That the British vote to leave the European Union is a textbook example of the revolt of the public I take to be beyond dispute. The Conservative prime minister strongly opposed the exit initiative, as did the Labour and Social Democratic opposition, the archbishop of Canterbury, most respectable news media, and a long line of foreign heads of state beginning with Barack Obama. Given the thunderous pro-Europe chorus of establishment voices, the vote against became a matter of because rather than despite. Caught in the grip of a glacial established order, ruled by elites who appear to offer few alternatives, the British public opted to break some crockery. Nobody has a clue about what happens next.
Britain – the “United Kingdom” – is an interesting country. As the sharp old class differences have abated, all other differences have been magnified. The official ideology of British institutions is multiculturalism, the glorification of diversity. How much this has contributed to the fragmentation of national identity would be a worthwhile topic of research. Ethnic and religious minorities remain alienated. The Muslim population in particular has produced perpetrators of domestic terror and Islamic State atrocities – we are still haunted by the video image of “Jihadi John,” beheader to the Caliphate, with his thick London accent. The Brexit vote in a sense was aimed at Jihadi John and his kind. Whether this was driven by love of country and its civic traditions or by racism and xenophobia very much depends on where you stand.
The England of the pub and the football field has struck a blow against the Britain of the institutions. In parallel, the border has used the triumph of Brexit to resume its conflict against the center. Scotland is governed by a party committed to leaving Britain much as Britain is now committed to leaving Europe. The Scottish prime minister insists that her region will remain in the EU, and has already promised a new referendum on exiting the UK. In yet another circle of British political hell, the parties are splintering to pieces. The Labour chief, Jeremy Corbyn, is an unreconstructed Marxist class warrior who makes Bernie Sanders look like milquetoast. He may lose his post over the referendum. David Cameron, the very picture of a bland Tory establishmentarian, has resigned as prime minister, and his probable successor is Boris Johnson, who was Donald Trump before Donald Trump was a thing.
Although opinion polls showed a tight contest, elites in Britain and Europe have been shocked by the results. Elites are always surprised by untoward events. “In 1,000 years, I would never have believed that the British people would vote for this,” exclaimed a baffled Labour MP. Such a radical disconnection from the public, even more than immigration or terror, helps to explain the revolt from below implicit in the Brexit vote. Anti-Brexit propaganda featured two themes: a prophecy of economic doomsday if Britain departed from Europe, and an accusation of moral idiocy, of racism and yahooism, lodged against those who advocated departure. These tropes have been resurrected in the wake of the vote. Favorite stories portray Brexit voters regretting their foolish impulse or asking, in confusion, what the EU actually is. But it is the elites who cling to a virginal ignorance about the vast distance separating them from the public. Next time, they are certain to be surprised again.
The fate of Europe is slipping away from the grasp of this purblind and demoralized class. Greece has been kept inside the EU fold at great cost in money and human misery, just because departure was declared to be a cataclysm. But if Brexit is possible, Grexit is a trivial affair. Anti-EU parties of the left, like Podemos in Spain, and of the right, like the French National Front, stand on the threshold of power. Exotic political figures, cast in the mold of Boris Johnson and Marine Le Pen, may soon come into their own, and break what remains of Europe’s crockery. Countries divided on the EU question, like Netherlands, have taken note of the British precedent. There will be calls for more referendums, more division, more exits. From the center of this ramshackle Union, Angela Merkel, dowager empress, gazes on the ruin of all her dreams and works. Her political death is not yet imminent, but she has lost control, and is at the mercy of events.
I am not persuaded that Brexit will trigger the end of the world. The elites will gnash their teeth and rend their garments. That’s a natural reaction, but only from their perspective. Britain will have to endure many adjustments, some of them painful. The world will scarcely notice the change. This is not a question of war or revolution. It’s more like giving up the family’s membership to the country club. The grandees of Europe will be tempted to punish the British for breaking ranks. This is the proper strategy if they wish to keep other countries from bolting, but the blood of the Euro-elites runs thin, and I doubt they have the ruthlessness to pursue it.
The higher meaning of Brexit is as indicator of a great secular reversal. The institutions that bind the world together have entered a process of retreat and disintegration. Since the end of the Second World War, these institutions have taken for granted the virtues of expansion and integration. The Cold War gave this idea the zeal of a crusading faith. The UN had to absorb every mini-nation tossed up by conflict or decolonization. The six-nation Common Market must grow into the 28-nation EU. NATO and the various free trade regimes underwent a similar outward push. The future was to be decided by a sort of institutional manifest destiny.
What has changed is not that a limit has been reached. The underlying reasons for expansion and integration are now totally in doubt. The unspoken assumptions have been exploded. The institutions themselves can be observed staggering about, zombie-like, having lost confidence in their legitimacy and their mission. The end of the Cold War removed any sense of urgency. The decline in prestige of liberal democracy has blocked the last unifying ideal. Powerful centrifugal forces are thus in play. In the Levant, they have shattered that most sacrosanct of institutions: the nation state. The same fate may soon be visited on Europe. It isn’t only Scotland that hopes to exit the UK – Catalonia wants out of Spain, and Flanders would happily tear Belgium in half. The question “On what principle must we stay?” receives a muddled answer, or no answer at all.
A globalized system is held together by shared ideologies and the will of the great powers. But we are now ideologically exhausted, and the last great power, the US, appears exhausted as well. Disintegration is one result of the decadence of this system. That decadence, in turn, is the consequence of massive institutional failure. Britain’s break with the EU may be remembered as a minor grating sound within this long, withdrawing roar.