From rhetoric to reality: US history shows how Brexit will end

Photo by Habib Ayoade on Unsplash

There is no need to study the past if the times we live in are unprecedented. We can face the future with childlike optimism, unfettered by experience. Knowledge need not spoil the party.

The UK’s departure from the EU is a first. No country has ever left the Union before. In the coming months, the UK and the EU will negotiate a trade agreement which reduces their commercial, legal and social alignment. Rather than agree on how to converge from two known starting points, negotiators will try to accommodate future divergence of unknown scope. Another first.

In these unique circumstances, Brexit’s proponents urge fellow citizens to look forward to a bright future of their imagining, rather than look back to past experience. That’s good salesmanship. But strip away the surface features of Brexit, the membership of the EU, the jingoistic Rule Britannia language, and what remains is constitutional change. The way Britain is governed, and the rights of its citizens, are being changed. This may be a rare event, but it is not so exceptional that history cannot show us how Brexit will play out.

Exactly 100 years ago, in 1920, the US enacted the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Amendments to its Constitution. Each secured the necessary support of a two thirds majority in both houses of Congress and were ratified by more than three quarters of the individual states. By year’s end, Prohibition was in force and women had the vote. But these siblings had very different fates. Their subsequent failure and success are a reminder that without continued and widespread public support, seemingly permanent political change can be short lived.

Playing to the fears of a declining subset of the population, turbo-charged by expert tactics, but never the “settled will of the people” describes both last century’s campaign for Prohibition in the US and this century’s campaign for Brexit in the UK. So the fate of Prohibition, a campaign that succeeded but a policy which failed, may be a portent of Brexit’s fate, as it moves from rhetoric to reality. If history were to repeat itself with peculiar precision, the UK would re-join the EU in December 2033.

Even if people don’t change, populations do.

By 1919, efforts to rid America of alcohol consumption had been underway for eighty years, and many individual states had already adopted laws restricting alcohol sales or were completely dry. Once Nebraska became the thirty sixth state to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment on January 16, 1919, the process to change the Constitution was complete. The manufacture, sale and distribution of intoxicating liquors would be prohibited in all forty-eight states, irrespective of state legislation, starting one year later, on January 17, 1920.

Had the Amendment not passed when it did, Prohibition may never have happened. The Census in 1920 confirmed that for the first time America’s population was more urban than rural. The subsequent reallocation of electoral seats in Congress and the individual states shifted the balance away from the previously dominant rural communities rooted in Presbyterian culture. This was the bedrock of the temperance movement, where for many Prohibition was not just a moral, Christian, crusade, but also a means to hold back a perceived cultural erosion brought about by the increasing immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe who were feeding the growth of America’s cities and industry. The lobbyists in favour of Prohibition, especially the Anti-Saloon League, played to this anti-immigrant sentiment, and doubled down on the anti-German feeling during the First World War by targeting the German ancestry of the major American brewers, such as Anheuser Busch.

But although the Prohibitionists succeeded in securing the votes in 1919, the demographic change carried on regardless. By the time of the 1930 census, 56% of the population was urban. Along with the many failings of Prohibition, the shifting demographic undermined support for the policy. In 1932, Roosevelt won a landslide victory with a Presidential campaign seeking a mandate to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment.

The themes of wanting to recover a lost era and blaming the immigrant are timeless in populist politics. With Brexit, the claim of the Leave campaign that once the UK was outside the EU, it could take back control of its borders and reduce immigration resonated strongly with many voters — particularly older ones. Yet, like Prohibition, the number of these voters is likely to decline significantly over the coming decade. In the 2016 referendum, 66% of voters over 65 were in favour of Brexit, but only 25% of those under 25. Each year in the UK roughly 580,000 people die and 700,000 turn eighteen. This demographic change is already far greater than the 1.3 million majority in favour of Brexit in 2016. If asked again in five, ten, or fifteen years’ time, the changing UK attitudes to the EU may well mimic US attitudes to alcohol in the early 1930s.

Brilliant campaigning is not enough

The campaign for Prohibition was won by lobbyists just as motivated, and Machiavellian, as we see to today. Both Frances Willard, who led the Women’s Christian Temperance Union for over twenty years in the late 1800’s, and Wayne Wheeler, who led the Anti-Saloon League for two decades until 1927, were extraordinarily capable individuals committed to their cause.

Wheeler in particular was the consummate political broker. Although never elected to office himself, he transformed the ASL into an immensely powerful and sophisticated singe-issue lobby group, lending its support to “dry” candidates of any political persuasion. And its support was awesome. At its peak the League had 20,000 trained public speakers who would address congregations across the country advocating temperance and seeking funds for the cause at the same time. In 1916 the ASL was distributing ten tons of printed material a day. This influence allowed Wheeler to play a decisive role in campaigns for the election of state governors and legislators as well as members of Congress. By 1917, with Wheeler’s help an overwhelming majority in Congress favoured Prohibition. Later he was responsible for ensuring that the Volstead Act, which implemented the Eighteenth Amendment, applied the most stringent terms for Prohibition.

But the political influence of these organisations, particularly the ASL, waned after the campaign had been won. By his death in 1927, Wheeler’s position as one of Washington’s great power brokers was gone. By the early thirties, membership of the fifty-year-old WCTU was eclipsed by the Women’s Organisation for National Prohibition Reform, founded in 1929.

It is easy to imagine Wheeler playing a role in the Brexit campaign. Like him, some of its protagonists were brilliant political campaigners who both dominated the media and effectively took control of the ruling Conservative Party in Parliament and local constituencies. But Wheeler’s demise is a warning. Now that Brexit has happened, there is no battle to win. The role and influence of these campaigners, particularly those outside government, is likely to diminish. While the advocates for Brexit at the heart of the UK Government want to move on. For them Brexit is done. They would prefer not to define their political careers through the prism of the UK/EU relationship which lost the last two Prime Ministers their jobs.

Yet, if the Government does not continue to bang the drum for Brexit, who will? Some may believe that the UK electorate will come to love Brexit without further encouragement. This seems unlikely given that UK/EU relations was not a significant issue for the majority of the UK electorate before the 2015 general election. The referendum and the endless Brexit negotiations has forced it to become the hottest of political topics over the last four years, but this is not the same as self-sustaining support.

The will of the people

Ultimately, Prohibition was a failure. The enthusiasm created by the WCTU and the ASL peaked in 1919 and secured the legislation but never secured the overwhelming support of the populace. Americans did not change their personal attitude to drink. Indeed, the law did not prohibit the consumption of alcohol, only its manufacture, import and distribution. Vast quantities of liquor were purchased and stored by private citizens in the twelve months before the ban came into force at midnight January 17, 1920. These stocks were more than replenished by wholesale smuggling of bootleg supplies which made a mockery of the law. In 1929 there were an estimated 32,000 speakeasies in New York City, according to the Police Commissioner Grosvenor Whalen. In effect, it was Prohibition in name only.

By the late 1920’s the scale of the illegality caused by Prohibition and the lack of tax revenues led to demands for reform. The rise in crime associated with bootlegging and less moderate drinking led many to see Prohibition itself as a cause of social problems, not a solution. Although consumption of alcohol did fall in twenties America, temperance did not become the norm.

Soon after his inauguration in 1929, President Herbert Hoover established a commission to investigate the need for reform and possible repeal. While this showed that the policy was in trouble, it was also an exercise in political prevarication. Four year later, the Democrats secured the Presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress. Eighteen days after he was inaugurated, Roosevelt signed into law the Beer and Wine Revenue Act allowing the sale of beer up to 3.4% alcohol. By December that year the Twenty First Amendment repealed the Eighteenth and Prohibition ended.

While many US states still have tight restrictions on alcohol sales, America’s nationwide dalliance with prohibition was over. It was no longer the will of the people, if it ever had been. The expert political manipulation and modern media management which had been enough to win the campaign, did not sustain permanent change.

Change that came and stayed

In contrast, the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, fared very differently. For many in the US, the campaigns for women’s suffrage and Prohibition were linked; if women had the vote, they would vote for temperance. Under its leader, Frances Willard, the WCTU campaigned for both causes in parallel. Support for the Nineteenth Amendment was less strong than for Prohibition. Eight states rejected it in 1919/20, whereas only two had rejected Prohibition. But there were still enough states in favour for the Amendment to be ratified in August 1920.

Although the implementation of the Amendment was challenged and equal rights for women was a long way off, the Amendment represented a permanent change in the franchise and never seriously questioned. Quite simply it reflected a permanent change in societal values which, unlike Prohibition, was not eroded by changing demographics.

Brexit : permanent or temporary?

At the moment of leaving the EU, “peak Brexit”, support for the policy in the UK is lower than the support for either the Eighteenth or Nineteenth Amendments in 1920’s America. Unlike the US, the UK does not have a written constitution which requires a two third’s or three quarter’s majority in favour of a constitutional change. A simple majority in Parliament is sufficient which, with the UK’s First Past the Post system for electing MPs, does not require a majority of the electorate. The new Conservative government secured a majority in Parliament with 43% of the vote. For what it is worth, the last opinion polls in late 2019 on whether Brexit was a good idea showed a small majority against the policy.

Although Brexit starts with lukewarm support, if leaving the EU makes British people richer and represents a wider cultural release from the yoke of EU oppression, then support could grow. If new voters are persuaded of its merits, demands to look again at the issue will fade. Like the Nineteenth Amendment in the US, it will become a permanent change to British society. This is possible, but only realistic if Brexit delivers tangible benefits.

If instead the coming years are marked by increased costs for consumers and job losses; if the number of nurses in the NHS goes down not up; if the agreement with the EU forces compromise on totemic issues such as fishing rights; if a US trade deal requires the UK to reduce food standards; if a trade deal with India is linked to increased immigration; if foreign investment falls; and so on, then it is hard to see how support for being outside the EU will be continually renewed. The slim majority that was in favour of Brexit in 2016, will be eroded by the double whammy of demographic change and the disappointment of promises unfulfilled. Those that previously campaigned for Brexit will either have no platform to continue their campaign or will wish to move on to other issues. Brexit will be an orphan.

It is possible, that Brexit will become BRINO, Brexit in name only, as the Conservative government seeks compromise with the EU — on fishing rights, citizen rights and trade. The UK could, like Norway, reside in a halfway position, not in the EU but not detached from it either. This would satisfy neither side of the Brexit debate and probably not provide a route to a long-term constitutional settlement.

In the short term, the public’s great weariness with the whole Brexit saga is likely to dampen support to re-join the EU. And, as the EU inevitably changes, there may be wholly new reasons not to be part of the club, or the terms for the UK to re-join may not be acceptable. But the rise and fall of Prohibition shows that, without continuing public support, wrongheaded constitutional change cannot be sustained forever.

How long does it take to fail?

Prohibition lasted thirteen years and four Presidential elections. Problems with the policy were manifest in the 1920’s, but it took until the Democrats came to power in 1932 for it to be repealed. Similarly, if Brexit does not secure increased support in the coming years, it is uncertain whether it will survive beyond the life of the present Conservative government, although it will not be repealed while they remain in power. With general elections every four or five years, a first question to consider is whether the Tories will win again in 2024, in 2029, and in 2034. Maybe they will, but at some point the sequence will end. When it does, the UK’s relationship with Europe come back into the mainstream political debate. Ultimately, if Brexit cannot secure continuing support from a new generation of voters, it is likely to fail and follow Prohibition into the footnotes of history.

Founder and director of technology companies. I write for pleasure on the big issues of the day.

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