Britain woke up to crisis on Friday that promises to reverberate across the globe, with potential implications for the fall election in the US.
After a narrow majority of the population voted to leave the European Union, Prime Minister David Cameron announced he would resign. Cameron set the referendum in motion in the first place, in an attempt to placate the “Euro-skeptic” wing of his Conservative Party and stave off the perceived threat of the populist United Kingdom Independence Party.
It was a disastrous miscalculation, as evidenced by the reaction of some of the Leave campaigners within Cameron’s Conservative party. Even they seemed shocked by their own success. Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London and contemporary of Cameron at the elite Eton school, appeared ashen as he greeted his victory. He went out of his way to hail the prime minister’s record. So did Michael Gove, a friend of the prime minister who campaigned against him.
The vote was a reflection a growing divide between a metropolitan elite that has flourished in a globalized economy and a populist anger on the part of those who feel left behind. Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader who almost single-handedly triggered this crisis, welcomed the Leave vote as a victory for “the real people, for the ordinary people, for the decent people.” The implication being that those who campaigned to remain were inauthentic, odd and even indecent.
With impeccable timing, Donald Trump arrived in Britain Friday to open a new golf course in Scotland. He praised the result, drawing parallels with his own campaign. “I think it’s a great thing that’s happened. It’s an amazing vote, very historic,” the BBC reported Trump as saying.
“People are angry all over the world. They’re angry over borders, they’re angry over people coming into the country and taking over and nobody even knows who they are,” America’s presumptive Republican presidential nominee declared. “They’re angry about many, many things in the UK, the US and many other places. This will not be the last.”
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He is not wrong. Right-wing populists in France and the Netherlands are already calling for their own referendums on European Union membership. The isolationist, anti-immigrant movement across Europe, and indeed in the United States, will be hugely emboldened by this result.
It was difficult to make an emotional case for the European Union in Britain. On the continental mainland, the benefits — free movement across borders, and a sense of unity between nations that had previously seemed locked in perpetual warfare — are clear. But Britons have never taken to a sense of European identity. Moreover, the ongoing refugee crisis on the continent, and the relentless onslaught of the globalized economy, has left many feeling that the UK is better off alone: in the words of the Leave campaign, this was a referendum on Britain taking back control of its destiny.
The result, with the Leave campaign winning by 4 percent, exposes deep divides in the UK. Scotland, which only last year had a referendum on its own independence, voted to stay in Europe. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, has already said the result once again throws up the question of the nation’s connection to the rest of Britain.
And just as Trump is vying for disaffected working-class Democrats, the Leave campaign succeeded in peeling off some of that constituency in its victory. The opposition Labour Party, led by Britain’s Bernie Sanders equivalent, Jeremy Corbyn, failed to deliver a Remain vote in its heartlands in the north of England. Corbyn faces calls to resign, with a motion of no confidence tabled by veteran MP Margaret Hodge.
And as in the United States, mainstream conservativism is in chaos. Cameron came to power in 2010 as a centrist, forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrat Party. The presence of the liberals in government made it strangely easy for him to portray himself as a tough conservative reigned in by his wooly coalition partners.
The parallels with the plight of US Republican congressional leaders are striking: When the Conservatives won an overall majority in 2015, the right of the party saw it as a chance to push through their more radical ideas — principal among them being the break from Europe. Cameron singularly failed to convert or confront the right wing of his party, and now he is paying the price.
The American political establishment should take note of what has happened. What was inconceivable for Britain just a few months ago has suddenly become reality.