How do I explain Brexit to Americans?

On Thursday last week, a narrow majority (52%) of the British electorate voted to leave the European Union. Early signs indicate this choice was every bit as dangerous as ‘Leave’ voters were warned it would be, potentially setting the country’s global standing back 400 years and triggering the disintegration of not only the United Kingdom, but that of the European Union itself.

The 48% of us that voted to ‘Remain’ – typically under 45 years old and from professional, liberal backgrounds and cities – have spent the last few days expressing our displeasure and sending recriminatory “told you so” tweets. Many of us perceive this as a protest vote gone wrong. Meanwhile, the world is wondering how this happened.

As a Brit based in London, who also happens to travel frequently across the EU, allow me to attempt to explain:


One key issue on the doorsteps was immigration, particularly in what is traditionally Labour Party (left of centre) territory in the post-industrial Midlands and north of England. Globalization has left many behind in its wake, and places built on coal and textiles have seen their jobs go overseas while failure to invest in replacement industries has led to decline.

One of the European Union’s key tenets is freedom of movement, labour and services. When the EU expanded eastwards into the former Soviet Bloc countries in 2004, many took advantage seeking a new life in the UK, currently estimated to be 1.3 million people.

Net migration in the UK reached record levels of 333,000 in 2015 – including 184,000 from within the European Union. This is the size of a major city each year, applying pressure on schooling and housing, which appears to have overridden any economic benefit to the UK that EU migrants are proven to contribute.

‘Leave’ campaigners, such as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) seized upon this, drawing criticism for its aggressive anti-migrant stance. Successive governments have ducked the issue of immigration rather than engage the issue head on, leading to many feeling marginalised and playing into the hands of UKIP.

The ‘Leave’ camp, as with any political group, was a broad church with their own reasons, but as one journalist tweeted: “Of course not all Leavers are racists. That would be a terrible thought. But all racists now think 52% of the population agree with them.”

Unfortunately, we’re seeing a number of racist incidents in the street since the Brexit vote.

The European Union

The UK has always had an uneasy relationship with the EU, despite flourishing within it in recent years. The EU’s chief problems are accountability. The toothless European Parliament aside, it is a largely undemocratic institution perceived as meddling bureaucrats. It’s not just the UK that is Euro-sceptic and the EU has had the rudest of wake-up calls.

Many in the ‘Leave’ camp will have looked at the Euro crisis and wondered how a country as badly mismanaged as Greece can continue to fail and be bailed out time and again. They may have also seen how badly the migrant crisis is being handled by EU members, and the potential of Turkish membership, a country with a dubious democracy and human rights record.

The European Union could have helped prevent losing the UK, its second largest net contributor and one of only two serious militaries (the other is France) in the bloc. Pre-vote it could have thrown the UK a deal on migrant numbers, which would have swayed many who felt it was out of control (see point 1).

However, as Greece will testify, the EU doesn’t like to be challenged and it needs to send a message to other member states where Euro-scepticism is high, so I expect them to make this a messy divorce, even though the UK will remain a key trading and defence partner.

The Media

The UK media is among the freest and therefore most polarizing in the world. The right-wing press came down on the side of Brexit, while the left backed ‘Remain’.

Throughout, the tone has been largely unsavoury, especially from the right-wing tabloids.

London and Westminster

The UK government is perceived to be out of touch with the electorate. People are angry with the political class. That’s why young people (typically heavily pro-‘Remain’) feel disengaged from politics and are less likely to have voted. Given 75% of under-25s voted to remain in the EU, it would have helped their cause greatly if they had turned up.

The Westminster parties didn’t help. The opposition Labour Party’s leader (at time of writing as he’s currently facing a coup), Jeremy Corbyn has always been lukewarm towards Brussels and was accused of running a half-hearted campaign.

The Conservatives were – as they always have been – split on Europe, so again, appeared divided and confused on messaging. ‘Remain’ got sucked into the race to the bottom with ‘Leave’, focusing on fear rather than pointing out the benefits of EU inward investment to poorer regions such as Cornwall, which subsequently voted ‘Leave’ and now may lose that money.

Westminster makes an easy target of blame for the fiercely pro-Europe Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), whose leader Nicola Sturgeon is one of the few politicians from any side who comes out looking competent during this campaign. Scotland voted ‘Remain’ by two thirds to one. It’s on the fringe of Europe and needs to be in the bloc.

Internationalist London was the second most enthusiastic region to ‘Remain’ after Scotland, with 60% of the share. The capital has been growing apart from the rest of the UK politically and economically for decades, and should devolve political and economic power to increase wealth and opportunity. London is a truly global city, so as long as the conditions are right (i.e. UK enters into a single market arrangement with the EU), then it should retain its potency. However, cities such as Dublin or Amsterdam could become the preferred hub for many non-EU companies looking to break into Europe.

For American audiences, I don’t think Barack Obama’s claim on his recent visit that the UK would have to go “to the back of the queue” on trade deals did the ‘Remain’ camp any favours. It continued the fear narrative, and besides, Brits don’t like being told what to do, as Brussels has found out to its cost. Plus it was baseless: of course we’re going to continue to trade with each other and make those conditions as favourable as possible.

Where do we go from here?

Britain has always seen itself as part of Europe, but not part of Europe. Since the era of globalization started in the 17th century it has typically looked to the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australia while involving itself in Europe when its national interest suits it.

In many ways, Britain is not the isolated ‘Little England’ that many make out. It’s a world leader in many fields, such as finance, tech startups, medicine and academia, and culturally The Economist says we have the strongest ‘soft power’ in the world. It has strong historical links with Asia in a century where that could be lucrative.

As predicted, there’s been a massive wobble. The current government, which took a giant and completely unnecessary gamble on the British public, needs to project-manage a situation where reciprocal, mutually-beneficial trade agreements can be engineered, and also needs to re-engage with those who feel marginalised by globalization. That always was a domestic issue, but it’s become an international one.

What’s clear is that Britain is divided by age and outlook, and Brexit threatens a long period of uncertainty. What is for sure is we’re all in for a bumpy ride.

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