Brexit is one of the most historically significant events of recent times. It was the precursor to Trump, it heralded the populist movement across Europe, and it was the first moment the world realized that the ideology of globalism was not a fixed fate, inescapable and unstoppable.
When we read history, more often than not, we focus on the events and the great happenings. We contemplate and wonder at the surrounding circumstance, and question how these things got started, what was the impetus to the historical event? We know the players, we know the dates and the number of people involved, but we rarely hear of the motivations, or at least what the primary cause of said motivation might be. Not so with Brexit.
Britain has seen three prime ministers, two General Elections, and three and a half years of arguments from either side of this political divide since the public voted to leave. It was a campaign fought even after the votes were counted. This may seem familiar to our American audience. President Trump won in 2016, and yet there are swathes of the political and media class who just do not accept the reality: This is Brexit country.
As Britain prepares to bid a not-so-fond farewell to the European Union, I want to walk you through the timeline of events from Britain joining what was billed as little more than a simple trade arrangement. And we’ll go all the way through to the E.U. becoming a monolithic government that commanded nations in what laws they must implement and what border controls, if any, they were permitted. Finally, we’ll see how Britain broke free of an organization that would be a country.
The Back Story: Clashes and Confrontations
In 1973, Britain joined the European Communities (E.C.), which was a fairly simple trade organization made up of just eight other countries, including France and Germany. Then, in 1975, the E.C. developed to become what is today known as the Common Market or ECC. Membership of the ECC would require certain laws and regulations to be made in the increasingly political body and not in Westminster, in order to have regulatory alignment. A referendum was held to see if the people of Britain wished to continue. The result was an overwhelming yes.
However, as the years went on, more and more changes to the structure of this trading organization took place that required a handing over of national sovereignty. The trading bloc grew, adding new European countries to its ranks. Treaties were signed by the governments of the day each time they arose that handed power to Brussels and took it away from the British parliament. These treaties turned a trading arrangement into what is today known as the European Union (E.U.). Many thought this was a price worth paying to be part of a large trading bloc.
But not everyone.
A Euro-Skeptic movement began around the same time that the E.U. was pressuring Britain to adopt the Euro as its currency and to do away with the Pound Sterling. The skeptics – or “mad, swivel-eyed loons” as the PM described them – argued that a trade deal was not worth handing over law-making abilities to what was fast becoming a foreign government and that Britain should have control over its own laws, currency, and immigration policy.
It took over 20 years of campaigning, but electoral pressure from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), then headed by Nigel Farage, forced PM David Cameron to offer an In/Out referendum on continued membership of the E.U. if he won the 2015 General Election with an outright majority.
Cameron, who was then leading a minority government in coalition with the Liberal Democrat Party, believed there was little chance he would gain an outright majority, but that the promise of a referendum would at least put himself and his Conservative Party back in power. The nation was stunned by the result.
A Brexit Referendum
Far from just winning the election, because of Cameron’s promise on the referendum, he was catapulted back to Westminster with a large majority and was beholden to the voters to deliver on his promise.
All leaders of the main political parties campaigned for Britain to remain part of the European Union. Nigel Farage, UKIP, and several grassroots movements campaigned to leave in a David and Goliath campaign. On June 23, 2016, the public went to the ballot boxes. The vast majority of polling predicted that the Remain side would win, and it wasn’t until the results started coming in that David Cameron realized he had made a huge miscalculation.
The final result was 52% to leave and 48% to remain. Of the 650 voting constituencies in the U.K., over 400 voted to part ways with the E.U. It was the largest single vote for anything in the history of the country.
In the wake of the historic result, Cameron first attempted to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership in hopes that this would be enough to satiate the Brexiteers. The E.U., perhaps believing that no country would ever actually leave, reacted arrogantly, offering nothing more than sops. The PM returned to Britain humiliated.
Because PM Cameron had campaigned to Remain in the E.U., he felt he should not be the person responsible for taking Britain out. A leadership election was held in the Conservative Party, and Theresa May became the new prime minister. However, May did not seem to have the support, or perhaps the will, to complete Brexit.
The country remained divided between those who won the referendum and those who wanted to ignore the vote and carry on as before. PM May was unable to pass any legislation in Parliament, and without support, could not govern; another leadership election was called. Boris Johnson handily won this race and challenged the opposition Labour Party to agree to a General Election.
In the U.K., the Fixed-Term Parliament Act prevents calling an election unless a two-thirds majority of MPs vote for one, or the standard five-year term period expires.
Labour, under leader Jeremy Corbyn, was initially hesitant to agree to an election as his party’s stated position was to try and remain in the E.U. After much back and forth, mocking and threats, an election was agreed to, and Boris Johnson, running on a platform of “Get Brexit Done,” won a resounding landslide.
Britain leaves today, but this does not mean that the relationship is entirely over. During the next year, parliament will negotiate with E.U. leaders to determine if some kind of trade arrangement can be reached. So far, the E.U. is asking for what’s known as a “level playing field,” which in reality means political and legal alignment on rules and regulations. Boris Johnson has ruled this out, suggesting that it is this alignment that began Brexit in the first place.
If at the end of 2020 no trade arrangement is reached, Britain will revert to trading on World Trade Organization terms, no different to any other country outside of the E.U. Whether PM Johnson wins another election will depend on how well he manages these negotiations.
Perhaps we can, after looking at the story of Brexit, understand why we so seldom have a complete overview of historical events – and why it’s so difficult to hand over a complete package wrapped in a nice little bow and say, ”look, here’s this segment of history and all you need to know.” Perhaps it’s because these events that shape the future of nations are never truly over.
Brexit has happened, Donald Trump won, but the story goes on. What happens today will have major consequences for the next 20 years, 200 years, or perhaps even more. Brexit was the spark that lit the flame of a populist resurgence around the globe. We see it in Europe, we see it in the U.S., and it will rage until all people can honestly say that they are truly, finally, free.
Read more from Mark Angelides.