The referendum on British membership in the European Union, commonly known as “Brexit,” has come and gone, with the final outcome being a 52 percent to 48 percent victory for the Leave side. It is clear that British Prime Minister David Cameron badly miscalculated. What originally seemed a good idea for shoring up his base within the Conservative Party may have precipitated nothing less than acute social fracture and the breakup of the United Kingdom. It is also clear that the result caught the establishment by surprise: having voted to leave, the country’s leaders have to sort out, first, who is going to lead them out, and second, what their new relationship with the Europe will be.
What do we know of the vote itself? Briefly, British citizens who lived in urban areas, had more education, and who were younger were much more likely to vote Remain than citizens who were older, lived in smaller towns and the countryside, and were less educated. This stark contrast, based on demographic data, gives us a lot to think about.
What, exactly, did those who wanted to remain, want to remain in? The EU, of course, but specifically, they wanted to remain in the life that they had created for themselves and that they believed the EU had helped make possible. It had created the conditions for easy movement, cosmopolitan feeling, and general European solidarity. Remain voters had grown up appreciating, rather than fearing, differences. They also understood that no bureaucracy is perfect, that any system that sought to harmonize the interests of half a billion people was going to be clumsy. But they had patience.
The Leave voters were another story. They voted to leave the EU because they saw it as a way of protesting the cramped, frustrated, and disappointing conditions of their lives. Small towns and villages are more intimate settings than big cities, and the difficulties of livelihoods and standards of living are experienced there more viscerally and personally. In a town of two grocery stores, the closing of one is a sign that the economy is not on track; in a small village, the understaffed employment office proves the inefficiency of government.
The role of British mass media
Why were these very local difficulties and resentments connected to the EU? Here the role played by the British mass media in the Leave campaign was crucial. Decades-worth of stories in the tabloid press had convinced many readers that the EU was inefficient, that its bureaucrats were overpaid, that its guiding ideas were socialist, even communist, and that Britain was being slowly undermined by its membership in the EU. It didn’t matter that these articles were full of inaccuracies, cherry-picked data, and presented without context. Readers felt they were reading the work of muckraking heroes. Then there was immigration.
While pundits criticized the Remain campaign for relying too heavily on scaring voters about what would be lost if Britain left the EU, the more powerful fears were stoked by United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and its leader, Nigel Farage. The infamous campaign poster showing thousands of disheveled migrants trooping through a field and that read “Breaking Point,” was without doubt a brilliant example of the advertiser’s art. No matter that the particular field on display was somewhere in the Balkans. Most important was to convey to those who lived in the British countryside an image of just what vast crowd of brownish, desperate people invading some poor farm looked like. The unmistakable message was that this countryside could be their countryside, the countryside of Devon or Shropshire or East Anglia, if they didn’t leave the EU right now.
Of course the tabloid press circulates in cities as well. But the readers in cities have more chance to check the claims of the papers against the claims of their own experience. Faint whiffs of xenophobia are more easily laughed off when you work with colleagues whose families are from the West Indies, India, and China, and who speak the King’s English; when you live in neighborhoods where everyone went to university, and where you collectively share the ecstasy and despair of the soccer or cricket league results. Cities elide and compress differences; in a small town, difference can rankle, especially if one is bombarded with hints that there is a looming threat just around the corner.
Lessons for U.S. voters
What are the lessons of Brexit for us? There is indeed a way that the structure of “leaving” and “remaining” does apply to us on the other side of the pond. Donald Trump wants to leave the way American politics has worked in the postwar era; Hillary Clinton wants to remain. Leaving requires Trump to compost, fertilize, and harvest the anger and dissatisfaction of older, less educated people, and he understands that the place to do this is in the small towns of economically depressed countrysides. Several decades of conditioning by right-wing media outlets that repeat the single message that politics as usual is just a cover for elite, immoral, and perhaps un-American interests, have helped prepare the soil. Clinton, though, has it tougher than Cameron. She has to defend the status quo while coming up with programs for its renovation and transformation.
The major difference, though, is that Americans have never belonged to any greater political body that could be a source of stability. There is only that “global union” of humanity facing a wide range of acute problems. So perhaps the fall election is indeed a referendum of a sort: Does the American public want to remain a leading player in the admittedly abstract work of confronting all those issues like global warming, wealth distribution, public health, and demographic change, that transcend national borders? Or does it want to leave, pull itself out of these networks and hunker down, the colony following the lead of the empire it once defeated?
Thomas Wolfe is an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Minnesota. He is affiliated faculty with the Department of Anthropology, the Institute for Global Studies, and the School of Journalism and Mass Communications.
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