Brexit Vote Serves Notice on Mainstream Leaders Like Hillary

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A United Kingdom union flag that was washed away by heavy rains lies on the street in London on June 24, after Britain voted to leave the European Union in the Brexit referendum. John Elliott writes that the result and the resignation of David Cameron means Hillary Clinton needs to worry, because support for Donald Trump stems from a desire for a new type of president. Reinhard Krause/reuters

This article first appeared on the Riding the Elephant site.

In the early hours of this morning, when Britain's Brexit referendum results began to indicate a vote to leave the European Union, it quickly became clear from BBC television's regional reports that the vote was more a protest against the political establishment than against Europe itself.

The first significant "Leave" results came from the northeast of England, where jobs are scarce, Tata's steelworks have been facing closure and dissatisfaction with London-based political leaders is rife.

The trend then continued across the country with voters blaming Europe for all their economic and social problems. Only Scotland and London (plus a few nearby areas) provided solid support for Britain staying a member.

Europe is in shock this morning because a negative vote had not been expected by the financial markets nor, it seems, by bureaucrats in Brussels at the EU's headquarters.

It took six hours after the first votes showed that an exit result was possible around midnight (U.K. time) for the final result to come through—with 17,410,742 (51.9 percent) voting to leave and 16,141,241 (48.1 percent) to remain.

Fears about immigration and the economy within the EU were major issues, but if it is correct that this was overall an anti-establishment vote, especially by older people—and it certainly seems to have been so—there are lessons for other countries' leaders because such dissatisfaction is not limited to the U.K.

I argued last September that the emergence of Narendra Modi as prime minister of India, Jeremy Corbyn as the British Labour Party's leader and Donald Trump in the U.S., to name but a few, reflected voters' disenchantment with the way that their predecessors had run broadly consensus politics supported by finance, business and other establishments controlled by vested interests.

Today's result means Hillary Clinton needs to worry, because support for Trump stems from a desire for a new type of president—though of course Trump might well continue with outrageous behavior to make himself unelectable.

In India, there is a lesson for Modi about the need to deliver. He won a landslide election victory two years ago for his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party on the platform of economic growth, jobs and efficient government.

That was a revolt against rule by the Gandhi dynasty's Congress Party, and it brought in someone who had not been part of the Delhi political elite. But Modi is perceived so far as having failed to be different enough.

A new political force, the Aam Aadmi Party, which is headed by anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal, now runs the Delhi state government and has shown a new approach. It has ambitions to expand into other states, presenting a fresh challenge to existing parties.

Two U.K. political leaders bear the most responsibility for the turmoil created in the past hours and for the uncertainty that now faces the U.K. and, indeed, the whole of the EU, because there are calls in countries such as France, Italy and the Netherlands for referendums.

One is David Cameron, the prime minister. He gambled with the referendum solely to sort out his Conservative Party's internal problems with long-standing EU dissidents. He negotiated an inadequate package of minor changes with the EU and then campaigned for EU membership to continue, stressing reasons for not leaving rather than the advantages of remaining. He thus lost in a vote that need never have taken place.

He also called a Scottish referendum last year believing that would settle, once and for all, demands in Scotland for independence, which it has not done.

There are now likely to be calls for a fresh referendum in Scotland, which voted heavily yesterday in favor of EU membership, and that could take the country out of the United Kingdom.

Cameron has announced today that he will resign by the time of the Conservative Party annual conference in October so that a new prime minister can lead two years of negotiations on Britain's withdrawal. He will be leaving the United Kingdom in its worst crisis since the World War II.

The other political leader primarily responsible for the result is Jeremy Corbyn, whose Labour Party is in favor of remaining in the EU. But he failed to lead and generate a coherent campaign to mobilize the vote of the party's members, proving himself incapable of effective political leadership.

In 1973, I became what is now known as a Euroskeptic when I went for the Financial Times to Brussels for a European Economic Community (EEC, as the EU was called then) briefing on plans for a directive on works councils. We were told what Britain would have to implement (no mention of discussion or debate) by two senior German and French bureaucrats with all the arrogance that has helped to make the EU so unpopular.

I came away anti-EEC, and that has colored my views on the dysfunctional institution ever since (even though the works councils directive never happened). But as an FT columnist wrote two days ago, "the case for Britain to leave the EU just does not stack up." I would therefore have been voting remain yesterday if I had a vote.

Sadly, not enough people did vote remain because Europe became a proxy for everything that they felt was wrong with the way that Britain has been run for years. This indicates that they dream of a new beginning with Brexit somehow leading to them having a new measure of control over how they are governed.

That, of course, is a fallacy, because the new leadership of the Conservative Party that emerges this summer will be from the same elite establishment that they were voting against yesterday.

It is difficult to see what has been gained, or could be gained, by Britain leaving the EU, except for two years of dire political and economic uncertainty that could have been avoided.

John Elliott writes from New Delhi. His latest book is Implosion: India's Tryst With Reality.