Lest you have missed it, last week the United Kingdom held its long-anticipated national referendum on whether to remain a member of the European Union, and by a 52% to 48% majority voted for
“Brexit”, or British exit. The vote has divided the UK on a single issue along generational, regional, nationalist (by which I mean England, Scotland and Norther Ireland) and demographic lines. I have been struck by how stridently opinionated and intolerant conversation has been since the vote and how similar this tone is to conversation in the USA. This piece takes a look at the polarization, reflects on some potential deeper causes and implications, and looks at what this means for you.
Belligerence is a Global Phenomenon
Much opinion has been expressed from both sides of the UK vote (“Remainers” and “Brexit”), and a recent article by the FT captures a good cross section of the comments. The article, You tell us: voters chose to leave the EU. Now what?, invites readers to comment on and respond to the EU referendum vote and provides a cross-section of views. The views give a post-vote perspective of the divisive and populist campaign that led up to the referendum, and of the polarized politics that continue. I am reminded of other divisive and belligerent campaigns:
- In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte was elected president in May this year. He grabbed the world news stage after a televised joke about the gang rape and murder of an Australian missionary in 1989 in a town in which at the time he was the serving mayor, and soon thereafter was quoted as saying that journalists killed on the job in the Philippines were often corrupt, and, “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch…Freedom of expression cannot help you if you have done something wrong”;
- Norbert Hofer of what is generally labeled the “extreme right-wing” Freedom Party received a plurality of voted in the first round of Austria’s presidential election in April, and narrowly lost 49.7% to 50.3% in the second vote in May. The extreme right wing is gaining ground across Europe with such personages as Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front; Frauke Petry of Alternative for Germany party; Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom; and Matteo Salvini of Italy’s Lega Nord;
- Recip Erdogan has increasingly dominated the political landscape of Turkey since first being elected Prime Minister in 2003, and upon his election to President has been silencing critics with growing strength and power.
Most obviously for citizens of the US we need look no further than our own current political landscape to see the growth in divisiveness and belligerence, with violence erupting on the campaigns of the populist campaigns for Democrat Sanders and Republican Trump. The chart above showing the growth in very unfavorable views of the other party is taken from a very recent Pew Research piece which shows in greater detail that the level of distrust and dislike of the other party has risen dramatically in recent years and that prejudice and intolerance is mainstream on both sides of the political spectrum. The full article can be seen at Partisanship and Political Animosity in 2016 and highlights at Key facts about partisanship and political animosity in America
A More Reflective View of Brexit?
By way of counterpoint to the popular doomsday coverage of Brexit that dominates today’s media, I quote a recent newsletter piece by Cliff Oxford of the Oxford Center:
Brexit is not legally binding and is merely an advisory to the British government.
Britain can punt on Brexit or at least take a long time out on the process of leaving the European Union – a whole lot of wiggle room to never leave that has more ands, ifs and buts than flood insurance. To put this in our world of a sales pipeline, I would give Brexit about as much weight, 40 percent, as a verbal “yes” to close. Beyond the Brexit vote being no more than a beauty contest, the process of leaving doesn’t even begin until after the British government officially asks to invoke what is known as Article 50 to start the divorce proceedings from the European Union treaty – that could take awhile, as long as two years or more. In fact, this is an action the current Prime Minister of Britain, David Cameron, said he would leave to his unknown successor. No country has ever left the European Union, so we are looking at a protracted mess that already started this morning with the London Mayor and Brexit “Leave” leader saying, “UK will intensify cooperation with EU” following the referendum and “build bridges to the Remain side.” Also, this morning, UK treasury chief said nothing is going to happen anytime soon.
Yes, later Britain could invoke Article 50 to leave, but still the other 27 nations could vote for them to stay, and Britain would remain part of the European Union if they so choose. Then, there is a commerce clause that allows them to sign a trade deal post-exit with all 27 countries that is essentially the same trade treaty as it is now. I know that I am way out here on an island when I say this, but I think this is Y2K all over again, and nothing materializes beyond the initial fear and damage of it happening. A refresher on Y2K – super hype built up for four solid years that all of the world’s computers were going to crash at 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2000 due to date and time clocks not recognizing a new century. Nothing happened other than a couple of alarm clocks going off and some system messages coded in the ’60s that said “Happy New Century – hope I am still around.”
Set aside all the media mania on Brexit, I think we can count on UK being around as the fifth largest economy in the world, and Brexit could be an amicable live upstairs-downstairs divorce, but still all together as far as business and trade are concerned. But for right now, a whole lot of talk is going on – not good and damaging.
Cliff is not shy about putting out controversial opinions, and while they are not always popular, they are often thoughtful and challenging in very useful ways. The suggestion that the situation is neither as black-and-white nor as damaging as the newspaper headlines would have us believe is likely wise, as, I feel, is the idea that the talk itself is damaging.
What Are The Causes
In looking at the causes of Brexit, I think one needs to look at the causes of the global trend to polarization, to belligerence, to populist politics. And when looking at something on such a large scale, something affecting and affected by billions of people, the causes are complex and evade simple analysis. Any conclusions drawn can only be judgments and opinions. Rather than put forward proposals or suggestions, let’s just pick out some factors that have varying degrees of influence:
- There is considerable violence and conflict in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and neighboring countries such as Afghanistan. The US and Europe are drawn into this sphere through factors including political history and oil interests;
- There are 65 million refugees in the world, most coming out of these areas of conflict, and many on the move into Europe and to a lesser extent the US;
- Foreign-sourced terrorism, and especially that of individuals radicalized by ISIS and other warmongering organizations, are acting in the name of a corrupted and corrupt worldview that seeks to co-opt the name of Islam;
- There is a growing disillusionment with democratic governmental systems and much anger against political systems and politicians;
- A large and growing number of people in the nations that have advanced economies are feeling disenfranchised and perceive that the political system no longer works for them.
It’s pretty clear there is no agreement on the relative importance of these factors, and different opinions would likely argue with the inclusion of certain factors and push to add others to the list. It’s pretty clear that the causes are complex and not fully understood and are out of our control. And it’s pretty clear that fear and self-interest flow from the causes and are driving massive political and social response that has at its root emotion and not logical, analytical thought.
Many do not know that Britain, too, had a civil war, the English Civil War, that ran for nine years from 1642 to 1651. Partisanship, polarization, and prejudice pits brother against sister, divides family, and potentially creates civil war.
Does Large Scale Democracy Work?
It is popular newspaper fare to reflect on the how the democracies of “less developed countries” often seem dominated by individual families, but this same tendency seems to be emerging in the mature democracies of the economically developed world. Obvious examples include:
- The ongoing political legacy and influence of the Kennedy family in US politics;
- Hillary Clinton’s probable presidential campaign to become the fourth of the last five presidents to come from just two families;
- The legacy of Tony Benn, who served as a Labor MP in the UK for 47 years from 1950: until a couple of days ago (when he was fired by leader Jeremy Corbyn), one son (Hilary Benn) served as Shadow Foreign Secretary; and another (the oldest, Stephen Benn) reclaimed the Viscountcy of Stansgate which his father Tony gave up in the 1960s, and now serves in the House of Lords.
A cynical view of large scale democracy, and one that seems to pervade current politics (albeit perhaps mostly unarticulated) is that on the one hand this form of government is a winner-take-all system on issues that are delicately balanced at 50/50, so that half a population will always be disatisfied with a decision and feel outsiders; and on the other that it is a system prone to cooption and manipulation by an elite. To break this system so that ordinary people feel included, one solution might be to move from large-scale democracy to smaller scale democracy; to push authority from regional government back to government at a more local level; and to the extent that a regional (or in the US Federal) government is left in place, to reduce its powers to much lighter oversight. Is the real legacy of these times a fundamental shift in our perspective of and engagement with democracy?
What Should You Do?
There is a lot of speculation about a second Scottish referendum to leave the UK, possibly in conjunction with a political decision for Scotland to join the EU; the possibility of a destabilized Northern Ireland and a resurgent IRA has been raised; and there is much saber-rattling both in the UK and on the European mainland as politicians jostle for popularity, votes, and for leverage and the upper-hand in the unfolding story. There is also speculation that other European governments will find themselves pressurized into having domestic referendums, and that the EU is even less popular in many nations than in the UK. All of this will play out over time, and there is probably not a lot most of us can do that will directly impact it. More important is what can we do closer to home.
The other night at an evening interfaith event I was approached independently by a number of people who both asked me what I thought of the Brexit vote. In each case the individual quickly made it clear they really weren’t interested and rather sought to tell me what they thought, which in all cases was that it is a dumb decision, maybe the dumbest decision made by any nation in the history of the world. While this may or may not be true, taking the position that the voting majority of the largest turnout (over 70%) of the UK electorate that I’ve ever heard of are dumb is not likely to lead to a constructive outcome. I find this deeply troublesome, doubly so because these opinions are expressed by those who should know better: people who are engaged with organizations that espouse dialog and listening.
What you should do above all is suspend judgment and suspend disbelief and listen. Something is happening, and until you tune into it, you have no hope of affecting it or of effecting a positive outcome. Until you listen – and I mean sincerely listen from the standpoint of wanting to truly understand – to the neighbor or family member or colleague who has different political, religious, or social perspectives than you, all is lost. For without listening you cannot understand why they behave the way they do; and without showing them that you are willing to listen to them, why should you expect them to listen to you?
What you can do – what you must do – as Beyonce said in a recent song, is LISTEN.