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Was Brexit Inevitable?

On one level, Brexit was simply the unintended outcome of the United Kingdom’s 2016 referendum on its European Union membership. But in retrospect, there was a whiff of inevitability about the UK’s separation – not from Europe, but from a particular institutional expression of it.

LONDON – On one level, the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union was an unintended consequence of a too-clever political ploy by former Prime Minister David Cameron. In 2015, in order to undercut the appeal of Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party movement, and secure a Conservative majority in the upcoming general election, Cameron promised a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the EU. He expected to win and keep Britain in the EU. He succeeded in his first aim, only to resign immediately when the “Leave” side won the UK’s 2016 referendum on its EU membership.

Brexit, on this view, was simply a historical accident, the result of one politician’s tactical miscalculation. But this is a superficial rendering of a complex story. When the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wrote that “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the coming of the dusk,” he meant that the direction of history is evident only after the event. It was a colorful way of stating the law of unintended consequences. The consequences of Cameron’s political maneuvers were unintended, but his political passions were doing the work of Hegel’s Weltgeist, or world spirit – the unseen force driving history.

This argument suggests that Brexit was in some sense predetermined. To be sure, no one engaging in the debate at the time thought so. Both Leavers and Remainers believed the outcome was open, and fought hard to ensure the result they wanted.

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