Brexit Backlash

The Populist Rage Fueling the Referendum

A Brexit referendum event at Parliament Square in London, United Kingdom, June 19, 2016. Neil Hall / Reuters

The tensions over the United Kingdom’s Brexit campaign should have culminated with a referendum this Thursday on whether to leave or remain in the European Union. Instead, it peaked prematurely with the tragic murder of Jo Cox, a pro-EU Labour member of Parliament, who was brutally shot and stabbed last week by a man close to a British extremist anti-immigration group. It was the first political killing of a British politician since the end of the Troubles, a turbulent era of conflict in Northern Ireland, and it has led many to wonder how a stable country such as the United Kingdom could lose its head over what is essentially membership in a trading bloc.

Answering that question requires reflecting on how the country grew so divided in the first place. Since the beginning, Brexit has pitted younger, more affluent, and cosmopolitan urban Britons against the older, poorer, and less educated ones in the rural and postindustrial parts of the country. It is this same clash—the elites versus the so-called proletariat—that has fueled the resurgence of extreme right parties across Europe, as well as in the United States. In the United Kingdom, these voters are angry at their financial instability, stagnant or declining living standards, and loss of jobs to emerging economies. And they have blamed it on the migrants arriving on their shores.

The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which is committed to leaving the EU, has been best able to channel these frustrations into political victories, winning sizable vote shares in recent European and Westminster elections. Although it has managed to elect one of its members into Parliament (he defected from the Conservative Party), UKIP has benefited from the division within the Conservative Party over European integration, which goes back all the way to 1990. That year, John Major took over as prime minister after Margaret Thatcher’s controversial reign. Although both were members of the Conservative Party, Thatcher was staunchly opposed to the United Kingdom joining the

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