Monday, June 20, 2016

Little England/ LIttle America

The referendum vote in Britain this Thursday on whether to remain in the European Union seems to me like a smaller version of the challenge American voters will most likely face in November.  The ultimate question is whether the free exercise of badly-informed democratic opinion is pointing toward a negative response to Abraham Lincoln's resolution that  government "of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth".

The more short-term questions are whether Britain will do harm to itself by voting to isolate itself from its economic and political community, for reasons that range from dubious to fallacious to objectionable, and whether the US will do something similar this fall by electing Donald Trump.

The good news is that polling on the British question, which was trending toward a narrow vote to Leave the EU, has turned in the past few days.  The unfortunate aspect of that good news is that the incident that has apparently spurred the reversal in opinion was the killing of Labour MP Jo Cox, an advocate of remaining in Europe and an advocate for refugees.  The weird aspect of that story is that the nativist lunatic who committed the act was a follower of a US white supremacist group (the "National Alliance").  Which leads me to the following question:  If Donald Trump were British, would he be calling for the ban of all Americans?

The trend on the polling does follow the pattern of previous closely-contested referenda in modern days, such as the ones in Quebec on leaving Canada, or of Scotland's recent one on leaving Britain, in which a small wave of caution hits just before the final vote, preventing the leap into the unknown. So, it may not be entirely due to the Jo Cox murder, though that does seem to have shocked some into rethinking the matter.

Politically, the matter is fairly complex and has shown the ability to drive a wedge into both of Britain's major parties. Prime Minister David Cameron promised the vote in his last electoral campaign, in which his Conservative party won a narrow outright majority in Parliament.  It helped keep his party unified for that vote, but the referendum itself has now caused a major split:  many in the party have been steadfastly against Britain's participation in the Common Market/European Community/EU for decades, and this has been their opportunity to come out and say so publicly without being censured.  If Cameron loses, he will likely resign and control pass to his party's Euroskeptic faction, headed by former London Mayor Boris Johnson (the Conservatives could retain control, regardless, until 2020).

The Labour party, with its current left-wing leadership, has come out clearly against the referendum's passing, but I have little doubt that there will be a significant share of defections in the popular vote of normal party supporters.  The sentiment among much of the working class that EU has brought a major influx of low-paid foreigners, undercutting the domestic labor market, is one of the strongest pulls of popular opinion in favor of the Leave option.  The sentiment is not totally unfounded, but it is somewhat delusional to think that raising barriers to globalized labor competition will keep (or return) jobs for workers at home if the economics are against it.

The United Kingdom Independence Party, which has few members of Parliament but has popular support of over 10% in opinion polls, has been leading the fight for what is called "Brexit" (British exit), arguing on the basis of English nationalism and xenophobia about immigrants, especially non-Christian ones, and particularly Muslim refugees.  The movement in favor of Brexit really gained footing, though, when it gained some support from prominent Conservatives, and some in the financial community who saw advantage from it, though virtually all economists agree that withdrawal will have a negative effect, at least in the short term.

Why should those outside Britain care about the outcome?  As our visiting satirical interlocutor John Oliver humorously said to us about his British compadres,
As long as those crooked-toothed scum-goblins keep shooting out royal babies and Doctor Who episodes, who gives a tally-ho fuck what happens to them?
Well, first of all, it appears Wall Street really did care.   Worries about the vote drove the US stock market down last week, no more than a reflection of similar drops in European markets.  Brexit presents uncertainty, which the markets despise, but also probable drop in global trade and productivity.

Other likely downside outcomes include:  the probable withdrawal of Scotland, which wants to stay in the EU, from Britain; similar temptations for secessionist movements in other parts of the EU; the possibility of new border problems between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic; strengthening of nativist movements throughout Europe; and crisis in the weaker economies of the EU.  

I would not mourn the demise of the Cameron government; its sponsorship of the vote is fulfillment of a campaign promise which was pandering to a disloyal faction representing much of the worst of British politics. The folly and ambivalence of the Conservative government is epitomized by the vote being held during the Glastonbury music festival, during which hundreds of thousands of potential No votes will be disenfranchised, and by the number of members of Cameron's cabinet who brazenly oppose his government's policy.

The diametric opposite to Brexit, Britain participating in a more committed manner in the EU, is what I would advocate in the aftermath of the referendum failing.  Britain could make a real difference in the EU if it chose to take a leading role, instead of the classic British stance toward Europe, trying to control outcomes while remaining uncommitted. Interfering a bit, our President Obama openly urged that Britain take that positive, ambitious approach, and it's clear American interest remains with a strong, peaceful Europe, which Britain could help shape to its benefit and the general benefit of all.

American Parallels
Naturally, Donald Trump's shoot-from-the-hip answer to the question of Brexit was that they should do it..  His candidacy advocates many of the same political arguments as the Leave campaign: fear of foreigners, economic nationalism, worker insecurity, voodoo economics.  Britain and the US often follow similar contemporary political trends, and I will have increased fear for our domestic outcome if the British vote goes badly.  

Meanwhile, it goes badly for the Drumpfster.  His inane, insensitive comments after the Orlando mass murder have, for once, rebounded against him, even in his own party.  His campaign seems a shambles, lacking strategic direction and losing control of the news coverage. Here's a comment I mis-heard from Chuck Todd on "Meet the Press" this week when I was only half paying attention:  "Republican leaders are concerned about being downwind from Trump's shit".   Now, I'm sure he wouldn't say that:  maybe it was "shift"?   However, it sounds right to me.

Trump had to back down from his initial advocacy of a ban on gun purchase for people on the US' terror watch list:  he found himself outside the NRA's protective shell on that one, so he shifted.  The votes go on in the Senate, an exercise in futility.  I would hope that the Democrats find some proposal that they can support from the ones the Republicans make, perhaps the Susan Collins one to limit the ban to those on the smaller no-fly list, and to make it easier for those on that list to prove they should be taken off it, as long as the provision has some elements of which the NRA does not approve.  It would really be a shocker if something were actually to pass, not that it would get by the Republicans' unperturbed House majority.  It would, however, suggest the possibility of action, something which gun-control voters like me despair of ever seeing.

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