Three weeks from today, voters in the United Kingdom will decide whether to leave the European Union. The so-called Brexit referendum fulfills Prime Minster David Cameron’s 2013 promise to Euroskeptics in his own Conservative Party that he would hold an in-or-out vote if his party won reelection two years later. Despite numerous polls indicating a victory for Labour, the Conservatives won a majority government in the May 2015 election. Now comes the reckoning.
In the last two months, the Remain campaign—backed by Cameron and other mainline Conservative politicians, as well as the new Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (albeit tepidly) and much of his party—has run slightly ahead of Leave. The Leave campaign is being led by two of Cameron’s possible successors, former London mayor Boris Johnson and current Justice Secretary Michael Gove, and has the backing of the hardcore anti-immigrant far right, led by Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party, whose rise in the last five years prompted Cameron to put the question to voters. In recent days, however, Leave has edged slightly ahead of Remain, 52 to 48 percent. But because of last year’s polling imbroglio, those numbers only mean so much. No one can say for sure how it will turn out.
For progressives in Britain, in Europe, and, in a certain sense, around the world, the stakes could not be higher. Yet there is no consensus, even on the left, as to whether the ideals of liberty and equality would be best served by a radical restructuring of the European Union’s terms or their annulment, by marriage counseling or a divorce. Alarmed by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Leave campaign, some fear what the xenophobic English right might be able to do in the absence of European protections. Others, identifying EU guardianship as primarily in the service of a political and financial elite unaccountable to any democratic polity, believe the only hope for rescuing the UK from the grip of austerity lies in separating the country from those institutions that have so ruthlessly enforced it. Here, four writers and thinkers of the British left consider the case for each side and, by extension, whether progressives in the United States should be rooting for Leave or Remain.
The Sun Has Set. Get Over It
Until recently, I found it difficult to care about the Brexit referendum. If Britain left the European Union, would anyone really notice the difference? On a recent visit to Norway, a country that never joined the EU, I still had the privilege of using the special queue for European-passport holders, and I still benefited from the cheaper mobile-phone roaming rates brokered by Brussels. For me, and presumably for many others, those two perks mean more than any number of stirring arguments about sovereignty or misty-eyed invocations of Winston Churchill.