Historian: Brexit vote was ‘unnecessary act of self-harm’

A man carries an EU flag after Britain voted to leave the European Union, outside Downing Street in London.

The eminent British writer, broadcaster and historian Simon Schama minces no words about the United Kingdom's vote to leave the European Union. 

“This was an unnecessary act of self-harm,” Schama, who has long opposed the push to leave the EU, told The Takeaway on Friday. Schama, a contributing editor to the Financial Times, says that the vote in favor of "Brexit" tells a bigger story.

"What we saw last night, and what we're seeing all over Europe, and where we live in the United States, is the long result of the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009," he says. "The net result of that has been a kind of grievance about inequality — particularly inequality of income."

That feeling of inequality among working class people both in Europe and the United States, Schama argues, has led to a rising tide of populism, xenophobia and tribalism, and has produced nationalistic politicians like Donald Trump in America, Boris Johnson in the UK and Marine Le Pen in France.

“Socialism has proved not really to be a viable option in Europe at the moment, or it hasn’t wanted to fight for itself,” Schama says. “But, populist tribal nationalism, with all of its visceral emotional force, is absolutely rampant right now.”

The sting of inequality and the lingering pain of the recession has generated anger — anger that has transformed into nationalism and a disdain for foreigners — and the decision to leave the EU is how the people of the UK are lashing out, Schama argues.

“You need a convenient villain, really, and if a politician pretends to deliver it to you and call it ‘immigrants’ — and those were the first words out of the mouth of Donald Trump’s campaign, and they’re identical to the words out of the mouth of all those in Europe, other than Britain, who are celebrating this morning, including Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands,” Schama says.

Economic alienation is driving the “rage” of working class voters, Schama says, adding that the perceived antidote to such rage is nativism and isolation from the EU and its liberal immigration policies. Additionally, Schama says that the “mythology of British exceptionalism” — which supports a vision of the UK succeeding, if only it could operate independently — is deeply rooted in the psyche of many.

“But when you’re in a state of confusion and dismay, and you flock to the slogan ‘Take Our Country Back,’ you are thinking of the John of Gaunt speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II, of ‘this scepter’d isle’ — of your separateness,” he says. “But we will not recover our sovereignty, and we’ve discovered very quickly from the collapse of the pound that this is a very partial sovereignty … [British exceptionalism is] extremely seductive when you feel aggrieved and unequal and alienated, and that’s what you cleave to. There’s nothing to distinguish that appeal from ‘Make America Great Again.’”

With the UK out, Schama says that it appears that the world is seeing the beginning of the end of the European Union, which has kept the peace on continent for the last 70 years.

"There’s a lot of talk of healing in Britain this morning, and I’m afraid I don’t believe in healing at this particular moment — I believe in fighting,” he says. “What we’ve learned is that pluralist, outward-looking democracy is a very fragile plant, wherever we see it in the world, and now it’s time to gird our loins and defend it.”

A version of this story came from PRI's The Takeaway, a daily radio show that invites you to be a part of the national conversaton.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.