Brexit: Will 'Leave' voters chart a new course for Britain?

Brexit's 'Leave' voters are fueled by economics, right-wing nostalgia, and a history that has long set Britain apart from the Continental powers. 

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Mike Crone, a retired carpenter puffing on a pipe on a bench in the market square in Market Harborough, England, is voting for Brexit. “We were a stand-alone country before, why couldn’t we do it now?” he asks.

These are the “Brexiteers” in the heart of England. There is Mike Phillips who is defiant. “Who is not going to trade with us?” says the  accountant, standing in this quaint town in Leicestershire.

And Mike Crone, a retired carpenter puffing on a pipe on a bench in the market square, who oozes with optimism. “We were a stand-alone country before, why couldn’t we do it now?” he retorts.

And Alicia Ali, whose Leave vote in the historic referendum about whether to remain part of the European Union, is tinged in English nationalism. “Because I don’t want to be European, I don’t even want to be British. I want to be English,” she says.

These are the men and women leading Britain on an unprecedented journey that could significantly alter the country’s place in the world and set off economic waves around the globe. Against the counsel of their prime minister, almost every international organization, and world leaders including President Obama, they are saying “no thanks” to a membership that they say is not a pathway but an obstacle to progress in the 21st century.

The Leave campaign has drawn a cross-section of Brits and exposed deep divides in society. Many are former Labour voters driven by a sense of frustration over globalization that is mixed with left-wing nostalgia. But this is not just a movement of those left behind. The Brexit movement is also a cauldron of right-wing nostalgia, buoyed by self-assurance, patriotism, and perhaps above all a cultural reflex against others meddling in British business.

“British people have always had this plebeian, working-class kickback to people telling them what to do,” says Glen O’Hara, a professor of contemporary history at Oxford Brookes University. “They like to be left alone.”

Apart from Europe?

The sentiment harks back centuries. As an island nation, Britain was historically out of step with the goings-on across continental Europe even as it was invaded by the Romans. Under King Henry VIII, Britain went its own way against the primacy of the Catholic Church, seeding a political culture based on, among other traits, a mistrust of the state and supranational entity.

Britain has always defined its relationship with the world through the seas. While Europe was bogged down in entanglements and war, Britain stood apart looking beyond, and only engaging when it felt it was in the national interest.

"There has been this classic dilemma that you can see going back right to the earliest days of modern history,” Steven Fielding, a political history professor at the University of Nottingham. “Britain is part of Europe, but it has historically seen Europe as something to be kept at arm’s length.”

Britain emerged from World War II battered, and as its empire chipped away and economy withered amid deindustrialization, it looked to the European community that it had dismissed in the 1950s. Membership was blocked by French President Charles de Gaulle, wary of Britain’s motivations, and the country only signed up in 1973. Yet ever since its membership – approved in a 1975 referendum – has been fraught. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher, who both Leave and Remain camps argue would be on their side, famously said, “I want my money back!” Politically, Britain has used its weight to shift the balance of power in the EU, but recoiled at receiving direction from it.

History has been invoked throughout this campaign. One of the oft-repeated phrases is that of Winston Churchill – whose position on the referendum is also hotly speculated – who declared Britain “stood alone” against the Nazi empire. Brits say they can do so now.

“We were on our own in the 1940s,” says Mr. Phillips. “We did alright before.”

The Remain camp has argued that’s a fallacy – that Britain only stands to lose by leaving the world’s largest market. But many aren’t cowed. Britain has world’s fifth-largest military. It is one of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Most important, it boasts the fifth-largest economy.

'Just neighbors falling out'

It is the last that animates conservative Brexiteers here in Leicestershire, considered the birthplace of fox hunting. Mr. Crone from Market Harborough, which is famous for an old, timbered grammar school from the 17th century that stands on stilts, calls Britain’s relationship with the EU a “bloody joke.” While Britain is getting ripped off, he says, the political class is profiting.

But for him it’s also more than just a battle over the bottom line.  He believe Britain should go it alone, not be subject to the rules of faceless judges, commissioners, and technocrats in Brussels. “We are an island. It’s in the psyche,” he says.

Melissa Johnston, who owns a clothing shop a few blocks down the high street, says this represents the view of the older generation out of touch with reality. “People need to realize this country is not the Great Britain we were, that we are not the empire we were. We are a small island that could isolate itself quite significantly,” she says.

Ms. Ali is hearing nothing of it. In fact she’s had enough of the dire warnings, first and foremost by President Obama, who on a trip pleading the case for Remain said Britain would go to the “back of the queue” for future trade deals if it chose Brexit. She says the US has little right to preach when it’s pondering putting Donald Trump into office. “That could lead to a disaster for the world;” she says. “This will just be neighbors falling out.”

In fact, she’s confident Brexit would be no more than a temporary tiff. “We need them, they need us.”

What the neighbors don’t need, she affirms, is the EU in the middle.

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