Remain or Leave: Lessons from the Brexit Vote

On Thursday June 23, in a referendum known as Brexit, voters in the United Kingdom will decide to “Remain” in the European Union or to “Leave.” If they decide to “Remain,” that will be that. If they decide to “Leave” that might not be that. Parliament would have to act and protracted divorce negotiations with the E.U. would follow. A new Prime Minister would likely lead both as David Cameron could be forced to resign.

If you would like to know what “will” happen in a few days time, there are countless polls you can read that will serve to diminish your confidence in the outcome. It sounds pretty close and recent UK polling has been suspect but, unless you sit on a trading desk or in a room full of bureaucrats, it is hard to know why you cannot be patient. What will you do differently in the meantime? Besides breathless newspapers and TV networks need the ad revenue.

If you would like to know what “should” happen, your choices are The Spectator that says, “Leave” and every smarty-pants on earth who says “Remain.”

The Economist, a source of decades of wisdom, states its “Remain” views in a series of Brexit Briefs that few will wade through. The editors self-deprecatingly pay tribute to Thomas Gradgrind, the notorious school board superintendent in Dickens’s novel, Hard Times, who is dedicated to the pursuit of profits, cold facts and numbers.

The “Leave” side expresses its views in “Brexit The Movie,” which clocks in at one hour 12 minutes, thus assuring little attention to a far more emotional presentation than would suit Mr. Gradgrind.

Why write about it at all?

Whichever decision is taken by the voters, I am going to try to explain why it turned out that way.

Let’s begin with the easy one.

If the vote is to “Remain,” the reason will be fear.

Here are some of the alleged terrors that have been dredged from under childhood beds.

  • A long earthquake begins
  • Topple the façade of Britishness
  • Hasten the breakup of Britain
  • Replace Prime Minister David Cameron with a radically right wing Conservative team
  • Return to Neville Chamberlain isolationism
  • UK will be 2% poorer forever
  • Get frozen out of trade with Europe
  • The end of the European project (code for a return to the series of bloody wars of the last millennium)
  • Weaken the Pound
  • Get fleeced in the exit negotiations
  • Get shut out of the room where big decisions are made
  • And my personal favorite, most “serious studies” have concluded that Britain would be politically and economically damaged

One writer sniffed that the British have been warned many times over by the International Monetary Fund, the Bank of England, the British Treasury, Prime Minister Cameron and even President Obama that Brexit hurts the economy, but the warnings have not worked.

Somehow “serious studies” and being “warned many times over” by serious people seems a good segué to the reason British voters might decide to return to several thousand years of history and go it alone.

If the vote is to “Leave,” the reason will be distrust.

Too few people can explain our Constitution and the checks and balances installed to see that none of our three branches of government run amok. Nobody can explain the European Union government that appears to have no checks and balances in place to keep its insiders from running amok. The lack of accountability to the voters is cited as a cause of the growth of right wing populist parties like France’s National Front led by Marine LePen.

To some, the E.U. appears to be little more than a cushy sinecure for those who run it. To others, it appears to be a return to feudalism with jousting nobles replaced by snobby elites. Describing it as a creation of the French big state tradition says to some all that is needed to paint a picture of an elite uncontrollable entity run by those who think the little people are too dumb to decide for themselves.

“We know best” might be factually correct, but facts don’t matter if too many people believe that “we know best” is now and forever to be followed by the words “what benefits us.”

Mass immigration won’t take bureaucrats’ jobs or change their communities so they have the luxury of feeling good about themselves.

Over reaching regulation is really crony capitalism that serves the interests of the larger companies that can afford to comply at the expense of smaller and perhaps more enterprising competitors that cannot.

Great Britain is by any measure one of the stronger E.U. members. Clearly the E.U. itself will be diminished if it departs. The burden of carrying the have-nots will be divided over a smaller number of haves.

Most of the conversation is about which approach is better. There is little conversation about which is less worse. If it becomes impossible for some E.U. countries to borrow based on their own credit worthiness, an answer will be bonds issued by the E.U. itself and backed by all of the countries. That would definitely be worse for the haves.

If the Leave side wins on Thursday, the cause will have been distrust of an E.U. elite that could well have avoided the vote entirely by not overplaying its hand.

There are consequences to either Brexit decision but the worst of them will be a determination that overplaying a hand can always be overcome by selling a little fear.

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Haven Pell

At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Without hesitation, Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

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3 comments

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  • As a non-British citizen of the European Union living in London, I think this referendum is totally unnecessary and establishes a dangerous precedence. Prime Minister Cameron promised a referendum to acquiesce the eurosceptics in his own party — but the issues at stake in the future of Britain and the EU are too technical to be decided by an exercise in direct democracy, where a generally uninformed public can easily fall prey to the simplistic solutions peddled by populist demagogues . This is a matter for national parliaments to vote on; that’s why we have representative democracies. As for the much-discussed lack of democratic accountability in the whole EU projects, judging from my experience growing up in Europe I’m quite certain that nothing much would have happened to the idea of post-WWII unification on the continent, had the decision to create a Community been left up to popular votes through referendums. European nations had to be led, by enlightened statestmen, on their journey out of perennial conflict and toward a community of interests. Americans, of all peoples, should understand this process very well; their original constitutional system is the product of an elite of wealthy lawyers and businessmen , and the popular consent that finally ratified their admired constitution was expressed through the vote of each state’s legislative assemblies, not through some form of direct suffrage.

    • Sounds like this paragraph would meet with your approval.

      “One writer sniffed that the British have been warned many times over by the International Monetary Fund, the Bank of England, the British Treasury, Prime Minister Cameron and even President Obama that Brexit hurts the economy, but the warnings have not worked.”

      We have “what’s the matter with Kansas” and this is now called “what’s the matter with East Anglia.” At least in our case it means “why won’t you do as I want you to do because surely I know what you want better than you do.”

      I doubt any lessons will be learned from a vote to remain but, if that is the vote, champagne will be consumed in Brussels and the party will continue.