Last night, UK voters decided to leave the European Union. “Brexit” (what a horrible word—it sounds like a dental disease) is sending shockwaves through the global economy and the Western political world. The British Pound has tanked, stock markets are down across the board, and no one quite knows what sort of political chaos and economic suffering are going to be unleashed by this unprecedented action by a EU member state.
But enough about them—let’s focus on the really important stuff: What does Brexit mean for America??
1. Voters everywhere are sometimes (often?) incredibly stupid.
The Brexit vote is very disappointing to me personally, because it has destroyed my long-cherished theory that people with British accents are smarter than Americans. Check out this video of a British “Leave” voter who said he voted to Leave but didn’t really think his vote would matter or that Leaving would actually happen. What the hell, people?? Is voting just a purely symbolic, masturbatory gesture now? Do people not understand the concept of math? Does no one understand that elections really do have consequences, and they’re not just idle chitchat that The Establishment imposes upon us to keep us all distracted from The Real Issues?
We’re seeing this same strain of “thinking” in America, where lots of people are apparently toying with the idea of voting for Trump or writing in a candidate out of protest against “the system.” But be wary of throwing out the status quo—you might like what replaces it even less.
To get some local perspective on the Brexit vote, I interviewed an actual British person, my friend Tom Stobbs, who owns a small business, the Archett & Garne delicatessen in Wilton, Wiltshire England. Tom was a “Remain” voter (he wanted to stay in the EU) and he says:
“I’m vacillating between sadness, despondency and anger. In my view immigration is absolutely a good thing and has undoubtedly added to the financial, social and cultural richness of the country. However it’s definitely an issue for many people and an issue that hasn’t been publicly talked about with any sense of reason or honesty or understanding about how people feel.
A lot of people on low incomes have been trampled underfoot by the careless and asinine austerity measures pushed upon them—and no wonder they are angry, and they have ‘had their say.’ Unfortunately this anger has been hijacked by a crowd of crass, cynical, duplicitous and mendacious cockknobs like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and most odious of all Nigel Farage. This has been coupled with a large older population voting out of a vague mistrust of foreigners and the ridiculous idea that the EU is constantly telling us what to do and making our laws.
So we are in a very divided situation, where young, educated people see the future as part of a connected Europe with all the benefits of free movement across the member states and older lower income people see the future in isolation. Unfortunately that isolation comes with a new Prime Minister and new cabinet we haven’t democratically voted for who will be even less caring about the less well off than the current government. No easy answers but I feel we have shot ourselves in the foot quite badly. And although it’s still early days and still quite raw, the potential ramifications for the UK and Europe financially and socially are quite scary. And as a new small business owner I am quite worried about how things will unfold over the next few weeks and months.”
Thank you, Tom, for your very thoughtful insights! I wish every UK voter could be as reasonable and well informed as Tom Stobbs. (And he’s a better writer than me, too! I need to be careful, or Tom Stobbs is going to steal my job writing for Paste. Damn foreigners!)
2. Brexit was a win for narrow-minded nationalism and international xenophobia.
The Brexit vote was largely motivated by anti-immigration sentiment—less charitably: it was based on “fear and hatred of Brown people.” Many of the same UK people who voted to Leave the EU are from the same demographic groups who are supporting Trump here in America: people from economically struggling rural areas and small towns, older voters, people who are feeling left behind and discombobulated by the social and economic upheavals of modern life, people who distrust the glittering cosmopolitan cities, people who fear immigrants and Muslims. UKIP, the right-wing UK Independence Party, and its leader Nigel Farage (the “Trump” of Britain) were strong supporters of Brexit, and promised their voters that leaving the EU would insulate Britain from the waves of immigration that are coming into Europe from Syria and Africa and other browner parts of the world.
By the way: isn’t it hilarious how Britain used to COLONIZE most of the world, and based their whole economy on moving to other countries and doing business there and stealing natural resources and oppressing brown people, and now they’re complaining that the (brown) descendants of Britain’s colonial empire want to come live in Britain and start businesses and share in the very same UK national resources that were built on the UK’s theft of their ancestors’ land and treasure?
And isn’t it hilarious how England, of all places, voted most harshly against the EU, even though that pessimistic, dour, rainy country is one of the places on Earth that would be most IMPROVED by immigration? English “Leave” voters basically have said: “I’m tired of all these immigrants coming here! I’m tired of curry and Jamaican food and biryani and devastatingly beautiful women with cool accents! Instead, let’s vote to send our country into an economic depression so no immigrants will want to come here and we’ll be left all alone with our pallid complexions and ghastly cuisine!”
The British hate immigrants, but they love irony! (I’m a raving Anglophile, but the English are the goddamn worst. And I say that with nothing but love! Right, Tom?)
3. People are mad as hell and don’t trust the establishment to do what’s right.
In fairness to the Leave voters, Brexit is not just about racism and xenophobia; it’s also a big thumb in the eye to the UK political establishment. The EU has never been very popular in the UK; it’s often seen as an unaccountable, elitist institution that is out of touch with the lives and concerns of everyday people outside of Brussels. Many UK voters have long been suspicious of the EU and have felt that being part of the EU was limiting the UK’s sovereignty and self-determination; these feelings are part of the same opposition to free trade agreements and distrust of international institutions like the United Nations that make American national politics so contentious.
The Brexit vote is part of the ongoing struggle for the nation of the UK to define its role in the world and clarify exactly how connected to the rest of Europe they want to be. And just because Conservative party leader David Cameron (who just resigned as Prime Minister) said that staying in the EU was a good idea, doesn’t mean that his own party trusted him. This Brexit vote is also a failure of governance, a failure of leadership, and a sign that lots of people in the UK don’t trust their political leaders one bit—and we’ve got the same situation in America.
4. BUT: Don’t read too much into this.
Brexit does not mean that Trump is going to win in November. The two political movements are fueled by some of the same trends, but they are two separate issues in two different countries with different national moods. All politics is local, and the UK has had its own complicated history with the EU—this Brexit vote has been brewing for a long time. The “Leave” campaign was more passionate and better organized than the “Remain” campaign—it’s often harder to mobilize people to reconfirm the status quo than it is to inspire them to vote to create change (even if that change is self-sabotaging and short-sighted).
The EU—despite the various ways it has benefited the economy and culture of the UK for decades—was never widely popular there, and the idea of leaving the EU was more appealing to more UK voters than the idea of electing Donald Trump is going to be to American voters in November. The UK has had a complicated relationship with the EU for a lot longer than America has been coming to terms with the idea of President Trump. And Hillary’s presidential campaign is going to be much better funded and better organized than the “Remain” campaign—she is not losing this thing.
5. Who wants to go visit London??
If anything, Brexit might have POSITIVE economic consequences for America: America is going to get an influx of foreign investment (driving down interest rates and making it cheaper for Americans to borrow money for mortgages and car loans, etc.) and the U.S. dollar is going to be stronger than the Euro and the Pound. In fact, as of this writing, the British Pound is cheaper than anytime since 1985! My one visit to London was 16 years ago, when I was a broke backpacking college student. I was astonished at how expensive everything was—I ate pizza or fish and chips at every meal because I couldn’t afford an actual restaurant, and I stayed in a filthy hostel where I shared a room with a bunch of drunken Australians. (Actually, this doesn’t sound like such a bad trip!)
But even though I was at the tail end of my European tour and I was all out of money and carrying a backpack full of dirty clothes, I still had a marvelous time in London. I loved just walking around the city and being present in so many famous places that I’d only seen on TV or read about in books—the Tower of London, Big Ben, the Palace of Westminster, Piccadilly Circus; even the seediest London tourist traps seemed exotic and fascinating to me. I loved riding the Tube and seeing all the diversity and activity of a major world city, hearing all the cool accents and other languages being spoken, feeling like in my own small way, I was part of something much bigger and more profound.
Perhaps that’s the biggest lesson that lingers in my mind as I reflect on this Brexit vote: regardless of what happened in this one UK referendum, the European project and the positive aspects of globalization are going to endure. Despite the pessimism and narrow-mindedness of the most fearful segments of our societies, I feel like most people—especially young people—believe in the optimistic message of the European project: that we are all connected, we are all enriched by each other’s presence, we have a collective potential that transcends national borders.
Brexit might cause the stock market to tank and it might cause some political confusion, but this is not the end of the world. If anything, it might serve as a wakeup call to the proponents of the EU to further strengthen their union—it might be a powerful reminder to those of us who believe in the positive aspects of globalization to get more effective in how we advocate for the value of immigration reform, smart trade agreements, citizen diplomacy, and more peaceful, reasonable foreign policy. And again: it just got a lot cheaper for Americans to visit England! I know a great deli in Wilton, Wiltshire—tell the owner that Ben Gran sent you!