Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Why has the US resisted Trump but the UK acquiesced to Brexit?

This post is a response to a provocative piece by Anatole Kaletsky. He writes
“While the US has taken only 100 days to see through Trump’s “alternative reality” (though perhaps not through Trump himself), almost nobody in Britain is even questioning the alternative reality of Brexit.”

In other words, although both the US and UK succumbed to right wing populism, the US is strongly resisting while the UK has given up doing so. He contrasts the reaction of business to Trump and Brexit. “US businesses started lobbying immediately to block any Trump policies that threatened their economic interests” which has “removed Trump’s main protectionist threat.” In contrast “no major British companies have tried to protect their interests by campaigning to reverse the Brexit decision. None has even publicly pointed out that the referendum gave Prime Minister Theresa May no mandate to rule out membership of the European single market and customs union after Britain leaves the EU.”

One reaction that many will have is that while US elections are 4 year affairs, a referendum was meant to be ‘for a generation’. If the Leave vote had been 60% or more, I might have some sympathy with this view. But the narrow victory coupled with uncertainty about what Brexit actually entails means that the argument for a vote after negotiations conclude is compelling. But only around 30% of people support being allowed a second vote. In contrast, currently 56% of US voters disapprove of Donald Trump.

You could say this is because Donald Trump has done plenty of things for US voters to get angry about, whereas Brexit has not happened. I would put the point rather differently. The problems with Trump are visible to everyone. You just need to read his tweets! The costs of Brexit are economic and less clear to everyone. For example the depreciation immediately after Brexit was very visible, but you needed some knowledge of economics to know that this would mean lower living standards for everyone living in the UK.

This gets translated into how each are handled in the media. The New York Times and the Washington Post are in the front line against Trump, while if you want information on how Brexit is damaging the economy you will find plenty of it in the Financial Times. But that negative news does not normally make it into the broadcast media, because the broadcast media has decided that the Brexit debate is over. The reason it has done that is the real reason why the UK appears to have given in to Brexit, which is the Labour party.

It is difficult to get ideas discussed in a sustained way in the broadcast media unless one of the two major political parties is pushing it (see, for example, opposition to austerity before Corbyn). In contrast to the Democrats, who have been unified in their opposition to Trump, Labour have accepted Hard Brexit. It would be unfair to dump the whole responsibility for Labour’s Brexit U-turn on Jeremy Corbyn. Many Labour MPs pushed in the same direction because they thought it would gain them votes: austerity appeasement all over again. I think a strong leader who believed in EU membership could have overcome that, but Corbyn’s preferences were different.

As a result, we have had a general election supposedly about who will be best at negotiating Brexit without any discussion of Brexit itself. Despite the LibDems best efforts, there has been no discussion of all the events since the referendum which indicate bad times ahead, as outlined by Ian Dunt. There has been endless discussion about how taxes and spending might change under Labour or the Conservatives, but none about the elephant in the room: the cuts or tax increases that Brexit and lower immigration will require. There is a hope, expressed by Bill Keegan, that today’s vote may lead to a hung parliament, which in turn might just lead to a second referendum, but it is a very slim hope.

It may also be the only hope. George Eaton may well be right that Labour’s decision to back a Hard Brexit has helped them in this election. The danger is that Labour will draw the lesson that this will be true in 2022 as well, and their new leader (if there is a new leader) will also commit to hard Brexit. Again the austerity mistake will be repeated: assuming the electorate's attitudes will remain unchanged. If that happens, we may well see in four years time a rejuvenated US with a Democrat in the White House and Republicans routed because of their association with Trump, but a UK entering a long period of relative decline and isolation because it gave in to right wing populism. 


  1. A significant reason for the acquiescence is because huge chunks of the media have been working hard to silence those who may disagree.

    Between the two prongs of "you must respect the Will Of The People" and calling people "traitors", "saboteurs" and "Enemies Of The People", a lot of people are doing the typical British thing and are not wanting to cause a fuss.

    At the risk of invoking Godwin's Law, this is pretty much like what was seen in 1930s Germany.

    1. As an American I agree on the first point. We still have the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post (as a Washingtonian I find it too conservative on local issues, but that's another story), etc. But these are major national newspapers. TV is different. The local stations are increasingly owned by Sinclair Broadcasting, a pretty right company out of Baltimore. But the major networks are reasonably objective. Not cable news, and all those yakking "experts" debating on screen.

      But what is scary is the disconnect between facts and non-fact. E.g., there was an op-ed in the W. Post yesterday by the publisher of a small newspaper in Ohio that had endorsed Trump. He commented that most newspapers in the states that Trump won didn't endorse him, and that was a comment on the disconnection of newspapers from their communities. I'd argue it was a disconnect of the populace from being connected to reality.

  2. You fail to see the blindingly obvious.

    Trump is an individual not a "system". If Trump were to die today the political and electoral system would remain the same; Pence would take over and it would be back to business as usual.People are criticizing Trump the individual not the office of POTUS.

    Without wishing to state the obvious Brexit has not yet happened so how can people pass judgement on it and push back against it? If you were writing this blog in 2037 then it might make some sense because it would have happened and we could see the result, as we can see the result of 44 years of EU membership.How can people push back against something that has not yet happened and which, in any case, a majority voted for only a few months ago? It is a nonsense and what is more obvious nonsense.

    Also we had a referendum at which a majority acquiesced to Brexit and this The mechanism of a referendum) is part of our system; if we overturn this we overturn part of our system, quite a different matter from questioning an individual. When you criticize Corbyn you criticize him not the system of parliamentary democracy.

    1. Referenda are not, and never have been, part of the UK system

    2. It's quite obvious that referenda are not part of the UK system and never have been.

  3. Yes Labour's acquiescence on Hard Brexit (and in 2015 on Austerity) is lamentable.

    I'm afraid your optimism on a Republican rout in 2020 is unfounded. Right-wing populism is not based on rational voting.

    I think the real hope in the US is impeachment. The resistance in the US isn't from the Democrats, but from the Judiciary.

    What we're seeing is that the US constitution is better designed than that in the UK.

    1. Impeachment isn't done by the judiciary but by Congress. A House majority must convict him, even though Republicans have most seats. Then two-thirds of the Senate must convict him. But Republicans have a majority. The party would have to turn on him, for its own reasons, not because Democrats say so.

    2. And so what will happen? Mike Pence president. Do you like him so much? It will be Turtleman aka Mitch McConnell who will be pulling the strings. Same crazy GOP senators who approved the likes of Pruitt and Mnuchin ("foreclosure king"). The only hope is the midterms.

    3. Impeachment won't happen. It's too hard. It paralyzes the Legislative Branch from doing anything else. While because of how legislative districts are drawn to favor conservative and rural interests, it will still be tough for Democrats to take the House next year, but I am hopeful. We will get an indication if Jon Ossoff manages to win in Georgia on 6/20.

      Your point about the system is apt. I wrote a piece after the election commenting that people focusing on Pres. Trump was misplaced, the big issue being the control of the Exec. and both Legislative branches by the same party. I didn't realize though how tenuous that control was, because of the hard right in the House in particular. You'd think they'd be accomplishing a lot, but they aren't, because of a real lack of policy heft.

  4. "only around 30% of people support being allowed a second vote. In contrast, currently 56% of US voters disapprove of Donald Trump". Oh come on! Disapproval of Trump doesn't mean wanting to have another election today!

  5. Polling also shows that in a rematch, Trump would still beat Clinton but by a larger margin. Not comparable to the Brexit vote.

  6. An interesting piece, though I feel you might need to pay attention to the media landscape of the United Kingdom as well.

    Can you even begin to imagine the press and their reporting if Labour came out against Brexit? There is no acceptable outlet for 'remain' in the widely accepted media. I don't believe Labour's acquiescence has caused this - rather the distorted nature of the media market in the United Kingdom.

    I have never commented on your blog before, but enjoy reading it all the time - so thank you in advance.

  7. Trump is not an individual. He's the direct product of the Republican Party. He won their primary and has strong support across their legislative base despite both errors and scandal.

    I agree with Magnus that democratic resistance to Trump has been weak with some democrats voting for Trumps nominees. Impeachment though is a legislative, not judicial process.

  8. You describe our broadcast media in effect as politically bipartisan rather than being nonpartisan.

    Until the BBC has its charter changed to force it to reflect university peer review we will continue to see its counter-enlightenment buckling to the politics of conservatism.

  9. I would argue that there is no difference in reaction between the UK and the US. While voters may despair over Trump's election, I am not aware of any significant group declaring his presidency to be illegitimate. It's the same with Brexit. The democratic result was for Brexit and, accepting the argument that another vote should be held would spur calls for a third vote and so on. It is simpler and possibly fairer to accept it. While there are plenty of arguments for why voters should not have voted for Brexit or why they may have been mislead, blame should be cast on parliament for having allowed such a significant shift from the status quo to require only 50% majority, and on election legislation (so parliament again) for allowing campaigners to lie and mislead. Unfortunately there is insufficient evidence, as far as I'm aware, for the referendum being labelled illegitimate. In fact, I wonder whether the only way to determine that illegitimacy would be to hold another referendum; but doing so would be to assume the illegitmacy prior to verification! That would surely set a bad precedent?

  10. The Judiciary has no involvement in the impeachment process, other than the Chief Justice holding the gavel if it comes to a Senate trial. The resistance is from the fact that the House and Senate are wholly controlled by the Republican Party, and they dare not oppose Trump for fear of losing their primary elections to his supporters.

    If our Constitution were better designed than the UK's, Trump wouldn't even *be* President. He lost by several million votes!

  11. What do you mean with labour's support of a hard brexit? Corbyn said clearly, in response to Theresa May, that no deal was in fact a bad deal. Isn't it, along with his commitment to clarify the status of EU residents immediately and unilaterally, a clear indication that he would pursue a soft brexit?

  12. lol. The US has not "resisted" Trump. This is a deep flaw in thinking by people who are accustomed to a Parliamentary system. In the USA, the government is designed so that legislation takes far longer to pass that in a Parliamentary system. Getting legislation through two separate houses of Congress, each with their own rules, is a lot like herding 276 cats. Even on items where there is widespread consensus, getting something passed in 100 days is extremely optimistic.

    Don't gauge legislative progress by what you read in the headlines. Progress on legislation in Congress is very often non-linear. A lot of people including top Senate staffers say it won't happen, until suddenly a consensus bill emerges. Many if not most times Senators are "resisting," simply to get something for their own district in the bill.

    I do expect Congress to move the tax system to a territorial tax system, despite the pleadings of retailers. Yes, they will rename "border adjustment" to "territorial system" to sell it, so that groups like the Heritage foundation can change their mind. But its the same thing.

    The only thing I agree with from Kaletsky is that the US is pragmatic. Generally because of the checks and balances we have, and the fact that the Constitution locks us into a two-party system, voters vote for "direction" not "destination." Voters are accustomed to politicians not getting their every wish. For Example, typical Trump voters I talk to don't really expect a concrete wall on the border, especially the 1200 miles where there is a river, but they will expect significantly tighter border security. The reality is that Trump sold himself as a right-wing populist, but policy wise behind the scenes he is barely a Republican. Voters are not dumb, they know this. In fact, many are counting on him not achieving all his extreme goals. Americans are fond of checks and balances, and very often split tickets and vote for a Republican governor (or President) and Democratic local representative, for precisely that reason.

    Democrats are making a huge mistake going far left socialist. That is not where the country is. 33 of the 50 states have Republican governors. They are confusing American's penchant for checks and balances with the fact that generally the country wants lower taxes, less regulation, more infrastructure (without higher taxes) and stronger border security. They will get walloped when the time comes.

  13. With respect to Labour, and my MP is Thangom, I would like to see it undertake a gradual withdraw from its stance on Brexit. Neither, do I believe trying to out hard Brexit the Conservatives will serve well either. With some hindsight, and Prometheus has in the past not been a friend of Labour's policy makers, it can chose those aspects it pushes for, or rejects, in the knowledge that most will turn out to be disastrous for Britain, and that this will be evident by the time of the next general election.

  14. Dear Proessor,

    Both countries use the English language, noted for its inaccuracies and double meanings. Use German, or Dutch if you must.


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