The 52%-48% win for Brexit in the June 2016 referendum has already been framed many ways, but what should be an obvious one (though for many it will not be) is how much of a failure for the EU this represents.
In June 1975, a deeply divided Labour Government held a referendum on the UK’s membership (then 2 years old) in the European Community (EC) as it then was (known colloquially as “the Common Market”). The then recently installed Conservative Opposition Leader, Margaret Thatcher, campaigned strongly for the UK’s membership. The UK electorate voted decisively for membership, 67% to 33% with a 65% voter turnout.
In June 2016, a deeply divided Conservative Government holds a referendum on the UK’s membership of what is now the European Union, the UK now having been a member of its various incarnations for 43 years. The recently installed Labour Opposition Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, campaigns (perhaps somewhat tepidly) for the UK’s continued membership. The UK electorate votes narrowly for leaving, 52% to 48% with a 72% turnout.
If one ignores the sort of special pleading which, for example, suggests the 1975 UK electorate was terribly wise and the 2016 UK electorate deeply stupid, then 41 years of further experience of the EU had shifted the opinion of the British electorate by 19 percentage points against the EU. That is a considerable shift in opinion.
The EU of 2016 does, and aspires to do, far more than the EC of 1975 did: clearly, more is, in fact, less; at least in terms of inspiring popular support and confidence–quite a lot less. Though that large shift in opinion will be treated as a failure of the electorate, not of the glorious European project, by many of the Great and Good who supported EU membership. Which, of course, will be an indicator of precisely why that shift in opinion has taken place. Significant majorities in provincial England and Wales has discerned that the European Project has become deeply intertwined with a deep contempt for folk like them and they have given the finger in return.
It is worth remembering that many of the same Great and Good who took the UK’s continued membership of the EU as the only proper policy were the same folk who thought it desperately important that the UK join the Euro. They were wrong on that: they will be wrong on this, and for the same reasons.
It is true that the narrowness of the result, and that Northern Ireland and Scotland voted strongly to stay in the EU, could presage problems ahead for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That immigrants seem to have voted strongly for Remain is perhaps another point of pressure. If, however, after a likely somewhat rocky transition period, the UK actually prospers, particularly relative to the EU, then the divisions will likely fade.
An outcome I am reasonably confident will occur. The reason for my confidence in this is quite simple: the UK has voted to improve the accountability of its institutions. The democratic deficit of the EU has given it a much less accountable governing structure which will continue to produce policies which reflect that lower accountability. Particularly as the EU tries to do too much with too little commonality between its societies and economies.
The Euro has been a serial disaster because it is emblematic of all these problems — too little accountability, trying to do too much across insufficient commonality. Even just in economic terms, as Paul Krugman’s rather nice paper The Revenge of the Optimal Currency Area (pdf) points out. Nor is Britain the only EU country where popular approval of the EU is problematic.
Whatever political calculations may have been involved, David Cameron PM is to be congratulated for giving the British people a clear say on such an important issue. It is regrettable that it has also ended his Premiership, but given that the Tory electorate voted so very strongly for Brexit, and given the contestable intricacies involved in negotiating Britain’s leaving of the EU, and the difficulties of the transition, it is understandable that he has decided he is not the person who should be leading either Britain or the Conservative Party through what is to come.
We live in a time of elite echo chambers and a plethora of techniques for discounting (indeed, treating with contempt) the concerns and language of ordinary folk. So it is unlikely that many who really should will see how much a failure and condemnation of what the EU has become this result is. But that is precisely what it is.
[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]