Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Emotion surpassed reason in British referendum

A referendum in Britain over whether the country should leave the European Union (EU) represented a conflict between the economy and emotion.

It was a tug-of-war between those who called for Britain to stay in the EU to protect its economic interests and those who emotionally demanded that the country break away from the union.

British people chose to leave the EU even though those in the "remain" camp, considering the country's economic benefits, were thought to outnumber those calling for a breakaway.

The outcome was apparently influenced by national sentiment, particularly among senior citizens. The referendum reminded people in the world of the frightfulness with which memories of history can overwhelm reason.

The history of humiliation, which many British people recognize, is one such memory. Britain initially declined to participate in moves toward European integration that began shortly after the end of World War II. In other words, the country had chosen to pursue growth outside Europe, fearing that participation in such integration would restrain its own sovereignty.

However, as Europe's recovery from wartime devastation progressed, some British people began to lament in the late 1950s that they had "missed the boat."

In 1961, then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan applied to join the European Economic Community (EEC), the EU's predecessor, due partly to the domestic economic slump. Abandoning its pride, Britain decided to pursue growth inside Europe. However, then French President Charles de Gaulle refused to allow Britain to join the EEC. Macmillan shed tears at the decision. In 1967, de Gaulle once again dismissed another application by Britain to join the community. Britain finally joined the EEC in 1973 after de Gaulle passed away.

British people have taken pride in their home country building the British Empire. Britain is the only country that was involved in World War II from Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland in September 1939 to Japan's official acceptance of its defeat in September 1945. Moreover, it was Britain that liberated Paris and saved de Gaulle in cooperation with the United States. The fact that de Gaulle rejected Britain's application to join the EEC had left British people with a deep sense of humiliation.

Britain's national sentiment was stimulated by people's hope that the British Empire and their national pride would be restored, as well as by global trends such as political populism and anti-globalism.

Those in favor of breaking away from the EU were impressed by comments from people including U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, who stated, "Let June the 23rd go down in our history as our independence day," and former London Mayor Boris Johnson, who said, "Britain will continue to be a great European power." Their comments reflect such national sentiment.

However, what those in favor of leaving the EU call the revival of the great British Empire is an illusion. Britain has lost its colonies and its relations with its former colonies are only weakening. The possibility cannot be ruled out that Scotland will once again seek to become independent. Although Britain and the United States call their bilateral relations special ones, Washington has increasingly attached importance to the Asia-Pacific region. After leaving the EU, Britain will face the risks of weakening and becoming isolated from the international community.

The referendum has reminded the international community that it is difficult for countries and ethnic groups to be free from historical nostalgia and yokes. An era of confusion and difficulties has begun for not only Britain and the EU but for the entire international community. (By Takayasu Ogura, Managing Editor of the Foreign News Department)

Also in The Mainichi

The Mainichi on social media