This morning in Ireland, we got the same screaming-headline news as everyone else—the pound crashing, the UK prime minister resigning, and so on. To my acquaintances here, though—bus drivers, clerks, and farmers—the news is not an abstraction. They wonder how this will affect their visas, their UK relatives, their pensions, banks, next car, and all the burning minutiae of daily life.
My friends in London, Italy, and France are all doing the same; the economies are so deeply intertwined that untangling them will take years. Imagine how Louisianans would be affected by a “Texit,” and you have some idea how it feels. As an American here, I also wonder if it makes Donald Trump’s election look more likely.
It wouldn’t cause a Trump victory, of course, but perhaps presage it. The UK has often been just a little ahead of the USA; Thatcher preceded Reagan, and Corbyn preceded Sanders. Moreover, Brexit supporters share a lot in common with Trump supporters, in both demographics and frustrations.
The UK and USA are global powers somewhat in decline, with the UK obviously some decades ahead. Both powers saw a flood of Third World immigrants in recent decades—in Europe especially, with millions of refugees escaping the war-torn Middle East—competing for jobs and causing tension among working-class natives. Both countries took part in the same Middle East wars and suffered the same Great Recession—which are supposedly over, but with loved ones still dead and many working people still unemployed.
Both populist movements promise to make their country great again, toss aside foreign entanglements, reduce immigration, and bring back local industry. Both movements are called “far-right,” but are more about class—and in both countries, the elites of both major parties, along with the media, opposed and underestimated them until the last moment. In both countries the debate turned venomous, even violent, with protesters clashing with Trump supporters in the USA and a pro-EU member of Parliament shot and stabbed to death last week in the UK.
Now that the vote is over, as Daniel Larison pointed out, much will depend on how bitter the divorce settlement will be—but this decision could also trigger a lot of other dominoes.
For one thing, this could well be the end of Britain after 300 years. The BBC’s county vote map shows the divide; outside of London, English counties almost entirely voted to leave the EU, while Scottish counties chose to stay. The scheduling of the Scottish independence vote two years ago could not have been accidental; many Euro-advocates hoped a close call would frighten Britain into remaining in the EU—it didn’t. As the leader of the Scottish separatist movement put it a few months ago, if the UK leaves Europe, Scotland is likely to leave the UK. (Britain is England plus Scotland, Wales, and a few islands. The UK is all those plus Northern Ireland.)
Here in Ireland we have the same questions as the rest of Europe, only more so—the UK is our main trading partner. And we have a unique reason to be wary; we fought a thousand-year conflict with our neighbor, which came to an end only in the 1990s. Since that time, along a border once patrolled by paramilitary units, a generation of Irish have grown up traveling between North and South without even flashing a passport. Now, though, Northern Ireland voted much as Scotland did, with a majority wanting to remain European; if Scotland goes, they might want to leave as well.
In Ireland, meanwhile, voters had their own populist moment earlier this year and elected a near-majority of third parties and independents. Chief among them is Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, and if this anti-establishment trend continues they could lead the next government. That doesn’t mean they would resume their old violent ways—they have spent decades working hard to be a respectable political party, and their younger members are too young to even remember the terrorism of the 1970s and 80s—but within hours of the vote, they did renew their call for Irish reunification.
How the rest of Europe will handle this remains to be seen—they are left holding several unenviable crises, including sky-high Mediterranean unemployment and a million refugees a year flooding into the continent. Right now, the rest of the world is shaking its head at Britons’ apparent foolishness, and half the UK is doing the same. For the other half, though, this is their independence day, the moment they can remake their country in their image.
This November 9, we’ll see if my native USA looks the same.
Brian Kaller has written for Front Porch Republic, First Things, The Old Schoolhouse, Mother Earth News, and Grit. He writes from his home in rural Ireland and blogs at www.restoringmayberry.blogspot.com.