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What motivated ‘leave’ voters in Brexit?

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In the wake of the British vote to leave the European Union, many are wondering what led the majority of voters to affirm the Brexit. In his commentary Brexit: Against the Political Class, Samuel Gregg points out a common element in all of the motivations behind the “Leave” decision: a frustration with established career politicians. Gregg writes:

The reasons why a majority of British voters decided that their nation was better off outside the European Union were many and not always in sync. They range from those angry at successive British governments’ failure to maintain sovereign-borders, free-marketers who like immigration but regard bloc-economies like the EU as passé in a global economy, to those unhappy with British laws being supplanted by top-down directives mandated from Brussels. But if there is one theme that united the “Leave” forces, it was animus against the political class.

Perhaps one of President Barack Obama’s biggest mistakes (and an error of those “Remainers” who wanted him to speak against Brexit) was to imagine that his urging Britain to stay in the EU would somehow boost the “Remain” case. If anything, the President’s intervention—along with those of people like Martin Schulz, the President of the European Parliament, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission—probably helped the “Leave” campaign. For people like Obama, Schulz, and Juncker (not to mention David Cameron) are increasingly viewed as part of the problem: as individuals who have done nothing with their lives except be career politicians and who have difficulty hiding their disdain for anyone who’s even mildly critical of the EU and, by extension, any number of transnational organizations and their largely unaccountable bureaucracies that happen to be populated by individuals who fit the same profile as people like Cameron, Obama, Schulz and Juncker.

I am skeptical that the European political class (a group that transcends Europe’s center-right/center-left party-political divide) will learn many lessons from Brexit. Any creative thinking that challenges the left-liberal consensus prevailing in such circles is generally unwelcome. The joint press-release issued by Juncker, Schulz, European Council President Donald Tusk and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in response to Britain’s decision will remind some of Talleyrand’s alleged quip about the Bourbons: “They have learned nothing, and forgotten nothing.”

Gregg also considers the direction Britain will take as the process of leaving the EU unfolds and the importance of the next decisions the leaders of the “Leave” movement will make.

 The more significant question will be the direction taken by those who have lead the UK out of the EU. It is one thing to know what you are against, quite another to articulate what you are for.

In that regard, splendid isolation for Britain isn’t an option. Nor did the Leave side ever propose it. That’s partly because of the City of London’s unique place in the world’s financial architecture but also because (1) economic nationalism isn’t in the UK’s public interest and (2) Britain remains an important part of the West in general and Europe in particular—a Europe which shouldn’t be casually conflated with the EU. Yes, all these points may be hard to make in a populist age. But they must be made, robustly and intelligently, if Britain’s choice to exit the EU is to become a true exercise in what that great Irish parliamentarian Edmund Burke called ordered liberty.

Read the full commentary and other commentaries from “Everything Will Chance, Everything Has Changed: A Brexit Symposium” here.

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Mimi Teixeira

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