• Matthew C. Mai

Brexit Has Finally Arrived

Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Four years ago the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union through a national referendum. A majority of Britons, 52% to be exact, decided that continued participation in the European project was no longer in their national interest.

Post-referendum polling found that the primary reasons people voted Leave was so that the United Kingdom, as a sovereign and independent nation, could assert control over immigration inflows and make their own laws free from the EU's jurisdiction. Political observers regarded Brexit as the first major victory in what has been frequently referred to as the West's "populist moment" given its complete repudiation of the Eurocentric elite in the United Kingdom and mainland Europe.

But while Brexiteers were quick to rejoice, those who voted Remain did not go quietly into the night. It would take nearly four years, two general elections, and a new prime minister to negotiate a withdrawal deal from the European Union. True to form, the bureaucrats in Brussels played their part in making the divorce as costly and painful as possible. For them, the goal was to drag the process out in order to allow calls for a second referendum to grow thus convincing Britons that leaving the EU would be harder than staying in. By sowing the seeds of self-doubt in the national conscience, Brussels hoped that Remainers in Parliament would overturn the result of 2016 by putting forth another referendum that might end in their favor.

The great irony of Brexit is that while the British people sought to break away from an antidemocratic institution abroad, they had to fight just as hard to restore the basic functions of democracy at home. Two general elections, a party purge, and a new prime minister were required to follow through on a legitimate exercise in representative government. Even in the West, democracy is vulnerable to subversion by an expansive state and those interested in maintaining the bureaucratic status quo. Oftentimes the only antidote to such a firmly entrenched elite is an eccentric character with a populist message.

And so it was that Boris Johnson won a historic landslide victory running on the simple message that he would do what elected officials are supposed to do: respect the will of the people and represent their interests. Districts that for decades traditionally voted Labour cast their ballots in favor of Johnson and his party because of his central campaign promise to fulfill the Brexit mandate. Jeremy Corbyn, the anti-Semitic leader of the Labour Party, and Jo Swinson, the now-former leader of the Liberal Democrats, both rejected that mandate and were properly resigned to the dustbin of British politics.

While this was apart of a larger populist moment across the West, Brexit is also unique for its explicit nationalist overtones. Ultimately, Brexit was about reclaiming a tradition of geographical and political independence that, under more dire circumstances, had been the difference between survival or annihilation for the small North Atlantic island. Properly understood, the nationalist message of Brexit emphasized the sanctity of the nation-state by restoring the primacy of British common law, constitutional governance, and freedom of action in the international arena. It re-affirmed that the citizens of the United Kingdom, by birthright or naturalization, had a say in who came into their country and under what conditions if any, it might be permissible to welcome those fleeing wars or economic hardship. Given the chaos and upheaval of the 2015 migrant crisis, this point was especially crucial. Finally, Brexit endorsed long-standing notions about British national identity and character which had fallen by the wayside under the European umbrella. If anything would get the government to clean up its act and negotiate a withdrawal deal it would be the stiff upper lip and "let's get on with it" attitude that for so long defined British society.

Free from Continental constraints, one suspects that the United Kingdom will seek a more active and independent role in international affairs. In an era of great power competition, Brexit has given the United Kingdom an indispensable opportunity to take its place as a crucial player in Western politics. Negotiations for an economic arrangement will continue into December but on February 1st, 2020, the United Kingdom will no longer be a member of the European Union.

From across the pond, congratulations and good luck.

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