Brexit: Making Britain great again?

Whatever the result, the vote will prove only the beginning of a long process to redefine 21st-century Britain.

A cyclist takes a look at a painted image of former London Mayor Boris Johnson and US Presidential candidate Donald Trump in Bristol, Britain [EPA]
A painted image of former London Mayor Boris Johnson and US Presidential candidate Donald Trump in Bristol, England [EPA]

In their attempts to win the hearts and minds of British voters before this week’s referendum on British membership of the European Union, it seems to me the “Leave” camp focused primarily on the hearts, while the “Remain” campaign spoke to the minds.  

No point in repeating all the arguments here. In short, Leave has warned of the loss of national sovereignty, security freedom, pride and identity, while Remain underlines the preservation of economic prosperity, stability and influence.

UpFront: Is Brexit driven by the fear of migrants?

The referendum is no doubt historic. And it is paramount that the people weigh in on such a fateful decision. But regardless of the result, the vote will prove only the beginning of a long process to redefine 21st-century Britain. 

Indeed, the challenge facing Britain could prove more English and British than continental European.

Brexit or Engxit?

I find “Brexit” – the shorthand word for leaving the EU – misleading and the motivation behind it mystifying. 

A more accurate term would be “Engxit”. After all, the other non-English components of Britain are largely opposed to exiting the EU. Many Scots, Welsh and Irish would rather leave Britain than exit the EU.

READ MORE: Beyond the Brexit debate

In the predominantly English Britain, where eight out of 10 citizens or more are English, the historic, cultural and economic arguments and sensibilities behind the idea of exiting the continent’s union are more English than British.

Judging from Europe's history, the alternative to unity is not pretty.


Indeed, a Leave vote could lead to Britain’s break-up, according to present and former British leaders. And if you think it’s all part of some fear tactics by the “Bremain” camp, think again.

The Welsh are already warning of a constitutional crisis if the English vote in favour of leaving. Likewise, the Scots threaten to hold another referendum on leaving Britain.

Even neighbouring Ireland is alarmed by the prospects of turmoil in its relation with Britain where 600,000 Irish citizens reside. Erecting a British EU land border will have a big effect on their bilateral trade which exceeds one billion euros ($1.13bn) a week.

And last but not least, I gather many of the recent immigrants, who are more likely to refer to themselves as British than English, and the almost two million Europeans living in Britain (like the million-plus British residing on the continent) would also like to see Britain stay in Europe.

So if it’s not exactly British, what prompts so many English to want to withdraw from Europe back to the island? Does the problem lie with Europe, or does it lie in England?


The Evil continent

Engxiters have demonised the “authoritarian” EU which burdens and weakens Britain’s economy, limits its sovereignty, restricts its freedom of action, and increasingly defines its identity and its future.

They reckon the EU is “dysfunctional” and utterly undemocratic, and unelected bureaucrats rule supreme there. And they are alarmed by the ambition of the powerful EU members to turn it into a “federal super state” with its army and president.

Some of their criticism is partially true and is shared by other EU members, especially regarding the pervasive bureaucracy and slow decision-making process. But they are seen, at least in part, as a necessary evil to maintain and manage a union of 28 sovereign nations with distinct identities, languages and cultures.

READ MORE: Brexit – the UK’s rage against dying of colonial light

The solution, it follows, should be to reform and democratise not demonise the EU; and to firm it up, not break it up. Because judging from Europe’s history, the alternative to unity is not pretty.

Demonising Europe is necessary to break away and make Britain great again.


Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, known for his vocal criticism of the Union, had the following to say to the British: “Just like in the early 1930s, Britain and Greece cannot escape Europe by building a mental or legislative wall behind which to hide. Either we band together to democratise – or we suffer the consequences of a pan-European nightmare that no border can keep out.”

But clearly, the problem is not only European; it is also British. And demonising Europe is necessary to break away and make Britain great again. 

Delusional? Perhaps. But it’s real.

‘You say tomayto, I say tomhato’

Sitting in London or New York, one hears the same speech nowadays, albeit with different accents; and it is populist, hateful, xenophobic and paranoid.

Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump [Reuters]
Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump [Reuters]

The resemblance between the arguments made by the Leave campaign’s leading spokesman Boris Johnson and those of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump couldn’t be mistaken. More so than the hair.

On both sides of the Atlantic, major segments of the Right are embracing a populist, nationalist, fear-mongering discourse. They warn of imminent decline, caution of international agreements, and vow to put their country first, by keeping immigrants out.  

Both promise to make their countries “great again”. And both speak to the grievances of disgruntled and bitter working people who suffered from recent economic crises and loss of jobs, and who wish for better pay and better working conditions.

But instead of providing the right diagnoses and prescription for the national malaise, the populist Right incite against all that’s “foreign”, including their fellow citizens of different ethnicity or religion.

And yet, the historic, political and cultural differences between the United States and the United Kingdom, or, for that matter, the contrast between the Americas and Europe, cannot be overemphasised. It is, after all, Europe that wrought and fought some of the world’s worst wars.

Resurrecting nationalism

The British-American TV satirist John Oliver has pointed out in one of his recent monologues on Brexit advocates: “It’s now official, not everything sounds smarter in an English accent.”

Well, perhaps not everything, but Johnson & co. do sound smarter than the linguistically challenged Trump. 

Not since the days of Bush-Blair have Britain and the US been so divided by a common language, to paraphrase an old saying attributed to the Irish playwright Bernard Shaw. And it’s not limited to pronunciation.

Ever since the decline of the British Empire five or six decades ago, England has paid lip service to Europe and instead pinned its hopes on the new rising empire in North America, wishing to play the role of the modern Greeks for the new Roman empire. 

But as the United States has downplayed Britain’s special status in recent years, and Europe has discarded its reservations and warnings, Britain, or should I say England, finds itself lost. 

And the answer: resurrecting nationalism?

But more on that tomorrow. Making England great again.

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera. Follow him on Facebook.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.