The world is looking at Britain and asking: What on Earth just happened? Those who run Britain are asking the same question.
Never has there been a greater coalition of the establishment than that assembled by Prime Minister David Cameron for his referendum campaign to keep the U.K. in the European Union. There was almost every Westminster party leader, most of their troops and almost every trade union and employers’ federation. There were retired spy chiefs, historians, football clubs, national treasures like Stephen Hawking and divinities like Keira Knightley. And some global glamour too: President Barack Obama flew to London to do his bit, and Goldman Sachs opened its checkbook.
And none of it worked. The opinion polls barely moved over the course of the campaign, and 52% of Britons voted to leave the EU. That slender majority was probably the biggest slap in the face ever delivered to the British establishment in the history of universal suffrage. . . .
The Brexit campaign started as a cry for liberty, perhaps articulated most clearly by Michael Gove, the British justice secretary (and, on this issue, the most prominent dissenter in Mr. Cameron’s cabinet). Mr. Gove offered practical examples of the problems of EU membership. As a minister, he said, he deals constantly with edicts and regulations framed at the European level—rules that he doesn’t want and can’t change. These were rules that no one in Britain asked for, rules promulgated by officials whose names Brits don’t know, people whom they never elected and cannot remove from office. Yet they become the law of the land. Much of what we think of as British democracy, Mr. Gove argued, is now no such thing.
Instead of grumbling about the things we can’t change, Mr. Gove said, it was time to follow “the Americans who declared their independence and never looked back” and “become an exemplar of what an inclusive, open and innovative democracy can achieve.” Many of the Brexiteers think that Britain voted this week to follow a template set in 1776 on the other side of the Atlantic.
Let's say this is true: the UK took the American Revolution as an example of brave assertion of independence. It could still be asked: is this the only lesson Europeans have taken from the two-centuries-old American experiment? I think the answer is no, and this raises a point that I meant to address in my recent Brexit post but didn't: one of the major reasons why there's an EU to begin with is that Europe may have looked across the pond at the US and envied the collective economic power of those fifty states, united by federalism (i.e., two layers of government—federal and state/local—each with its sphere of authority) into a gigantic economic bloc that remains the most powerful such bloc on earth. Europe saw a chance to become a rival power; it pooled its resources, organized, and seized upon that chance.
But the problem, as John Power flatly stated, is that the EU isn't the United States. The US is united by language (for the most part), common cultural assumptions, laws, and a more or less shared interpretation and sense of history, culture, and destiny (postmodernists would call this a metanarrative). It's not a uniform sense, by any means, and federalism isn't a perfect fit for a population as numerous and diverse as modern America is, but overall, it works. And Europe envies that fact.
But Europe and the United States aren't the same creature at all. First: American law and culture spring most directly from British Common Law and culture, not from Continental sensibilities. Second: US states aren't the same thing as European countries, which have their own unique histories, languages, foods, literatures, art forms, senses of humor, moments of celebration and solemnity, etc. Sure, US states take pride in their local histories and cultural artifacts, but there is nevertheless a huge overlap between and among US states that doesn't exist between and among European countries. Americans also (at least for now) easily self-identify as American first, not as Kansan first or Montanan first or Floridian first. For Europeans, saluting two flags is a more difficult proposition: saying one is European first means denying that one is French first, Italian first, etc. This is a huge disanalogy.
My point, though, is that the Leave side of the Brexit aisle might see America in terms of separatism, nationalism/patriotism, and independence, but the Remain side of the Brexit aisle looks at America and sees collective cooperation resulting in large-scale harmony and, by extension, economic might: "We are stronger together." For European countries that share Charles de Gaulle's paradoxical vision of being America's ally and America's counterweight (a vision I've always found nonsensical: allies shouldn't be thinking of how to counterbalance, i.e., stymie, other allies—not when there are actual enemies about), looking across the pond means viewing America as a collective, not as an independent, sovereign entity. Further, it means self-assembling into a collective that matches America, at least externally.
It's a bit like the ancient Jain story of the blind men surrounding the elephant: each perceives the elephant as a different thing, based on his particular perspective: the elephant is a wall, a tree trunk, a snake, a siege weapon, a whip—all depending on whether one is standing next to a flank, a leg, the trunk, a tusk, or the tail. Is America assertively independent or an example of an enviably harmonious collective? Perspective matters. America could have been as much an inspiration for Remain as it apparently was for Leave.