I find the spectacle of the United Kingdom exiting the European Union discouraging because I think of both as models of rationality and civility.
For example, as frequent readers know, I am a fan of Prime Minister Question Time, because I believe that having the head of government publicly submit to substantive questioning by members of Parliament promotes better decision-making, understanding and legitimacy.
Moreover, the United Kingdom is its own little union of Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. You’d think that its citizens would understand the advantages of the EU.
Last week, I watched PMQT as outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron responded to questions from members about how to handle the Brexit. Cameron said that there was no going back, that the challenge is to transition out of the European Union with as little collateral damage as possible, and he pledged himself to that effort until someone is chosen to succeed him.
The EU is the latest version of of the post-World War II order. It is supposed to hold together the fractious and too-often warring nations of Europe, reconcile their laws and policies, employ a common currency, eliminate barriers to travel and trade, and facilitate cross-border law enforcement and cooperation. It is supposed to foster prosperity. Who could be against that?
But the British were always somewhat skeptical. Maybe being an island nation, they were standoffish by nature. They didn’t like ceding control to the institutions of collective Europe. In defiance, they retained their own currency.
Nevertheless, they did join and they did benefit from membership in some respects. While the UK was in the EU, London became one of the great financial centers of the world. Unfortunately, the benefits of membership were not evenly distributed and many felt left out. That inequity was exacerbated by the worldwide economic recession that began in 2008.
As an EU proponent, Cameron’s call for a referendum in retrospect seems foolish. I suppose it made a certain sense at the time. When elected in 2010, he was the first conservative PM in years. But his austerity measures were not well received. He became personally unpopular. His sheltering of family assets from taxes didn’t help. He was trying to quell unrest within the ranks of his party and retain control. Scotland had just voted to stay in the UK. He expected “remain” to win. Tactically, it seemed like a better option than allowing the next general election to become a pseudo-referendum on the EU.
It wasn’t. Now he is out anyway, and along with him so is membership in the EU.
Why did such rational, civilized nations make such an irrational decision? Why did the people of the UK vote to leave? Because they didn’t understand the EU? Because they were misled to believe that leaving would result in less money going to the EU and more money for domestic social programs like the national health service? Because of nationalism? Populism? Contrarianism? Xenophobia? Trumpism?
For one thing, I don’t think the United States helped.
We may have lectured, but we did not set an example of cherishing allies and keeping commitments abroad. We pivoted away from our special relationship with England. Snubbed them over Churchill’s bust and Thatcher’s funeral. Abandoned our undertakings in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. We distanced ourselves from Israel, our closest ally in the Middle East, and struck a bad deal with our adversary, Iran. We hit the reset button with Russia, which responded with worrisome adventurism.
I am also a fan of the Discovery Channel’s series “Naked and Afraid” (and not because of the blurred-out, naughty bits). Each episode features two survivalists, one man and one woman, from different backgrounds, who are deposited in some hostile, unforgiving, inhospitable place, with no food or clothes, and the goal of surviving for 21 days.
The greatest obstacle to meeting the challenge isn’t the elements or the animals. It’s the survivalists’ personalities. Sometimes, they are so headstrong and independent that they can’t get along and even wind up undermining each other. The more successful contestants work together; the worst pontificate and do nothing.
That’s one of the challenges of life: where to strike the balance between looking out for yourself and getting involved with others. It may be possible to make it on your own, but there’s much to be gained from a group effort.
As we revel in the Fourth of July, let the lesson of Brexit be that the celebration of independence depends on togetherness: loyalty to family, friends, and country.
Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.