In the run up to the referendum I listened to and witnessed the lies and exaggerations of the Brexit side regarding what the EU is, its purpose, its costs and its detriments. Remember the big red bus with it’s message about giving the NHS £50 million a day, that evaporated almost as soon as the votes were counted. In reality there never was £350 million a week because we don’t contribute £350 million a week it was a complete and utter lie!
I also regularly heard their statements that only a soft exit was intended.
Although the terms hard and soft in relation to the exit were not in use at that time, the statements most typically coming from the leave campaigners would lead one to believe they intended the UK to be a member of the EEA (European Economic Area). There was never any public endorsement of what is now called a “Hard Brexit” or a “No-deal Brexit” prior to the referendum.
I voted to remain but the area in which I live voted to leave. It was a massive shock to find out next day that my country had voted to leave the European Union. In the days following the referendum there ensued a complete political meltdown, the Prime Minister resigned, and Scotland was considering a referendum that could break the United Kingdom apart. There were calls for a second referendum, almost as if, following a football match, we could ask the other side for a replay because we didn’t get the result we wanted. Everybody was blaming everybody else. People blamed the Prime Minister for calling the referendum in the first place. They blamed the leader of the opposition for not fighting it hard enough. The young accused the old. The educated blamed the less well-educated. That complete meltdown was made even worse by the most tragic element of all, levels of xenophobia and racist abuse in the streets of Britain at a level that I have never seen before in my lifetime.
In the run up to the referendum I saw Nigel Farage being interviewed on a news program and he was saying that if the result was any closer than 55% to 45% then the result could not be considered a clear and unequivocal mandate and so they would try to get a new referendum at some later date. Obviously they were expecting to loose. But after the result came in at 48% to 52% to leave suddenly it was a clear and decisive decision which should be respected. What a hypocrite.
It would be a waste of time to go through all the lies pedalled by the Leave campaigns (yes plural), instead I want to look at the reasons for the mess we now find ourselves in.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Although it was a massive shock at the time looking at the bigger picture this is not something which happened overnight, there are deeper reasons for what happened, many of them have nothing to do with Europe but have a lot to do with our fractured society and the political disenfranchisement which many people feel.
So, what does Brexit represent, not just for the United Kingdom, but for the rest of the world ?
Firstly I will look at what it represents for the United Kingdom. Looking at the bigger picture, the referendum teaches us something about the nature of politics today and once we identify these factors it becomes apparent that similar things are happening in other parts of the world.
Politicians seem to be blissfully unaware of how divided our society is. How London centric government has become as if they are working for what is in the best interests of London instead of what is in the national interest. Geographically, it was mainly London and Scotland that voted to remain, whilst most other parts of the country voted to leave.
But our society is not just divided geographically, young people didn’t turn out to vote in great numbers, but those that did overwhelmingly voted to remain. The great majority of older people voted to leave the European Union. There were also divisions along class lines and between the well educated and the less well-educated.
If one looks for a common factor which divides the remainers from the leavers then one thing becomes apparent. The fault line of contemporary politics is between those who embrace globalisation and those who see globalisation as a threat.
Politicians need to take these divisions seriously or at least to recognise that they exist.
Contemporary politics is no longer just about right and left. It’s no longer just about tax and spend. It’s about globalisation.
If we look at what motivated people to vote leave or remain then we see two factors in the opinion polls that were important to many people. The first was immigration, and the second sovereignty, and these represent a desire for people to take back control of their own lives and they also represent the feeling amongst many people that they are unrepresented by politicians. These ideas are ones that signify fear and alienation. They represent a retreat back towards nationalism and borders in ways that many of us would find disturbing.
Both of these issues are specious, the idea that the vote on Europe could reduce the number of refugees and asylum-seekers coming into Europe, when the vote on leaving had nothing to do with immigration from outside the European Union. Also on the question of sovereignty, we won’t be getting back our sovereignty because we never lost it in the first place.
In the Leave vote, a minority have peddled the politics of fear and hatred, creating lies, mistrust and doubt. But for a significant majority of the Leave voters the concern was disillusionment with the political establishment. This was a protest vote for many, a sense that nobody represented them, that they couldn’t find a political party which they thought was on their side, and so they rejected the entire political establishment.
All around the world we see a similar disillusionment with the political establishment. We see it with the rise in popularity of Donald Trump in the United States, with the growing nationalism of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, with the victory of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and the rise of the Five Star movement in Italy. There has been a rise in nationalism all over the world and I think this represents a rejection of globalisation.
I think what we are seeing is part of a much bigger struggle between globalisation and what I will call ‘tribalism’. Tribalism in this sense represents many things, the desire for tradition and traditional values, but it often leads to nationalism or religious orthodoxy and theocracy. It also represents the desire for things to return to the way they used to be back in the ‘Good Old days’, peoples imagined idea of the way things used to be.
The world has changed and it is impractical to try to take things back to an earlier state but this desire offers a way to manipulate people. The Leave campaigns tried to imply that by voting leave and ‘taking back control’ that we could take Britain back to that earlier time of peoples imagination. To ‘Make Britain Great Again’. But this was just manipulation.
There are some politicians who would welcome a future where Great Britain was nothing more than a 1950’s nostalgia theme park but I think this would be a very bad thing for the people of Britain.
I think there is a gap between public perception and empirical reality. It has been suggested that we’ve moved to a post truth world, where evidence and truth no longer matter, and lies have equal status to evidence based facts. Take for example Donald Trump and his ‘Fake News’ tactics, which is basically to describe anything he disagrees with as being false or a lie regardless of whether it’s true or not.
How can we rebuild respect for truth and evidence into our liberal democracies ? It has to begin with education, but it has to start with the recognition that there are huge gaps. It will not be easy.
Tribalism is attractive to many people who see globalisation as eroding their cultural identity, it offers solidarity and protects cultural identity, but at the potential cost of diminishing tolerance and stability. Often the solidarity needed within the concept of tribalism is secured through exclusion and hostility to outsiders. At the extreme end of the scale different forms of anti-democratisation can arise through anti-democratic one-party dictatorships, military juntas, or theocratic fundamentalism.
Tribalism is a group with a distinct cultural identity seeking a smaller world within well defined borders that will seal them off from modernity. These groups are cultures, not countries; parts, not wholes; sects, not religions, rebellious factions and dissenting minorities at war not just with globalism but with the traditional nation-state.
Globalisation is characterised by the global economic, political, cultural and environmental interconnections and flows which make many of the currently existing borders and boundaries irrelevant. Globalisation promotes peace and prosperity, but this is achieved at the cost of independence and identity. Cultures are intermingled in ways that some may see as an erosion of their own culture.
Globalisation has both positive and negative effects. On the whole it is a good thing but there are some bad things about it. At the extremes neither global corporate cultures or tribalist cultures are supportive of democracy.
There are some positive benefits to globalisation. The consensus amongst economists is that free trade, the movement of capital and the movement of people across borders benefit everyone on aggregate. The consensus amongst international relations scholars is that globalisation brings interdependence, which brings cooperation and peace.
But globalisation also causes a redistribution of wealth. It creates winners and losers. To take the example of migration, we know that immigration is a net positive for the economy as a whole under almost all circumstances. But we also have to be very aware that there are consequences, that importantly, low-skilled immigration can lead to a reduction in wages for the most impoverished in our societies and also put pressure on house prices. That doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s positive when taken as a whole.
In 2002, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, gave a speech at Yale University on the topic of inclusive globalisation. In that speech he said, and I paraphrase, “The glass house of globalisation has to be open to all if it is to remain secure. Bigotry and ignorance are the ugly face of exclusionary and antagonistic globalisation.”
That idea of inclusive globalisation was briefly revived in 2008 in a conference on progressive governance involving many of the leaders of European countries. But amid austerity and the financial crisis of 2008, the concept disappeared almost without a trace.
Since then globalisation has increasingly been taken to support a neoliberal agenda. It’s perceived to be part of an elitist agenda rather than something that benefits everyone.
We need to revive the idea of inclusive globalisation.
We need to ensure that everyone shares in the benefits of globalisation. If we look at the areas which voted to leave the European Union then it becomes apparent that those people who voted to leave the European Union were those who actually benefited the most materially from trade with the European Union. But the problem is that the people in those areas didn’t perceive themselves to be beneficiaries. They didn’t believe that they were actually getting access to material benefits of increased trade and increased mobility around the world.
Politics needs to become less polarised but unfortunately politics is becoming more polarised, all over the world. One factor in this is social media and filter bubbles. In order to keep people on the website longer so that they can click on more adverts social media sites automatically adjust peoples news feeds to show them more of what they want to see. So once the AI on the site has figured out their prejudices and beliefs (and it doesn’t take long) then they will only see news which they agree with or articles which support their beliefs, anything which they might not like gets filtered out.
This is fuelling the polarisation of society and is a very bad thing.
Brexit has turned into a very bad mess and when it is finally over I think most people will be left saying “This isn’t the Brexit I voted for !” but unfortunately by then it will be too late.
Perhaps it is already too late.
Who knows ?