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Herb Rothschild Jr.: 'Remain,' reluctantly

While writing my July 2 column on patriotism, I knew I would follow it up with reflections on Brexit, Great Britain’s narrow vote to withdraw from the European Union. One reason is the Brexit debate involved a major question I was considering — how loyalty to our own nation might relate to global responsibility. Another reason is that Deborah and I were in England the last nine days before the vote on June 27, and what we heard left me dissatisfied with the U.S. commentaries on Brexit I’ve read since our return.

When I discuss “hot topics” in this column, I don’t usually begin by declaring where I stand. Too often readers will decide to read a commentary only if the writer agrees with their own opinion. Thus, reading becomes a limited learning experience. But on Brexit I’m going to tell you right off, because the answer may entice you to read on no matter where you now stand.

On election day Deborah and I asked each other how we would vote were we eligible. We discovered that we both would vote to Remain, but without any confidence that it was the wiser choice. The decision was, in our view, a complex and challenging one.

My impression, admittedly superficial, has been that liberal U.S. commentators think the choice to leave was a stupid, even a detestable one. Partly this is because they are reading it in terms of our own presidential contest, and they relate the Leave proponents to Trump, with his anti-immigrant and jingoistic rhetoric. I can understand why. Immigration was a major issue in the Brexit debate, and a slogan like “Take back our country” can sound as empty as “Make America great again.” But even the Brits’ concerns about immigration and their nationalist sentiment were more complex and, to me, more sympathetic than Trump’s bigotry and chauvinism.

I’ll begin by saying the Remain-Leave division didn’t correspond to what we would regard as a Left-Right division. The leading advocates on both sides were from the ruling Conservative Party. Labour, it’s true, was on record for Remain and a few Labour officials were outspoken, including up-and-coming Member of Parliament Jo Cox, whose dreadful murder may have related to her support for Remain. But overall, Labour voices were muted.

Party leader Jeremy Corbin, an old-line leftist whose 2015 election under new and more democratic voting rules surprised the reigning moderates, had never supported Britain’s ties to the EU. Like many working-class Brits, he always believed the EU is dominated by great concentrations of economic wealth. That belief was a major issue in the Brexit campaign, with Leave advocates pointing to, among other things, the destructive neo-liberal policies imposed on Greece and Spain after the 2008 crash.

The working-class British voters’ sense that the status quo wasn’t in their economic interest is a parallel with our presidential contest that I haven’t noticed as a focus of liberal commentary on Brexit. Too bad. As my friend Peter Sage keeps noting in his insightful daily campaign blog (peterwsage.blogspot.com), Clinton may lose the election if she doesn’t woo the working class whites who’ve voted overwhelmingly for Trump and Sanders, not her, and with good reason.

Next week I’ll delve into more of the arguments, specifically control of national policy-making and national borders, as well as whether it’s fair to say the Leave voters were misled.

Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.