By Natália Poláková
In the last issue, Re: Views brought its readers detailed coverage of the Brexit campaign as an indecisive contest between the ‘inners’ and the ‘outers’. The referendum, held on June 23 2016, turned out to be a surprising exercise in democracy for Britain. Some 52 per cent voted to leave the European Union and steer the country toward a new destination. Its captain has already hopped off the sinking ship and the new one has seized the wheel. Where Britons are heading now, nobody exactly knows.
“The British people have voted to leave the European Union and their will must be respected,” said David Cameron in his resignation speech the day after Britons cast their vote. On the same day, reality struck and many mystified Britons found themselves googling the phrase “what is the European Union?”. Many Brexit-weary citizens were also searching for a passage to Canada. In the meantime, the British pound tumbled to a 31-year low against the US dollar and the Brexit panic virtually wiped two trillion dollars off world stock markets. In the next few days, Britain’s shadow cabinet (1) suffered from a mass resignation followed by Nigel Farage who stepped down as the UKIP leader. Moreover, Europhile Scottish called for another independence referendum and Northern Ireland began questioning the peace treaty. While the Bank of England predicted economic uncertainty in the months ahead, the government itself failed to foresee this political mess. Shakespeare would probably say there is something rotten in the state of Britain.
Cameron’s decision to hold an EU referendum to silence the Tory Eurosceptic backbenchers (2) as well as to secure his popularity in the 2015 general elections led to this “ill-conceived” course of political events that may terminate a 43-year-old relationship with European nations. “These big decisions”, which David Cameron entrusted to common people. The result of the vote showed how bitterly Britain was divided.
On June 23 almost three quarters of Britons went to the ballot box signalling how important the EU question was to the country. The turnout increased with age, where approximately 65 per cent aged 25 to 54 voted, in contrast to a remarkable 90 per cent of those aged 65 and over. Moreover, the official referendum results, 48.1 per cent for Remain against 51.9 per cent for Leave, conceal deeply rooted differences within the electorate. Some 70 per cent of Britons aged 24 and less voted to remain but the majority of those aged 50 and over chose a completely different future. The Financial Times points out that younger generations should not feel “betrayed” by their older counterparts as they did not vote in sufficient numbers. On the other hand, CNN blames the low turnout among young people on a failure of the Brexit information campaign and a general lack of political education in Britain.
The Brexit outcome pleased neither Scotland nor cosmopolitan London, where around 60 per cent of voters voted for the remain camp. Paradoxically, the Leave vote was the strongest in regions most economically intertwined with the EU. For instance, the electorate in East Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire, the northeast of England, 65 per cent voted to leave. Notably, 65 per cent of Labour voters preferred to remain in the EU despite Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong Eurosceptic, was running the Remain campaign “only half-heartedly”.
A November survey shows that a third of the remain voters are still “stuck in denial” and do not believe the UK really wanted to leave the EU. Around 20 per cent are angry and depressed about the result, respectively. Only five per cent of optimists keep hoping Brexit may be averted. The political turmoil and multiple resignations that followed suit did not help raise spirits either, especially after hearing Farage confidently stating that he “did his bit” and achieved his “political ambition”. He allegedly decided to take a break but forgot to offer a post-Brexit plan to the fans he has left in politically torn Britain. Two weeks after the vote, “Bregret” (remorse after having voted for Leave), had already become the state of mind for five per cent of Brexiteers (3) – almost 1.2 million people. Were there a second referendum, that very five per cent would swing the result. In other words, “the Brexit heroes of yesterday are now the sad heroes of today” as European Commissioner Juncker ironically commented.
To be more precise, the Brexit fantasy turned into a horror for David Cameron. His voice trembled before he finally announced Britain needed “fresh leadership”. Surprisingly, prominent Eurosceptic and Leave campaign leader Boris Johnson, who was the favourite to replace him, withdrew from a Tory leadership bid when his fellow Leave campaigner Michael Gove, the former justice secretary and a close friend of Cameron’s, unexpectedly announced that he was running for the top job. Even more surprising, more than 80 Tory MPs supposedly signed the letter asking Cameron to stay on. However, he did not listen.
The whole political drama eventually resulted in appointing Theresa May, the former home secretary, as the second female Prime Minister in British history, which proved to be quite refreshing in the same way Margaret Thatcher won the 1979 elections. Both women emerged in the state of crisis and both faced an uneasy European question. While Thatcher took over a slumped economy and disobedient trade unions, May inherited a disunited and disillusioned nation. Though Thatcher strengthened ties between the UK and the EU, May has been ordered to cut the rope entirely. Additionally, both prime ministers campaigned to remain in the EU in the 1973 and 2015 referendums, respectively.
Similarly, YouGov research concludes May’s public image strikingly resembles the younger Thatcher in terms of leadership abilities and personality. Some Independent readers called her “Maggy May” and one particular reader put it quite simply: “She’s a Tory, she’s a woman, she speaks in somewhat posh accent and she carries a handbag. Why, I do believe she’s the Blessed Maggie reincarnated!” On the other hand, the German press welcomed a new Prime Minister with headlines such as “The British Merkel” or “England’s Angela Merkel”, arguing May appears like a German-style Democrat rather than a Thatcherite. Nevertheless, according to the latest Ipsos Mori opinion polls, 48 per cent of Britons are satisfied with her and nearly 70 per cent even view her as a capable leader, which makes May more popular than her predecessor David Cameron during his entire time in office.
May assumed office in September, determined to invoke Article 50, the formal mechanism for leaving the EU, by the end of March. Immediately, she met with resistance in the parliament that questioned her authority to trigger formal EU withdrawal talks before MPs have been consulted. However, May’s government does not see the parliamentary vote necessary as it already has powers to begin the negotiations predicted to take up to two years. In November this year the disagreement was brought to the High Court that ruled in favour of the parliament but the Supreme Court is expected to hear the appeal in early December.
Whether in two years Britain will be able to unpick 43 years of treaties and resume “a bold new positive role” in the world is another question. The only thing that can be done right now is to hope that Brexit will indeed help Theresa May make Britain a “country that works for everyone”, as she said in her first statement. To many others, however, it seems a thorny road to peace.
(1) The Shadow Cabinet is the team of senior spokespeople chosen by the Leader of the Opposition to mirror the Cabinet in Government.
(2) Backbenchers are MPs or members of the House of Lords that are neither government ministers nor opposition Shadow spokespeople.
(3) the term used for the electorate that voted to leave the European Union including Eurosceptic politicians that participated in the Leave campaign