Jo Guldi in Boston Review:
It is safe to say that the Brexit vote—only the third nation-wide referendum in the history of the United Kingdom—disrupted ordinary political norms and expectations. There was the surprise of the vote itself, and David Cameron’s quick abdication; the baffling disappearance of Boris Johnson, followed by his appointment in Theresa May’s new government; and then the failed coup in the Labour Party, leaving Jeremy Corbyn at the helm. Britain’s systems of representational democracy have traditionally functioned to block popular disruptions of this kind. What historical forces are behind Brexit’s spectacular exception to this rule?
One answer begins in the second half of the twentieth century. Several commentators have read the vote as the result of a 1970s turn toward neoliberalism that left the working class behind in a program of coal pit closures and denationalization. Historian Harold James has underscored that the European Monetary System (EMS) grew out of proposals for an international money market that promised escape from national cycles of monetary expansion and inflation. From 1977 onward, the EMS made cheap credit, backed by European nations, available to private banks. In James’s account, this stability-focused monetary policy created a twenty-first century economy that was unaccountable to the working class, diminishing national and local control.
The identity of the European Union is wrapped up in hopes for peace after decades of war. But the neoliberalization narrative also sees in the EU a symbol of the rise of rule by financial experts and the discounting of class-based, representational politics. The financial management once beholden to local and national politics was placed in the hands of an international body, and national governments lost control—or simply divested themselves—of the levers they once had claimed for raising wages. Among the casualties of this transformation were the nationalized industries disassembled under Margaret Thatcher, which had leveraged the power of the state in bargaining between workers and employers. In short order, CEO pay ratcheted up and wages stagnated, and a landscape of ruins was left behind.