To The Teacher
On April 11, 2019, just hours before the United Kingdom was set to leave the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May and EU leaders agreed to an extension, giving Britain until October 31, 2019, to create a plan for its departure. This latest extension has prolonged a controversy that has dominated British politics over the last three years, an issue popularly known as “Brexit.”
On June 23, 2016, the people of the U.K. (which includes England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) voted in favor of leaving the EU. On June 24, 2016, the number one question typed into Google across Britain was “What is Brexit?” And since then, the confusion has only grown. Britain now has until Halloween to craft a plan for how it will leave and to pass this through the House of Commons (a task that has proven impossible for the past two years). Brexit raises important questions about democracy, the power of anti-immigrant rhetoric, and the impact of “free market” trade and economic policies promoted by bodies such as the EU.
This lesson consists of two readings. The first reading focuses on the question of whether the U.K. should hold a second referendum on Brexit. It begins by explaining the original vote and how this has led to the current deadline. It then looks at arguments for and against a second referendum. The second reading looks more at the substance of why some people voted to back the “Remain” or “Leave” positions.
While it is clear that some of the “Leave” campaign has been driven by nativist and anti-immigrant rhetoric, another factor is dissatisfaction at the trade and economic policies promoted by the EU. Yet advocates of the “Remain” position believe that staying in the EU is the only way U.K. can hope to create a more just society for everyone who lives there.
Brexit Basics & the “Do-Over” Option
On April 11, 2019, just hours before the United Kingdom was set to leave the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May and EU leaders agreed to an extension, giving Britain until October 31, 2019, to create a plan for its departure. This latest extension has prolonged a controversy that has dominated British politics over the last three years, an issue popularly known as “Brexit” (British + Exit).
The European Union is a collection of 28 member states that share political and economic relationships, allowing citizens to move more easily across borders and work in different member states. EU members are part of a common market, and 19 of the countries use the same currency, known as the Euro. A variety of political and economic decisions are made by the EU’s governing bodies that affect each member state.
On June 23, 2016, the people of the U.K. (which includes England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) voted in favor of leaving the EU. On June 24, 2016, the number one question typed into Google across Britain was “What is Brexit?” And since then, the confusion has only grown. Britain now has until Halloween to craft a plan for how it will leave and to pass this through the House of Commons (a task that has proven impossible for the past two years). If it fails to do so, it risks crashing out of the European Union without a plan, which could have damaging social and economic consequences.
In a March 29, 2019 article for Bloomberg, U.K. political correspondent Robert Hutton laid out some of the history of Brexit.
[In 2016] voters supported the split by 52 percent to 48 percent after a rancorous 10-week campaign that exposed anxieties about globalization and raised questions about the consequences for a united Europe. The vote jolted financial markets, sending the U.K. currency tumbling on the prospect of years of uncertainty about how Brexit will work.
Younger voters and residents of cosmopolitan London voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. So did voters in Scotland. The U.K. agreed to hold the ballot after rising euroskepticism fed support for the anti-EU U.K. Independence Party, which won 13 percent of the vote in the 2015 general election.
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron resigned after the surprise referendum result and was replaced by Theresa May, who triggered a two-year process to negotiate Britain’s exit from the bloc. The U.K. and the EU must unwind agreements in areas as diverse as fishing quotas, financial services and safety standards….
Brexit campaigners used worries about immigration to create a populist backlash against Europe’s political elite, overcoming concerns about the fallout from Brexit on trade and the U.K. economy. They argued that the EU is morphing into a super-state that increasingly impinges on national sovereignty. Britain has global clout without the bloc, they said, and can negotiate better trade treaties on its own.
The question remains whether the U.K. can strike a trade deal with Europe that gives it control over immigration and also preferential access to the EU’s tariff-free single market of 500 million people, the economic backbone of the world’s largest trading bloc.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other EU leaders want to prevent the bloc from splintering further. They insist the U.K. can’t be allowed to “cherry-pick” the best bits of EU membership without bearing the costs. There’s a risk that Brexit will prompt global companies to cut investment or leave the U.K. altogether. The vote to leave the EU has already hurt the British economy, and many business leaders have been vocal in their concerns about the split.
Since 2016, the British government, led by Prime Minister Theresa May, has been trying to hammer out a deal. May’s plan (which would limit movement of people and slowly cut trade arrangements) was rejected in British Parliament by a historic margin of 230 votes in January, and then defeated again in March. This forced her to go back to the EU to ask for an extension to delay a “hard Brexit,” a situation in which all negotiated trade relationships would be abruptly disrupted.
The difficulty of crafting a workable exit plan, along with concerns about possibly crashing out of the EU through a “hard Brexit,” have led some advocates to argue that the U.K. should hold a second referendum. In a March 12, 2019, article for The Washington Post, Katy Collin explains the case for such a “do-over”:
Proponents of a second referendum argue the 2016 vote was not legitimate, that people voted without understanding the likely outcome, or both. They make a variety of different claims as to why these might be so. The Electoral Commission found that the “Vote Leave” campaign violated campaign finance laws. Brexit is endangering peace in Northern Ireland, a problem that received very little discussion in the run-up to the vote. Promises made by the Leave campaign haven’t turned out as predicted. People voted to leave the EU in ignorance. Perhaps, it is only after negotiations with the EU on how to exit and the shape of the future relationship that U.K. voters could answer that frequently googled question: What is Brexit?
From this perspective, referendums can be used to bridge a gap between complex, private negotiations and public decision-making. Peace processes and constitutional drafting often require controversial interlocking compromises that legislatures don’t like to pass. If Parliament can’t pass any plausible deal, a referendum on May’s plan might be the only alternative to a hard exit.
In peace processes, referendums held at various stages of negotiation can push the process along. While making peace with Algeria, France held popular votes on whether to negotiate and whether to accept the outcomes of talks. Under this logic, repeated referendums provide voters with the democratic ability to shape decisions and indeed change their minds as circumstances change.
Others, however, argue that a “do-over” vote would be undemocratic. A March 28, 2019, article in The Week summarized arguments against a second referendum:
Many commentators are appalled that a “Remain” minority appears to be in favor of overturning a democratic vote simply because they didn't like the outcome. "If each of those four million petitioners… actually persuaded someone to vote with them for Remain, they could have actually won," writes Asa Bennett in the Daily Telegraph.
Disregarding the Brexit vote would be an egregious slight to the millions who voted to leave because they felt unrecognized by the disproportionately pro-Europe, pro-immigration political class – and could even be dangerous. "Riots could happen, even here, if our rulers thwart the people's will," warns Peter Hill in the Daily Express.
Recent polling suggests that while the public may back a second referendum, it's unclear on what terms they would like it to be. While some would like the option to be the Brexit deal or remaining in the EU, others would like it to be the Brexit deal or a clean break. This “is the problem for the ‘people support a second referendum’ argument: they do, it’s just they mean very different things by it”, says The New Statesman’s Stephen Bush.
Would a second referendum offer a legitimate choice for voters who are now developing a better sense of the “Brexit” would entail, or would it undermine the U.K.’s democratic processes? In the end, even if a second referendum never materializes, lingering uncertainty about which voices carry weight in British democracy—and which are ignored—will be a pressing concern for the foreseeable future.
- How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
- According to the reading, what is the European Union? What are some of the implications of being a member state?
- Based on the reading, how would you summarize the arguments for Britain leaving the EU? What are some arguments for remaining in the EU?
- What are some arguments in favor of a second referendum? What are some arguments against it?
- Are you persuaded by arguments for or against a second referendum? Why or why not?
“Remain” or “Leave”--Why Did People Vote the Way They Did?
Brexit raises important questions about democracy, the power of anti-immigrant rhetoric, and the impact of “free market” trade and economic policies promoted by bodies such as the EU. Given the ongoing controversy, you might ask, “What on Earth compelled 52 percent of Britons to vote in favor of leaving the European Union in the first place?”
To find some possible answers to this question, one can start by looking at the “Leave” campaign of 2016. In an October 5, 2017 article for The Atlantic, freelance journalist Samuel Earle argued that the campaign too often relied on racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric:
The nostalgia that fuels the Brexit spirit cannot be downplayed. “Once again this country has had the guts try to do something new … that we can turn into a cultural and technological and commercial renaissance,” Johnson declared to the Conservative Party conference hall this week. He received several standing ovations. For those who do not belong to the longed-for past, however, these fantasies come at a cost: to turn back the clock, others must be turned out. It is telling that immigration is the only area where Brexit has already delivered results. Since the referendum, net migration has fallen by 25 percent. Almost 10,000 EU health workers have quit the [National Health Service] over the last year. Despite making a commitment [to accept refugees], a pledge to take in 3,000 child refugees which then sank to 480, not a single one has been brought to Britain from camps in Europe this year; the total number of arrivals is stuck at 350. All this, before Britain has even taken back control of its borders.
Perhaps this is the underlying irony of the rising nativist refrain of ‘Go back to where you come from:’ It is actually the nostalgic Brexiters who, more than anyone, want to go back to where they came from—to an imagined, pure point of origin, a moment in history where Britain was a homogenous mass. A time where parliament was sovereign, the navy sailed the seas, the army won wars, and foreigners lived in foreign lands. It’s all wrapped up in one vision, and even if many people voted for Brexit for entirely different reasons, it is clear that Brexit has brought these forces of nostalgia and xenophobia to the fore. Britain is already transformed—and Brexit hasn’t even happened yet.
As in the U.S., there is strong evidence that immigrants actually benefit the economy. As Guardian columnist Aditya Chakrabortty writes :
The men and women who have come here from Budapest or Prague [a majority of migrants to the U.K. are from eastern Europe] are like previous generations of arrivals: young, educated at someone else’s expense and here to work. They aren’t low-skilled labor but what former government economist Jonathan Portes describes as “ordinary, productive, middle income, middle-skilled – the sort of people our economy actually needs.” Study after study has failed to find any evidence of significant undercutting of wages. Far from jumping the queue, analysis published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows they are much less likely to be on benefits or in social housing than their U.K.-born counterparts.
Migrants from eastern Europe pay billions more in taxes to Britain than they take out in public spending. Far from squeezing hospitals and schools, they subsidize and even staff them. Rather than take jobs, they help create them. What has drained money from our public services and held down our wages is the banking crash, and the Tories’ spending cuts.
However, there are other motives for those favoring an exit from the EU. Some people promoted a “Leave” position not based on anti-immigrant sentiment, but rather out of concern that the “free market” economic policies promoted by the European Union benefited corporations at the expense of working people. In a 2018 article in The Guardian, economics editor Larry Elliot wrote about how these advocate point to the example of Greece, where the EU imposed a series of harsh economic measures that exacerbated poverty:
A small number of people in the Labor party and in the trade union movement take [the view that] Brexit is to be welcomed because the EU’s bias in favor of multinational capital, its hardwired monetarism, and its obsession with balanced budgets means it is more Thatcherite than social democratic. For those remainers who say this is a caricature and that the EU is really about protecting labor rights and defending the interests of workers in a harsh, globalized world, left leavers have a one-word riposte: Greece….
The four pillars of the single market – free movement of goods, services, people and money – are actually the axioms of market fundamentalism, which is why Mrs. Thatcher supported its creation. Meanwhile, the European court of justice has gradually turned itself into a body that enforces a free-market view of the world, placing more and more restrictions on the freedom of member states to make their own economic decisions.
This point is taken up by Philip Whyman of the University of Central Lancashire… [who] says the real choice for Britain is whether we would prefer as few changes as possible, because we are happy with the status quo, or whether we would like to do things differently and therefore need the “greater policy independence that is necessary to make these changes”.
Defenders of the “remain” position argue that they share concerns about unjust economic policies, but they believe that staying in the EU is the only way U.K. can hope to create a more just society for everyone who lives there. In a January 7, 2019, article in The Guardian, Chris Matheson, a Member of Parliament (MP) for the Labor party, stood firmly against Brexit.
Britain standing alone cannot face down the forces of global capitalism. And the Brexiteers know this, which is why they are doing what they are….
They want to take the U.K. out of the EU and join us instead to the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) or the Pacific Alliance, offering free trade with these countries but none of the environmental, labor or consumer protection offered by the EU….
We know the Brexit extremists won’t stop after 29 March: they will never be satisfied and they will no longer have the restraining influence of the EU to hold them back. Brexit is just the beginning. Yet Labor MPs acquiesce to Brexit, for fear of upsetting the millions of Labor voters who voted leave for so many different reasons.
Some of those leave voters will have been anti-European, for sure. But many were sick of austerity, failing public services, insecurity at work and a lack of affordable housing, and fell for the con that it was all because of immigrants, or the EU, or both. Some just wanted to vote against something, anything, to protest at how bad their lives were. And twice I was told by voters that they were voting leave because they didn’t like [the Prime Minister at the time, David] Cameron.
Aside from those who wanted to see the back of our former prime minister, it is clear that those voters will be sorely disappointed by Brexit: none of these ills will be cured by leaving the EU... [T]he economic crash after we leave the EU will mean there will be no money available to renew public services. And when medicines become unavailable and motorways turn into lorry parks, and when family holidays to the Med become unaffordable due to visa costs and a plummeting pound, they will blame us for failing to stop this mess.
In March, in one of the largest protests in British history, as many as a million people took to the streets of cities throughout the U.K. calling for a reconsideration of the 2016 referendum. As a new Brexit deadline approaches, the question of what can be won or lost in leaving the EU becomes ever more urgent.
- How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
- According to the reading, how did the 2016 referendum bring nativism and xenophobia to the surface?
- In terms of economic policy, what were some of the arguments for and against Brexit? Do you find either side persuasive? Explain your position.
- MP Chris Matheson argues that a “Leave” vote on Brexit was more a general “protest at how bad [these voters’] lives were” than a specific statement about the European Union. What do you think of this position? Do you think that Brexit would address some of the grievances that Leave voters hold? Why or why not?
- The reading describes tensions the U.K. is now experiencing over issues including immigration and the global economy. Do you see any parallels with the current political environment in the U.S.? Explain.
- Can you imagine other ways that both countries could address the problems of economic inequality and insecurity?
Research assistance provided by John Bergen.