massive, and the 52% to 48% victory extraordinary. The 17.4 million people who voted to leave the E.U. were the largest number of Britons who had ever voted for anything. Only the 1975 EEC referendum came close. No political party had ever come within 3 million votes of it.
Wow. For a while, “Brexit means Brexit” was a bipartisan call under the truly moronic May (‘Brexit would be a bureaucratic sideshow to the real business of her premiership, which May laid out when she devoted her first major speech to “Seven Burning Injustices,” most of them involving race, class, and gender’). and Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader who barely campaign for Remain — since everyone and his dog knows that Corbyn is only slightly less pro-Brexit than Nigel Farage. Muddle followed. Deadlines were set and extended. Anybody who is anybody in the U.K. conspired to stop Brexit altogether, Caldwell writes:
Those adversaries include almost the whole of Britain’s political, economic, and journalistic elite.
I was a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News until mid-2017, for 15 years. During that span, I NEVER MET A SINGLE JOURNALIST WHO WAS OPENLY IN FAVOR OF BREXIT. I, of course, wasn’t either.
The press mostly sees Britain’s current impasse as the result of some oversight or mistake, whether May’s or the voting public’s. “Parliament has bungled Brexit,” wrote a correspondent in the conservative Telegraph. A “national haemorrhage of shared purpose and belief began in earnest in June 2016,” according to the progressive Observer, “when Britain voted to leave the E.U.”
They knew they were engaging in anti-Brexit propaganda, and they did it because it pays the bills. And, if you don’t want to do it, there’s the door. May, meanwhile, was a useless waste of space, incapable of even stopping Brexit:
May left office in disgrace and in tears, burbling about “race disparity audits” and “gender pay reporting” and fair treatment for gays. Perfectly legitimate subjects for another time, but not for a moment when the country’s sovereignty hung in the balance. Her inability to understand the stakes of her three-year premiership made her the country’s most significant political failure since Neville Chamberlain.
A very sympathetic way of putting it, as we’ll see later. Here Caldwell goes to the crux of the question: Brexit was a decision about the future of mankind, starting with the British portion of it, and the voters decided against the advice of their betters:
In Britain as elsewhere in the world, the struggle has been unleashed by innovations in administration that have arisen since the Cold War. These shift power from electorates and parliaments to managers of information, inside government and out. From thousand-year-old constitutional ideas to five-year-old ones. From habeas corpus to gender identity. Because it was Britain that did the most to construct the ideal of liberty which is now being challenged, Brexit clarifies the constitutional stakes for the world as nothing else.
Over decades, British citizens have cloven into two parties of roughly equal strength. The Brexiteers are the party of the unwritten British constitution as it existed from the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 until Britain’s accession to the E.U. in 1973. This is the tradition of “parliamentary supremacy,” as John Locke called it, or “parliamentary sovereignty,” as it more often came to be called. It can be a confusing doctrine. In a constitutional context, “Parliament” means the House of Commons, plus the Lords, plus the Queen. “The Queen in Parliament” is the ultimate law-making, and constitution-making, authority. The House of Commons legislates and so (to a lesser extent) does the House of Lords; the cabinet exercises executive prerogatives in the name of the Queen. Courts can’t “overturn” anything, though traditionally there was a role for the Lords as legal interpreters of last resort. Important parts of this arrangement have been scuppered, and if you favor that scuppering you’re probably a Remainer.
Remainers are the party of the European Union’s constitutional tradition, the tradition of human rights and judicial review. And, to make things more confusing, of referenda. The 1973 vote to enter the EEC was the first the United Kingdom ever had. The Brexit referendum of 2016, paradoxically, used an E.U.-era innovation to put an end to the E.U. era.
I’m Spanish. In Spain, judicial review, judges stepping in on political issues, is par for the course. Same as, for example, the U.S., where the Supreme Court, and not the people, is the ultimate arbiter of politics (with hugely damaging results) in everything from abortion and healthcare to political campaign financing. But that was never the case in the U.K. This is hugely important, and most foreigners who opine about Brexit have not the faintest idea.
Only once the process of Britain’s secession got underway was it possible to understand fully the conflict between these two constitutional traditions. Federal Europe had penetrated British constitutional life much more thoroughly than Brexiteers could face or Remainers admit. E.U. law had become “entrenched,” to use a British legal term. As Brexit began dis-entrenching that law, it threatened to dis-entrench along with it the privileges of a whole class of people at the top of society. In response, that class coalesced with a mighty solidarity. Just after the Brexit vote, the London Review of Books essayist James Meek wrote of a gentle, cosmopolitan liberal friend who had asked him: “What about all these powerful backroom interests in the City that are supposed to have the government in their pocket? Why aren’t they stepping in behind the scenes to stop this?”
One nice detail that Caldwell takes some times to discuss is the Left’s view of Brexit and the EU. Whichever group or special interest that can grab the megaphone and convince others that They represent the Left, in the U.K. and elsewhere, is the fountain from which ethics, morals and fairness flow, so it’s an important subject. Turns out that the Left was against the EU before it turned in favor, which helps to explain Corbyn’s own view (he’s old, after all):
Many statesmen warned from the outset that British ideas of liberty would not survive a merger with the E.U. The most eloquent early diagnoses came from the Labour Party, not the Tories. That is because the fundamental disposition of the E.U. is to favor technocratic expertise over representative government, and the Tories have not generally been the British party that placed the highest priority on the passions of the masses. In 1962, as Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was eying EEC membership, Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell warned, “[I]t does mean the end of Britain as an independent nation state…. It means the end of a thousand years of history. You may say ‘Let it end’ but, my goodness, it is a decision that needs a little care and thought.”
Now, much of what Caldwell writes is applicable to other countries:
Monarchs are not underlings: in joining the EEC, Britain could be said to have deposed its queen. Pro-E.U. politicians assured their voters that it wasn’t as serious as that. Britain, they said, had to give a little bit of its sovereignty up in order to receive the benefits of cooperation, the way it did in, say, NATO. Other European countries had done so without wrecking their systems. But this was a false analogy, as the political scientist Vernon Bogdanor explains persuasively in his recent book, Beyond Brexit. NATO was a treaty. The EEC was a merger… And there was an even larger problem than the loss of national sovereignty, Bogdanor shows. The E.U. destroyed the system of parliamentary sovereignty at the heart of Britain’s constitution. For all its royalist trappings, Britain has traditionally been a much purer representative democracy than the United States, because it excludes courts from reviewing legislation on any grounds. British politicians tried to calm the public with assurances that, where British law and E.U. law clashed, British law would prevail. But the acknowledgement of E.U. legal supremacy in the treaties meant that E.U. law was British law. In the 1980s, British judges began finding that parliamentary laws had been invalidated by later British laws—a normal and time-honored process, except that these new “British” laws had been imported into British statute books not by legislation but by Britain’s commitment to accept laws made on the continent. Bogdanor, who is a Remainer and a defender of human rights, does not necessarily condemn this development. But it meant that, through the back door, judicial review was being introduced into a constitutional culture that had never had it.
Back door indeed:
In 1998, Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair passed the Human Rights Act, which swept into British law the European Convention on Human Rights (a pre-E.U. document dating from 1953). It also bound Britain to abide by decisions reached by the European Court of Human Rights, which sits in the French city of Strasbourg. Article 8.1 of the Convention (“Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence”) was supposed to protect people from the prying eyes of the state, as our Fourth Amendment does. But as the judge and scholar Jonathan (Lord) Sumption noted in a series of lectures this summer, it quickly became the “functional equivalent” of the due process clause of the American 14th Amendment—grounds for all kinds of judicial adventurism. British judges discovered that Article 8: “potentially covers anything that intrudes upon a person’s autonomy unless the Court considers it to be justified…the legal status of illegitimate children, immigration and deportation, extradition, criminal sentencing, the recording of crime, abortion, artificial insemination, homosexuality and same sex unions, child abduction, the policing of public demonstrations, employment and social security rights, environmental and planning law, noise abatement, eviction for non-payment of rent and a great deal else besides.”
Blaming Blair for all the mess is wrong, though:
David Cameron’s 2011 Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, in particular, made it much more difficult to call the general elections that would ordinarily have been provoked by the resounding repudiation of Theresa May’s withdrawal package. Blair and Cameron, the magazine noted, “came to power when history was said to have come to an end. They saw no need to take particular care of the constitution.” E.U. membership hid these problems—if Britain wasn’t paying attention to its constitution at the time, it was partly because it had been using someone else’s. These shifts in Britain’s constitutional culture have become obvious during the rolling European migration crisis of recent decades. The more courts took control of immigration policy, the harder immigration was to stop. As home secretary under David Cameron, May promised to limit Britain’s galloping population growth to “tens of thousands a year, not hundreds of thousands.” But net migration has been running at around a quarter-million ever since, rising as high as 333,000 in 2015. Last year, according to Migration Watch U.K., net migration was 258,000. That means 74,000 Europeans added to 232,000 non-Europeans who arrived, and 48,000 Britons who left. May was just a talker when it came to immigration policy, but no politician in three decades had done any better. Once the judiciary rules politics, all politicians are just talkers. Understand that, and you are most of the way to understanding Brexit.
And this is hugely important too:
The transfer of competences from legislatures to courts is a superb thing for the rich, because of the way the constitution interacts with occupational sociology. Where the judiciary is drawn from the legal profession, and where the legal profession is credentialed by expensive and elite professional schools, judicialization always means a transfer of power from the country at large to the richest sliver of it. This is true no matter what glorious-sounding pretext is found to justify the shift—racial harmony, European peace, a fair shake for women. In a global age, judicial review is a tool that powerful people expect to find in a constitution, in the same way one might expect to find a hair dryer in a hotel room.
Another tool that rich, powerful people like is the second-chance-to-get-it-right:
From the beginning, a certain number of Remainers had called for a second referendum, arguing that the people had not really known what they were voting for when they chose Brexit. The Independent newspaper had the gall to call this hypothetical rerun a “People’s Vote,” though sometimes they called it a “Final Say.” The People themselves were suspicious. It was the oldest trick in the E.U. book to hold second referenda when—and only when—the public’s wishes diverged from those of Brussels. It had been used in Denmark in 1993 and in Ireland in 2002 and 2009. By 2017, though, these do-overs had become a Europe-wide symbol of contempt for voters.
And the final, most beloved of elite tricks is plain obfuscation.
Article 50 called for a two-year negotiating period between the seceding country and the E.U., in order that the two might come to an optimal post-separation arrangement. From the outset there was a dangerous asymmetry of motives. Britain had nothing against its neighbors on the continent—it sought only the right to make its own decisions again. The E.U.’s leaders, however, had an incentive to inflict maximum hardship on Britain. In most member countries the E.U. was being blamed for stagnating economies, dizzying inequality, and out-of-control immigration. If Britain were granted a pain-free exit, others would follow suit. Early in the negotiating process, Britain’s ambassador to the E.U., the Brussels insider Ivan Rogers, submitted his resignation, warning that Britain was going to get its head handed to it at the bargaining table. “Serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall,” he wrote, “and that is not the case in the [European] Commission or in the Council.” He was right about that, and it was a lesson in the sociology of Brexit. In England, at least, the electoral map of Brexit looked like the electoral map of Donald Trump’s presidential victory in America would look later that year. Remain was the choice of those who benefited from the global economy. It won overwhelmingly in a few compact islands of rich people, intellectuals, and minorities—London, Oxford, Cambridge. The ranks of Remain-aligned politicians were crowded with well-educated, tech-savvy, cosmopolitan people. Leave won everyplace else. It was the choice of yesterday’s Britain, the Britain of losers.
That is not an exaggeration:
Even after its victory, Leave found itself constantly out-thought, out-classed, and out-worked by Remain. May made David Davis, a party bull approaching the end of his career, her chief negotiator. He didn’t seem to think the post would require too much energy, expertise, or imagination—because, at the end of the day, Britain could walk away from the negotiating table with no deal. How could May have put Brexit at risk by picking someone like Davis to secure it? Well, how could Donald Trump have put his presidency at risk by picking someone like Jeff Sessions to defend it? The answer in both cases was the same: in populist causes, the pickings are slim, personnel-wise. The continental negotiators, by contrast, were the cream of Europe’s educated classes
It’s not really clear to me why the EU gave way in the end. Really. Something happened in late 2019, some sort of compromise was reached by Boris Johnson’s people and the EU’s people, even though the incentives were very strong on the EU to only present the most obnoxious deal possible, and in the end Boris got a deal that he took to the voters in December. Caldwell has a crack at explaining how this was possible, but he’s only halfway convincing:
Britain was the largest importer of cars from Germany. It had a trade deficit with most countries on the continent, which meant that any breakdown in talks would idle more European factories than British ones. It was, with France, one of only two serious military powers in Western Europe. It had an intelligence-gathering relationship with the United States that continental Europe was desperate to preserve the benefits of. It contained 40% of Europe’s data servers. It was due to recover its own rich fishing banks—schools of mackerel north of Scotland, beds of prawns southwest of Cornwall—where E.U. vessels took 59% of the haul. And it was the financial capital of the world. The E.U. would have no choice but to do business with an independent Britain.
After all, Caldwell argues, many in the UK, including some of the negotiators and possibly May herself, wanted to fail in the negotiations too:
“If I were an E.U. negotiator,” wrote the Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament Sir Ed Davey in a fantasy of his own country’s humiliation that appeared in the Independent, “my starting position would be to increase the divorce fee to £50bn, arguing that the U.K. must now pay the E.U.’s cost of handling the no-deal Brexit, after refusing the first deal. Given the severely negative impact of a no-deal Brexit on everything from our sheep farmers to our NHS [National Health Service], I rather think any U.K. government would be so desperate to make some deals that £50bn might suddenly seem a bargain”… They saw Brexit not as most British people did—as a solemn and even sacred uprising by an ancient people against a usurper. No. Elites saw Brexit as a local nuisance in the domestic politics of the only legitimate custodian of Britain’s long-term interests: the E.U.
About May, again, Caldwell:
May came to believe that Brexit meant honoring the patriotic emotions that had led to a national temper tantrum, while protecting the country against any foolish actions that might result from such emotions—such as breaking relations with the European Union. In mid-2017, May opted for getting experts on board. Olly Robbins, an E.U.-friendly aide who had risen under Tony Blair and David Cameron (and who had been Rogers’s successor as Blair’s private secretary), took over as lead negotiator from the Brexiteer Davis.
It’s no wonder that the “Irish Backstop,” the last bit of mess from the Brexit negotiations, came out of this. In the end, it was just a guarantee that the UK would maintain a “soft” border with Ireland after Brexit — a matter of no importance to 90% of EU citizens, that obviously served only to poison the well, first of all because there’s never been a “hard” border between the two countries, outside of military emergencies, as Caldwell writes.
The whole Irish Backstop operetta did much to kill May’s premiership (she was the kind of politician that will be defeated by this kind of bullshit) as many saw the guarantee, that she had agreed to without any compensation, as a veto on Brexit. Not only that, the cunning-less May made it clear to all that she was playing for the other side:
This difficulty prompted May’s negotiators to come up with a more ambitious solution. The backstop would cause no change in Northern Ireland’s status within the U.K. if the whole U.K. could be included in the European Customs area. So Britain could solve the problems created by its departure from the European Union by agreeing to remain subject to the European Union! An abyss opened up in July 2018 at the prime ministerial retreat of Chequers, when May released a plan for future relations with Brussels. It called for harmonization with E.U. rules and regulations, described the backstop in a way that made it look inescapable, and envisioned a role for the European Court of Justice. Johnson said that May was “volunteering for economic vassalage” and resigned as foreign secretary.
Having gone that far in her betrayal of Brexit, she decided she might as well laugh at Brexiteers like evildoers do in movies:
The final negotiated Withdrawal Agreement that May unveiled to Parliament last November (2018) caused the whole country, Brexiteers and Remainers alike, to gasp in horror. May’s team had been sent away to declare British independence and had returned with a document of surrender. The agreement not only contained (as expected) a £39 billion ($50 billion) “divorce” fee, but also left E.U. courts free to top that fee up. It locked Britain into a customs union with the E.U., with no mechanism for leaving it—ever. The E.U., and the E.U. alone, would decide when Britain had fulfilled the backstop agreement, and any move to break it unilaterally on Britain’s part would be resolved by giving the E.U. jurisdiction over Northern Ireland’s economic relations. It subjected Britain to E.U. trade sanctions more onerous than those meted out to other countries. It laid out contexts in which E.U. law would retain its supremacy over U.K. law. The Withdrawal Agreement not only did not end Britain’s ties to the E.U. In the name of Brexit, it actually deepened and constitutionalized them. This ensured that pro-Brexit Tories would not vote for it. But it also renounced Britain’s official membership in E.U. institutions, and indeed its right to have any say in them, dooming it for anti-Brexiteers of all parties. In January it was rejected in Parliament by the largest margin of any measure in British parliamentary history. It was subsequently rejected twice more.
The Withdrawal Agreement thrilled Remainers, even if they wouldn’t vote for it, leading the UK to a “no-deal” exit from the EU; it also breathed new life into their cause: “We told you there was no possible governing arrangement better than the European Union!” Back came Project Fear, now carried out by the Financial Times, the Guardian, and the Independent. Back came the calls for a people’s vote, and back came all the scare vocabulary about how a no-deal Brexit would cause Britain to go over the “cliff edge” and “crash out” of the European Union.” It was the time for the Deep State to try its putsch:
Remainers were a synonym for the governing class. They had an infinity of tools, and they were no longer scared of the voters. No one wanted to be so contemptuous as to repeal Brexit, but Parliament could put a “no-deal Brexit” on hold, which it did… The prime minister’s cabinet secretary, a powerful member of the career civil service, now wrote a 14-page memo warning that no deal would lead to higher food prices and more crime. Someone in May’s office helpfully forwarded it to the Daily Mail. The chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond, warned that Parliament might have to repeal Article 50 to “protect the value of the pound.” May herself entered into consultation with the old-school Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to see if he would help pass her deal, in the course of which she even offered to agree to a second referendum. Perhaps that revealed what May had thought of Brexit all along. It was not a constitutional demand but a psychiatric symptom.
In this moment, the global press, hardly able to contain its glee at the tactical victories their side was scoring, hailed one John Bercow, Speaker of the House, as its hero of the year. Bercow was a classic globalist creature, the kind of spineless “fiscal conservative” I’ve been meeting all my life as a political correspondent. They’re all charming:
Elected as a Conservative, he had, in David Souter-esque fashion, discovered once in power that he actually opposed Conservative policies on most things, very much including Brexit. On April 3, Bercow transferred control of primary legislation from “the government” (as the cabinet is called when it presents legislation in Parliament) to a group of Brexit rebels. That did away with a rule on which Parliament had done business for the past 330 years and threw the country into a serious constitutional quarrel. Anti-Brexiteers used their control of debate to pass the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2019, which ordered Theresa May to seek an extension of Brexit from the European Union. And that began the process that led to postponing the Brexit deadline until October 31. Once the legislature had seized the powers of the executive, the genie could not be returned to the bottle. Brexiteers now understood that Bercow might unilaterally block any moves toward Brexit, rendering parliamentary debate futile. So some Tories began to think: what if Parliament were prorogued—kept out of session until after the next deadline passed? Labour had resorted to a prorogation in 1948, which made the idea less of a trespass on parliamentary procedure than Bercow’s. In the event, the prorogation maneuver was blocked by an amendment in the House of Lords that essentially bans Parliament from going out of session in October.
The will of the people had been thwarted at every turn by the people’s supposed representatives, but the smart guys hadn’t counted on a final twist starring the idiotic buffoon that came up with the idea of Brexit to start with.
Nigel Farage may be the most fascinating politician of his generation. He’s a rod for media hatred. Every single journalist, of any country, that I ever discussed Farage with hates the guy with a passion. They would love to see him dead: this is no exaggeration. If Farage were to be killed by a bunch of terrorists or whatever, there would be a lot of gleeful comments in Twitter.
I spent a couple of years attending summits in Brussels almost every month during the worst of the EU Greek crisis. If hatred for Farage is widespread in, say, Milan, it’s hard to fathom the extent of the abhorrence he causes on people in Brussels. Honestly, it came to the point I had to tell people to take a deep breath every time they mentioned Farage, even if it was in the context of Greek property taxes.
It’s no wonder that he caused that reaction, though. With May sabotaging Brexit in May 2019, there came a EU parliament election, and Farage just did it again:
In early April Nigel Farage announced his return to politics and hastily assembled a ragtag formation called the Brexit Party. Five weeks later, with a list of nobodies, has-beens, and famous politicians’ sisters, Farage’s Brexiteers took 29 of Britain’s 73 seats to become the single biggest party in the European Parliament; May’s Tories took only four. Johnson announced his bid for the leadership, saying: “There is a very real choice between getting Brexit done and the potential extinction of this great party.”
Yup, if you hate Brexit, you must really, really hate this guy. And please don’t forget: David Cameron didn’t call a Brexit referendum because he felt like it. He was forced to promise a referendum in order to win the 2015 election — the first clear Conservative win in almost two decades — and because otherwise Farage’s UKIP would have eaten up the Tories entirely by now, leaving all the Etonians mailing resumés around the City. The EU election in May 2019 served as a nice reminder of such facts.
May quickly faded out of the scene after Farage’s counter-move, and moved on the next great passion of democratic politicians:
selling her influence and rolodex to cut big financial deals/getting payback for past favors, making tons of money! For no good reason! To everyone’s applause!
The stage was wide open for Boris Johnson, who knew this was his Churchillian time to grab glory. He didn’t care that all of his journo friends and friends from posh schools and college were enraged. Being a former journalist himself, he was perfectly able to read between the lines of a scene brilliantly described by Caldwell:
Most commentary on Brexit dismisses those who sought it as fantasists and the Parliament that debated it as a madhouse. “Bungle” is the favored verb in most articles on the subject, which generally explain that Britain’s difficult winter and spring illustrate what a misbegotten idea Brexit was in the first place. The Dutch diplomat Frans Timmermans, a veteran E.U. commissioner involved in negotiations, told the BBC that his British counterparts had been “running around like idiots.” European Council president Donald Tusk said, “I’ve been wondering what the special place in hell looks like for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan of how to carry it safely.” Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria said in March, “Britain, famous for its prudence, propriety, and punctuality, is suddenly looking like a banana republic as it makes reckless decisions, misrepresents reality and now wants to change its own self-imposed deadline.” But the reasons for the chaos of the past winter—and for the fact that Brexit has still not happened—lie elsewhere. Brexit is an epochal struggle for power, and an exemplary one. It pits a savvy elite against a feckless majority. There have been scares before for those who run the institutions of global “governance”—the rise of Syriza in Greece, with its attack on the common European currency, the election of Donald Trump, the nation-based immigration restrictions put forward by Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini and Hungarian president Viktor Orbán. But it is Brexit that has hit bedrock. If Brexit happens, our future will look one way. If not, it will look another. Those people who warn, as Zakaria does, that voting for Brexit has decreased Britain’s importance in the world—are they joking?
Like Farage, Boris is a bit of a clown with a joking habit. Unlike Farage, he seems to have no real principles, stupid or otherwise: he only has preferences, and they are somewhat flexible too. Both chaps understand this Caldwell’s paragraph below to be true; for Farage, it’s the whole reason for Brexit; for Boris, it makes the whole thing a tad more uncomfortable than he’d like. But, hey, a chance to go down in history is a chance to go down in history:
Only when the Leave side won the referendum did it become clear that the vote had been about not just a policy preference but also an identity. It raised the question for each voter of whether he considered himself an Englishman or a European, and of whether it was legitimate to be ruled by one power or the other. As such it made certain things explicit.
Caldwell then closes his essay with a flourish, reminding me of Mark Steyn’s old quip: “the EU is a 1970s solution to a 1940s problem.”
The main legacy of the European Union in the past three decades has been the suppression of democracy and sovereignty in the countries that belong to it. We can argue about whether this is the main purpose of the federation, but suppression of self-rule certainly counts as one of its purposes. Extinguishing national sovereignty was E.U. technocrats’ way of assuring that what Germany, Italy, and Spain set in motion in the 20th century would not repeat itself in the 21st. The architects of the Brussels order proclaimed this intention loudly until they discovered it cost them elections and support. The E.U.’s suspicion of nationalism is understandable. But its hostility to democracy is real… Brexit was not an “outburst” or a cry of despair or a message to the European Commission. It was an eviction notice. It was an explicit withdrawal of the legal sanction under which Brussels had governed Europe’s most important country. If it is really Britain’s wish to see its old constitutional arrangements restored, then this notice is open to emendation and reconsideration. But as things stand now, the Leave vote made E.U. rule over the U.K. illegitimate. Not illegitimate only when Brussels has been given one last chance to talk Britain out of it, but illegitimate now. What Britons voted for in 2016 was to leave the European Union—not to ask permission to leave the European Union.