A strange atmosphere set in on Friday, after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. The Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced that he would step down, and the Labour Party leader,Jeremy Corbyn, faced a vote of no confidence. Once the institutions of British politics proved they could not hold—both major parties had pushed adamantly for the Remain cause—individual politicians hung out their banners. Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister for Scotland, promised to prepare legislation for another Scottish independence referendum and said she would begin a conversation with Brussels about how Scotland might remain part of the E.U. Sturgeon said that she had spoken with Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London—which, like Scotland, had voted to remain—and that he was of a similar mind. Khan did not confirm this, but he did post a statement on his Facebook page assuring European residents of London that, at least in the city, they are still “very welcome.”
In the Leave camp there was less anger—they had won, after all—but there was an air of factional tension. Nigel Farage, the provocative leader of the U.K. Independence Party, was left out of the formal Leave campaign but remains the center of British nationalist feeling. Hours after the results were announced, Farage appeared on a morning show and said that one of the central promises of the Leave campaign—that three hundred and fifty million pounds that are being spent on E.U. membership each week could instead be invested in the National Health Service—simply would not happen, and that he himself “would never have made” the claim. “You must understand,” Farage said, with a smirk breaking across his face, “I was ostracized by the official Leave campaign.”
On one side was Farage, goading the Tory insurgents who had led the formal campaign, suggesting they had overpromised and lied to their supporters. On the other side were the insurgents themselves, among them former Mayor of London Boris Johnson and Lord Chancellor Michael Gove, attempting to reconcile with the Remain faction of the Conservative Party and to claim the party leadership that Cameron had abandoned. Johnson and Gove gave a strange press conference of their own, reading out praise for Cameron’s Administration with their jaws clenched and eyes down. Johnson praised Cameron’s “bravery” and called the man whose career he had destroyed “one of the most extraordinary politicians of our age.”
For Americans, the connection to our own politics has been limited but obvious. Polls suggest that Americans are generally much less obsessed with immigration than are Britons. Nevertheless, the power of nationalism to overthrow the politics of our closest ally has been arresting. The Brexit campaign looked similar to the Trump campaign; we have had our own experience of these tensions. “Anger is a very powerful emotion in politics,” one of Farage’s deputies observed before the vote. Now the center-right party and the insurgent outsiders must make some accommodation; the revolutionary hype of the campaign must be reconciled with the pedantry of governance; the anger of the campaign must either be coaxed onward or must subside. There is a sideways window, at least, into what the early days of a Trump Administration might be like, something we so far know nothing about.
Donald Trump, in Scotland this week to reopen one of his golf courses, gave a Greenwich Mean Time press conference of his own. He praised the Leave movement, whose proponents, he said, also wanted to “take their country back.” He also said that he’d heard similar sentiments from German friends of his (as my colleague Amy Davidson noted yesterday) and intimated that a similar movement might be afoot there, too. A few weeks ago, when he was interviewed by Michael Wolff, Trump seemed not to know what the term Brexit meant, but now he seems to considering himself a part of a movement—or at least a group of parallel movements, whose separate drawbridges are pulled shut. Exactly what commonalities he saw was hard to parse, perhaps because Trump himself did not know.