During the six months leading up to Britain’s referendum on whether to stay in the European Union, the many politicians and strategists on the “Remain” side tended to assume that victory was assured. Indeed, near the end of June 2016, with only a day to go before the big vote, one of the most senior behind-the-scenes figures in the British government was so brimming with confidence that he later recalled the weather that day in London as “balmy and cosmopolitan.”
The populists who were making the case for Brexit had plenty of passion, a fiery rhetoric about immigration that resonated with millions of voters, and a set of romantic ideas about the United Kingdom as a buccaneering global force. But so what? Led by then–Prime Minister David Cameron, the Remain campaigners told the public that leaving the EU was a huge economic risk that would make the average British household worse off by £4,300 a year (at 2017’s post-Brexit exchange rate, about $4,940). As Cameron’s communications chief, Craig Oliver—the man who divined triumph in that early-summer warmth—puts it in his new Brexit memoir, there had been no British election in over 100 years “where people have voted against their direct financial interests.” Under the leadership of Cameron and his aides, everything the pro-EU side did followed from this single article of faith.
They also had the polls on their side. Most seemed to suggest that this approach was justified. Thus, even on the night when the result was announced, many in the inner circles of power believed that Britain would vote to stay in the EU. Jim Messina, the former Barack Obama aide who was helping Cameron’s Tories on the campaign, assured anyone who would listen that his modeling said the vote would go in favor of Remain by 52 to 48 percent. People in charge of London hedge funds were also saying much the same. Oliver’s book records Cameron, at an official reception where guests were served moussaka and lasagna, “looking relaxed in a casual navy-blue shirt that [wasn’t] tucked in.” This insouciance was Cameron’s way: In 2012, an authoritative biography reported that “if there was an Olympic gold medal for ‘chillaxing,’ he would win it.”
But in the early hours of June 24, it was clear there was little to chillax about. The political roof had caved in, and Cameron’s career would soon come to an abrupt end. In an augury of Donald Trump’s upset in the fall and the wave of illiberal forces spreading throughout Europe, it became clear that the “Leave” side had narrowly won out, by pretty much the exact reverse of Messina’s figures. The pollsters had been wrong. So had most of the politicians.
Since then, the UK’s politics has been in a state of ferment, as a party system built on old political divisions has been thrown into disarray by two cleavages now revealing themselves across the Western world. The first is generational, as evidenced by the fact that among Britons age 18–24 who voted in the referendum, 73 percent supported staying in the EU, versus the 60 percent of voters 65 and older who supported leaving. The other is economic and social, and it often divides along geographic lines as well: between the kind of affluent, liberal, city-dwelling people who supported Remain, and the more conservative supporters of Brexit, many of whom live outside London and believe that globalization and the liberal elites in charge of its implementation have failed them (and whose disappointment over the past several decades sometimes blurs into xenophobia and racism, not least when it comes to questions of immigration).