how Brexit is unlike Trump (and what to do about it)

When they think about Brexit, most of my American friends equate it with the election of Donald Trump. Both events are seen as manifestations of xenophobia, paranoia toward elites, and even Russian propaganda.

You can tell that this analogy is weak from the stance of Labour, which is meeting right now for its conference in Liverpool and debating a huge range of motions on Brexit. Yesterday, the Guardian reported:

Consensus appeared to break out as Jeremy Corbyn insisted he would follow the democratic will of his party if delegates voted for a second referendum on the final Brexit deal. But trouble could still be brewing. The Labour leader refused to say which way he would vote. The Unite chief, Len McCluskey, added his tuppence worth, suggesting it would be wrong for any new vote to include the option of staying in the EU. Remainers will be unimpressed.

Last night, after 5.5 hours of negotiation, party leaders emerged with a draft statement that criticizes “the Tories’ chaotic approach to the Brexit negotiations,” calls for a general election, and fudges everything else. Corbyn himself voted against Brexit, but he also voted against the key European treaties of 1975, 1992, and 2008; he has little positive to say about the current EU; and he has frequently pledged to “respect the referendum” that passed Brexit.

Imagine if Bernie Sanders won control of the Democratic Party and refused to say which way he would vote on Trump’s Wall or the refugee ban, while expressing respect for the policy implications of an election held several years ago. That would be plausible if Brexit were like Trump–but it isn’t.

I can’t overstate my own disappointment with the Brexit vote. My commitment to European integration goes back to the 1970s, when I was a child in a London primary school with a literal WWII bomb site next door. The European Economic Community was forming in those days, and we studied each member country in turn–in order to become peaceful, pluralist, democratic Europeans. (By the way, this was a Christian socialist state primary school run on progressive lines.) I’m proudly a citizen of the USA but have remained deeply invested in the ideal of European unity.

However, it is a matter for debate and reasonable disagreement whether the current form of the EU merits membership. One doesn’t have to be a bigot or a fool to want to leave. If you approach politics from the left, you will see both pros and cons to exit.

For Labour politicians, ambiguity is attractive, because they can hope to win votes from both sides on Brexit while blaming the inevitable fiasco on chaotic Tory management.

I happen to believe in what Bill Galston once called “the obligation to play hardball,” and I think a Labour policy of deferring on Brexit until the outcome crushes the Conservatives is possibly a good hardball play (to use a baseball metaphor for the land of cricket).

But it also has risks, even from a Labour perspective:

  1. Constitutional risks: there is now a widespread sentiment in Britain that respecting a referendum is the best way to honor democracy. (And holding a second referendum would somehow undermine the people’s will.) The traditional view was that the British people were best represented by Parliament, which they choose to exercise sovereignty between elections. That is a better political theory, because government should be deliberative and flexible. Parliamentary sovereignty would return if Labour took a clear position against Brexit. No one would doubt that Parliament could overrule the referendum once voters gave Labour a mandate to do so. It would then be equally clear that Britain is heading toward Brexit because the Tories are in the government. Hence there is only one reason that parliamentary sovereignty is at risk: the opposition refuses to take a position on the most pressing issue of the day.
  2. Risks to the European left: many have noted that if Labour takes over and Britain gains the same status as Norway (all the rules without a vote in Brussels), then Europe will lose the strongest potential voice of the left–Corbyn, as the leader of the second-biggest EU economy. The best way for a Labour voter to try to influence all of Europe is to stay in the EU.
  3. Risks to the United Kingdom: the most obvious danger is the collapse of Irish peace due to a hard border. But you can also see pro-European Scotland constantly looking to leave Britain if the UK leaves the EU. There are arguments for Scottish independence, but if you’re a Labour voter (either north or south of the border), you should definitely want to keep all those leftish Scots in the country.
  4. Risks to Labour: I can believe that Britain will sustain a terrible shock from Brexit and that voters will long blame the Tories for it. But will they respect Labour if Labour didn’t oppose Brexit while it had a chance? On the other hand, if the exit goes reasonably well, the Tories will benefit. Thus ambiguity presents electoral risks, not just as benefits, for Labour.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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