Lessons from the Brexit Debate

By the time Margaret Thatcher realized that the European Common Market she supported had become a backdoor through which Labour could undo Thatcherism, her political fortunes were on the wane while the forces for greater European integration were gathering steam even within her own political party.  On Thursday, British voters will have an opportunity to achieve what Thatcher could not as they head to polls to decide whether the UK will leave or remain a part of the European Union. Until the tragic murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, the Leave campaign had pulled ahead in the polls and was gaining momentum. Some of the Remain supporters were quick to pounce on reports that the alleged killer shouted “Britain First” while committing his heinous crime — and began insinuating that somehow the Leave camp’s rhetoric was responsible for the crime. Whether this naked attempt to exploit the death of Ms. Cox — an avid supporter of the EU — will succeed in garnering more support for the Remain camp will become clear in the next few days.

Initially, much of the debate surrounding the referendum was focused simply on whether Britain would be better off economically apart from the EU. As a result, the Remain campaign seemed to be on its way to prevailing — not because the British regard the EU a stunning economic success, but rather because it is impossible to know with any degree of certainty the economic impact of Britain going its own way — a classic ‘better the devil you know’ situation. The polls began turning in favor of the Leave camp when the debate shifted and focused on the issue of immigration, and in particular the prospect of Turkey joining the Union and the subsequent opening up of the UK for 80 million Turks to come and go as they please. David Cameron may like to boast that his nation is a shining example of a successful multicultural society, but if polls are to be believed, it seems the British public has had its fill of diversity.


Under the EU doctrine of free movement, the UK has experienced an unprecedented level of immigration. Since 2004, the UK has added 1.25 million to its population — more people than the population of Birmingham. Net migration last year was 333,000, the second-highest level in the history of Great Britain, and it is estimated that by 2024 England’s population will grow by 4 million. Such a rapid growth in population has put pressure on wages, housing, schools, the NHS, and other public services. As the British public raised concerns about the negative impact of immigration, the knee-jerk response from the political class was to label them bigots — much the same way it happens in the United States whenever the subject of illegal immigration is discussed. For some mysterious reason, political elites in the West have decided that local populations must accept uncontrolled immigration even if it means lower quality of life, lower wages, or surrendering their cultural identity — because multiculturalism is apparently inevitable and we want to ‘be on the right side of history.’

Had the political class bothered to seek the consent of the electorate before embarking on this social experiment, perhaps the backlash we are seeing throughout Europe –- as evidenced by the growth of populist parties –- and in the United States –- as evidenced by the rise of Donald Trump –- could have been avoided.  Instead, they chose to impose their decision to replace historical cultures with an untested multicultural ideal. Any debate about the wisdom of this decision is immediately shut down under the noble guise of squeezing racism out of society.  If the UK decides to leave the EU, it would be wise for the political class to learn the lesson that the consent of the people is a deeply ingrained principle in Anglo-Saxon political culture that cannot be erased by simply shouting “racist” or “xenophobe” in the face of even the most reasonable objections.

The UK joined the European Common Market in 1975 when voters overwhelmingly supported joining a trading bloc. The few voices that raised concerns about loss of democracy and national sovereignty were marginalized as paranoid. Fast forward to today, and the UK has lost much control over its borders and fishing waters — and, according to the House of Commons library, as much as half of UK legislation originates with EU bureaucrats. Should Britain choose to stay in the EU, additional powers will likely be transferred to Brussels little by little, rendering Parliament at times little more than a quaint debating society.  It would be instructive for American conservatives to take a closer look at how the blindfold of ‘free trade’ dogma was used to deceptively entice the British people to willingly surrender vital elements of their right to self-government.

After the end of WWII, expectations were that US forces would return home within months, or perhaps a couple of years. As the Cold War kicked off, combined with the weakened state of Western European countries, it soon became apparent that a permanent American presence was necessary — not only to deter a Soviet invasion, but also to prevent an internal social and economic collapse of Western Europe — and thus NATO and the Marshall Plan were born. America also encouraged Europeans to forge closer trading relationships by supporting the Coal and Steel Community, the precursor to the EU, and eventually the EU itself as an additional vehicle for ensuring political stability and prosperity in Europe. In the last decade, however, it has become impossible to avoid the question of whether EU has become a destabilizing force, undermining the very peace and prosperity America created in Europe. Yet our foreign policy establishment is on autopilot and refuses to rethink its support of EU at a time when Europeans, once again, need American leadership to extract them from their latest self-created debacle. One must hope that in time they will learn the lesson that leadership demands more than inertia.