British historian sees similarities in Brexit battle, U.S. presidential contest

British historian Niall Ferguson cautions that critical mistakes made in the campaign to defeat Brexit in the United Kingdom may be reflected in the United States’ presidential election in 2016, which he dubbed “The Year of the Improbable.”

Speaking to a packed house at Sutardja Dai Hall last Thursday, he said the faction campaigning to stay in the European Union erred by focusing on an economic crash projected to result from leaving the EU.

It also stumbled, he said, by ignoring a cultural trend of growing populism pitting anti-establishment, anti-immigrant rhetoric and blustery leaders like Boris Johnson against cosmopolitan liberalism, multiculturalism and progressive democracy.

Niall Ferguson quipped that he sees more unfortunate similarities between contemporary British and U.S. politics than bad hair. (Photo by Maria Wolf.)

Niall Ferguson quipped that he sees more unfortunate similarities between contemporary British and U.S. politics than bad hair. (Photo by Maria Wolf)

Ferguson, a Harvard University professor of history and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, advised former British Prime Minister David Cameron and campaigned unsuccessfully to defeat a June referendum to have the U.K. withdraw from the European Union.

He made his remarks while delivering the annual R. Kirk Underhill Lecture for the Anglo-American Studies Program, based at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. His address was titled, “Making Britain Great Again? Lessons for America from Brexit.”

“We weren’t really on the same battleground,” he said of the opposing sides of Brexit.

And it hasn’t been just politicians misjudging 2016 politics. Ferguson recalled gross errors by oddsmakers and pollsters in forecasting the outcome of the Brexit vote and in giving Donald Trump a shot at becoming the Republican Party’s nominee for president.

While largely ignored, Ferguson said, immigration was central to the Brexit vote, and it appears to be important in the U.S. presidential race as well. With Brexit, Ferguson said, the Remain camp allowed mistruths about immigration to persist unchallenged. Although immigration numbers have risen steadily since the 1980s in the U.K., most newcomers have come from countries outside the European Union and have contributed to Britain’s overall economic rebound rather than detracting from it.

“Lies in politics have never been more powerful than in 2016,” said Ferguson, who acknowledged similar themes and undercurrents in the Brexit campaign and the 2016 race for the White House.

The anti-Brexit campaign’s decision to ignore the growing populism, particularly among older voters, Ferguson said. A vast majority of registered voters 65 and older cast their ballots to split from the EU, while a much lower percentage of eligible millennial voters who favored staying in the EU even made it to the polls.

Ferguson is the author of numerous books exploring the histories of the United States and Great Britain, most notably Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. The first volume of his biography of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was published in 2015.


Sentiments similar to those expressed by Niall Ferguson are contained in a Politico report warning that complacency in the Hillary Clinton camp could mean a Donald Trump presidency.