- Britain After Brexit
The June 2016 referendum in which the voters of the United Kingdom opted to withdraw their country from the European Union was a historic milestone. It not only marked the first time that the EU, after a long history of enlargement, faced the departure of a member state, but also underlined the growing appeal in the advanced democracies of populist and nationalist tendencies hostile to established parties of the center.
In its October 2016 issue, the Journal of Democracy featured a group of articles under the heading “The Specter Haunting Europe.” As we noted in our introduction to those articles, liberal democracy on the Continent is increasingly threatened by a varied array of political forces, on both the right and the left, that is challenging the liberal consensus that had held sway since the end of the Second World War. Although apparently strengthened by the downfall of Soviet communism and the incorporation of Central and East European countries into the EU, liberal-democratic parties and ideas have suddenly begun to show signs of losing their hold on European electorates.
Leave’s narrow win in the United Kingdom can be seen as flowing from distinctive features of British political life and history. The Leave forces were by no means all illiberal in character or in opposition to the country’s two leading parties—in fact, they included many leaders of the Conservative Party and a large share of Labour Party voters. Yet it is also clear that British voting patterns reflected many of the same discontents that had led to the rise of populist insurgents in Europe, and that a few months later would produce the victory (surprising to so many) of Donald Trump in the November 2016 U.S. presidential election, a topic to be addressed in our April 2017 issue.
Indeed, readers of the opening essay in the group of articles that follows will be struck by the uncanny resemblance of Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin’s analysis of the Brexit vote to the trends detected by political observers of the U.S. election.
Given the effects of devolution in the United Kingdom, the referendum result has significant implications for Scotland and Northern Ireland, in both of which a majority of voters opted for Remain. Tom Gallagher explores the impact on Scotland and the prospects that it will soon try to hold another referendum on independence from the United Kingdom, while Adrian Guelke examines the dangers that Brexit poses for the delicately balanced peace agreement in Northern Ireland. Finally, Anne Applebaum concludes the section with a short essay that analyzes the changes the referendum vote has wrought in the party system and that highlights the need for Britain to stay committed to the support of democracy around the world.
—The Editors [End Page 16]