Why Britain Brexited

For decades, the country has struggled with the challenge facing the modern nation-state: how to balance control and influence.

Shipping containers painted with the European flag and the Union Jack sit next to each other.

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.

The reality is that both stories contain elemental truths. Brexit is a revolution and a conservative decision that seeks no immediate break—but that might usher one in anyway. It is an act of British radicalism, no doubt, but one that can really be understood only within a much wider story of European radicalism.

Stand back, and Brexit raises questions far greater than the debates over the rights and wrongs of the referendum decision and Johnson’s subsequent prosecution of it. Brexit is a real-life proxy for some of the most fundamental questions facing all nation-states today: How to remain prosperous and sovereign in a globalized economy; how to maintain the corrective power of national democracy within supranational institutions; and ultimately, how ordinary citizens can retain control over their lives and livelihoods in a world in which more and more areas of life are deemed beyond national political control, whether in regard to trade and tariffs (should Britain embrace free trade, protectionism, or a mix of both?), or immigration and national citizenship (who and how many people should be allowed into a country and when should they receive the same rights as the citizens already there?).

It is this Brexit story that underpins Britain’s exit from the EU—the story of a country that voted to buck the post-war order and “take back control,” but has little idea whether that is even possible anymore, or indeed, whether it had ever lost control in the first place. It is also a story that does not begin or end at 11 p.m. tomorrow, the formal point of rupture, but one that started decades ago and will likely last decades longer.

In August 1962, a then 79-year-old Clement Attlee rose to his feet in the House of Lords to address the question of Britain’s application to join the European Economic Community, the EU’s forerunner. Attlee was no ordinary legislator but the Labour Party’s greatest prime minister and wartime deputy to Winston Churchill. His 1945 government had ushered in a postwar socialist consensus, established NATO, and clandestinely developed Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. By 1962, though, Britain was falling behind mainland Europe economically, but still rejected an invitation to join its emerging union. Despite Britain’s troubles at home, Attlee remained adamantly opposed to British membership.

To Attlee, the prospect of Britain joining the EEC signaled a seismic change in the country’s foreign and economic policy. It would prioritize Britain’s relationship with Europe over the rest of the world and cede national control for regional influence. “We are going to be confined in our powers of running our own affairs,” he said. “It might be right, it may be​ wrong, but do not make any mistake: It is entirely different from anything we have had before.” In the EEC, he went on, Britain would become a mere “appendage to Europe.”

As Britain held its first referendum on European membership, in 1975, one Margaret Thatcher, then leader of the Conservative opposition, set out the counterargument. "If Britain were to withdraw,” Thatcher told voters, “we might imagine that we could regain complete national sovereignty. But it would, in fact, be an illusion. Our lives would be increasingly influenced by the EEC, yet we would have no say in decisions which would vitally affect us.” Attlee had raised the question of control, Thatcher had countered with influence.

Attlee’s objections—and Thatcher’s response—remain as relevant today as they were in 1962 and 1975, except today, the Conservative Party’s Thatcherite right is leading Britain’s euroskeptic withdrawal from the bloc, not Labour’s Attlee-ite left.

In the first few decades of Britain’s flirtation with Europe, followed by its full membership in the EEC, opposition to U.K. involvement was found on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. This began to change after Thatcher became prime minister. In 1988, the president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, addressed Britain’s Trades Union Congress, the country’s biggest collection of organized labor—and set off an avalanche that reshaped British politics, endearing Europe to the left and radicalizing conservative euroskepticism in the process. Delors had already told the European Parliament that within 10 years, 80 percent of economic and social legislation in the region would be decided at the European level. He also described the Commission as an “embryo European government.” But then in September he visited Britain, winning a standing ovation from union members after urging them to support his bid to build a “platform of guaranteed social rights,” including the right to collective bargaining.

Less than two weeks later, addressing the College of Europe in Bruges, Thatcher gave her response. “Britain does not dream of some cozy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community,” she insisted. “Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.” Then she delivered her warning: Europe should not “suppress nationhood and concentrate power,” she said. “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”

Here was the crux of the matter. Europe was no longer a threat to Attlee’s socialist consensus, the British political class felt, but the new Thatcherite consensus. The fear had changed, but the philosophical question was the same: Who held control? Thatcher favored cooperation with Europe—influence within Europe—but not at the expense of control over the basics of statehood: borders, money, and laws.

By 1990, Thatcher was out of power, in large part because of her fierce skepticism of the moves already under way to establish a single European currency. Yet, only two years after her departure, Britain’s decision to fix its currency to a European exchange rate collapsed on “Black Wednesday” amid a run on the pound. Two decades later, a crisis for the euro itself, even without British participation, followed by another for the open-borders system, would combine to calamitous effect, creating the conditions for Britain’s departure from the European project altogether.

Somewhere along the way, Europe had lost control. What good, then, was British influence?

In 1992, European leaders took an enormous step: The Maastricht Treaty created the European Union. No longer a simple community, it now had a common currency, supreme court, and parliament, all governed by the EU’s supranational law. As Attlee observed years earlier, whether one saw it as good or bad, there was no doubt it was radical: not a United States of Europe, but neither any longer the loose confederation of nation-states thatThatcher had argued for.

Britain did not enthusiastically join with Europe. Rather it shuffled forward, nervously negotiating key opt-outs, most importantly from the proposed new single currency. Europe was marching on and Britain could not stop it.

The conservative British-American historian Niall Ferguson regards Brexit as beginning not with the 2016 referendum but with this period, with Britain’s decision not to follow much of the rest of the EU into the euro. “Britain was an equal and voluntary member of a very loose and voluntary confederation until European leaders tried to turn it into something more like a federation,” he told me. “Brexit was a logical conclusion.” Anand Menon, a professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London, agrees: “Britain emerged [from Maastricht] having secured exceptions from those bits of the treaty it most opposed. Yet Maastricht represented a turning point in our relationship with European integration and contributed, albeit indirectly, to our decision to leave.”

For Thatcher, Maastricht was a historic mistake. In September 1992, in a speech to the World Economic Development Conference in the United States, Thatcher predicted “chaos” if the single currency was introduced. “Huge sums would have to be transferred from richer to poorer countries and regions to allow them to take the strain. Even then, unemployment and mass migration across now-open frontiers would follow. And a full-fledged single currency would allow no escape hatch.” She then laid out the consequences: “The growth of extremist parties, battening on fears about mass immigration and unemployment, offering a real—if thoroughly unwelcome—alternative to the Euro-centrist political establishment. If, in addition, you were to create a supranational European federation, and the people could no longer hold their national parliaments to account, extremism could only grow further.” As forecasts go, it was remarkably prescient.

Joel Robine / AFP / Getty

But Thatcher was no longer in power. Maastricht had been ratified and its own remorseless logic left Britain in a familiar quandary soon after. The treaty crystallized the age-old British dilemma between sovereign control and supranational influence. In joining the club, Britain had chosen influence—yet it had been unable to stop the federal project. Faced with this reality, it reverted to control by sitting out the EU’s latest project.

But this presented a problem. Britain was no longer an equal partner, because it did not share the same challenges and interests that came from a shared currency and open borders. New European institutions, such as the European Central Bank, did not affect Britain in the same way they affected Germany or France. What if these core European countries began to caucus to control European decision making? Britain was in a club because influencing that club’s decisions was in its economic interest—and yet it had ceded some of that influence by drifting into a half-in, half-out status. Had it unintentionally found itself in the worst of all worlds, or the best?

In 1997, Tony Blair was elected prime minister, and his answer was simple: Britain needed to get back its influence. It needed to join the euro. In a 2001 speech, Blair declared, like Thatcher, that Britain's future was “inextricably linked with Europe.” However, he then argued that “to get the best out of it, we must make the most of our strength and influence within it; and that to do so, we must be whole-hearted, not half-hearted, partners in Europe.” Britain, Blair declared, had “vacated a decisive role in shaping the single currency” and should now join if its own self-imposed economic tests were met. To Blair, the logic of EU membership—influence—meant Britain should join the single currency.

Jonathan Powell, Blair’s former chief of staff, set out the dilemma to me. The Blair view, he explained, was that Britain should “try to muscle our way into leadership with France and Germany by being at the center of things.” But the logical corollary of that is, “if we are not going to lead in Europe, then what’s the point in being in there at all?”

Despite his overwhelming political force at home, Blair could not persuade even his own colleagues, let alone the country, to support British membership in the euro, and the idea was dropped. Yet the philosophical question had not been answered. If Britain was giving up influence in Europe, what was the point of membership at all? “With [John] Major and [Theresa] May and [David] Cameron, we tried to muddle along in the middle,” Powell told me, “partly in and partly out, which is the worst of all worlds in some ways.” Britain was heading to a crunch, even if few saw it at the time.

Cameron came to power at the height of the EU’s first existential crisis—the eurozone emergency—and won reelection as the EU entered its second, over refugees. Both were indirectly caused by events beyond the EU’s control: the global financial crisis and the Syrian civil war. And yet, they were exacerbated by the EU’s failure to address the very problems Thatcher had raised in 1992. The bloc had introduced a monetary union without a fiscal union and dispensed with all internal controls without establishing an adequately enforced common outer border first. The inevitable crises became the hair trigger for Cameron’s referendum—and the subsequent environment in which he chose to fight it, and lost.

In December 2011, as European leaders gathered in Brussels, the future of the single currency appeared to be hanging in the balance. In the aftermath of the financial crisis and the global recession that followed, a number of EU countries with huge levels of indebtedness were suddenly struggling to finance their deficits, sparking fears of sovereign defaults across the bloc. The crisis had the potential to be catastrophic, amid fears of contagion and doubts over the euro’s ability to survive intact.

At the summit, EU leaders drew up an emergency treaty to safeguard the currency. But Cameron was unhappy, fearing further consolidation of the eurozone bloc without any protections for British interests. Misjudging the mood, Cameron demanded legally binding protections for Britain’s financial sector as the price of his support. EU leaders, furious at his behavior, refused, and Cameron played his only remaining card, vetoing the proposed treaty altogether. So European leaders simply organized a separate treaty without Britain. London’s nightmare had come true: When push came to shove, the country had no real influence.

The lesson Cameron took from this bruising encounter was that Britain’s relationship with the EU was becoming unsustainable and needed renegotiating. “With the eurozone crisis, the organisation was changing before our very eyes, and our already precarious place in it was becoming harder to sustain,” he wrote in the book he published after leaving office. The eurozone crisis directly led to Britain’s exit—a consequence that, while not predicted, was certainly foreshadowed.

None of this is to suggest Brexit was inevitable. Decisions were made along the way that contributed to British unease and might have changed Britain’s course. Major could have put Maastricht to a referendum; Blair could have used the powers available to him to delay the right of the EU’s new Eastern European citizens to move to the U.K.; Cameron could have delayed the referendum until the refugee crisis was over. All of these things—or none—might have helped Britain remain in the EU. The core countries of the Eurozone could also have done more to ease Britain’s existential—and reasonable—concern that it had given up sovereign control, and might be losing the influence to protect itself inside the bloc as well. Those countries could also have avoided only half-building a federal state.

Yet, once again, all of these crises and policy decisions did not happen in a vacuum. Each British prime minister faced the same dilemma of balancing control and influence. Blair landed on influence and being a full member, only to see the politics change as his lack of control over immigration policies led to a huge influx of workers moving to Britain. Cameron and Major, in contrast, favored retaining control, only to see British influence in Europe wither and the subsequent gales blow across the Channel anyway.

Britain had some control and some influence, but not enough of either to feel comfortable.

During the closing debate of the referendum campaign in 2016, broadcast live on the BBC and filmed in front of 6,000 voters at Wembley Arena in London, Boris Johnson was given the job of making the final pitch for the Leave campaign. “If we vote Leave,” he declared, “we can take back control of our borders, of huge sums of money … of our tax-raising powers, of our trade policy, and of our whole law making system, the democracy that is the foundation of our prosperity.” It was the final rallying cry of the Brexiteers and echoed the slogan that had been hammered home repeatedly throughout the campaign: Take back control.

“Take back control” has since entered the pantheon of campaign slogans known and repeated by voters without prompting. It is derided by those who oppose Brexit on the grounds that it is fundamentally misleading, that the “control” offered by national sovereignty is a chimera when it really means a loss of influence over the economic forces that will affect the country anyway. The age-old debate continues.

Still, the slogan worked. The argument of the Leave campaign, that Britain had ceded control of its own fortunes without gaining any real influence, appeared to be supported by real-life events: the eurozone and migration crises. The opposing campaign offered voters the classic influence argument, that Britain was “stronger in” the EU. Nationwide, however, voters chose control. It is for this reason that conservative historians such as Ferguson argue that Brexit is not radical, that it is, in effect, pressing pause on change that is happening without your consent, not pushing for dramatic change yourself.

Yet in no real sense is Brexit not radical. Britain did not have to leave the EU when it did. There was no great crisis affecting it—the irony being that the country had quarantined itself from the worst of the refugee and eurozone crises by retaining control of its borders and its currency. This is not to say that the decision to leave was wrong (or right), simply that it was the most radical of the options to regain control available at the time.

David Willetts, a former Conservative MP, Thatcherite, and early euroskeptic who has since come out in favor of remaining in the EU, told me that Britain had, before 2016, negotiated its way to “the best of both worlds”—inside the EU but not the euro—and its fears of eurozone countries caucusing against it never really materialized. Britain was not a passive victim, he told me, but a powerful actor within the club. Yet one man’s best of both is another’s worst of all.

While Brexit is undoubtedly radical, the immediate consequences are unlikely to be so. The likelihood, according to those who spoke with me, is that there will be a slow drag on British growth, which may or may not be compensated for by subsequent domestic reforms and new international trade agreements. (This will not be the case if Britain and the EU fail to agree to terms on a trade deal, most noted.) “It’s a slow puncture more than a car crash,” Willetts said. Ferguson broadly agreed: “No one should delude themselves that this will be easy,” he said. “But the cost will not be violent disruption. It will be a loss of growth relative to a putative path if Britain had been in. Ordinary people will not care or notice.”

Ultimately, those I spoke with said, the fundamental tools required to build a prosperous economy remain largely in the British government’s control: taxes, infrastructure, education, and the ability to innovate. Perhaps Britain will not use those tools to the best result, but it can. The reality is that Brexit is both radical and conservative. It is a shift that has no real precedents in modern history and whose ultimate wisdom, or otherwise, will remain forever disputed and likely judged largely in comparison to the very bloc it has just left, and the decisions the EU makes free of British influence.

Britain may not be able to influence the EU’s direction anymore, a reality that may soon preoccupy those in power in London, but the country’s prospects remain largely in its own control—just as they were before.