As a function of actually giving a shit about the looming U.S. presidential election, I’ve gotten used to following live updates of results as they come in from the primary season, hovering between nervous excitement and dejected disappointment. The primary season has since come and gone, but I found myself doing the same thing this past week, looking at a red-and-blue map of the United Kingdom and watching percentages go up or down in relation to Britain’s vote on a referendum about whether to Remain as a member of the European Union or to Leave the EU, in effect, flipping off the rest of the European continent.
With respect to that familiar mix of apprehension and despair experienced when tracking primary results, the so-called Brexit vote did not disappoint. You know, in that it, like any number of American primary final tallies, was deeply disappointing. In case you were unaware, the UK elected to leave the EU in a referendum vote but a few days ago. The margin of victory for the Leave side was not a large one—only a few percentage points—but in a “majority rules” referendum such as the Brexit vote, that much is enough.
How did Britain even get into a situation whereby it would be voting on whether or not to leave the European Union? Well, let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Back billions of years ago in the formative years of the Earth, after the requisite amount of crust on the surface of the planet had formed in the shadow of the Hadean Eon—what’s that? I’m going back too far? OK, let’s skip ahead a bit then. Back in 2013, then-Prime Minister David Cameron declared that if the Conservative Party were to win re-election in 2015, in the face of mounting pressure from the so-called “far right” within the party, an in-out referendum vote would be held to decide whether the United Kingdom leaves the EU or remains as a principal member (though, of course, one with its own functional currency in the pound sterling). Liberal Democrats, who largely opposed exiting the European Union, nonetheless understood this pressure facing PM Cameron and other Conservative leadership, and consequently, the need for a democratic procedure that would afford British citizens the opportunity to make their voices heard.
OK, fine, David Cameron might have agreed to hold a referendum vote, and even encouraged MPs to campaign on behalf of the UK exiting the EU if their “conscience” warranted it. That said, there still needed to be a vote. This ensued on June 23rd, and leading up to the referendum vote, the consensus polls indicated Britain would choose to Remain in the European Union, albeit by a slender percentage. If pre-vote polls from the U.S. primary season have been any indication, however, these anticipatory estimates are often, well, wrong. As they were in this case.
So, how did Team Leave score, if you will, the upset victory? Well, even though, overall, the percentages were close, there were deep divisions within the voting pool. For one, there were national/regional divisions, as visible in this graphic from the Wall Street Journal. Northern Ireland and Scotland, for their part, committed to Team Remain by percentages of 55% to 45% or better. Pockets of support also were found in Wales, especially in Gwynedd, and in England, the “blues” were largely concentrated in South East, which includes London. Plus, Gibraltar was as strongly pro-EU as you could likely imagine. Too bad the Remains didn’t take the day, or else the British overseas territory could have rightly been considered the “rock” of their cause.
Let’s dig a little deeper, however, and look to divisions along demographic lines. The story of the Brexit vote may well exist within the young/old binary. As Clementine Amidon of Kicker suggests in no uncertain terms in a report on the fallout from the decision to leave the European Union, the “British youth feel completely screwed by the Brexit vote.” According to the post, the hashtag #WhatHaveWeDone was trending in the early aftermath of Thursday’s historic results. Concerning the stats, they paint a pretty stark picture. 75% of those voters under the age of 25 voted to Remain, and overall, the group of voters in the 18 – 34 voted to stay at a clip of 57 – 43%. Sure, turnout could have been better for the vote overall—over 70% of the population came out for the Brexit referendum vote—but by American standards, that’s a yuuuuuuuuuuuge bit of participation for this purpose.
And yet, from the perspective of Team Remain, it wasn’t enough. So, what gives, older adults? Here’s where, if you’ve been skimming up to now, you should start to pay closer attention, because it bears a certain relevance to the upcoming November election in the United States. Three subsets of the voting populace are notable for their role in the Team Leave shocker: 1) the working classes, who have long felt disenfranchised and ignored by the self-professed British elites, 2) the apparently growing group of people distrustful of “experts” and other learned types they see and hear in the media, and 3) those individuals believing the United Kingdom should “regain control of its finances and its borders.” Does this sound familiar to you?
Well, it should. It’s basically been Donald Trump’s ticket to the Republican Party nomination: 1) appeal to angry working-class whites concerned about a rigged economy which works only for the wealthiest Americans, 2) denounce the mainstream media and other providers of statistics which are objective facts or otherwise disprove the narrative he’s selling, and 3) stoke the fires of racism and xenophobia, citing a need to “take our country back.” The Brexit fiasco proves that Trump’s rise is not a uniquely American phenomenon, but this is a cold comfort when considering that others like him around the world are taking advantage of people’s prejudices and a reactive sentiment within the general public against establishment politics. In particular, the relative prominence of Marine Le Pen’s nationalist National Front in France and Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands—countries important to the European economic and political landscape, and with stupidly jingoistic names, to boot—is a point of worry for younger voters of those countries and, well, other citizens who aren’t out-and-out racists. There’s a lot of discontent in the global political landscape with economic conditions so uncertain across continents, and the rise of the far right politically is the manifestation of a people’s frustration and desperation for an answer to their woes.
Since the news of Britain’s vote to leave the EU, the immediate consequences have been little short of chaotic. David Cameron has resigned from his post as Prime Minister, citing the notion it is in the “national interest to have a period of stability, and then the leadership required” to move the United Kingdom forward, believing he is not the person to do that. Trading markets have taken a nosedive. And voices like those of Le Pen’s have become emboldened by Britain’s exit, suggesting their respective nations hold a referendum vote as soon as possible to decide if these countries should do the same. Hell, even a group devoted to separatism for the state of Texas is feeling “Brexit-Mania” and calling for the Lone Star State to secede from the U.S. of A. If that were to somehow happen, I imagine much of the city of Austin would be reacting as the youth of the UK have been with respect to Team Leave’s victory.
I am not the first to make this observation, but I will echo the disappointed sentiments of millions around the world that the circumstances surrounding the Brexit vote are a cautionary tale. In a few short years, the UK Independence Party, led by the weasel-faced Nigel Farage, has made a significant impact on the British political picture with little more than vague appeals to economic independence and border security. Even the day before the “vote heard around the world,” pundits were predicting Vote Remain would emerge victorious. But the polls were wrong, and here we are. Currently, Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump significantly in general election polls, and has way more money at her disposal for campaign purposes. That said, after the dual shocks of the Orlando shooting and the UK referendum vote—two very different sets of circumstances, but ones that have caused massive unrest worldwide—who knows whether or not Trump may be poised for a comeback? I mean, who thought he would even get this far? In 2016, in this wacky presidential race, anything seems possible.
Formal procedures still have to be undertaken in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union and renegotiate trade deals with the remaining EU members, such that, at present, it is not known what economic effects the Brexit vote will have on the British economy, or for that matter, the world’s economy. The general consensus, however, is one of pessimistic predictions, explaining why many are furious about what has happened. A similarly poor prospectus is believed to await the United States should Donald Trump become the nation’s next leader, though again, nobody knows for sure because Trump hasn’t expressed any concrete plan for American economic revival. He has only advocated the building of a wall at the Mexican border, an expensive, time-intensive symbol of hate. If this is any indication of what we may expect, we are, to use a technical economic term, royally f**ked if Donald Trump is elected President.
The moral of the story, then? For you young folks, especially: Vote in November. For the love of God, please vote. You don’t want a bunch of angry old racists deciding your future, too.