“After Brexit, Britain suddenly becomes European”

July 08, 2016

The new Europe: An image circulated by the anti-Brexit camp on social media the day after the vote



[Note by Tom Gross]

For those interested, I attach three further pieces on Brexit, the first two from American publications, the third from a British one.

The Brexit debate remains extremely heated in Britain and elsewhere with a lot of anger (as touched upon in the articles below.) The vote has even disrupted families and friendships.

As is pointed out in the Washington Post article below: “A few months ago, British politics felt too dull, too Anglo-Saxon, too predictable to have ever been relevant to a continental philosopher. Now, just as Britain prepares to move away from Europe, the country has suddenly become not only continental but also emotional.”

For a lighter side of Europe, and to coincide with the ongoing Euro 2016 Football tournament, here is the classic “Monty Python Germany vs. Greece - Philosophers Football Match”



1. “After Brexit, Britain suddenly becomes European” (By Anne Applebaum, Washington Post, July 7, 2016)
2. “What comes after Brexit” (By Anand Menon, Foreign Affairs, July 6, 2016)
3. “Brexit: a coup by one set of public schoolboys against another” (By Simon Kuper, Financial Times, July 7, 2016)




After Brexit, Britain suddenly becomes European
By Anne Applebaum
Washington Post
July 7, 2016

Boris out. Gove up; Gove down. May saves the day; no, she’s too authoritarian. Leadsom comes from behind; no, she’s too inexperienced. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you weren’t following the minute-by-minute twists of British politics over the past few days. Having lost its leader and the country’s prime minister – David Cameron resigned on June 24, after losing the referendum to keep Britain in the European Union – the ruling Conservative Party must choose a new one. As I watched this baroque process unfold in London, I realized that I just couldn’t write about the backstabbing, the personal betrayals, the resentments and jealousies, some of which date back 30 years to student political debates at the Oxford Union.

It has become clear that something far more important is happening: By voting itself out of the E.U., the United Kingdom has suddenly, unexpectedly become European. Overnight, the old British political divide, between a soft left, business-friendly Labour Party and a center-right, economically liberal Conservative Party, has disappeared. The old arguments, over taxes and spending (Labour wanted higher, Tories wanted lower) and the size of the state (Tories wanted smaller, Labour wanted bigger), are out the window. The old ideologies are gone. Even the old people are gone.

Instead, the British are split along the same lines as everyone else. Early last year, I wrote that the most important political division in Europe is not between the old left and the old right, but between what I would call established, integrationist politics on the one hand and isolationist or protectionist nationalist politics on the other. This is true in Greece, in Poland, in France, in the Netherlands.

Now it is true in Britain, too, but the split is an uneven one, jagged and still raw. Last month’s referendum exposed the existence of at least two coherent British political constituencies that now have no representation in Parliament. The first is roughly defined by the English nativist U.K. Independence Party – a movement that would, in any other country, go under the moniker “far right” – and it contains both former Labour voters and former Conservatives. UKIP had 3.8 million voters at the last election, but thanks to a voting system that favors major parties, there is only one UKIP MP. Nobody has ever really demanded that this group produce actual policies or take responsibility for carrying them out, but it’s fair to guess that it wants less trade, higher walls, stronger borders, more state planning, a more English England and some distance from allies of all kinds.

Bitterly opposed to these ideas, a second large political grouping – pro-European, integrationist, in favor of trade and foreign alliances, committed to the union of England and Scotland and a broad definition of “Britishness” – also lacks political representation. Suddenly, it looks as though these centrists, the 48 percent of the country who voted “Remain,” have no political voice.

Neither leader of either major political party represents this group. The dynamic inside the Tory party is pushing its leaders toward radicalization: Already, the leadership contenders are arguing about who will take the country out of Europe faster. They are bitterly divided – right now, I can’t even tell you whether the next leader will turn out to be a protectionist or a global trader – and it’s hard to imagine how they can appeal to the pro-European center.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party is stuck in a destructive downward spiral. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, comes from the Marxist, anti-American and anti-capitalist far left; he became party leader after thousands of people joined the Labour Party explicitly to vote for him. Since taking charge of one of Britain’s two great, historic, mass political parties, he has behaved as though he were running a secret revolutionary cell. He doesn’t speak to some of his deputies; he hardly campaigned during the referendum; he refused, even, to say whether he had voted for Britain to stay in Europe at all.

Hence the weird sense of political disorientation that has gripped London. Hence the flurry of phone calls and email chains, the meetings to plan responses; hence the discussions of new parties and new alliances, the possible revival of the Liberal Democrats, the small centrist party wiped out at the last election. Hence the un-British vertigo and the fear that something even nastier will emerge. An angry British friend sent me a Gramsci quote: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

A few months ago, British politics felt too dull, too Anglo-Saxon, too predictable to have ever been relevant to a continental philosopher. Now, just as Britain prepares to move away from Europe, the country has suddenly become not only continental but also emotional. Or maybe it has been moving that way for a long time, but we just couldn’t see it.



What comes after Brexit
By Anand Menon
Foreign Affairs magazine
July 6, 2016

The referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union has underlined the profoundly divided state of England. My middle-class friends and family based in the country’s south continue to bemoan the outcome of the referendum in tones more suited to a family bereavement than a political event. Meanwhile, in the north of the country where I grew up, there were celebratory street parties with revelers full of delight that voters had risen up and given the establishment a good kicking.

Although the referendum revealed a riven country, it did not create it. It simply provided many voters who had effectively opted out of British politics an opportunity to get back in. Their opinions may be unpopular in some quarters, but their mobilization cannot be ignored.


The Leave campaign’s dismissal of experts tallied with a pervasive mistrust of the establishment among those left behind by globalization. One incident at a town hall event sticks in my mind. A couple of colleagues and I were in Newcastle, in the northeast, discussing the fact that the vast majority of economists agreed that Brexit would lead to an economic slowdown. A two percent drop in the United Kingdom’s GDP, I said, would dwarf any savings the country would generate from curtailing its contribution to the EU budget. “That’s your bloody GDP,” came the shouted response, “not ours.”

In deprived areas of the country, where jobs are insecure, wages are depressed, housing is scarce, and education levels are far below those in London, there is a profound unease with the kind of aggregate statistics bandied about by experts. Membership in the single market may have increased the GDP of the whole country, but it didn’t make a difference everywhere. Boston in Lincolnshire provided the Leave campaign’s biggest victory – 76 percent voted for Brexit. The median income here is less than £17,000 ($22,600), as compared with £27,000 ($35,900) across the 20 local authorities where support for EU membership was strongest. For all the good that membership might have done for the economy as a whole, inequality has worsened. As one woman in Yorkshire put it to me, “I don’t mind if we take an economic hit. Our lives have never been easy, after all. But it will be nice to see the rich folk down south suffer.” Dramatic falls in the value of the pound or national income mean little to people who are already struggling.

Distrust of aggregate data was most marked in discussions about immigration. Again, the economic studies are quite clear. Migration has had a – small – positive impact on the British economy, with the impact of EU migration being still more positive. Yet there are areas of the country – take rural south Lincolnshire – where large influxes of seasonal migrants completely alter small communities. It is here that struggles for places in school or for appointments with doctors are a reality. And it is here where people are rightly suspicious of claims that migration is an unalloyed benefit for the country.

On top of the scepticism of the data was a palpable desire to “stick it to them” on the part of those who have felt excluded from politics for so long. As elections have increasingly become little more than a competition to woo the middle class, the concerns of those in the Labour heartlands have been drowned out and forgotten. From the 1980s, the United Kingdom has embraced an economic model that served just enough of the population to keep the major parties in power, while condemning the rest to gradual decline. The decision to allow workers from Eastern and Central Europe into the country with no transitional controls was not something that ever garnered much support in the left-behind communities, yet London did little, if anything, to compensate them.

The politics of the referendum were complicated. The Conservatives were profoundly divided and a majority of the prime minister’s own constituents voted against him. It is Labour, however, that arguably faces the toughest challenge in the years to come; it was in the traditional Labour stomping grounds that the Brexit revolt was most striking. The party had, until this point, managed to patch the split between its supporters in cosmopolitan, prosperous London and those in the traditional heartlands in the north through the electoral system.

The United Kingdom’s first-past-the-post voting system systematically disadvantages third-party challengers to the Labour-Conservative duopoly. Voting takes place by constituency, with the party receiving the largest number of votes winning. All other votes, therefore, count for nothing, which systematically disadvantages smaller parties. The upstart United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), for all the 3.8 million votes it received in the 2015 election, secured only one seat in Parliament. Little wonder that Labour grandees came to believe that their core voters had nowhere else to turn. And so they ignored them.

Enter the referendum, which surfaced the pre-existing fractures in English society. It was a contest in which every vote counted. And 37 percent of those who voted Labour in 2015 voted Leave in the referendum, despite the party line being pro-Remain. In areas of East London, Leave polled significantly higher than UKIP did in the 2015 general election, in which it was the only political party that advocated Brexit. In that vote, UKIP finished second to the Labour party. By contrast, in the referendum, Leave brought in 70 percent of the vote in Havering, 62 percent in Barking and Dagenham, and 63 percent in Bexley. Meanwhile, in the North West, around Liverpool, UKIP scored only 9.7 percent of the vote in 2015, but Leave garnered 51.5 percent in the referendum (precise comparison is difficult because the units used for the referendum were not the same as the constituencies by which general elections are organized).

Equally striking were differences in voter mobilization. People who do not usually bother to turn out for general elections (why would they in safe Labour seats, where their votes hardly matter?) came out for Brexit. In the North East, Gateshead saw Leave winning with almost 59 percent of the vote on the basis of a 70.6 percent turnout (as compared to 59 percent in the general election). In nearby Hartlepool, Leave managed to gain 70 percent of the vote on a 73 percent turnout (as compared to a 61 percent in 2015). In short, then, the Leave win was, in part, an expression of voters’ unwillingness to continue being ignored.


The backlash from disappointed Remainers has been immediate. To date, a petition to annul the result on the grounds that turnout was below 75 percent and the winning side received fewer than 60 percent of the votes cast has received over four million signatures. Some members of Parliament have suggested that there should be a second referendum, or that the result of this one could be overruled by a parliamentary vote (the vast majority of British parliamentarians support Britain remaining within the European Union).

Such talk is misguided and dangerous. To be sure, one-off referendums are not an optimal way of deciding complex political issues, and are even less so when there is no defined threshold for turnout or margin of victory. As leading economist Kenneth Rogoff has argued, it seems bizarre that such a crucial decision could be made by 36 percent of eligible voters. Further, the Remainers are also right to claim that the Leave camp proved adept at twisting the truth; its claim, painted on the side of its battle bus, that the United Kingdom pays £350 ($465) million per week to the EU was simply and provably false. And it is doubtless true that some people had not thought through what their vote would mean.

The notion that large numbers of pro-Brexit voters are experiencing buyer’s remorse is both unproven and irrelevant. However, all that is in the past. Political campaigns are not usually beacons of honesty and straightforwardness. And the notion that large numbers of pro-Brexit voters are experiencing buyer’s remorse is both unproven and irrelevant. Voters knew the score before the referendum. It was a one-shot deal. The four million signatories of the petition are dwarfed by the 17.4 million who voted for Brexit. And it is hard to avoid the feeling that much of the Remain camp disappointment comes from people who are simply not used to losing votes that might negatively affect their own lives. As Manchester Professor Rob Ford put it, the English middle class is simply experiencing what UKIP voters have had to put up with for years.

The fundamental problem with the idea of ignoring the outcome of the referendum, however, is political. The referendum was, in part, a political protest against a system that no longer adequately represents its people. Overturning the result, therefore, would simply make matters worse. And the backlash would hit the Labour Party worst of all. Many of the places where the Brexit campaign triumphed are areas in which Labour had been holding off a challenge from UKIP. Part of UKIP’s appeal – apart, of course, from being the only party in favour of a proposition that 17 million people supported – is its insurgent nature.

To simply overturn the referendum result would, therefore, be to open the door to a political crisis that could see a surge in popularity for the far right. None of which is to say that the EU issue is now closed. Months, perhaps years, of difficult negotiations lie ahead and it is hard to predict what the outcome will be. And although the British people stated quite clearly in the referendum what they did not want – EU membership – they were not given the choice to decide what kind of relationship with the EU they would prefer. So it is eminently possible that a second referendum might be called to approve whatever settlement is secured.


At the moment, politics in England are quite ugly. The referendum coincided with – and helped trigger – an increase in xenophobic and racist incidents across the country. The chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council recently stated that the number of hate crimes reported to British police online had increased more than 500 percent in the week after the referendum. And there is no escaping the fact that the behaviour of some elements of the Leave campaign contributed to this new unsavoury national mood.

Yet that fact should blind no one to the opportunity that recent events have presented. Whatever the flaws of the process, the referendum represented a unique democratic moment. Seventy percent of eligible voters turned out to cast their ballots, including, as we have seen, many who do not generally bother to stir themselves on election days. On trains and in pubs, around family dinner tables and the workplace watercooler, it had people talking about politics in a way seldom seen.

The kaleidoscope of British politics has been well and truly shaken. It is up to the country’s leaders to rearrange the pieces into a coherent pattern. And central to this task will be addressing the real concerns of many of those who voted against European Union membership.

Certainly, the referendum result will affect their ability to do so. If the economists’ predictions are correct, Brexit will reduce the resources of the British state and hence its ability to act. Yet the levers that need to be pulled to address the kinds of issues that the vote revealed rest, nevertheless, in the hands of the British government. Training, education, the provision of adequate housing, and ensuring a more equal distribution of the spoils of globalization are all matters for which the British government has primary responsibility. Each would, in its own way, help to bridge the chasm that has grown between the globalized middle class and the white, blue collar working class.

The rest of the world should watch the British response to this challenge with interest. The forces of reaction and revolt are on the march, whether via the Front National in France or the Trump presidential candidacy in the United States. In all these places, established parties, rather than dealing immediately with the legitimate grievances that have generated such anger, have waited until hurt feelings have grown into political movements capable of challenging longtime incumbents.

As ever, no one would choose to start from here. The referendum will have severe consequences for the British economy and British society. Yet it can still serve as a wake-up call. Politicians need to respond to the howl of protest that woke them in the early hours of June 24. No longer can they simply plug their ears. Let that be the legacy of the European Union referendum.

(The writer is Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at King’s College London.)



Brexit: a coup by one set of public schoolboys against another
By Simon Kuper
Financial Times
July 7, 2016

To understand the situation the UK has got itself into, it helps to know that Brexit isn’t simply an anti-elitist revolt. Rather, it is an anti-elitist revolt led by an elite – a coup by one set of public [i.e. elite private] schoolboys against another.

I went to university with both sets, and with hindsight I watched Brexit in the making. When I arrived at Oxford in 1988, David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove had just left the place. George Osborne and the future Brexiters Jacob Rees-Mogg and Daniel Hannan were all contemporaries of mine.

I wasn’t close to them, because politically minded public schoolboys inhabited their own Oxford bubble. They had clubs like the Bullingdon that we middle-class twerps had never even heard of. Their favourite hang-out was the Oxford Union, a kind of children’s parliament that organises witty debates. A sample topic: “That sex is good . . . but success is better”, in 1978, with Theresa May speaking against the motion. May is now running for Tory leader without the usual intermediate step of having been Union president, though her husband Philip, Gove and Johnson did all hold that post. (Beautifully, Gove campaigned for Johnson’s election in 1986.)

You could recognise Oxford Union “hacks” by the suits they wore, though none took it as far as Rees-Mogg, a rail-thin teenager who promenaded along Broad Street dressed like a Victorian vicar with an umbrella. Three times a year, when the Union elected new officers, the hacks would go around town tapping up ordinary students with the phrase, “May I count on your vote?” The traditional climax of a Union election was one Etonian backstabbing another for the presidency.

It’s no coincidence that the Houses of Parliament look like a massive great Gothic public school. That building is a magnet for this set. Whereas ordinary Britons learn almost no history at school except a UK-centric take on the second world war (as evidenced in the Brexit debate), the Union hacks spent their school years imbibing British parliamentary history. Their heroes were great parliamentarians such as Palmerston, Gladstone and Churchill. I don’t think most Union hacks dreamed of making policy. Rather, Westminster was simply the sort of public-school club where they felt at home – or in the case of middle-class wannabes like Gove, aspired to feel at home.

Their chief interest was oratory. From age six they had been educated above all to speak and write well. After Oxford, Union hacks usually found jobs in communications: Cameron went into PR, while Gove, Johnson and Hannan became journalists churning out the kind of provocative essays that are valued at Oxford. Osborne applied to do likewise at the Economist but was turned down at interview by my FT colleague Gideon Rachman. Only Rees-Mogg went into finance, possibly because his dad had already been editor of the Times.

The autumn I started university, Margaret Thatcher gave her legendary anti-European “Bruges speech”, and this set began obsessing about Brussels. Ruling Britain was their prerogative; they didn’t want outsiders muscling in. Tory “Euroscepticism” is in part a jobs protection scheme akin to Parisian taxi drivers opposing Uber.

The public schoolboys spent decades trying to get British voters angry about the EU. But as Gove admitted to me in 2005, ordinary voters never took much interest. Perhaps they didn’t care whether they were ruled by a faraway elite in Brussels or ditto in Westminster. And so the public schoolboys focused the Brexit campaign on an issue many ordinary Britons do care about: immigration. To people like Johnson, the campaign was an Oxford Union debate writ large. Once again, their chief weapons were rhetoric and humour. In Britain, humour is used to cut off conversations when they threaten either to achieve emotional depth or to get boring or technical. Hence Johnson’s famous, “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it”, a line that doesn’t seem quite so funny now.

 . . . 

The moment Brexit was achieved, Johnson and Hannan airily informed Britons that immigration would continue after all. No wonder, because the public schoolboys don’t care about immigration. Whether Poles and Bangladeshis live in unfashionable English provincial towns is a matter of supreme indifference to them.

The public schoolboys turned out to have no plan for executing Brexit. I’m guessing they considered this a boring governance issue best left to swotty civil servants. Johnson actually spent the Sunday after Brexit playing cricket. In the great public-school tradition, he was a dilettante “winging it”.

Now Britain seems headed for recession. When I mentioned this in an email to a privately educated Oxford friend, he chastised me: “You seem unduly concerned about short-term financial impacts. This is a victory for democracy.” I see what he means. If you make £200,000 a year, a recession is just an irritation. But if you make £20,000, it’s a personal crisis, and if you now make £15,000, then soon you may be struggling to feed your children.

Anyway, the public schoolboys have already moved on, first backstabbing each other and now extracting favours from their preferred candidates in the Tory leadership election. “May I count on your vote?” What fun!


Among other dispatches on Brexit:

* Harvard Professor: Britain’s “lunatic referendum formula isn’t democracy”

* Welcome to Outstria, Beljump, Retireland, Quitaly, Portugo...

* “After Brexit, Britain suddenly becomes European”

* Divorcing from 27 other countries isn’t easy (& Pets killed for food in Venezuela)

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.