Welsh National Assembly member discusses Brexit

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David Melding ’85 talks Euroskepticism and the historical context of current British politics. COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

Thursday, April 11, David Melding ’85, a member of the National Assembly for Wales, gave a talk titled “Britain After Brexit.” Drawing on his own political experience in the United Kingdom, as well as his research into the history of British politics, Melding discussed the country’s ongoing political crisis that began when the United Kingdom narrowly voted to leave the European Union in 2016.  

Melding started his lecture by briefly providing historical context of the United Kingdom’s tumultuous relationship with the EU. He compared Britain and the EU to the United States, saying that whereas the United States relies on a federal system of governance, the United Kingdom has traditionally shied away from consolidating power alongside fellow European states. 

“There’s a difference between unity and union,” Melding said. “Unity is seen fundamentally through cultural and educational experiences, human rights. And that’s met in Europe by the creation of the European Council, a very successful body that rules on to this day on election monitoring, human rights work, all sorts of things. And that’s unity, but that’s not an expression of political power within an institution. That requires states to give up some of their own rights and form institutions. And that’s union, and that’s what you [the United States] did eventually, after a lot of discussion, in 1789. So Britain, yes to unity, no to union.” 

Melding mentioned that the United Kingdom has always wanted to maintain some separation from other European countries, primarily due to its interest in maintaining a strong sense of national autonomy. 

“Britain is not anti-European, it will do lots of things with its European partners, but it’s basically wanting to cooperate with its partners and not pool sovereignty to create these powerful, federal institutions,” Melding said. 

“Britain is not anti-European, it will do lots of things with its European partners, but it’s basically wanting to cooperate with its partners and not pool sovereignty to create these powerful, federal institutions,” Melding said. 

Melding argued that the recent wave of Euroscepticism in the United Kingdom originated in the 1990s, when Britons grew increasingly concerned that the EU was exerting excessive influence over British political and economic decisions. According to Melding, the 2008 financial crisis also contributed to the anti-EU sentiment by creating resentment against political elites. Anti-elite sentiment, coupled with the rise of the UK Independence Party, largely led to the successful Brexit campaign of 2016. 

“The Brexit campaign is edgy, it’s risky, it uses wonderful lines,” Melding said. “It may have been bunker, but crikey, they sang a good song.”  

Melding also contended that former Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on Brexit contributed to pro-Brexit sentiments throughout the United Kingdom. By holding a referendum and legitimizing Brexit as a viable political pathway, voters were led to believe that exiting the EU would not be devastatingly drastic since the government entrusted the decision to public opinion. 

“I think one of the things David Cameron completely failed to grasp is on a major constitutional issue, if you hold a referendum, you validate both propositions,” Melding said.

“I think one of the things David Cameron completely failed to grasp is on a major constitutional issue, if you hold a referendum, you validate both propositions,” Melding said. “So the public, acting rationally, they think, ‘Well, I can see we would have a different future if we stayed in or left, but it can’t be that bad if we leave, because the government wouldn’t give us the option of choosing that if it was so catastrophic.’ And I think the public made a rational judgment on that, but I don’t think that many in the government quite realized that that was what they were doing.” 

Melding then discussed the future of Brexit, saying that the lack of a cohesive plan is largely due to opposing viewpoints on what Brexit means both politically and economically. Melding himself believes that a new economic vision must be formed to unite EU countries. 

Students who attended the talk were torn on the implications of Brexit, and some agreed with elements of both arguments. 

“Back when it was happening in 2016, I hadn’t really thought a whole lot about it,” William Rodriguez ’22 said. “I guess I can kind of sympathize with the people who wanted to vote leave, because I can see how a lot of them probably felt left behind by the increasingly globalizing economy and things like that. It probably wasn’t the smartest idea, and I can imagine they were probably misled by media campaigns and stuff like that. I guess I’m pretty split on the whole thing.” 

Other students, such as Hannah Kohler ’19, who studied abroad in Wales, had personally been exposed to sentiments about Brexit in the United Kingdom. 

“I feel like I have almost a personal involvement with Brexit because when I was abroad, a lot of people would bring up Donald Trump,” Kohler said. “It was around spring of 2017 and people would be like, ‘Oh, America’s kind of falling apart into pieces isn’t it,’ and I’d be like, ‘Well, Brexit happened less than a year ago, so you guys are also falling apart.’” 

Although Brexit is currently tied up in negotiations, Melding believes that Brexit can and must happen in the future. 

“If it takes you three years to work out what you meant by Brexit, it might not have been a very good idea in the first place,” Melding said. “But you have to live with the consequences of big, democratic events like the referendum.”