It’s been quite a summer in the United Kingdom. On June 23, we the British people surprised everyone—including, perhaps most of all, ourselves—by voting to leave the European Union. That wasn’t meant to happen. All year, the E.U. referendum polls had shown a consistent advantage for the pro-E.U. “Remain” side. Celebrities and important people spent months telling voters that support for Brexit—the “Leave” option—was narrow-minded, shortsighted, probably racist. The government initiated what became known as Project Fear to convince people that a Leave vote would lead to a financial apocalypse, war, and even—horror of horrors for the property-owning classes—a fall in house prices. George Osborne tried to portray Britain as an economic minnow propped up by European Union membership. He was joined by a great many investment banks who produced analysis after analysis saying that, outside the E.U., Britain would be sunk. The majority of British voters listened to all this and thought, To hell with it, let’s get out the European Union.
The morning after Brexit, Donald Trump flew into Scotland like a big bad omen in a helicopter marked Trump. The primary purpose of his visit was to reopen Turnberry, arguably the grandest of his many golf courses. But he took the opportunity to congratulate us Brits for having regained our independence and control of our borders. “What I like is that I love to see people take their country back,” he said, one of those hypnotically bad Donald Trump sentences that becomes more mysterious each time you hear it. “The beautiful, beautiful thing is your people have taken their country, and there’s something very nice about that.”
Have we taken our country back, though? And what does that mean? Nobody knows.
Certainly, the Brexit vote was a poke in the eye for the bossy global elites. Project Fear backfired, because nobody really believes what governments tell them anymore, and people react against being bullied. In most smart circles, voting Brexit became socially unacceptable, especially after June 17, when the pro-Remain Labour MP Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death by a lunatic nationalist reportedly shouting “Britain First.” With just a week to go before the big vote, the killing appeared to have settled the referendum. All of Vote Leave’s efforts to detoxify the Euroskeptic brand appeared wrecked. It felt as if the country were brainwashing itself in favor of the European Union—or at least, it did from my slightly paranoid Leave-inclined perspective in west London. At my son Ferdy’s school class, they conducted a mock election on the day of the vote, in which the boys were asked if they would like to stay and be with their friends, or Leave and be all on their own. Ferdy is five. He burst into tears on the night of the referendum: “But Dada, I don’t want to leave; I want to stay.”
Polls suggested a swing toward Remain in the last few days of the campaign, and after the Cox murder the betting markets shifted dramatically away from Leave. On the day of the vote, bookmakers were offering odds of 11 to 1 on Brexit. After some unofficial exit polls, Nigel Farage, the leader of United Kingdom Independence Party, conceded that it looked as if Remain had “edged it.” At the Vote Leave election-night party, staff consoled themselves on a battle well fought but lost. On the other side, senior members of Populous, a group of pollsters working for Remain, started taunting their opponents by text message. “You’re toast!” they said. Talk about hubris.
After midnight, the results started to come in, and minds began to blow. Across the northeast—in Sunderland, Darlington, Durham, Middlesborough, Redcar—people voted to Leave, in most cases by huge majorities. The more affluent Newcastle voted to Remain, but only by one percent, much lower than expected. Scotland voted Remain. But Wales and most of the English countryside voted out. London voted to stay in Europe, by about 60 percent, but that wasn’t enough to stop a 52-percent majority for Leave.
It was a curious spectacle on television. As it became clear Leave was winning, the BBC anchors, who had looked so chipper at the start of the evening, began to look shell-shocked: Britain was not the progressive country they thought they lived in. (Imagine the MSNBC hosts on the night of November 8, should Trump be the obvious winner, and you’ll have an idea of what I’m talking about.)
The world felt upside down. The assumption had been that a low turnout would be bad news for Remain, since Leave had the more mobilized voters. But in the event, and in spite of some bad weather, voter turnout was staggeringly high—and this in fact helped the Leave campaign. In poor areas, or areas with large levels of social housing, hitherto apathetic citizens came out in droves for Leave. It felt like a peaceful revolution. Nigel Farage was much criticized for saying, in the first flush of victory, that Brexit has been achieved “without a single bullet being fired”; it was an indelicate remark, coming as it did seven days after Jo Cox’s death. Still, everybody could see what he meant. Britain’s poor and huddled masses had come out to tell their richer betters that they’d had enough.
The middle classes, unused to having to worry about what the poor think, went berserk. On Facebook and Twitter, the usual worthies came out to reject the Brexit vote. Disgruntled Remainers pointed to the plummeting stock exchange on June 24 and called for a second referendum—and then ignored the stock market rally in the following days. At London dinner parties, people exchanged horror stories about the awful tattooed “little Englander” voters they’d had the misfortune to meet.
There can be no denying that the Leave vote contained a strong element of base nativism—just as a portion of Donald Trump’s support includes a crude white nationalism. But Brexit was about more than immigration and economic nationalism. It was about sticking one in the eye of the elite—both in Westminster and in Brussels—and, as the campaign said, “taking back control.” If UKIP had led the official Leave campaign, it would have failed. But the official Vote Leave campaign, led by the brilliant strategist Dominic Cummings, cleverly refused to have anything to do with the more vulgar populism of UKIP. This caused much tension in the anti-E.U. coalition, but it enabled Vote Leave to seem moderate and appeal to different voters. And because Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, two Tory big beasts, led the campaign, Vote Leave was able to maintain an aura of credibility.
Donald Trump and plenty of others have been quick to compare Brexit with this year’s U.S. presidential election. As Trump put it, “I see a lot of similarities.” But while there are interesting parallels—both Trump and Leave appealed to voters who feel stiffed by international capitalism and ignored by the political system—the differences are intriguing, too. Trump is an outsider who has carried out a hostile takeover of an established party. Brexit, meanwhile, was an inside job—a coup against David Cameron carried by his former lieutenants Gove and Johnson. For a few days after the referendum, for Euroskeptic optimists, it seemed as if Brexit could be a triumph for both the disenfranchised and the Conservative Party. If the party could adapt and start listening to its frustrated base, it could avoid a fate such as Trump.
Rather than change, however, the political class went mad and began eviscerating itself. David Cameron resigned, Nigel Farage resigned, and the Labour Party organized a messy and unsuccessful coup against its hapless leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
Boris Johnson emerged as the strong favorite to succeed Cameron as party leader and prime minister, with Gove as his chancellor. But then Johnson seemed to shrivel before the enormity of the task; he went off for the weekend of June 25-26 to play cricket and stopped answering his mobile phone. At some point in the following week, Gove turned on Johnson, and scuppered his prime-ministerial ambitions. Gove emailed Johnson to say that he would be standing against him. What exactly triggered this betrayal remains a mystery. Gove says that he suddenly realized that Johnson was not cut out for the highest political office. Others scoff at that and say Gove has always been an ambitious maniac, or that his wife, playing the part of Brexit’s Lady Macbeth, persuaded him to stab his friend in the back. Another explanation is that he was terribly sleep deprived, and went mad. (My favorite theory, for what it is worth, is that Gove and Johnson are both journalists by training and by instinct, and therefore temperamentally unsuited to running a country.)
Whatever the case, the stunt failed spectacularly. Boris stood down, and Gove, now widely seen as a treacherous git, was promptly defeated in the first round of voting for the Tory leadership race. This left two women: Andrea Leadsom and former Home Secretary Theresa May. Leadsom then made some strange remarks implying that she would be a better prime minister because she had children and May did not. That caused an outcry in the media, and Leadsom withdrew her bid. Thus Mrs. May, who had campaigned to Remain, became the prime minister to take the country into the bright new Brexit dawn.
To reassure the majority who voted Leave, Prime Minister May now says that “Brexit means Brexit”—but nobody is quite sure what that means. Does it mean she will trigger Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon and therefore put the United Kingdom on an irreversible path away from the E.U.? Or does it mean she’ll try to negotiate some sort of reformed E.U. membership without formally severing ties?
There’s been a strange shadow row going on about the legal status of E.U. migrants in Britain post-Brexit. Everybody knows that we are not about to start rounding up and deporting French bankers, Spanish girlfriends, and Polish cleaners. Yet May has been reluctant to assure such people that they can stay. The on-dit is that May is shrewdly using E.U. migrants as a bargaining chip against Brussels. After all, many thousands of British citizens live on the continent, largely in sunny retirement destinations in Spain, and May needs some leverage to fight for their right to grow old in the Costa del Sol. Sure enough, May has now declared that she would be willing to secure E.U. migrants here as long as the E.U. secured British migrants there. Almost everybody applauded May’s acumen, in that rather over-the-top way in which people always praise new leaders. Nevertheless, a handful of Christian-minded Britons have asked when Britain became the sort of place that uses her law-abiding residents as pawns in a political chess game. Such cynicism from May suggests that she sees Brexit as a narrow “little Englander” vote, and will define Leave from the Remain perspective. Thus, the political class will completely miss the opportunity to reconnect with the huge number of voters who feel left out of politics. Maybe we should brace ourselves for the British Donald Trump.