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The following article was written by Professor Damien Kingsbury, Personal Chair and Professor of International Politics at Deakin University.
The UK vote to leave the European Union (EU) last week reflects a developing sense of xenophobia and increasingly isolationist attitude among the majority of British citizens. This decision not only has implications beyond the UK, in economic terms, it also reveals a wider sense of disenchantment and disenfranchisement among many people in developed countries. It is therefore worth reflecting on.
Those promoting the British exit (‘Brexit’), claim that the UK is being held back by the EU, that it gets little in return for the money it pays into the union, and would be better taking back control of its borders. They claim that immigration is bad for the economy and a drain on resources and jobs. The immigration issue has come into sharp focus for Europeans in recent years, with Middle Eastern conflicts spreading refugees over the continent, and terror attacks like those in Paris spreading fear.
The UK Independence Party (UKIP) campaign, which pushed for a UK exit, focused on an overtly racist anti-immigration program. In fact some of the imagery used by UKIP was aligned to imagery used by Nazi Germany in campaigns about ‘inferior’ foreigners. The recent murder of Jo Cox, a Labour MP who championed the cause of Syrian refugees, appears to also have been driven by an extreme right-wing ideology, blended with a hefty dose of insanity. The murder suspect, who is said to have shot and stabbed Cox on the street, gave his name in court as ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain’.
There was a demographic divide between who voted for Brexit and who didn’t. London and Scotland voted to stay in the EU, Wales and the rest of England voted out. Generally pensioners, the poor and working class voted to get out, while the young, rich and educated voted to stay in. The majority of people working full time voted to stay in the EU, while those not working voted to leave.
Why was the vote divided down class lines? The working class in many industrialised countries are feeling increasingly insecure as the world undergoes profound economic and technological changes. The past certainties of employment from jobs in factories and manufacturing have begun to evaporate as production is moved to places like China and India. At the same time, in western countries there is still a class of poor, of under-employed and of skilled and semi-skilled workers.
In times of insecurity many people look to easy answers to complex questions, and are easily drawn to simple, populist responses. This is why there’s been the rise of Donald Trump in the US for example – by making statements about keeping Mexicans out by building a wall along the border, Trump grossly simplifies complicated socio-economic policy issues with unlikely ‘solutions’ to appeal to the masses.
'The recent murder of Jo Cox, a Labour MP who championed the cause of Syrian refugees, appears to also have been driven by an extreme right-wing ideology, blended with a hefty dose of insanity.'
Professor Damien Kingsbury,
Personal Chair and Professor of International Politics, Deakin University
It will likely wreak havoc on the UK economy There will be a economic impact due to a loss of access to international markets, the removal of London as Europe’s financial centre, and a loss of faith in domestic investment. Financial instability is not exclusive to the UK – global stock markets suffered their biggest decline in nearly five years after the UK exit was announced. They will correct, but will continue to flinch each time there is a mis-step in the UK’s management of its withdrawal from the EU. And there will be mis-steps – it is not possible to dismantle a complex economic relationship and leave all parts as strong and coherent as they were previously.
There is unlikely to be new investment in manufacturing Those Brexit voters who lost their industrial jobs or fear losing their job to immigrants, are unlikely to see their decision rewarded with new investment in manufacturing. Quite the opposite is to be expected.
More countries may leave the EU Brexit may set a precedent, and lead to other countries leaving the EU. Europe may return to a collection of small countries working in competition, rather than cooperation.
Following WWII, a key motivation for the EU was to promote peace in Europe by encouraging the countries to work more closely together, make decisions as a group and even share a currency. While it’s unlikely there would be another European war, dismantling the EU would take away an excellent mechanism to ensure a conflict-free continent.
Key countries like France, Belgium and Germany are unlikely to leave the EU, but tensions are rising in many countries – so far Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, and Sweden have seen public demands for referendums. Whether more referendums are held is yet to be seen, and may come down to the strength of public and political pressure for change in each country.
Scotland may vote to leave the UK, and Northern Ireland might too In 2014, the people of Scotland held an independence referendum and (narrowly) voted to remain part of the UK. The primary reason the Scots decided to stay was the belief that leaving the UK would cause harm and instability.
After Brexit, it’s highly likely there will be a new poll in Scotland to decide if it wants to remain part of the UK, or secede and re-join the EU. If so, there is a much greater likelihood that Scotland will vote to secede. A similar vote in Northern Ireland is less likely, but also possible. The once ‘United Kingdom’ might again be reduced to being just plain on England, with Wales tacked on as an afterthought.
The people of the UK have participated in the most democratic way in a decision about their future. Their decision satisfies a primary urge, but perhaps without really understanding all of its consequences. An interesting parallel to consider for example, is that if left to a public vote most people would vote for lower taxes AND more services, even if doing both was not fiscally responsible for a nation.
This then raises the question of the political classes or political elite (the word ‘elite’ deriving from the term ‘elected’). Non-elites currently feel alienated by the political classes that traditionally represented them – this reflects the profound failure of current-day politicians to adequately stand for, and be of the people, they are supposed to represent.
There is therefore room for a new leadership to arise from the disenchanted and alienated, and hopefully a leadership with a coherent ideology and policy program, rather than simplified populist sound bites.
Brexit also goes to the question of the nature of democracy in large, complex societies. While representing the people, political leaders should also be able to rise above the emotion and anger of populism, to outline a vision and a plan for the future and to stand for election on that basis.
This is the principle informing representative democracy, where citizens vote for leaders to make decisions, rather than according to mob rule. But for this to be effective, those representatives must be closely connected to the communities they represent; they must be of them, if among their best and brightest.
If they are not, it throws up challenges to the continued existence of democracy as we know it, and perhaps Brexit is a mild example of a new type of political organisation that has the potential to develop as a 21st century iteration of populist demagoguery or, indeed, neo-fascism.
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