The Roots of Brexit

1992, 2004, and European Union Expansion

The Union Jack and the European Union flag are seen flying in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar, historically claimed by Spain, June 27, 2016, after Britain voted to leave the European Union in the EU Brexit referendum. Jon Nazca / Reuters

In their quest for the Conservative leadership, two rival Eton schoolboys have managed to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union—the first by calling for a referendum in 2013 in order to consolidate his hold over the leadership, and the second by joining the leadership of the Vote Leave campaign in order to hasten his rival’s downfall. As Alex Salmond, the former leader of the Scottish National Party who knows a thing or two about referendums said, the point of a such a poll is to change things: it was daft of David Cameron to mount one when he planned to fight for the status quo. And it was cynical of Boris Johnson to use the opportunity for political gain. In this lamentable drama, both have much to answer for.

However, the two had help from many quarters, not least the halfhearted support for the Remain campaign from a Labour leadership ambivalent about the neoliberal capitalist engine that the EU has become and nervous about seeming to support immigration when so many of their traditional voters do not. Nigel Farage, the man-in-the-street leader of the United Kingdom Independent Party, contributed a willingness to play the race and immigration cards when the more delicate political tastes of some Conservatives held them back from doing so.

In a contest that saw a 52 percent vote to leave (and turnout was high at 72 percent), the vehicle for victory was a virulent populist nationalism, stirred up by a campaign laden with wild and inaccurate claims that 80 million Turks were on the brink of gaining EU membership and that a British contribution to the EU of 350 million pounds ($460 million) a week might otherwise be spent on the National Health Service. The Thatcherite Tories who have long disliked the EU saw the main issue as one of restoring British sovereignty, but focus groups revealed that few ordinary voters had any idea what sovereignty means. In fact, the majority of Brexit voters cared much more about

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