The anti-establishment wave rolling across the industrialised world has rocked the boat of the US Democratic Party and blown the doors off the US Republican Party, but in generating enough momentum to push Britain out of the European Union, it claims its biggest scalp yet, and with it, the most consequential political event in the last 25 years.
What follows could be anything from a rash of referenda across Europe, to the eventual disintegration of Britain and even Europe. There are some immediate reasons for this, from a referendum that probably didn’t need to happen, to the lukewarm attitude from some of those in the ‘Remain’ camp, but the real reasons are much deeper.
After so many years of increasing openness and cooperation, there is now pushback by those left behind by the forces of globalization, automation, and the free movement of people across the continent.
Even though some of the best arguments for Brexit hinged on a desire to ‘take back control’ on some issues from a ‘distant’ and ‘unaccountable’ EU government in Brussels, some of the most effective arguments were about immigration, and how leaving the EU would somehow help Britain avoid being ‘overrun’ by immigrants.
There is a case to be made that those who campaigned to Remain did not effectively counter these narratives, because even though the EU certainly has a lot of issues, it does good as well. The current benefits of the EU, as well as a vision for a relationship with it that works better in the future, were not sold in a compelling manner. The Leave campaign, however, were more visible and spoke to the fears of the electorate, even selling the referendum as ‘Independence Day’ from a draconian EU.
On balance, Britain gains more from the EU than it loses. Half of all British trade is with the other 27 nations, and in rural areas, their support comes from the EU. But politics is about more about narratives, especially these days, than about fact. And that’s where the Remain campaign failed.
Part of that failure is the same that is mirrored in the collapse of the Republican establishment across the Atlantic: an elite who have benefited the most from globalization and are fundamentally out of touch with those they are supposed to be representing, leaving their flanks wide open for talented politicians to take advantage. By the time these elite realise what has happened, they have been outflanked and lost hearts, minds, and the argument.
The distrust of the political establishment in the developed world is real, and it has real consequences. Those voting for a change in the status quo are demonstrating a dissatisfaction with institutions at home and abroad that cannot be mocked or maligned away. It is time to listen, to really listen, to what these people are saying, in order to come up with real solutions to their problems.
It hardly needs to be said that the political success so far of people like Trump, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, and others who will surely aim to take advantage of anti-establishment sentiments, are the ugly by-product of these upheavals. For the most part, they are opportunists who do not represent any material change for those who voted with them. As such, none of them can possibly be the solution to the grievances being voiced.
This will become apparent in the months and years ahead. Nevertheless, the concerns of the majority of these people are very valid, and the question now becomes: is the rich world ready to cushion the fall of those affected negatively by the forces that are affected by globalisation? Or will this tone-deafness continue despite all the warnings to the contrary? The answer is hardly set in stone.
As for the developed world, there are hard decisions too. For those that are democracies, like Nigeria, these decisions need the buy-in of the electorate as well as the elite. It is vitally important to step out of the bubble and truly engage with the people, while attempting the crucial reforms that are so badly needed.
It is important to shed the arrogance and thinly veiled contempt that sets when public office holders engage the public. Failing to do properly sell the benefits of reform, particularly those that are longer term, will leave the door open for populist demagogues to hijack the narrative and say whatever needs to be said to win votes, derailing progress as a result.
Being right is not enough. Not anymore.