The Great British Break-Off

This week, we’re catching up on the split heard round the world.

People laughed at Tory historian Niall Ferguson for warning that Brexit—Britain’s proposed exit from Europe—would be like his own divorce: a nasty and desolating affair that left him alone with his

And yet! A week since it’s happened—52% out, 48% in—what we’re watched does resemble the bitterest of family fractures. The adults are checked out: prime minister David Cameron abruptly resigned, while Jeremy Corbyn, his Labour adversary, is himself embattled. And few of the victorious “Leave” leaders seem prepared to step in and help the process along.

Sparkling London, with its skyscrapers and trillions of dollars of daily business, was a spot of deep “Remain” yellow on the popular map. But it has been indicted by the towns and villages, even Labour strongholds, that no longer recognize themselves in the capital. Scotland and even Northern Ireland—decidedly for remaining—are threatening to go their own way. Everywhere, racial and xenophobic rhetoric—directed at Poles and Pakistanis—is, painfully, on the rise.


Our guests—many of them intelligent, cosmopolitan Brits—had nothing but distaste for the “Leave” campaign led by Nigel Farage, with his Hitlerian posters, and Boris Johnson (he of the misleading megabus). But they’d disagree on the nature of the case for remaining in a European Union: how to sell it, or whether the U.K. should do it at all.

We thought the best thing to do would be to convene our favorite Brits and Anglophiles to discuss just where this came from—and what’s next.

Guest List
Mark Blyth
professor of political economy at Brown University author of Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea.
Alex Gourevitch
professor of political science of capitalism at Brown University and 2016-2017 fellow at the Radcliffe insitute
Arthur Goldhammer
French translator and affiliate of the Center for European Studies at Harvard
John Lanchester
English novelist and author of How to Speak Money: What the Money People Say--and What It Really Means
Simon Schama
professor of art history and history at Columbia University and author of The Story of the Jews and  Rough Crossings

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  • Potter

    Your guests were well chosen– what a group!!! The discussion was excellent.

    It’s all good; that’s my own major feeling. Too much happening at once for many and many don’t feel they are included or benefiting. So we are taking a deep breath… everyone. And we are taking notice. Notice too how vindictive and petty countries (EU leadership) can be.

  • Robert J. Crawford

    We happened to be in the UK for our daughter’s graduation from Cambridge on the day the Brexit results came in. To put it mildly, the mood of that elite crowd was unremittingly grim, like they had lost their future to a dirty mix of xenophobia and sentimental insularity. It seemed almost as if there had been a death in the family.

    Once again, Chris, a wonderfully diverse and provocative discussion. You are the best.

  • dirk in omaha

    loved Schama’s proper rejection of knee-jerk attempts to recast the ant-immigration, nationalist/isolationist/populist, aspects as somehow being a turn to left politics and the working class suddenly rejecting capitalism, there has been no mass shift to vote in ways which would please Bernie and co. as his campaign has sadly demonstrated.

  • JeffEwener

    Schama says the vote was against the Idea of Europe. In fact it was against the Reality of Europe. The two began to diverge from the very beginning, at first ever so slightly. But the gap has grown till the two have really nothing in common anymore. A neo-liberal technocratic dictatorship with no meaningful democratic input, imposing austerity everywhere and crushing any dissent with mass impoverishment, which deprives national governments of the most basic fiscal tools, and says, “Elections cannot be allowed to change economic policies” as Dr Schäuble put it — none of this has anything to do with the Idea of Europe, or with Beethoven’s Song of Joy either, but it is the Reality. Schama, however, can blissfully ignore the Reality of Europe because of the enormous degree of social privilege he enjoys, which insulates him from all that messy stuff (though I’m sure it’s so sad to read about it in the Guardian), and enables him to preserve his beautiful Idea pure & untainted.

  • Funny thing happened on the way to the exit – Brexit leadership disavows voters
    expectations and each other – Boris is out – Euro residents will not be asked to leave and immigration will continue into the immediate future.

  • Peter Lydon

    Hi, Chris–Great show on Brexit on June 30th. Everybody was good, maybe particularly John Lanchester, and Mark Blyth and your two Americans at the end, Alex Gourevitch and Arthur Goldhammer.
    As the reasons for the “Leave” vote in the UK, and Trump’s support here were being cataloged, the missing element among the offenses of modernity was modern technology, specifically information technology. It’s understood and controlled by a smart, highly trained few, who form a small new elite, while it’s mystifying and baffling to the many, especially older, more local, identity-bound folks. Like the Gherkin, it has no real native place. Most importantly, like an immigrant, modern info and commo technology will take your job, and do your work faster, more accurately and cheaper than you can.
    For huge numbers of people a job with the old social solidity is the great prize of economic life and the sine qua non of an acceptable social situation for individuals and families. How to share the great gains of tech (and globalism) without leaving millions behind and aggrieved? Deep and giant changes, including values changes, in “the system” are going to be needed.

  • Potter

    Thank you for the soundcloud interview with Richard Tuck, excellent. (I wish it was downloadable. ?)

    Re: Schama I disagree with his interpretation of what Sanders is saying i.e. that it’s all about racism or aboutimmigration (per se). People have been demagogued but they were ripe for it because of actually being left out. as Chris says “left behind-ism” and Schama agrees. though he Schama insists on that it’s about taking control of the borders. These are people who this week, by the way, are remembering the Battle of the Somme and all the sacrifices/losses, traumas of the last century, not only the glories of empire.

    Everyone on this podcast, one of your best, made excellent points.

  • “…Sanders is saying i.e. that it’s all about racism or about immigration…”

    I think what Schama said is that Sanders is wrong about the working class rising
    up and Schama pointed to working class cities voting to stay (e.g. Liverpool).

    The retort was that Sunderland UK, which is home to a Nissan Motor Company assembly
    plant making record exports from the UK to the EU, voted to leave.

    The vote was ultimately intersubjective. That means there are many subjective
    reasons for wanting change totaled to one result. When one works back from the
    result, there is no single reason that proves the result.

    I think this is where Schama is correct: it was the idea of Europe that was voted
    down. All the realities of Europe wouldn’t support the concept of a united Europe.

    • Potter

      Some of the intersubjective reasons:

      Pro-‘Brexit’ City of Sunderland Glad to Poke Establishment in the Eye

      It’s a communal thing too .. where a town is strong as a town.
      So not only about immigrants or racism ( if that especially). Everyone’s got racism I think to a degree. What brings it out? What/who gives permission to take it out of the depths? In Liverpool the culture is different; people mix. So it does not break down as working class versus the elite. I can see how some are not feeling at home in their own country, can’t absorb the change so fast or well in some places.

  • Duncan Cookson

    Good balanced show as always. I voted Brexit but was in a minority amongst my liberal, privately educated friends, who have mostly now sunk into a surprisingly profound and bitter mourning period. I think there is a lot to learn about how sophistaicated the psychology of campaigning has become. Very few on either side voted purely on the issues, this was very much characterised as a choice between good and evil on the Remain side and I suppose the priviliedged vs the common man on the Leave side. For example the plea in the question of whether we “are an outward-looking, generous nation”. That doesn’t exactly hinge on membership of the EU, but a lot of people were manipulated into identifying emotionally with various abstract ideas and emotions and letting that inform their vote. Of course most of us are too busy with our lives to do much research and the central problem with the campaign was what Britain would look like after Brexit could only be speculated upon. It was all guesswork.

    I think that the Brexit vote can be compared to a Trump vote, there are similar themes, but I would argue that the fact Trump is a more extreme choice than Brexit speaks to Americans having experienced worse over the years in terms of democracy and social justice than the British. Frustration in the US seems to have built up so much they are willing to consider throwing a grenade into the political system in the form of DT.

    I get the impression that immigration is an issue in the United States, but the issue really is the pace of change, ‘being left-behind’ as your contributers put it. The mainstream parties, particularly the left, don’t do anybody any favours by demonising people and their perhaps poorly articulated concerns. So even though you think Trump might be crazy, if he seems willing to address this central concern of the pace of change then you might vote for him. In the same way, if the only way you think you might get the sort of policies you want is to vote Brexit, you might do so despite the economic concerns.

    It didn’t inform my vote, I grew up in The Netherlands in an International school, most of my friends are expats from the European continent, I identify as White European rather than White British on Government ethnicity forms (note the existence of difference) and I don’t think a post Brexit government will actually reduce immigration by all that much, but the population growing by 500,000 a year, largely driven by immigration, is extraordinary. It’s too much. Communities have changed rapidly across the nation, it has been a highly visible development, not something imagined. Foreign voices and shops abound across Britain exponentially. You can spend an entire day in London without speaking to anyone who was born in the UK. I would leave in the morning, go to work with a Lithuanian boss, work with my Italian, Thai, Romanian and Polish colleagues get a coffee and a sandwich from an Italian Barista, go home to speak to my Israeli landlady and my Swedish housemate. This is all good fun in a way, but for the character of a city of London to have changed so dramtically in the space of the last 15 years or so is startling and it doesn’t work for everyone.

    There are other profound and rational reasons for voting Brexit, although you wouldn’t know it by the outpouring of vitriol and finger-pointing from those who voted Remain. Firstly no American would vote to give up their sovereignty to an unelected council of cronies based in another country, never mind 48%. No liberal, no conservative, nobody. No-one had succeeded in reforming the EU, it was never going to happen. When people voted against the EU constitution in referenda in France and Holland, the populace was largely ignored and it was implemented via the backdoor. With the example of Greece and the push to include the undemocratic basket case that is Turkey, against widespread opposition amongst the electorate, the mood music around the EU was becoming increasingly alarming. Yes there are still those who see it as a social justice project, but it seems like any large, centralised institution, it is becoming more unwieldy, even less democratic and increasingly under the influence of an elite that is hard to identify, never mind influence.

    I wouldn’t agree that there was an anti-London vote. I think that’s a bit conceited by your contributer. I would be very surprised if that was in the minds of anybody who voted Brexit. The fact that London voted Remain doesn’t necessarily speak to it’s superior intellect and generosity of spirit in my opinion. I have non-British friends who have been firmly anti-globalist all their lives, railed against institutions like the EU, but suddenly forgot all that when it came to them potentially needing to get a work visa to stay and lambasted me for my choice. London voted Remain out of self-interest, just like other places voted Leave. There’s no special nobility there or a phenomenon where people who actually live among immigrants realise how wonderful they are and their racism melts away. There a huge communities that benefit from generous immigration rules and businesses and sectors of industry that rely on cheap sources of labour. And there are a few reasons why Scotland voted Remain that have nothing to do with love of the EU. A central theme of the SNP campaign was the potential for a second independence referendum if Scotland voted Remain but the UK voted Leave.

    Anyway, we will see how it pans out but I would be worried for the United States. I think Trump might be crazy enough to lose the election but I wouldn’t bet on it. But where Brexit doesn’t mean a change of government or policy, a Trump presidency is a real thing that will have an impact on the whole world. I wouldn’t expect him to do anything he promised, that’s not his form, but it will probably be chaos.

    The solution is political change, more representation, a narrowing gap between rich and poor, that’s what people need to fight for. If Hilary doesn’t make that part of her campaign, she may lose this thing.