Brexit: The End of Populist Promises

Written by Jan Gerber; Edited by Scott Strgacich

Brexit, like winter in Game of Thrones, has been coming for years, and now that it’s finally here, the resolution feels rushed, unsatisfying, and messy. Everyone feels cheated.  Although there has not been a more perplexing political drama playing out for the last three years, little has changed. Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement failed three times in the House of Commons and the deadline for the separation has been extended to October 31. The European Parliamentary elections have caught Britain with one leg still on the continent, which is why Nigel Farage is back with his new Brexit Party to give his homeland one last shove. How has Britain gone from a successful campaign to leave, to a three-year-long farcical stalemate, back to a polarizing surge at the polls for the leavers?

Onlookers often point to the hard-border in Ireland, the bad faith of the European Commission in pushing for either a “hard” or a “no-Brexit,” and the unloved Theresa May as the culprits behind the deadlock. The real tragedy of Brexit is that the vote to leave as well as the sloppy execution of the way out of Europe were predictable, both because of what political scientists identify as populist politics. The glorious return of the “man of the people,” Mr. Farage, heralds a renewed populist appeal in the modern democratic mood.

The urge to spin out of the European project in the name of reclaiming national sovereignty was built into the very architecture of the European Union. The fundamental task facing post-war Europe was to rebuild the antebellum peace and prosperity while policing countries like Germany and Italy whose internal politics proved to be a matter of more than just their own concern. Jan Werner-Müller, a professor of politics at Princeton University, argues in his book, What Is Populism?, that supranational and essentially technocratic institutions, such as the European Court of Justice, took on the role of the democracy’s watchmen, checking the power of the individual member states. Within the EU, countries set constitutional courts over their own governments to watch over minority rights.  By 2016, 28 countries accepted the trade-off, ceding parts of their autonomy in exchange for a common European market, identity, and peace. While no one really cares to remember the last, the first two “commons” are center stage of the Brexit drama.

For Britain, 2004 was the watershed moment in its European integration story. The greatest enlargement of the European Union in terms of population, so widely celebrated in Central and Eastern Europe, saw a 100% spike in the rate of EU immigration to the UK, from 66 million in 2003 to 130 million next year, before it levelled off at just below 200 million in 2008. Those four years are crucial to Brexit because it is the rate of demographic change, not the raw numbers, that predict the rise of right-wing populism. When the government is unprepared for higher rates of immigration, the success of assimilation and the fear of the natives grow in inverse proportion.

Britain turned out a case study. Tony Blair, the Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007, chose not to put transitionary limits on the number of immigrants into the UK, which would suspend the EU right of freedom of movement for workers. The UK’s welfare laws ensured equal benefits for the EU migrants, despite the calls for reform under both Mr. Blair and David Cameron’s Conservative government. In a sardonic turn, Britain’s flexible labor market––much less regulated than in the rest of Europe––exasperated the situation at home. The low-skilled labor from the newly admitted member states was quickly absorbed by non-discriminating market, while on the opposite side of the equation, the native workers did not have the social safety net of a Germany or France to fall back on. The country’s immigration trauma was sealed.

So, the first tension, between British and European interests, is historical and political in nature. The ruinous execution of the separation, however, stems not from a historical accident but from the populist logic itself, which rests on the assumption, pars pro toto, the part speaking for the whole. Whether it is England speaking for Scotland and Northern Ireland or Nigel Farage for the “real people” as opposed to those who do not subscribe to his singular vision for the country. The problem with this logic, beyond the unpleasant undertone, is that it is fallacious. It is also undemocratic. There is no “real people,” there is not even “a people,” as a monolithic body whose opinion can be ascertained or voice heard. On the contrary, a functioning democracy is one where the public opinion is forged through debate in the public square and whose minority is protected from the majority (including in a referendum) by institutional checks and balances. The democratic process, decentralized and pluralistic, is nothing like the populist vision of a people rule, but Mr. Farage intends to change that.

After a three-year hiatus following the referendum in 2016, he is back with the Brexit Party which is now leading in the polls ahead of the European Parliamentary elections, promising to fight for Britain’s democracy and reshaping the entire British party system.

Mr. Farage is no champion of democracy but of rhetoric, populist rhetoric, to be exact. Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde claims that while populism always sounds a moral and an anti-pluralist note (the real people in Birmingham against the corrupt Westminster elites), it varies in its “host” ideology, which often fluctuates in tune with the popular sentiment. Without a coherent set of ideas, nationalist populists, for instance, pander to the sentiments most concerned with national sovereignty, such as control over immigration, ethnic purity, and cultural cohesion.

Choosing a singular issue or policy to focus on, the populist will make it the critical issue of every election and will brand the opposition as “traitors or “people of the worse sort.”

As far as metaphors go, there is little distinction between building a wall on the southern border of the U.S. to protect your country from “bad hombres” and raising the drawbridge across the English Channel to keep the invading Eastern Europeans out. More importantly, the driver of both Brexit and the Wall is the fear of losing control over immigration that leads to cultural and disintegration. There is also the leader, the prophet, to promise the people to protect them from the overwhelming threat.

Given his insistence on Brexit as the ultimate solution to all of Britain’s woes, Mr. Farage is often forced to defend the lack of policy substance in his party platform, even as he pleads in interviews to first “move on” with Brexit before dealing with any other issue. When pressed, he will declare himself in favor of free trade agreements with Britain’s European partners, more transparency in British politics, and even Scottish independence. All of these after Brexit, of course. His history as a single-issue politician combined with the name of his brand-new party are proof that the singular goal for Mr. Farage is not to fix British democracy but to unfix Britain from the European Union. Even if he is successful at the latter, that will not address any of the systemic illnesses that brought him to prominence in the first place.

The Brexit show demonstrates the power of populist rhetoric as well as the falsity of its underlying logic. But there is more to the story than the lukewarm conclusion. High rates of immigration and distorted benefits of globalization, combined with ossified welfare laws in the case of the U.K., are pushing voters disaffected with the status quo into the arms of populist prophets. These “men of the people,” like Mr. Farage, are unlikely to deliver their “imagined peoples” because of their dislike of democratic institutions, a distaste for compromise, and a lack of concrete policy beyond one or two core issues. Still, the strength of their appeal lies in the severity of the issues that ail European democracies. Britain’s problems are are real, perhaps existential challenges that Europe’s liberal parties had better address in the Parliamentary elections––unless they want to face a long exit drama of their own.





Jan Gerber is a junior at The King’s College in New York City, majoring in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PP&E). He is the founder and president of the John Quincy Adams Society Chapter at King’s. Originally from Poland, he moved to the U.S. for higher education and the experience of living abroad. He is also a languages enthusiast and American history wonk. 






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