The First Brexit Anniversary

Published by Chris Oestereich on

Today is the one year anniversary of the UK’s fateful Brexit referendum. The unexpected twists have kept me busy writing, editing, and rewriting (and rewriting) as I’ve worked on what will now be a book of at least four parts. Below is the Preface from Part 1: It’s Not Dead Yet, which shares a bit about why I dove into this mess. The rest of Part 1 gave a bit of context for the Referendum, and Part 2 took a look at the major factors that helped swing the vote to Leave. Part 3 — which will be out in a couple of months — covers the events after the Referendum up through the triggering of Article 50. Part 4 is also under way. It will cover the snap election and the early negotiations between the UK and the EU. If there is well of good in the universe, the madness will end there and so will the book. I have my doubts…

I hope you find the except interesting.

Brexit is a highly complex, emergent phenomenon. This book sprung forth from an unfulfilling attempt to write about a narrow aspect of it. Each time I tried to enclose that essay, I would find a stray thread that, once pulled, revealed several more. I battled with it for weeks before finding myself surrounded by such piles. By then, I was no longer sure which pile the essay was under…

I’ve found Brexit endlessly fascinating, so I decided to see if I could turn the effort into something more. I had read scores of articles on the matter, but since I still felt that I hadn’t grasped the big picture forces, I kept digging. Everything I read provided interesting pieces but lacked a larger framework to make sense of it all. But as I continued to dig, the form started to reveal itself: Brexit was effectively an economic Death Star (and hopefully not a latter-day Ferdinand). Whether it would blow up the EU, blow up the UK, or just be a tool of Mutually Assured Destruction used to extort one-sided gains remained to be seen.

This probably would have stayed a narrower effort (or fizzled out completely) if not for the 2016 US election. The closing weeks of the campaign, punctuated by the raw shock of Election Day, sent me searching for something—anything—to focus on. Throwing myself into writing this book was a coping mechanism that afforded some cover from deep worries fostered by our electoral choices. So, if this book proves insightful, useful, or even interesting, my country’s collective madness is perversely somewhat to thank. (Not a good deal for anyone to be sure.)

While strange acts of Congress have become common in the US, the current funk in Parliament seems something completely different. The Tories have pursued a regressive program of austerity since David Cameron became the Prime Minister in 2010, but the current ”Hard” Brexit approach threatens something far worse. Hopefully, what we’re currently seeing passes with as little harm as possible, and the UK begins to show the steadier hand the world needs from it.

The “Western” world appears to be suffering a backlash against decades of globalization that has occurred at the same time as the dominance of the neoliberal economic orthodoxy pushed the state into retreat from active economic management—greatly improving the lives of some, while leaving many others to stagnate or decline. The Brexit vote was partly the registration of popular dissatisfaction in opposition to the utopian ideal of self-regulating markets which are neither in need, nor within the reach, of regulatory democracy. Put simply, a whole lot of folks have had it with a system they have no control over providing benefits to others, while they continually lose ground.

The vote was also fueled by racism, and xenophobia, and a host of other factors including a barrage of disinformation and belief placed in the promises of politicians that played fast and loose with the truth. As Tory leaders worked with their counterparts in Labour to keep the UK in Europe, Britons with a variety of concerns found just enough common cause at the ballot box to nudge the nation into the Brexit abyss.

The drivers were complicated, but the voting booth lever for Leave must have seemed a simple, tempting solution for those who no longer view the trickle-down story as a fairytale with a happy-ending waiting just ahead, but rather as something flourishing in the worst corners of the minds of the Brothers Grimm.

The Brexit vote can be partially viewed as a clarion call from those who have been left out, and the developments that followed it have been fascinating in a slow-motion train wreck sort of way. Political struggles tend to follow well-worn scripts, but rather than attempt to postpone and ultimately nullify the referendum’s outcome with years of delays for studies and discussions, Theresa May has repeatedly insisted that “Brexit means Brexit.” (How you interpret that line might provide a solid Rorschach test for your perspective on the matter.)

Everywhere you look, there are those who will look to explain complex phenomena in oversimplified terms. With nearly three-fourths of the UK’s newspapers owned by just a few companies, the opportunity for disinformation is great. (Harsh and potentially dangerous attacks on the UK judges who heard arguments on Article 50—such as a Daily Mail article that labeled them “enemies of the state”—are a good example.) Brexit is an intricate matter and should be treated as such. Beware those who would rob you of your agency through fear or false promises.