There’s no doubt that world politics in 2016 turned nationalist, anti-globalization and increasingly illiberal, and that’s clear from three touchstone elections — Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s election in May, the decision by British voters to leave the European Union in June and US president-elect Donald Trump’s victory in November.
But what if the Brexit referendum didn’t even happen in 2016?
Timing is everything in politics and, when former UK prime minister David Cameron originally announced that he would concede a referendum on EU membership, the law that he and his Conservative-led government later enacted in the House of Commons specified that the referendum would be held no later than December 31, 2017. From 2013 throughout much of the 2015 general election campaign across Great Britain, many commentators and politicians assumed that Cameron would hold the referendum in 2017 — and not in 2016.
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Only after Cameron’s surprisingly strong 2015 victory did his team seriously consider moving the referendum forward to June 2016, barely a year after the Conservative Party’s sweep to reelection.
At the time, the aggressive approach made a certain amount of sense. Cameron was at the height of his political popularity after the 2015 vote, and so the sooner Cameron could move beyond the European question, the better — and the better to end the uncertainty of a Brexit that began with the 2013 decision to hold a vote. A quicker (and shorter) campaign would give the ‘Leave’ camp less time to raise money and win voters that, though divided, seemed to edge toward the ‘Remain’ camp. Another recession, perhaps sparked by a new American administration or more troubles with European banks or debt, in particular, could dampen voter moods about EU matters.
After the 2015 election, Cameron’s negotiating team rushed through a set of concessions with EU officials over migrant welfare payments and the British financial services sector. In February 2016, Cameron finalized the negotiated changes to the UK-EU relationship at a two-day summit in Brussels. The concessions were essentially crumbs, surely a disappointment to Cameron, even at the time, but it didn’t stop him from declaring a tactical victory and a reason to support ‘Remain’ vigorously.
Perhaps it would have been better to slow the negotiations — even seem to let the negotiations lapse — and take as much time as Cameron needed to at least show that he was credibly working to secure the best possible deal for the United Kingdom.
Also recall that the Brexit vote took place just 21 months after another high-profile referendum on Scottish independence. The all-hands and full-court-press approach worked in September 2014, as major industry and business leaders, all the major national political parties and all the country’s former prime ministers lined up severely and pleadingly in support of the ‘Better Together’ campaign. It was enough to perpetuate the union with Scotland, just barely. But when Cameron and the pro-Remain camp tried a similar campaign in June 2016, it failed. By the time of the Brexit referendum, voters were far more skeptical of those institutional actors all now united for Remain.
Maybe an extra year would have helped create distance between the Scottish and the Brexit referenda. Maybe it wouldn’t. But it shows just how difficult it is to win ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ plebiscites within the same 21-month period.
In any event, as Trump emerged as the Republican nominee in the final months leading to the Brexit vote, the Trump campaign and the pro-‘Leave’ campaign clearly drew energy from each other. In early May, Trump gleefully endorsed ‘Leave’ after US president Barack Obama in April endorsed the Remain camp alongside Cameron. Trump then took credit for the victory at an odd press conference that took place at one of his golf courses in Scotland on June 24.
In a cryptic August tweet, Trump called himself ‘Mr. Brexit’ in a sign that he believed American voters would embrace a similar nationalism in the form of his own candidacy:
They will soon be calling me MR. BREXIT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 18, 2016
After the election, one of the first people Trump met in Trump Tower after his upset win was prominent Leave campaigner Nigel Farage, and Trump promptly suggested via Twitter that he would prefer Farage, the former leader of the anti-EU and anti-immigrant United Kingdom Independence Party, as the UK ambassador to the United States.
There are many, many reasons why Trump won the November election and why Hillary Clinton lost. It’s of course far too tenuous to say that if only Cameron had scheduled the Brexit vote in 2017, Clinton would be president-elect now.
But it’s clear that Trump looks to Brexit as first, a harbinger of his own election five months later and, second, a wellspring of trans-Atlantic populist energy from a country with which the United States has a longstanding ‘special relationship.’
In a world where the Brexit vote were held instead in December 2017, Trump might still have won the presidential election. But Trump’s victory would have come as more of a fluke of the American political context than a global rupture point that’s suddenly turning darkly against globalization, trade and economic liberalism.