The United Kingdom will soon begin the most radical national experiment of the 21st century so far: Brexit. Having won a landslide election victory on a promise to “get Brexit done,” Boris Johnson will finally make good on 2016’s referendum result. Britain will leave the European Union, with no easy way back or guarantees about what will come next. Having voted twice for Brexit, the country is finally ready to make the leap—even if it has little idea where it is leaping.
This, at least, is the conventional view. In this story, Brexit is essentially an aberration, a decision of epic stupidity, which, at its heart, seeks to reverse the tide of history pushing midsize countries into multinational blocs in order to compete in a world of superpowers. Britain, in voting to leave the biggest and most advanced of these blocs, has allowed an instant of nostalgic madness to rip it from its moorings, casting it off into the exposed waters of economic isolation at the very moment the rest of the world, led by Donald Trump, is putting up trade barriers. It is a story of a country that has lost control of who it is and where it is going.
But that is only one way of looking at this moment in British history, marking the end of one era and the beginning of the next. There is another perspective, viewing Brexit as a largely conservative act, returning to what remains, after all, the norm for most countries: independent national sovereignty. In this view, shared by some conservative historians, economists, and politicians, Brexit is primarily about protection from the EU’s radicalism, viewing the bloc’s push for ever-closer union—manifested most obviously in its single currency—as the aberration of history, turning what was once a confederation of nation-states into a federal union.