This week’s Brexit vote was officially about the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union. But the referendum’s result, which will split Britain from the 28-nation bloc, was concurrently more inward and more international in scope.
“This isn’t really about Britain exiting, it’s about England exiting,” said University of Minnesota Distinguished McKnight Prof. John Watkins, an expert on British history and literature. Two days before the vote and right before a trip to Britain, Watkins spoke of the split within England between more cosmopolitan London and “more backcountry England — your basic beef-and-potatoes regions.” But overall, he added, “If you are an Englishman, you do not think of yourself as European, you think of yourself first and foremost as English.”
Even before the vote that roiled governments and equity markets, U.K. disunity was evident. For instance, it wasn’t Great Britain’s Union Jack but England’s red St. George’s Cross flag unfurled in force recently. Ostensibly, England’s football (soccer to us Yanks) team competing in the 2016 European Championship was the reason. But the dual meaning was evident, said Thomas de Waal, senior associate at Carnegie Europe.
“It’s a question of British identity and English identity,” de Waal said from London on the eve of the vote. “There has been more power given to Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland, but no one has really dealt with the English question.”
The answer to the English question brings new questions about Scottish independence, and whether the United Kingdom will remain just that. And across the English Channel, rising right-wing challenges to pro-E.U. governments could result in a continental contagion risking the efficacy and even the existence of the E.U.
More overt than the message from flags was Fleet Street staking out Brexit positions. Because newspaper readership is more ideologically than geographically driven, “what you read in the morning tells more about your political views than what you read in the U.S.,” said Watkins.
“This is no time to revert to Little England,” argued the Financial Times. “We are Great Britain. We have a contribution to make to a more prosperous, safer world.”
“BeLEAVE in Britain,” countered the Sun, which — like most tabloids — favored a split.
“Newspapers as a whole are more on the right than on the left. I don’t think the ‘leave’ camp would be as strong without the support of newspapers,” said de Waal.
Many of these papers matched the demography and ideology of their readers, who may sound familiar to some on this side of the pond.
“It’s the British equivalent of Trump voters here,” Watkins said. “These are people very, very concerned about immigration. They probably did not like the postcolonial waves of immigration after the independence of India and Pakistan, and add to that waves and waves of European immigration.”
De Waal concurred that the Brexit phenomenon, while local, has global scale. “The big slogan of the Brexiters is ‘Take Back Control,’” de Waal said. “That’s a slogan you are hearing across the world of people who are feeling marginalized, frightened by the global politics of the world, feeling left behind. You could argue that some of the people backing Donald Trump are experiencing similar fears, or right-wing parties in Europe.”
“I think it’s a great thing that happened,” Trump said in Scotland. “People are angry, all over the world, they’re angry.”
The vast majority of U.K. voters expressing their anger did so respectfully. But in a shocking incident, Jo Cox, a pro-E.U. member of Parliament from the Labour Party, was assassinated by an alleged assailant with extremist right-wing ties.
Cox’s husband and children lost a wife and mother. De Waal lost a friend. And Britain lost an inspirational leader. At least briefly, the tragedy “turned down the dial on the angry debate,” de Waal said. And while aside from the assailant “we can’t blame anyone in particular, we can blame an atmosphere of anger and hatred which may have tipped one particularly crazy person over the edge,” de Waal said. He added: “Words can create deeds. … Anger can make people violent as well.”
Channeling this anger into civil discourse will be essential as existential questions are asked by others seeking independence from international institutions and even the fundamental force of globalism itself.
“People are wanting to escape history,” said Watkins, reflecting on the meaning of movements like Brexit. “Now history is taking the form of massive global networking. … We long to be in control of our lives and localities, because our fantasy is if we could do that, if we could just take care of ourselves, ourselves as Englishmen, ourselves as Americans, we could control things and make them right for us.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.