Storm in the English Channel — continent cut off


Derek Boothby

The above title, illustrating the perennially detached attitude of the British to their continental cousins, is reputed to be the heading of an article in a British newspaper around the turn of the 19th century – and with the Brexit vote the British appear to have done it again. Last Thursday, contrary to the final polls, the betting market of the bookmakers and the seers of financial markets in London, New York and elsewhere, British voters voted to leave the European Union by 52 percent to 48 percent. Not a large margin but clear enough.

The Brits have never been totally in favor of the European Union. Or perhaps more accurately, the Brits have welcomed it as a trading arrangement but not as a political union apparent moving forward towards a Federal States of Europe. The rallying cry in Brussels of 'ever closer union' has never rallied the British public, even those who recognize the values of closer affinity with their continental neighbors. The introduction of an EU flag, an EU anthem and an EU president served to fan the flames of eurosceptics already critical of laws being passed in Brussels that had authority over laws passed by Parliament in London. Politicians in London tried to convince voters that belonging to the EU was a good thing with the air, as one commentator has put it, "of assuring children that they will like the taste of green beans. Honestly, honey, you really will, once you get used to them."

Faced with eurosceptic grumbling within his own Conservative party, in 2014 David Cameron offered a referendum for the wide British public to express their preference – Leave the EU or Remain a member. At the time, he probably never imagined for a moment that the outcome might be a majority in favor of leaving – but last Thursday that was what happened. There was a populist rebellion against the castor oil that the establishment was trying to pour down their throats.

In one sense the British voters' sentiments are somewhat reminiscent of the arguments that took place in Philadelphia in the 1780s at the Confederation Congress that eventually led to the Constitution in 1787. It would be wrong to make parallels too close, but the fight between federal rights and states' rights echoes to this day. In the European version, a strong element of the case made by the Brexiteers was that the UK had lost too much of its national sovereignty to the federalist policies of the EU commissioners in Brussels. And the basic root of the situation was the charge that the established political parties, listening too much to London's financial bankers and other vested interests, had lost touch with the people.

The immediate effect of the voters' decision to withdraw from the EU was the collapse of sterling to its lowest point since 1985, a widespread feeling of shock at the unexpected outcome, and significant losses in stock markets around the world including a fall of 610 points in the Dow Jones in New York. It has also encouraged the efforts of eurosceptics in other countries, such as Netherlands, France and Greece, to call for their own referenda to step away from the federalist policies of the EU leadership in Brussels. In short, the message from the populists to the establishment and elites was that they had better wake up and pay attention.

Which brings us to the populist rebellion that is now taking place here in USA. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are not two different coins, but simply two sides of the same coin: one is offering palliatives and platitudes from the right while the other is appealing to the emotions of the left. Both are seeking to overthrow the established way of doing political business as practiced by the establishment and elites who get returned to office year after but never seem to find solutions that respond to the wishes of the people.

Some will argue that all this is democracy at work. But populism has a dangerous edge: like the torrent of a stream in flood, it can carry all before it and plunge the nation over the edge of a precipice into the chaos of the unknown. Already, the leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party in Scotland, where the majority of Scots voted to remain in the EU, is raising once more the matter of Scottish independence, and in Northern Ireland the Sinn Fein nationalist party is talking about the unification of Ireland. Such dramas are not on the menu for the Trump/Sanders populism here in the United States, but there is one message that can be applied to populists of both situations: be very careful what you wish for.

Derek Boothby is a resident of Manchester.The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Manchester Journal. Derek Boothby, together with Peter Radford, will be participating in the GMALL Debate at the Manchester Community Library on Tuesday July 12 when the motion before the meeting will be that populism leads to the decay of democracy.


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