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Why Hasn't Brexit Happened?

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Christopher Caldwell

Summer 2019

Incoming British prime minister Boris Johnson’s first address to the House of Commons on July 25 coincided with the arrival of a heat wave so devastating it sparked talk of a global-warming apocalypse. Steam rose out of the Thames, overhead electrical wires melted on the London-Luton train line, and the Cambridge University Botanic Garden registered the highest temperature (102° F) in the history of the British isles. Naturally there was joking among political pundits about “hot air” and a government “meltdown,” but there were darker grumblings, too. This was a descent into “populism,” one could read in the pages of the Guardian, the Independent, and papers from the European continent. That the Conservative Johnson had moved into the prime ministerial townhouse at 10 Downing Street meant that Britain was now under the control of a “clown,” a “saboteur,” or, worse, the British equivalent of U.S. president Donald Trump.

Whether one backed the antic, mop-haired Johnson or not, it was obvious at a glance that he exhibited none of the traits that the adjective “populist” is usually meant to evoke. Eton- and Oxford-educated, he has been a foreign correspondent, the editor of the venerable weekly the Spectator, the mayor of London, and, until his resignation in 2018, foreign secretary. The real grounds for elite hostility toward him lay elsewhere: Johnson came to office promising—“do or die,” as he put it—that the government would honor its commitment to withdraw the United Kingdom from the 28-nation European Union on October 31. In a long-sought 2016 referendum, British voters had approved this British exit, or “Brexit.” At a time when British politicians of all establishment parties had stood against Brexit in almost unbroken solidarity, Johnson had made himself its most prominent backer.


Imagine how it strikes a man who has spent decades working for the E.U. dream—Tony Blair or Donald Tusk, for instance—to see his work likened to “collaboration.” Special place in hell, indeed! Those who sought the Brexit referendum placed a proposition before the British electorate that these self-styled architects of “Europe,” these idealists, had been, all along, not Europe’s Madisons but its Quislings. Worse, when that proposition was placed before the British people, they assented to it.

Brexit was not an “outburst” or a cry of despair or a message to the European Commission. It was an eviction notice. It was an explicit withdrawal of the legal sanction under which Brussels had governed Europe’s most important country. If it is really Britain’s wish to see its old constitutional arrangements restored, then this notice is open to emendation and reconsideration. But as things stand now, the Leave vote made E.U. rule over the U.K. illegitimate. Not illegitimate only when Brussels has been given one last chance to talk Britain out of it, but illegitimate now. What Britons voted for in 2016 was to leave the European Union—not to ask permission to leave the European Union. It is hard to see how Britain’s remaining in the E.U. would benefit either side.

And yet, given that Britain is the first country to issue such an ultimatum, given that pro-E.U. elites in other European countries have reason to fear its replication, given the moral ambitions of the E.U. project, given that the British who support Remain have transferred their sentiments and their allegiances across the channel, given the social disparity between those who rule the E.U. and most of those who want to leave it, how could the reaction of Britain’s establishment be anything but all-out administrative, judicial, economic, media, political, and parliamentary war? The battle against Brexit is being fought, Europe-wide, with all the weaponry a cornered elite has at its disposal.

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