I have not written a blog in some time — events crowd too quickly, today’s news is forgotten and overshadowed by the next jaw-dropping events, so how to blog about what’s already forgotten? Yet Brexit stays with us, the event looming ever closer on the horizon, but with still too few understanding it.

Brexit is an oddity, and yet is totally natural. On the one hand, EU membership has helped Britain retain a global voice and adjust to the loss of empire and relative stature compared to other states by becoming part of the largest and richest entity in the Western world. The EU has a GDP on par with that of the US, and a population larger than the US and Japan combined. By being part of, and setting direction for, the EU, the UK has a global voice. On its own, with a population that is 1/5th that of the US and half that of Japan, and a GDP that is 1/8th that of the US and 1/7th that of China, the UK sinks into global irrelevance. Yet Brexit is presented by its supporters as a way to make Britain great again.

Yet on the other hand, Brexit is totally natural for our time. We are in the age of demagogues: whether it is the vulgar Trump presidency or nationalist heroes from Erdogan and Duterte to Orban and Bolsonaro, the message of the people is “We want something very different, more comfortable and secure: our elites have delivered us to the false gods of globalization and open immigration and we have suffered – save us!” And demagogues have responded by saying “Let’s sweep away the false gods of international cooperation, globalization, and open immigration, and while we do it let us not be too sentimental about other elite concerns like democracy, global human rights, or international brotherhood. I will fight for you by making our richest people even richer, and making everyone else ashamed to challenge or insult our great nation!”

And so Brexit is the understandable British voice in the global demagogic chorus: “We want a return to the days when Britain was the empire that made the world’s rules, not beholden to some faceless technocrats in Brussels.” Of course, to do that one would have to rewind world history to a time when British technology and naval power dominated the world, India was a colony, China and Russia were imperial relics, the US was not a great power, and France and Germany were nearly constantly at war with each other. Other countries are not very likely to cooperate in returning to that status quo ante! So Britain and its demagogues will likely pursue this impossible dream, repeating the error of Christopher Columbus and sailing westward to solve their problems with the East; but in this case they really may sail off the(economic) cliff at the end!

The logical thing is for the leaders of Britain — Tory and Labor — to be honest and say: Brexit was sold to Britain with lies and foreign funding in part by enemies who want to weaken us. The Brexit you were promised — full independence from the EU with a financial windfall while keeping all the benefits of freedom of travel, investment, and trade — was a total fiction, the equivalent of being offered a living unicorn under the Christmas tree. Yes, it was attractive, but it was never really possible, and we have driven ourselves nearly mad, and our Parliament and government into global disrepute and ridicule, by insisting it is somehow real. Let us be wise and address the REAL problems of the EU: Faceless bureaucrats DO have too much power; the mechanisms of the EU DO have a real democratic deficit; the financial structure of the EU is too weak, and the tangle of regulations too strong, to assure Europe’s future. And yes, we do need a better common immigration policy, and we will fight for that. So let us stay in the EU, address its real problems, and continue to enjoy the prosperity and security that the EU and its expansion across all of Europe has given us.

Unfortunately, such ennobling leadership is itself a fantasy these days. The demagogues have the upper hand, for the moment. And in such times, we likely will have to pay the price before a less delusional and more rational policy becomes widely appealing.

About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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