by Stuart Reid
“A rising star on the right,” as the BBC has called him, Kwasi Kwarteng was elected to the British Parliament in 2010 as a member of the Conservative Party. The son of Ghanaian immigrants, he received a Ph.D. in economic history from Cambridge University and worked as an investment banker before entering politics. Kwarteng, a supporter of the United Kingdom’s leaving the EU, spoke with Foreign Affairs deputy managing editor Stuart Reid in London on July 6.
Why did the people vote for Brexit?
The first issue, obviously, was immigration—and immigration as it’s perceived, not so much in London or the southeast, but particularly in northern areas and agricultural areas. People feel that having 150,000 eastern Europeans coming in every single year, who can just come by mere virtue of the fact that they have EU citizenship, drove down wages. These are lower-paid people. And I always thought, Why would they vote to be in a system where, essentially, you’re forcing people to compete with 150,000 extra workers every year, essentially driving wages down and diminishing the quality of life for a lot of these people? That’s the perception. A lot of clever people talk about the “lump of labor fallacy” and all the rest of it, but there are lots of different economic theories involved. But the perception was what drove the politics, not the economic theory. In large parts of rural England—a town like Boston, which your own town of Boston is named after—the perception was that things were changing, life wasn’t getting better for quote-unquote indigenous people, and they voted against that.
The second thing was there’s also a nationalistic spirit to a lot of people in England. They felt that they wanted to get their country back. They wanted to take control. That was the phrase that the Vote Leave campaign used, and it was a highly effective one. They didn’t like these foreigners in Brussels bossing them around. They have a sense of British exceptionalism, which they derived from their history and World War II and all those sorts of things.
Thirdly, there was a sense that they wanted to kick the political establishment. You saw this with the [Donald] Trump nomination in the primaries. They wanted to send a message to their political elite that they weren’t going to be pushed around. They’d had enough.
If voters are actually wrong about the economic impact, do politicians have a duty to correct those perceptions?
This is one of the most extraordinary developments in this debate. We have a democracy. Every democracy in the history of the world will have had people losing elections saying, “The people were misinformed, the people were ignorant, the people didn’t know about A, B, or C.” That always happens. That’s what losing an election feels like. No one who ever lost an election said, “The people were totally informed and totally accurate and made a rational choice and didn’t vote for me.” We have a democratic system. Now, if we didn’t like that, we could have teams of experts and economists and smart people with a Ph.D., but we don’t.
A lot of this is sour grapes. People are upset that they’ve lost and so they say the people were misinformed, the people were lied to, the people are dumb. I actually feel that people have a very acute sense of their own self-interest and they vote accordingly.
Do you think racism played any role in the vote?
I think a little bit. It would be absurd to say that it played absolutely no role whatsoever. I think you can understand it more broadly in terms of national identity, culture, a sense of pride. And we can’t have it both ways. In the last few years, we’ve had a diamond jubilee, we’ve had a royal wedding, we’ve had the queen’s 90th birthday, the London Olympics. This decade has been one of quite a lot of national feeling in Britain. We’ve had two royal babies being born; the succession has been secured. All this feeds into a mood.
What was your rationale for voting to leave?
I think that the EU [is] fairly corrupt. I think it’s unaccountable. I think there’s no real democratic transparency. There were these people called the five presidents—no one knew who they were or what they did. There was a sense they were going down this integrationist route without really consulting the people. Something had to give. And I think the Brexit vote, actually, has made [other European countries] examine themselves more in terms of where their strategic direction lies.
A couple months ago, a Dutch friend of mine who is very pro-EU said to me, “Well, at least if Brexit does happen, we will have to think more closely about what it is we want out of the EU.” In a way, we’ve jolted them into that debate. Either they will resolve that question and provoke reform or they won’t, in which case we were probably right to leave. It’s a very vulgar thing that my constituent said, but I was talking to someone in the pub, and he said, “I want to kick them up the arse.” That was very much a feeling that a lot of ordinary voters felt.
Did you expect the financial turmoil that ensued?
Let’s talk about financial turmoil. I’ve seen financial turmoil. The FTSE 100 [the Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 Index] went from 6,900 at the end of 1999 to 3,300 at the beginning of 2003. I worked in the City when the FTSE lost about 52 percent in little more than three years. I’ve seen grinding bear markets.
Let’s just see the fallout of this. There will be some readjustment, but it’s very easy to get carried away with apocalyptic prognostications and prophecies. Yeah, there will be some uncertainty. But this is forever. This whole idea of having a second referendum or postponing Article 50 [the provision in the Lisbon treaty for withdrawing from the EU] indefinitely—that’s not going to happen. We’ve made our decision and there’s no way back to the status quo.
What’s next in terms of process?
We will certainly get a new prime minister in September. I hope they invoke Article 50 perhaps in the first six months. And then from the beginning of 2017, we count down two years, and we should be out of the EU in 2019.
What does Brexit mean for U.S.-British relations?
I don’t think it means anything. We were in the EU for 43 years. We joined in ’73, we voted to leave in 2016, we could be out in 2019. That’s a 46-year period. I’m 41 years old. This isn’t a very long time. And the special relationship is something that’s evolved over decades, if not a couple of centuries. When was the Mayflower—1620, right? Saying that ending our 43-year involvement [with] the EU is somehow going to fundamentally change this deep relationship between our two countries is completely unhistorical.
You’re an economic historian. How do you look at Brexit through the lens of your field?
If you look at British trade patterns before the EEC [European Economic Community], certainly before the Second World War, the U.K. has always been a maritime power. The trade routes were extensive across the world. Britain’s trade was global long before any other country’s was, through industrialization, through empire. And the EEC skewed that natural relationship that we had with all the continents of the world. [French President Charles] de Gaulle made this point in ’63 when he vetoed Britain’s EEC membership. He said, “Look, the British are a maritime power. They’ve got incredibly complicated trade routes and trade links and a supply chain right across the world. This doesn’t necessarily fit in with our continental view in terms of the single market we want to create.” And I think future historians may well look back on the EEC/EU period as somewhat of an aberration in terms of the sweep of economic history.
Which direction do you think Europe will go next? More integration and centralization or less?
This is a fundamental question, and I think in answering that question, you have to look at what’s going to happen with the actual currency, because it seems to me that you have quite bad economic conditions, certainly in Greece and Italy and potentially in Spain and Portugal. These countries are in many ways suffering because of membership in the eurozone.
I think the eurozone can go one of two ways. You can have a common currency, which they already have, and then they might have to think about some sort of harmonized fiscal policy, because it was the failures of fiscal policy that led to the crisis, certainly in Greece. And a harmonized fiscal policy will require more integration. Then the countries that aren’t in the eurozone, if the eurozone were to consolidate, would of necessity be further excluded from it. So I think Europe has to reform one way or the other, or the alternative is a looser federation. Maybe the eurozone splits off into different currency zones—I don’t know.
Anything else you’d like to add?
There are moments of transition. You see that across the world. But that doesn’t mean that the place you get to is worse. In some cases, it can be worse, but in many cases, it can be better. I’m amazed when Americans express concern. You guys fought a War of Independence that lasted six years. There was hyperinflation, there were bad things that happened, but at the end, you had an independent country.
Now, I’m not saying the EEC or EU is as bad as George III. But I am saying that people can look at the alternatives and say, “Actually, you know what? We’ll go through a period of uncertainty so that we can secure something better at the end of it.” That’s the story of human progress.