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Dis-United Kingdom: The Trouble With Brexit

By David Malcolm

When the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union back in June 2016, it set off a chain reaction that left the country just as divided as their American cousins. While it has been mostly overshadowed by Trump on the global stage, it’s an issue that the UK is still grappling with and coming up short. Leaving a trading bloc made up of 28 different countries after over 40 years is no small matter and it is slowly dawning on the UK government that Brexit will be the most complex and difficult set of negotiations in its long history.

Americans might be slightly confused at what is actually going on and, in all fairness, almost everyone involved in this Herculean task is right there with them. Trying to untangle Brexit and understand the major divisions is much like trying to understand Trump’s surprise victory and his impact on American society. However, both have much in common.

Taking Back Control?

In one sense, Brexit shares a common thread with Trump: nostalgia. In his early campaign speeches, Trump hearkened back to a ‘golden age’ for America and promised to make things happen. He appealed to those who felt left behind by unfair trade deals, the collapse of once-booming industries like steelworks and coal-mining and fast-changing cultural and societal shifts. His promises were part-doomsday and part-sentimentality, often far-fetched but radically different while his anti-establishment tone struck a chord. Thus he was elected, but barely.

The Brexit referendum was almost just the same. Those supporting Remain were like supporters of Hilary Clinton: offering a rational solution that they couldn’t whole-heartedly support or defend. The main argument was economic and painted a doom and gloom picture. The Leave side, on the other hand, was golden promises. More money for a beloved NHS! Control over immigration! Taking control from Europe and back to Parliament!

It worked and Leave won by a merely 2% margin. A narrow victory for a side that was expected to lose and suddenly realized that they had no idea what they were doing. In fact, if you want an idea of how badly Brexit is going, look at Trump and you’ll get a fair idea of how Britain feels right now.

The Great Immigration Debate

One of the clinching arguments for the Leave side was the idea of unchecked immigration, of millions of foreigners flooding into Britain, of Syrian refugees clogging up Britain’s services which they didn’t deserve. The prospect of Turkey joining the EU was seen as heralding a flood of Turkish immigrants onto Britain’s shores. Leaving the EU was the only way to taking back control of Britain’s borders, so the argument went.
It was crass, it was deeply unsettling and it mirrored much of what Trump had (and has) said, even if it didn’t line up with reality. Even the death of an elected Member of Parliament Jo Cox by a far-right extremist, the first such death since 1990, did little to change the tone of the argument. It was a major moral victory for far-right agitators who felt their stance was vindicated with the referendum victory.

However, the EU referendum also exposed the reality that, much like the USA, the diversity was what made Britain great. A huge proportion of doctors and nurses within the NHS were foreign-born and following the result, many have decided to quit, leaving a large gap that the government has been slow to recognize. Farmers have seen crops fall short as fruit-pickers from the EU decided not to turn up after the referendum result while some industries fear a mass exodus just before Britain leaves the EU next year.

The issue over the rights of EU nationals has devolved into a game of who blinks first with 3 million Europeans living in the UK being used as bargaining chips, a situation in which ‘Dreamers’ can very much relate to. Some have even started to realize the truth: Britain had always had control over its own borders. The fault lay not with the EU but with their own politicians and that the crass arguments made two years ago were incorrect.

Trump and Brexit were exercises in hatred winning out over logic and understanding. They whipped up a frenzy on a population ignorant of the true facts, encouraged extremist ideas and, in the latter case, contributed to the death of an elected representative.

Divided We Stand

The deep splits in the country itself are papable and understanding them is tricky, even for most UK residents. For example, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay in Europe as did most of London, essentially leaving the European Union against their will. Should they declare independence? Or which they get a bespoke deal that leaves them in?

Northern Ireland is a very thorny issue since its land border with the Republic of Ireland means that its ‘invisible border’ turns into a scaled down version of Trump’s border wall with watchtowers and passport checks with long queues of lorries and cars, just waiting for some extremist, Irish or otherwise, to attack them. It’s a thought that has gone down very badly on both sides of the border.

The political parties are split on the issue. The UK Conservatives are deeply divided on Europe with a fine balance between Leavers and Remainers, led by Theresa May who supported Remain but is now leading the Brexit charge. Her lack of a majority in Parliament leaves her between a rock and a hard place. If she sticks with one side, the other side will ditch her.

The left-wing Labour Party isn’t much better, a mostly pro-Europe party led by a Eurosceptic, Jeremy Corbyn. So far, they’ve muddled into ambiguity, trying to appeal to their traditional bastions in Northern England which voted to Leave while keeping their pro-Remain London fiefdom secure.

The situation is further complicated on an individual level. A pro-Remain MP in an area that voted heavily for Leave has a tenuous position, not unlike Doug Jones, a Democratic Senator in a deeply conservative state. One wrong vote in Parliament and their re-election campaign gets that much harder.

Ambiguity cannot serve either party forever, but every move towards specific stances leads to confusion in both parties. The issue is more keenly felt in the Conservatives who are in government, at least for now, but neither side can escape the problems that Brexit has caused.

Shot In The Foot

In Europe, the decision to leave was greeted with genuine dismay, followed by weary resignation to just get on with the job. The negotiations have been likened to a divorce and in some ways, it is true. In the eyes of Europeans, Britain seems to be on a different planet, inflicting its own misery on itself and blaming it on Europe.

Britain had exclusive privileges as an EU member: it could vote and veto issues, it had free trade without tariffs and, after some wrangling, it opted out of the Euro and the free movement scheme. It had a pretty cozy arrangement, but now it wanted to cherry-pick its way out. It wanted all the good stuff it had without any of the controversial things like free movement or having to pay for outstanding membership fees. In essence, Britain wants membership privileges without actually being a member.

Europe isn’t buying that one. You don’t get to cherry-pick the best options when you walk out. You get what you’re given and like it or you get nothing. The problem with all the other options is that they’re all worse than the original membership option Britain had. If they want to trade with the EU, they have to pay for it.

This is one reason why Europe was so confused by Britain’s demands when it voted to leave. Why would you try to pick a less appealing option than the one you had already? At the time, it was like you picked Trump over Clinton because you were unhappy with the good stuff Obama gave you and wanted something better.


The main reason Brexit isn’t really a big issue on a global scale is mostly that, despite the hoo-ha in the UK, most of the major points are very technical, very complex and ultimately, very boring. The longer an economic and political partnership has gone on, the more complex the issue of breaking it apart becomes.

In fact, Brexit is quickly taking a back seat in a Europe that faces bigger issues like a slightly unhinged Turkey, a resurgent far-right movement, a secession crisis in Spain and Poland who seems to be taking a leaf out of Trump’s book. It’s still a big issue, but it pales to what’s happening elsewhere.

A final point is that Brexit and Trump have had a similar effect in turning a once-sane world upside down. They have defied expectations and made the world that much more unpredictable, their only major success. Since then, it’s been a slow-motion car-crash for both countries as deep divisions are made even clearer and moderation gets thrown out the window.

The center of British politics cannot hold against Brexit. It’s only a matter of time before mere anarchy is unleashed if it hasn’t already.

I'm a historian based in the UK who likes jumping from one thought to next. I love to learn new things and explore other ideas.

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