Brexit Shatters the West's Political Consensus

Britain and Europe will never be the same.

When the city of Sunderland voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union last night, it was a bucket of cold water to the face. Sunderland was always going to end up in the “out” column, but the margin was shockingly wide—61 percent to 39 percent—and a bellwether, as it turned out, for what was to come. Leave sprang into the lead, and only lost it again for about half an hour after some metropolitan London districts were tallied. When the city of Birmingham recorded an out majority, Sky News called it for Leave. It was around four o’clock in the morning; the sun was rising on a flabbergasted Westminster.

A few hours of sleep and the world had changed completely. The pound, which dove off a cliff following the Sunderland result, shed 10 percent of its value in six hours as stocks followed a similar trajectory (though they later rebounded a bit). An ashen-faced Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, called for unity among the EU’s remaining twenty-seven member states, though he knows full well that ever-closer union is presently a fantasy. And in the most stunning development, British Prime Minister David Cameron, who stumped vigorously for Remain, announced his resignation. The last Conservative prime minister, John Major, was destroyed because he failed to demonstrate leadership on the EU; Cameron was ruined because he showed leadership but picked the wrong side.

He’ll be remembered as the last casualty of the Tory civil war over Europe that began in force under Margaret Thatcher. And while it’s the Conservatives who are feeling the political pain this morning, it’s Labour that has the most debilitating long-term condition. Sunderland, last night’s canary in the coal mine, is an industrial backbone, home to Britain’s largest car plant and accustomed to electing Labour MPs. Glance at the electoral map and you spot the trend: metropolitan London is a splotch of Remain yellow while the Midlands and the North are swallowed by a sea of Leave blue. Labour’s two constituencies, city-dwelling elites and the working class, have been yanked in opposite directions.

In a prescient essay for the left-leaning New Statesman, Stephen Bush chronicled his travels to northern England just prior to the referendum, where jobs were scarce and sentiment against the EU ran hot. Why did Leave win last night? One reason is, as Bush put it, “the Remain campaign’s warnings of economic apocalypse lacked force for people for whom the world’s end had been and gone.” The American analogue here is the economically sledgehammered Wilkes County in North Carolina, profiled by the New York Times, where residents like Donald Trump but are also favorably disposed to Bernie Sanders. The new battle line doesn’t run through left and right, but rather between those who subscribe to the present political consensus and those who have lived its failures and want to shake it up—disruptively, if necessary.

Britain remains the fifth-largest economy in the world, the second-largest in Europe, a key player in the national security arena, the continent’s transatlantic link. The British will be fine, though given the lupine smiles that surely spread across the faces of European nationalists last night, the EU may not. Right now a political tidal wave is rising in the West, an inchoate deluge driven by years of failed centralization and economic policy, one that threatens to drown traditional parties and submerge political establishments. There is no stopping this storm; the challenge of our time is to ensure that it forces productive change, that it washes away outdated immigration frameworks and superfluous bureaucracies, and not the bulwarks of liberalism that have made the West great.

So on now to the multitude of knotty post-Brexit questions. How does Britain maintain advantageous trade with Europe when EU elites want a painful divorce? How does the British territory of Gibraltar thrive when its border with Spain is now a foreign one? What will happen to Scotland, the only fortress of yellow outside of London on last night’s electoral map? Who will lead Britain? One thing is for certain: disenchanted voters aren’t going to be straitjacketed by the threat of burps in the stock market. The mandate for change is enormous. Lawmakers need to answer it responsibly, not terrify voters over what they already want.

Matt Purple is the deputy editor of Rare Politics.

Image: James Cridland/Flickr