Friday, 24 June 2016

The Breakup

This morning in Ireland, we got the same screaming-headline news as everyone else – the pound crashing, the UK prime minister resigning and so on. To my acquaintances here, though -- bus drivers, clerks and farmers – the news is not an abstraction. They wonder how this will affect their visas, their UK relatives, their pensions, banks, next car, and all the burning minutiae of daily life.

My friends in London, Italy and France are all doing the same; the economies are so deeply intertwined that untangling them will take years. Imagine how Louisianans would be affected by a “Texit,” and you have some idea how it feels. As an American here, I also wonder if it makes Donald Trump’s election look more likely.

It wouldn’t cause a Trump victory, of course, but perhaps presage it. The UK has always been just a little ahead of the USA; Thatcher preceded Reagan, Blair preceded Clinton, and Corbyn preceded Sanders. Moreover, Brexit supporters shared a lot in common with Trump supporters, in both demographics and frustrations.  

The UK and USA are global powers somewhat in decline, with the UK obviously some decades ahead of us. Both powers saw a flood of Third-World immigrants in recent decades – in Europe especially, with millions of refugees escaping the war-torn Middle East --- competing for jobs and causing tension among working-class natives. Both countries took part in the same Mid-East wars and suffered the same Great Recession – both supposedly over, but with loved ones still dead and many working people still unemployed.

Both populist movements promised to make their country great again, toss aside foreign entanglements, reduce immigration, and bring back local industry. Both movements were called “far-right,” but were more about class -- and in both countries the elites of both major parties, along with the media, opposed and underestimated them until the last moment. In both countries the debate turned venomous, even violent, with protesters clashing with Trump supporters in the USA, and a pro-EU minister of Parliament shot and stabbed to death last week in the UK.

Now that the vote is over, as Daniel Larison pointed out,much will depend on how bitter the divorce settlement will be, but this decision could trigger a lot of other dominoes.  

For one thing, this could well be the end of Britain after 300 years. The BBC’s county vote map shows the divide; English counties almost entirely voted to leave the EU, Scottish counties to stay. 

The scheduling of the Scottish independence vote two years ago could not have been accidental, as Euro-advocates must have hoped the Scottish vote would anchor Britain -- it didn’t. As the leader of the Scottish separatist movement put it a few months ago, if the UK leaves Europe, Scotland is likely to leave the UK. (Britain is England plus Scotland, Wales and a few islands. The UK is all those plus Northern Ireland.)

Here in Ireland we have the same questions as the rest of Europe, only more so – the UK is our main trading partner. And we have a unique reason to be wary; we fought a thousand-year conflict with our neighbour, which came to an end only in the 1990s. Since that time, along a border once patrolled by paramilitary units, a generation of Irish have grown up travelling between North and South without even flashing a passport. Now, though, Northern Ireland voted much as Scotland did, with a majority wanting to remain European; if Scotland goes, they might want to leave as well.

In Ireland, meanwhile, voters had their own populist moment earlier this year, and elected a near-majority of third parties and independents.  Chief among them is Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, and if this anti-establishment trend continues they could lead the next government. That doesn’t mean they would resume their old ways – they have spent decades working hard to be a respectable political party, and their younger members are too young to even remember the terrorism of the 70s and 80s – but within hours of the vote, they did renew their call for Irish reunification.

How the rest of Europe will handle this remains to be seen – they are left holding several unenviable crises, including sky-high Mediterranean unemployment and a million refugees a year flooding into the continent. Right now, the rest of the world is shaking its head at Britons’ apparent foolishness, and half the UK is doing the same. For the other half, though, this is their independence day, the moment they can remake their country in their image.

This November 9, we’ll see if my native USA looks the same.  


Anubis Bard said...

I see most of the same parallels that you lay out. From this distance it seemed that the vote in the UK was a handy way for the mass of people to repudiate the elites and the system they've rigged for themselves - with a heady dose of nativism mixed in. There are clearly millions of Americans who'd dearly love to smack down the political class, but Trump may be too flawed a tool to do it. Nevertheless, the Occupy movement left an indelible mark on our politics and so too will Sanders and Trump. British leaders are right now regretting having invited the people into a democratic moment - and so too are our leaders. There are a few ways this kind of thing can play out . . . .

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

accompCoordinated Universal Time (= UTC = EST+5 = EDT+4): 20160625T141846Z

Thanks for careful analysis.

I imagine Northern Ireland now keeping a close watch on developments in Scotland. The Scots may prove strident, with Brexit unfolding against their will. Your residence in Eire gives you a specially useful vantage point. Do please keep analyzing and reporting.

You might be interested to know that a piece of "Leave" literature which I received from a London friend, as PDF, has Europe and the Middle East oddly coloured on a map. The map has Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey in red, as candidates for EU membership, and additionally shows Syria and Iraq in orange (with that orange colour left unexplained in the accompanying words). The rest of Europe is in shades of grey. But the grey is not uniform. The grey is quite dark over the Baltics, Byelorussia, and Ukraine (conveying to the incautious the suggestion that Byelorussia and Ukraine are in the same current treaty position as the Baltics). The shading is lighter over western continental Europe, with Portugal virtually disappearing on my screen (while Spain and Italy are duly visible). The oddest thing of all is that while Northern Ireland is correctly visible, Eire disappears altogether, at least on my screen. Perhaps the cartographer did not want London voters thinking too much about their Eire friends or relatives! - I have in the last day or so pointed these same cartographic anomalies out on another blog,, in a posting which I imagine the blog moderator will be publishing today.



Dan said...

I thought the Parliament has the power to decide whether UK will leave EU or not. So the referendum has no real value.
The pro-exit political supporters are already backing down on their support.
So I don't think UK will leave EU.

gwizard43 said...

Thanks for a thoughtful post, Brian. One of the very interesting things about this populist uprising - which I agree with you is more about class than anything else - is how wrong it's made pollsters. Seems people are telling the pollsters one thing, voting another. That in itself tells us that a seismic shift seems to be happening, at least insofar as the UK and US are concerned. Riding the tiger...

Brian Kaller said...

Andy, I'd have to agree with you, and I don't know what kind of mark this will leave -- I only hope it's something that will stave off a genuine uprising.

Tom, interesting - I suspect it reflects the "Leave" side's view of the world.