Two days after this article was posted, the Brexiters defied expectations, and won.
The campaign to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union, widely known as “Brexit,” is potentially on the verge of a huge victory Thursday despite overwhelming opposition in the media and among the corporate and political establishment. The outcome matters not just as an expression of arcane British insularity, but as evidence of a growing rebellion against the ever greater consolidation and concentration of power now occurring across all of Europe, as well as here in the United States.
In many ways, this rebellion’s antecedents include our own revolution, which sought to overturn a distant, and largely unaccountable, bureaucracy. Like Lord North, George III’s prime minister, today’s Eurocratic elites spoke of obligations and fealty to the wisdom of the central imperium. What shocked the centralizers then, and once again today, was the temerity of the governed to challenge the precepts of their betters.
None of this suggests that Brexit will win this time around, given the massive odds of overcoming so much concentrated establishment power, and the reaction to the brutal slaying of a prominent, pro-EU Labor MP by a deranged neo-Nazi (is there any other kind?). But the fact that the anti-EU rebels have gotten this far (after the Brexiters had surged ahead, polls now show the country evenly split) suggests a growing desire to overturn hyper-centralization with a return to self-government and local control.
Given the grisly history of internecine warfare on the old continent , the idea of European integration initially had a certain appealing logic. And indeed the early years of integration promised much: greater prosperity, adherence to democracy and even a guarantee that Europe would retain a powerful voice in the world economy and politics. That promise has faded, as Europe remains locked in what appears a more or less permanent cycle of secular decline and stagnation.
Over the past decade, the EU has lagged in terms of both growth and innovation even by our mediocre standards. The EU’s poor performance is recognized well beyond Britain’s borders. Today more than 60 per cent of French voters now hold an unfavorable view of the Union while almost half the electorate in Germany, Spain and the Netherlands have also become Euroskeptic, notes a recent Pew study. In all, these countries’ rejection of the “European project” is even greater than in the UK’s.
Rather than embrace a greater Europe bolstered by millions of newcomers, most Europeans now reject such demographic engineering. This sentiment has been rising, most portentously, among Europe’s diminished youth.
These sentiments help explain the rise in support for Brexit. Much of Britain’s hard-pressed middle and working classes are disturbed by the current record immigration, much of it from other EU countries, which has occurred despite Prime Minister David Cameron’s repeated promises to reduce its growth.
To this phenomena, one has to consider the recent EU sanctioned mass migration from the Middle East. This can be seen as not just an economic threat, but one that could undermine the hard-won rights achieved women and gays. The language spoken by the Eurocrats may seem liberal and progressive, but their effects on the ground seem profoundly both illiberal and authoritarian, as societies are forced to adapt to the quasi-medieval codes of the newcomers, notably in such matters as separating men and women in public pools.
In terms of immigration, populist anger is most powerful in the poorer countries, such as in Eastern Europe, and among the already beleaguered working class in the more prosperous north. Despite Labour’s support for both large scale immigration and the EU, a recent YouGov poll finds the majority of working-class Brits favor leaving.
This growing opposition also stems from growing resentment of an unaccountable, and often haughty, bureaucracy that seeks to impose regulation on everything from the borders to the schools, planning, environment policy, and, perhaps most insulting of all, laws that control the production and distribution of such critical European products as alcohol and cheese. Climate change regulations imposed from Brussels also threaten to further weaken the middle class, even making car ownership too expensive for most drivers.
The European and British rebellions have clear parallels here in the United States. If there is any consistent theme to the current Administration, it has been implicit embrace of the European model. This includes the massive expansion both of executive branch regulatory power and a relentless, ever growing assault on the traditional rights of states and local communities to control their own fates.
President Obama’s use of executive orders, much in the image of the EU bureaucracy, has enhanced federal power into many areas once was the purview of localities, such as public education and transportation, land use and, most absurdly, the regulation of bathroom access. Ultimately, every state, city or town may find—as is already the case in Europe—that their future lies in the hands of distant bureaucracies , in this case HUD, the EPA, and other federal agencies.
As is increasingly true in Europe, the vaunting of the leviathan does not reflect popular will. According to numerous surveys, Americans now fear their own government more than they do than outside threats. In contrast, some 72 percent of Americans, according to Gallup, trust their local governments more than their state institutions. Even millennials, who maintain liberal positions on issues such as immigration and gay marriage, generally favor of community-based, local solutions to key problems. “Millennials are on a completely different page than most politicians in Washington, DC,” notes pollster John Della Volpe. “This is a more cynical generation when it comes to political institutions.”
This rebellion against ever increasingly centralized power—what might be called “fashionable fascism”—is just beginning. It does not reside solely on the far right. Many on the left embrace the ideal of localism as a reaction against globalization and domination by large corporations. Grassroots progressives often embrace the idea of purchasing from local merchants and relying on locally produced agricultural products as an environmental win, and a form of resistance to ever-greater centralized big business control.
Of course, prevailing progressive opinion on both sides of the Atlantic embraces central control, often in the form of favor of a “technocracy” determining energy, economic and land use policies. If the technocrats get their way, we can expect policies aimed at limiting the mundane pleasures of the middle class such as affordable electricity, cheap air travel, cars, and single-family housing.
One might hope that progressives who favor the concentration of power when their side is in power might rethink matters if central power were invested in the likes of Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, or France’s Marine Le Pen. After all, Vladimir Putin is an elected leader who has shown how power can be in profoundly illiberal ways.
So let’s hear it for Brexit, or at least the spirit that animates it: a desire to regain control of our lives, families and communities. What we need —- as the British increasingly demand —- is tolerance for diverse forms of expression and governance, allowing people, as much as is feasible, to choose how to live. As even the French, who invented modern centralization, increasingly recognize: vive la difference!