There has been a lot of analysis of the Brexit vote; this article is one of the best.
What is missing is the peculiar dynamics by which the position of a party that scored less than 13% of the vote in the 2015 general election and only won one seat was able to secure over 50% of the vote in a referendum on the position they were advocating.
The Tories won about 37% of the vote in 2015 so even if every Tory voter was actually opposed to the EU, this still does not add up to the 52% Brexit vote. Take away the pro-Euro Tories and a substantial fraction of voters for parties who are pro-EU voted the opposite way to the party line. Some blame Jeremy Corbyn for not taking a strong pro-EU line in the referendum campaign. But his position – that the EU was flawed but it was better being in to fix it than out – is not much different from David Cameron’s and the only real difference is that Corbyn stated that view honestly rather than pushing hard to a yes vote, implying that he was more strongly in favour of the EU than he really is.
Even so, it is not usual that party supporters break ranks like this. Most parties can rely on their core base to vote for them no matter what – for example through the sort of change when Blair reverse much of Labour’s traditional policy position or when the US Democrats effectively switched sides with the Republicans on many major positions. With the Republican-Democrat switch, there was a switch in where the parties drew support: the Democrats used to be the party of the South. But this switch in support based took a long time and some very dramatic events like the Civil Rights movement (and even through that, some deeply racist Democrats did not switch sides: George Wallace of Alabama remained a Democrat despite a run for president as an Independent Party candidate, and only saw the error of his ways much later in life, when he ended his political career as an opponent of racism).
So let us study the dynamics of the thing – how Cameron got himself into such a mess.
With Europscepticism a major force among the Tories, he was able to secure his leadership as well as shore up votes in the marginals by promising a referendum. His calculation: not many people really wanted to break with Europe so by pandering to them, he could retain the leadership of his party and shift enough anti-EU voters his way in marginal seats to prevent UKIP from winning and to tilt such seats away from Labour.
The problem is that when the referendum came up, it was at a time when there was mood for shucking off the establishment – the same mood that gave Jeremy Corbyn Labour leadership, that made Bernie Sanders unexpectedly successful and that has kept Trump not only in the race but has made him the Republican candidate (presumptive but in reality, it would be pretty hard to change that now).
What is weird about all this is that the “anti-establishment” mood crystallizes around such different positions.
Trump and Sanders stand for completely opposed values yet a substantial fraction of Sanders voters are more willing to voter for Trump than Clinton.
Meanwhile, parliamentary Labour is revolting against Jeremy Corbyn, as if he is solely responsible for the Brexit vote. Labour MPs, listen up. The public voted Corbyn in because they found you revolting. Labour has failed to tap into the anti-establishment mood since Corbyn’s election not because of him but because of the rank and file who desperately hoped he would go away and they could return to the failed world of Blair and Brown.
The point of the anti-establishment mood is that people are tired of business as usual. That creates a need that can be fulfilled by sane politicians offering real alternatives – like Corbyn and Sanders. But of course their sort of alternative is not very palatable to the plutocrats behind the scenes so when politics as usual fails, they back unpleasant, irrational alternatives like the Tea Party in the US and UKIP in the UK. Out of this, Trump is something of an anomaly as he is not so much a representative of plutocrats as a representative of plutocracy: he does not stand for class interests but rather for himself.
The EU was in many ways a flawed creation – but one that blurred inessential differences and encouraged a rights-based view of difference. Splitting off the UK risks further splits – the Scottish independence movement is revitalized for example. If that goes ahead, it adds impetus for other separatist movements. The end result could be a Europe of much smaller countries and with no unifying framework. That takes us back to the 19th century.
If you really are opposed to the establishment – good. It needs shaking up. But do not be conned by voices of bigotry and hatred. This is not shaking up the establishment. It is about destroying the values that have made a world-wide civilization possible – one that respects difference but does not demand shallow capitulation to imposed values and identities.
Such a civilization does not exist yet, but there is a possibility of one – and the EU hinted at what was possible. The alternative in a world with advanced technology is mini-states hostile to difference and belligerent to those less fortunate than themselves; not an attractive prospect.