LONDON—A misguided narrative is taking hold about Brexit, both here and abroad. According to this argument, David Cameron called the 2016 referendum on whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union solely for party-management purposes. When he did, he unleashed a wave of atavistic xenophobia whipped up by the tabloid media, and uneducated, working-class Britons were consequently fooled by lies and false promises.
If only politicians hadn’t picked the scab, the country could have ticked along quite happily, so the conceit goes.
This interpretation might provide comfort to some, but it’s fundamentally specious. Put aside the fact that—even after accounting for the most illiberal remarks by some Brexit supporters—Britain remains one of the most tolerant countries in Europe. Ignore the sneer toward one person, one vote democracy implied by the argument above. By 2016, democratic legitimacy for Britain’s membership in the EU was clearly hanging by a thread. If the referendum hadn’t happened then, the problem wouldn’t have gone away. If anything, it would have festered.
For most Brits, the European project was a pragmatic question, never a love affair. We joined a common market to improve our trading prospects and bolster our sclerotic economy. Yet in recent years, national trust in the EU has been damaged by a series of issues—from the eurozone’s problems to the refugee crisis. Politics soon responded. In the 2009 European Parliament elections, the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage’s outfit that advocated leaving the EU, came in second nationwide, and by 2014 it had topped the polls, beating both of Britain’s historically dominant parties, Conservative and Labour. Then, in 2016, 17.4 million people, 52 percent of the voting public, cast ballots to leave.