The British people have spoken … and lost a lot of credibility.
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
Winston Churchill has been widely quoted, albeit likely erroneously, as having once said that Americans would always do the right thing — after having exhausted all the other choices. I wish I could say the same of the British.
The U.K. vote to leave the European Union is one of the great follies in the modern history of democracy. It sends a chilling message to the people of the United States. Voters — even voters in a country with a long and great tradition of democracy informed by a world-class education system and information resources — are capable of tremendous stupidity.
In Scotland, the news inspired the dumpster fire that is the GOP presumptive nominee for president to flash one of his disturbingly overly whitened grins. It’s just the kind of collective idiocy on which his candidacy depends. So he took a break from promoting one of his golf courses to explain how pleased he was with a development that significantly weakens the U.K., the EU, and thereby America’s most important alliance while also undercutting the global economy. (To be completely fair and balanced, Trump’s foreign policy had its first major success today when he was actually able to find Scotland on a map.) Let’s hope he understands real estate development better than he understands foreign policy —although there is plenty of evidence to the contrary in that realm as well.
As markets already began to demonstrate within minutes of learning that the worst was happening in the U.K., leaving the European Union will be a financial calamity not only for the British people, but also for hapless victims in markets worldwide. The pound, British real estate markets, stock markets, investment flows, and countless other economic indicators will collapse. With them will go jobs, growth rates, and hope. A recession may follow. Certainly a decline in British relevance will accompany them. Not only will it lose economic and political clout, but Scotland and Northern Ireland may do their own Brexits, ditching the formerly united kingdom that has long been their home. (This raises the delightful possibility that even as Trump gloats, his golf course will soon not actually be in Great Britain and in fact, will become part of the EU.)
The few positive consequences of the shocking vote will be lower prices for scotch and, um, I don’t know, Cadbury cream eggs? I mean, if there were products we still bought from Britain they would be cheaper. Which is to say if you’re looking for a silver lining here, it’s going to be hard to find one. Perhaps if you are patient, the horrific consequences of this move will bring to the U.K. economy will someday demonstrate conclusively that those supporting a Brexit were nitwits. But by then it will be too late. Bre-entry will be on people’s lips soon enough, but the damage will have been done.
That this could happen in the wake of the brutal murder of a promising young British politician by a right-wing maniac Brexit supporter is nauseating. That it came in the wake of massive warnings from markets and experts worldwide that the costs would be enormous is disappointing. That it came in a country full of people who were literate enough to read even a little bit about what it might cost the U.K. to leave the EU is deeply unsettling.
Is this the end of the British empire? No, that came with the collapse of colonialism in the wake of World War II. Instead it is the further marginalization of a once-great power. Today, Britain is not part of the world’s largest economic bloc. It has an army that is not much larger than the New York Police Department. It has weak leaders (and has just elevated into a top role a nationalist, racist demagogue, Nigel Farage, further discrediting the political process in the home country of “the mother of parliaments.”)
Is it however a sign that the current global distrust of institutions may produce further disruptions? Yes it is. More exits from the EU or the elevation of more nationalist leaders across that continent? Yes. Is it also a substantive blow to the EU as well and an indictment of the lousy job that leaders in Brussels have done convincing member states of the value of the institution? Yes.
Is it an encouraging sign for Donald Trump?
Well, he will think it is. After all, as noted above, it was good for Britain’s leading racist nationalist demagogue, why not for America’s? And Lord knows you will see a mass of columns written in the next few days saying that because experts were surprised by the Brexit vote and because it depended on the alienation of voters, incipient nationalism, and the appeal of rabble-rousing populists that somehow this necessarily implies Trump is boosted by it. (After all, the Brexit was also supported by a blowhard with bad hair — in the person of former London Mayor Boris Johnson.)
But the reality is that what is happening in the U.K., while sharing some characteristics with the pro-Trump movement, does not change the electoral math in the United States that has even leading GOP publications like the Weekly Standard concluding that Trump’s election is nearly impossible. It does not change the fact that Trump has an opponent far more skillful and resourceful than David Cameron and the “remain” faction had in the U.K. Demography favors that opponent, Hillary Clinton — and as of this week’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to let stand a ruling blocking U.S. President Barack Obama’s immigration reforms, it has now been made even clearer to a large segment of America’s Latino population that a GOP win would be an existential issue for their families.
Trump can’t win the U.S. presidential election. He may get close. The kind of anger and alienation that also led to the “leave” vote in the U.K. may fuel his candidacy and this catastrophe in Great Britain may raise the hopes of Trump and his supporters. But, you see, there is a big difference between these two issues. Britain is not only declining, it also seems to be a country committed to accelerating that decline. America remains the richest and most powerful nation on Earth despite what Trump’s promise to make this country “great again” might suggest. The stakes are too high to allow the Trump clown show to take its national tour all the way to the White House.
And then, of course, there is that likely apocryphal but nonetheless perceptive analysis attributed to a great leader who dates to the last days that Britain was still Great — and that, of course, is Churchill. He’s right. We may explore other possibilities — possibilities like Trump has presented in primary elections. But in the end — in this case, in the general election in November — as we have done often in the past, we will likely rise to the occasion and end up doing the right thing.
In this case, that means that while we in America also have our nationalists and demagogues, we are once again on a divergent path from our mother country, the one whose empire began to fall, when America decided to leave it. Perhaps among other things our founding fathers had the foresight to see there would someday be devastating days like this Thursday coming for the leadership in London and for the people of the not so Great Britain, not likely to be a United Kingdom … or even a consequential one … for much longer.
Photo credit: OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images