Murphy ’19: Englishman in Providence

Staff Columnist
Wednesday, March 15, 2017

As a dual British-American citizen, I’ve never really understood the phrase “crossing the pond,” which is often used to refer to the journey across the Atlantic Ocean from the United Kingdom to the United States. I’ve also never understood the American public’s fascination with British royalty, particularly the lives of Prince William and Kate Middleton. And I definitely don’t understand the discourse in the United States surrounding the Brexit referendum — particularly its constant comparison to the election of President Trump.

Now, we all know the result of the referendum: Brexit has become the buzzword and model for all potential secessionist movements — whether they are other countries’ departures from the European Union or the somewhat comedic explorations of recent secessionist efforts from the United States. In the last few weeks, Brexit has reemerged as one of the foremost political conversation starters on campus. Former Prime Minister David Cameron, the scapegoat for Brexit and almost all of Britain’s impending crises, has decided to spend some of his now-abundant free time journeying across “the pond” to Brown’s snow-covered campus to deliver the 94th installment of the Stephen A. Ogden Jr. ’60 Memorial Lecture on International Affairs.

Since I was an adamant supporter of the Remain campaign, Brexit represented both a political and personal crisis for me. Firstly, the vote reflected an uninformed, xenophobic and impractical decision to leave a mutually-beneficial partnership based on the empty promises of the country’s most conservative politicians. Secondly, Brexit — a product of a referendum and thus a supposed reflection of popular will — transformed the United Kingdom, my home, into a country I did not recognize. Witnessing both Brexit and the election of Trump in November, I had a front-row seat as both events unfolded and became staple examples of the dangers of conservatism gone rogue.

Yet, because of the obvious connection between Brexit and the election of Trump, the nuances of Britain’s current political climate are often hidden by such an exaggerated comparison. Amid this flurry of thoughts, Cameron’s visit represents an important opportunity for Brown students. His presence, his moderate-conservative policies and his successes and failures as prime minister — a position he held for almost six years — provide a crucial insight into the role of conservatism in the United Kingdom and throughout Europe. As the two countries struggle to deal with their changing leadership and positions in the international community, Britain represents a political comparison that is somewhat removed, yet relatable enough to American politics to prompt a deeper look at the United States itself.

The likening between Brexit and Trump is overly simplistic. It is inaccurate and unfair to compare leaving a complex and little-understood economic partnership to electing a man with the policies and personality of Trump. The British public’s decision to leave the EU largely reflected ignorance and the failures of the Remain campaign to accurately and convincingly inform the public. But too often, we conflate the Brexit decision with the views of Cameron and the Conservative Party. His imminent visit offers an opportunity to unpack this distinction and add some essential nuance to the conversation.

Brexit was a push against the perceived lack of economic opportunities, diminishment of international influence and disproportionate obligations of British society to a seemingly foreign organization. Yet it should not be considered synonymous with conservatism. To equate the two is to make two crucial mistakes — mistakes that now dominate discourse surrounding American politics, particularly among young liberals. Firstly, the demonization of conservatism ignores the accomplishments of the Conservative Party and the right of the public to vote conservative. The Tories have been around and represented much of the British populace for almost 200 years; to define the party by a single referendum is a serious insult to the role the party has played in British history. The Conservative Party should not be unquestionably lauded, but it also should not be diminished to a single event. Secondly, because the Conservative Party was split on Brexit, equating Brexit with conservatism gives the xenophobia behind the referendum political legitimacy. If this rhetoric continues to gain legitimacy as Britain negotiates the terms of its exit, the country runs the risk of basing its upcoming policy decisions — from immigration to human rights law — on racism and ignorance.

While Brexit and Trump remain quite different, these two mistakes could easily be repeated as the United States attempts to find its footing under the Trump administration. Amid a liberal student body that actively discusses global political trends, the nuances of recent British politics that Cameron can offer represent a much-needed window into what should, and should not, be considered legitimate conservatism. College students are particularly prone to using narratives like Brexit to propagate flawed notions of conservatism. As ignorance and hate hide behind traditional political labels and often prompt inaccurate depictions of what it means to be conservative, Cameron represents an intelligent, successful and nuanced political conservative. If there were ever a time for the Brown student body, and the young liberal population of the United States, to engage and seriously consider how to combat xenophobia and hatred, perhaps a lecture by one of the world’s most famous conservatives is in order.

Anna Murphy ’19 can be reached at anna_murphy@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.