I have just returned from teaching in our SMU-in-London program, and we had another very productive five weeks. It was a pleasant visit, with the notable exception of the London Bridge terror attack in our first days in London. The SMU-in-London program involves about 40 students, mostly from the communication arts programs. I have for some years taught a course in British media where we look at the history and current state of the news media in London. The newspapers, always entertaining and highly politicized, have given substantial coverage to the Brexit issue that began last year. In June of 2016 the vote was 52%-48% for the UK to leave the European Union. It was a shocking result. Pollsters generally had it wrong in the weeks before the vote, and there was also the shock result of widely perceived anger and populism, agreeing with much of the analysis of the 2016 vote that made Donald Trump president. My British media students studied the issue in relation to the corresponding positions taken by the seven or eight key newspapers in London. The second assignment for the semester was for the students to write a newspaper editorial of 1,000 words either encouraging full speed ahead on Brexit or, if they thought Brexit was a bad idea, encouraging another vote.
In the aftermath of the vote last year, Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservative Party stepped down since he had urged a remain vote. His resignation paved the way for Theresa May to become prime minister. In March, she triggered Article 50, which began the formal two-year process for negotiations to withdraw the UK from the EU. This means that by March of 2019, British membership in the EU will end. Various EU officials have made much noise about how much the exit will cost the British in terms of exit fees, and also how difficult the negotiations will be for the UK to maintain any trade or economic benefits from the EU.
What follows are, in no particular order, a few observations from someone who follows British politics pretty closely and has observed the Brexit situation as it has developed over the last five or six years.
- I heard much outrage from Americans regarding the Brexit vote. It pretty much paralleled the opinions about the people who voted for Donald Trump. Namely, that they generally are unsophisticated rubes who just don’t understand the larger picture. That attitude is, in my opinion, one of the many reasons Hillary Clinton was such as disaster as a Democratic nominee for president, and a good reason why Brexit is in process. There are many good reasons to have voted for Brexit. Immigration became an emotional issue in the weeks before the vote. The liberal press in London tended to brand the sentiment racist. Yet, the issue is complex, and immigration has created difficult questions for the UK government, especially in London. And it stands to reason, at least to me, that a sovereign nation should be able to make decisions regarding control of its borders, and not have those decisions made by a centralized government in Brussels. The same goes for legal issues regarding the rights of criminal defendants. Now, had I been a citizen of the UK, I would have cast a vote to remain in the EU. But I also would have strongly urged the British government to take back several key issues dealing with sovereignty, immigration among them. My friend Elizabeth Palmer of CBS News in London makes a very good point about how elections seem to be framed these days. Whatever the issue or the candidates, Liz said, “The real question is, ‘Are you pissed off?’ Check. And the candidate or the referendum result that corresponds with that sentiment will usually win.”
- I believe the size and scope of government in the United States was a key consideration for Donald Trump’s narrow victory. I believe the size and scope of the EU’s bureaucracy and eagerness to regulate were key factors in the Brexit vote. In the days leading up to the vote last year, the conservative press played up the costs of the bureaucracy. There were some incorrect figures used about the weekly cost of membership paid by the British government. But there were also stories about the lavish lifestyles enjoyed by the members of the European Union Parliament and the bureaucrats occupying key positions. Expensive travel and meal allowances are the norm. Generous staffing and office supply budgets, including daily Champagne, were noted. One can easily understand the reasons these luxuries don’t sit well with London cab drivers. Last year one of the many fascinating Brexit stories I saw on the BBC was a piece detailing the EU regulations on strawberries. The piece noted EU regulations that called for very specific size, texture and color of strawberries. There are even regulations regarding the color and size of the stem. Strawberries have been grown in England for more than 500 years. Strawberries and cream were first put together during the court of Henry VIII. And the strawberries in England are superb. Does anyone really need to tell the Brits about how strawberries should look and taste?
- David Cameron was re-elected in 2015, promising to hold a referendum on Brexit. After taking office when Cameron resigned, Theresa May held a solid Conservative Party majority in Parliament and did not have to stand for re-election until 2020. However, leading nicely over rival parties in the polls and apparently wanting an even stronger Conservative majority in Parliament, she called a snap election that was held the first week in June. A bigger majority would have given her a stronger mandate to negotiate Brexit on her terms. The campaign went badly, and this is where things got “cocked up.” Cocked up is a fascinating British expression, and for Americans it is generally assumed to have somewhat of an obscene meaning. Not necessarily so, as the meaning and origin of the phrase make clear. In any case, Theresa May ran a campaign about as bad as Hillary Clinton’s. One of the biggest blunders was what came to be branded by the Labor Party as the dementia tax. The current Labor Party leader is Jeremy Corbin, an avowed socialist who had a completely undistinguished career in Parliament for more than 30 years before the Labor Party, in a solid defeat to David Cameron in 2015, took a hard left turn and made him leader. Corbin, to his credit, was bold and articulate in the campaign, completely the opposite of Theresa May. He promised lavish spending, including tuition-free university education and bigger budgets for the National Health Service, that the government could not possibly afford. But no matter. The Conservatives’ number of seats fell short of a majority, and now May has had to grovel for a confidence and supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. This simply means May will have the 10 votes of the DUP on key votes in Parliament and can continue to govern. May’s grip on the government is tenuous. The Brexit negotiations will be slippery. Another major “cock up” and she could be subject to a call for a vote of no confidence. And that’s where things could really be interesting.
As Donald Trump continues to navigate uncharted territory in U.S. politics as well as historically low popularity numbers, we are not alone in the world. Our best ally is in a similar mess.