Theresa May and the Rise of the Brexiteers

Theresa May and the Rise of the Brexiteers

The path out of from the European Union is marred with parliamentary battles and legal challenges.

When British prime minister Theresa May triggers Article 50 on Wednesday, the clock starts ticking on Britain’s exit from the European Union. Barring an extension of the exit negotiations—which would require a unanimous vote of all EU members—Britain will be out on March 30, 2019, deal or no deal.

In this world of change, it is nice to see that a few things remain the same. And one of those things is Al Gore. Speaking in London last week, the former vice president was kind enough to favor his audience with his own views on what caused Brexit. The villain, of course, was global warming .

Gore exemplifies the definition of a fanatic often, if wrongly, attributed to Winston Churchill: a man who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. But one of the delights of Brexit is watching how people react to it. One of the back-patting claims of the Remainers—or the Remoaners, as the Brexiteers have dubbed them—is that they are tolerant internationalists and lovers of Europe, as opposed to those nasty Little Englanders who voted to leave the EU.

Even on its merits, this is tosh. As Darren Grimes of BrexitCentral put it in his daily email, “Keeping the developing world poor with massive agricultural tariffs while giving people second-class treatment simply because they come from outside a certain geographical area hardly seems very 'tolerant' or 'internationalist' to me.” It’s a wonder to me how the Economist newspaper, founded in 1843 to advance the cause of free trade, manages to get out of bed every morning to acclaim the merits of the EU’s protectionist customs union.

But the Economist doesn't have anything on one of ancient big beasts of the Conservative Party, Lord Michael Heseltine. Recently sacked by Prime Minister May from an advisory position for his advocacy of the Remain cause in the House of Lords, Heseltine is unbowed. As the tolerant and urbane peer explained last week , he believes Britain needs to remain in the EU because if it doesn’t, Germany will “win the peace.” After all, “Germany lost the war. We’ve just handed them the opportunity to win the peace. I find that quite unacceptable.”

Of course, the future prime minister, Harold Macmillan, felt exactly the same way—but that was way back in 1956. The fact is, the United Kingdom can’t keep Germany from dominating the EU unless it (1) joins the euro and (2) convinces France to permanently side with it against Germany. But Britain’s not going to do the former, and the entire history of Britain’s European diplomacy since 1956 shows it can’t do the latter. Heseltine’s argument is irrelevant and so old it’s got cobwebs on it. There’s a reason he’s in the House of Lords.

The number of people in Britain who genuinely like—or even care about—the EU isn’t zero. But it’s a lot smaller than you might gather from the news. Much of the hubbub about the EU is actually British politics by other means. For example, for years the British left banged on about how governments favored interests  in London at the expense of Britain’s manufacturers and the north of England. But confronted by the claim that Brexit will hurt London—and thereby rebalance Britain’s economy back towards manufacturing— Labour MPs have been tempted to swing about , abandon the argument about the dangers posed by the London’s dominance and pose as its defender. Not many principles here: the big issue at stake is what claim will do the government the most damage.

Or take the Scottish Nationalist Party. You might imagine, from Nicola Sturgeon’s call for a second Scottish independence referendum, that the party is deeply moved by the prospect of the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU. But if so, it’s hard to explain why the party spent only 13 percent of its allowable funds on the EU referendum, which is less than it spent on a single by-election in Scotland in 2008.

The Scottish Nationalist Party doesn’t actually care all that much about the EU, except as an issue that allows it to campaign for Scottish separation from the Union. Nor is there any reason it should: regaining powers from Westminster (where it has a good deal of influence) only to give them up to Brussels (where it will have none at all) makes not the slightest bit of sense, especially in a world where 60 percent of Scotland's economy depends on England .

And then there’s immigration. As Canterbury Christ Church University’s Jim Butcher correctly notes , “The idea that there is a post-Brexit tide of hate has wide currency amongst Brexit’s critics.” But after examining Eurobarometer data, Butcher found that British attitudes towards immigration became more positive over the past several years, and that “the relationship appears to be a negative one: greater scepticism over the EU, greater positivity towards immigration.” As he rightly points out, correlation is not cause. But there’s a reason why the Economist had to retract its sensational claim that the murder of Member of Parliament Jo Cox just before the referendum was greeted by an outpouring of Brexit-allied online hate: there’s no evidence it’s true.

Being in favor of the EU is a way of virtue signaling that you are open-minded and liberal, even if in practice the EU is not. The curious thing is that, on the continent, far-left and far-right movements are a dime a dozen. But in Britain, the UK Independence Party has just lost its only MP , the party appears on the verge of collapse, and Brexit is going to be run by the oldest political party in the democratic world, the Conservative Party. The lesson might just be that, if you don’t like populist movements (however you interpret that near-meaningless adjective), then maybe one way to do them down is to stop doing things (such as being in the EU, in Britain’s case) that really annoy a lot of people.

As difficult as this is for the Europhile establishment to recognize, Brexit is optimistic. As Fraser Nelson writes for the Spectator, one reason why Britain was able to vote for Brexit in 2016 was that—for all its warts, and they definitely do exist—Britain’s economic performance under the Cameron government was relatively good. Much the same is true of Britain since 1979. For all their many failings, British governments since Thatcher have done better, comparatively, than the governments before 1979. Britain went into the European Economic Community in 1973 on a profound note of national pessimism, on a tide of sentiment that the only task in front of it was to manage decline. Today, no one—except perhaps Lord Heseltine—takes that basically post-war view.