June 23, 2016: 51.9 percent of the population of the United Kingdom voted to change the course of the country, ultimately putting it on a trajectory into uncharted waters. “Brexit” as it came to be called, was a radical movement for a global power-player like the United Kingdom. It was truly a shot in the dark.
After that day, everything was set to change. But the question remained: how?
Professor William Meier teaches a class on 20th century British history. As a part of his course curriculum, he decided to integrate Brexit in order to help contextualize current events as a function of history. In other words, he wanted to use Brexit as an opportunity to show the relevance and power of history in explaining what’s happening today.
As a historian, his outlook on the events took a slightly different approach than what’s typically covered in the news. He posed one central question that drove the rest of his research: how did we get here?
To answer this question, Meier looked at the national identity, politics and economy of the United Kingdom, starting at the end of World War II. Ultimately, he found that Brexit was the result of what could only be characterized as a national identity crisis.
According to Meier, citizens of the United Kingdom found themselves in a position of immense power following World War II. As a part of the winning team, they were ideally positioned to maintain their status as an imperial power in the global market. When the European Union was formed shortly after the war, the UK was understandably skeptical about participating. Why should they join an agreement with the losers?
Eventually the UK joined the EU – albeit 20 years later. Following its acceptance into the union, the UK suffered a substantial economic downturn that severely impacted the working class. Meier cites this economic loss as a major contributor to Brexit. According to him, as the British working class saw their fortunes deteriorating, the EU quickly became a scapegoat for all of the economic problems that followed.
This hardened animosity toward the EU only continued to grow in the years that followed, and eventually became an integral part of the national identity of the UK – especially for the older, working-class generation.
Professor Meier says that when it came time for the Brexit vote, these anti-EU sentiments undoubtedly shaped the results. Coupled with issues of immigration, lingering racism and contested definitions of citizenship, it led to a crisis of national identity that pitted demographic groups across the UK against each other, resulting in one of the most tumultuous decisions in modern history.
As of today, Brexit is scheduled to officially take effect on March 29, 2019. Join Professor Meier as he contextualizes the event from a historical perspective on the night before it happens. William Meier will discuss the past, present and future of Brexit at Back to Class, a fundraising event aimed at helping students research, travel and learn through the AddRan College of Liberal Arts at TCU. Go Back to Class on March 28, 2019, to hear from William Meier and other TCU professors on this topic and more. Learn more by visiting the Back to Class website.