The Shocks, and Aftershocks, of Brexit

Truly, one of the most shocking things about the referendum in Great Britain, the result of which — the decision to leave the European Union — became quite clear Friday, was that it was such a shock.

Almost immediately, the nickname of this tectonic vote — which came in at about 52-to-48-percent — was picked up by the American television media and internet commentators, though, to be fair, the New York Times only used the term Brexit (for British exit) once on its Saturday front page, with a picture of a London cabbie driving one-handed and holding a British flag waving mightily in the wind.

The referendum — following a heated, slogan-filled, demagogued-to-a-fare-thee-well campaign — kind of snuck up on Americans, who appeared otherwise preoccupied with their own political upheaval, as well as with the horrific killing of 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando.

There we were, mourning, grieving, blaming, awash in a sea of rainbow flags and signs to celebrate the live of the victims, most of whom were members of the LGBT community, arguing about guns and intolerance and Trump (or, in quieter times, wondering about Bryce Harper’s hitting, the horrible weather and so on).

Next thing you know, we were suddenly worried, deeply worried, about the upcoming vote in Great Britain, which, in truth, had been planned for quite some time. It made the big newscasts in tragic fashion when a 60-year-old man, using a homemade pistol and a knife, assassinated Jo Cox, a pro-EU Labor Party politician. Before that, hardly anybody in the States talked about it, and it rarely made the nightly network news.

I remember hearing about it after a visit to the downtown studios of a British news channel for an interview, where a young English woman expressed her worries about the upcoming vote, saying that people were very tense, that the polls were close and her dad, a former journalist, was seriously fretting about it.

By the time Friday morning rolled around, Brexit hit like a bomb here, not to mention everywhere else. Somehow, this campaign, which included a heavy emphasis on British nationalism, fear of foreigners and Syrian refugees, suspicion of both English governance and internationalism and globalism, had become as real as holding an unwanted hot poker.

Hotly held opinions — mostly by older voters — suggested that England had become beholden to the European Union by its membership, that it had lost a sense of English identity at the expense of becoming more European.

About the time the news got out, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump was holding forth in Scotland, not very coincidentally, unveiling a new golf course in the company of his children. He said bluntly about the vote, “That’s a good thing.” In addition, he mentioned that a declining British pound meant more tourists for his golf courses.

That “good thing” had the immediate result of sending the British pound into a spiral, and worldwide markets as well. The Dow Jones plummeted over 600 points on Friday and was well on its way to another big plunge Monday afternoon. Hurt the most were the saving accounts of ordinary people, the very folks who voted to get out of the EU in England and who are among Trump’s biggest supporters. The markets had not seen such a drop since 2008, the year when the Great Recession began.

Quite a few people made the connection to Trump’s appeal and campaign, not the least among them Trump himself. “I said this all along,” he said. “I’ve supported this. It’s like us.” Perhaps in the next few days, Trump will take credit for what happened. The issues were certainly there: a fear of immigrants, immigration, nationalism and strength, jobs and globalism. But, then again, Great Britain is not the United States.

The shock and the attendant fears were, to use a favorite Trump word, huge. Many of the European countries — including France and Italy — are dealing with, if not referendums, the rise of right-wing and nationalist parties. All of them are dealing badly with the Syrian refugee crisis and the potential of terrorism. The alliance — the Union — is frayed and becoming frail, with further consequences to be seen. Often, what with right-wing rallies and violence, the scene almost had the feel of Europe in the 1930s.

There’s a sense that the vote in Great Britain was spurred by emotion, fear and sloganeering more than real policy issues (reminds me of a Trump rally). England, like the United States, has its share of middle-class workers out of work, their jobs disappearing. It has its share of citizens who are resentful of prosperity elsewhere, of the newcomers in their midst.

By the onset of a sobering work week in England, thousands of those who had voted were Googling “European Union,” apparently eager to find out what it was they had just left in such a huff. Cameron had already promised that he would resign, by October, no later. But it appears the European Union was in no mood to be conciliatory or wait. The English people, rudderless and pretty much leaderless, appear to be experiencing a bit of buyers’ — or leavers’ — remorse, but EU officials are demanding they get on with the process, which experts had said would take years. It appears likely in the light of a few days that a spontaneous joy at taking matters in their own hands by voters — the people — in England is quickly being turned into a process of being shoved out.

All of it has the appearance of the onset of chaos, storms coming together, the bubbling up of not so much revolutions, as populist anger at the way the world has changed. Trump supporters here and apparently across the ocean want a return to the past, or at least a cessation of rapid change. They want the resurrection of a time when good jobs were plentiful, when the future held promise as opposed to uncertainty — and changes impossible to anticipate or imagine during the good times.

Those changes were going on right in front of our eyes. The leaders of Scotland were thinking about revisiting the prospect of leaving Great Britain in order to stay in the European Union. And it looked as if the English, who had for a time gone it alone in World War II, were now, by referendum and vote and choice, going to go it alone again.

Trump, holding forth on the heath in Scotland, clearly saw it a victory for his views. Some voters in England are now calling for a new referendum.

It’s all kind of shocking. And here we are, awaiting the next tremor.

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