In time, the ‘Brexit’ won by Leave campaigners in Britain’s referendum may well get dialled back or reduced to a form scarcely recognizable to its promoters. But for those of us hoping we can dodge a bullet, the outcome will be like emptying a cup of water onto a forest fire — one which has spread well beyond Britain.
A growing chorus of constitutional lawyers are suggesting that while technically, the vote can be reversed, politically it will be difficult. As an advisory referendum, Parliament (which is filled with pro-EU MPs) can choose to reject it; Scotland’s parliament may need to approve it, a questionable prospect at best since Scotland voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU; and withdrawal from the EU may be beyond the constitutional powers of any British government to enact on its own, given that such a move would affect fundamental rights which are protected in law. But even if legal grounds such as these exist which would enable politicians not to press ahead with Brexit, it would be politically toxic for Parliament or the courts to effectively ignore the expressed will of a majority of the electorate.
Unless, of course, the politics were to change. One of the strains that will become apparent as Britain fills in the details of its exit from the European Union is that while the 48% who voted to remain in the European Union were voting for a common objective – to maintain the status quo, regardless of whether or not they wanted to improve it – the 52% who voted against had diverse motives. Some wanted to reduce immigration at all cost. Some wanted to restore Britain’s sovereignty in all matters. Some wanted to cut transfers to the European Union so as to put more money into the National Health Service. Some wanted to secure better trade deals with non-EU trading partners. When one drills into the details of each of these goals, what becomes clear is that several are mutually-incompatible and others are probably unattainable. Several of these pledges will have to be dropped along the way — indeed some already have been, since the Leave campaigners were playing fast-and-loose with the facts all through the campaign. As a result, when the final shape of an eventual post-Brexit Britain begins to come into view, it’s likely that support for real (as opposed to the imagined) Brexit will drop substantially, allowing the politicians a lot of wiggle-room.
Nevertheless, one thing that is clear to everyone is that a substantial part of the Vote-Leave contingent was expressing deep anger at the failures of neoliberal globalisation, of which the EU has become a potent symbol (both in Britain and on the continent). One can make a case that politics across the West is now at a tipping-point: with some exceptions, governing elites are thoroughly invested in the neoliberal model, but a growing share of the population is unhappy with the concentrated gains of the neoliberal era, in which most incomes gains are flowing into a smaller and smaller number of hands. This febrile atmosphere is producing rebellions across the West. Just days before the British referendum, Rome voted in a mayor from the Eurosceptic Five-Star movement. Meanwhile, Austria’s Constitutional Court has ordered the country to re-run the presidential election held in May, in which the far-right Freedom Party lost by the narrowest of margins. France’s National Front is pushing for a referendum of its own, which current polls suggest would mirror the British result. Germany’s ‘Alternative’ Party is posing a serious challenge to the government. And of course there looms the biggest threat of all, in America, where Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency has gained renewed momentum from a referendum-outcome he has welcomed.
But one doesn’t have to venture across the pond to see the rising anger that pushed sentiment against globalism. Even were Britain to reverse itself on Brexit, the English shires and council-estates which voted 60% or more to leave the EU will hardly be mollified by legal technicalities. Nor should they be. As paradoxical as it may seem that a council-estate resident would vote for a far-right whose policies would probably run contrary to their interests, parties like UKIP are at least addressing their concerns (however disingenuously), and moreover doing it in a language they can relate to. When the ‘experts’ tell them this is as good as it gets, they have a right to fire the experts.
Besides, Remain supporters are no less contradictory than a Leave vote split between the most and least comfortable segments of society. Those at the vanguard of the neoliberal economy, especially in the City, supported Remain; but so too did many young people who are as marginalised as Council-dwellers, but still feel they have a better hope in globalised world than in an insular England. They fall into what has been called the alter-globalisation camp: cosmopolitan, worldly in their outlook and social networks, but opposed to the neoliberal variety of globalisation that has produced the Davos set of complacent oligarchs.
For them, the path to a better future will now depend on separating tactics from strategy: allying with neoliberal forces to preserve globalism in the short-term, but preparing for the subsequent battle to overturn neoliberalism. Think: Vote for Hillary in 2016, then commit the next four years to unseating her in 2020; agitate to Remain, but think simultaneously of how we can overthrow a neoliberal Europe. Right-wing populists are having their moment just now, but so too has the left made dramatic strides. Brexit is a threat, but it’s also an opportunity.