Party disaffection fueled Brexit

How fitting. As the Brits cast a stunning vote to quit the European Union, Donald Trump was opening a luxury golf course in Scotland and crowing that Britain did “a great thing.”

This historic victory for the British Brexiteers is part of a nationalist trend that is gripping Europe and has spread across the Atlantic. The leader of the “Leave” campaign, the blond, mop-haired Boris Johnson, is a bombastic Trump clone who defied his Conservative Party’s leader, Prime Minister David Cameron. Johnson will probably succeed Cameron, who announced his resignation Friday.

I heard Leave voters regurgitate populist promises made by Johnson, and by his unofficial backup, the inflammatory Nigel Farage, head of the U.K. Independence Party. Many of these promises are unachievable or based on specious data. By Friday, Farage was already backpedaling on a pledge that Brexit would bring a cash infusion for Britain’s national health service.

But, never mind. “We will get our country back,” pledged the demagogic Farage. “We will get our independence back.” He hopes his party will vastly expand on its sole seat in Parliament, buoyed by many white working-class voters who defected from the Labour Party to vote Leave.

Of course, the differences between Britain and its onetime American colony are legion. But Americans who worry about the direction of U.S. politics should focus on what caused the political earthquake in Britain.


Public disaffection from mainstream political parties, and from the European Union bureaucracy in Brussels, has been growing for years. Longtime unemployment in former industrial areas created bitterness in the Labour Party’s former heartland, while Cameron’s embrace of austerity further alienated many voters. Both mainstream parties – Labour and Conservative – have lost popular trust and left openings for those who attack the establishment.

Yet nearly every Leave voter I met believed that Brexit would effectively wall off Britain from foreigners and would somehow permit the country to renew its historic standing in the world. .

Instead, the vote has plunged Britain into uncertain economic terrain. It will lower Britain’s international standing, not raise it. In a globalized world, operating solo provides less clout.

Most disturbing, the Brexit vote may precipitate the EU’s breakup - to the benefit of populist political parties throughout the continent. The French far right is already calling for a Frexit vote, and other euroskeptic parties will follow.

Johnson and Trump think this would be fine (and so would Vladimir Putin, who wants to see Europe splinter). Their slogans are, respectively, “Britain first” and “America first.” But for all its flaws, the EU has stood for something much more important than Brussel’s often petty rules.

America’s mainstream parties are suffering from the same ills as Britain’s, but there is still time for U.S. voters to take notice. As tempting as populist promises may be, they will likely mean little once the votes are in.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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