There is something quintessentially British about Brexit. As I have said in the past, whether the British exit or not remains to be seen, but the fact is they never truly entered. Splendid isolationism is still part of the DNA, at least among 52 per cent of the population (those who voted Leave).
It is also very British in the sense of the “two nations” brilliantly articulated by statesman Benjamin Disraeli in his novel Sybil, published in 1845 (three years before Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto). He wrote that Britain consisted of “Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets. The rich and the poor.” The divide is economic, but also class and education. University graduates voted overwhelmingly Remain, the low educated voted overwhelmingly Leave.
There is also an EU specificity. This is illustrated, among other things, by the fact that according to polls, even among the six founding member states (Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Germany and Luxembourg), were there to be a referendum, between 30 per cent (Belgium and Germany) and 45 per cent (Italy) would vote for exit. To say that the EU is not popular would be an understatement. There are many reasons why this is the case, but, in a nutshell, all one has to do is to look at the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker.
Of course, many national heads of government are drab mediocrities – as a notable example, my own president, François Hollande, who currently “enjoys” an 11 per cent popular approval rate – but they can be chucked out at the next election. There is a deep feeling of frustration among EU citizens that they cannot control those who govern them in Brussels; they are not trusted, they are aloof, they live in a bubble and are not doing a good job.
The European dream has evaporated. In its stead there stands, behind a seemingly impenetrable fog, a complex distant, inward-looking bureaucratic structure. Had I been British, I would have voted Remain, but without enthusiasm.
Brexit, however, also illustrates some deep global trends.
This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post on June 27, 2016 as Brexit shows up the failures of globalisation, with hate advancing across the globe and humanity in retreat. Please click on the link to access the entire piece.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Asia Global Institute’s editorial policy.