The initial consequences of the United Kingdom’s referendum decision to leave the European Union have proven as catastrophic as they have been predictable: the British pound immediately plummeted, worldwide stock markets ebbed, xenophobic political parties of all stripes have been emboldened, the British prime minister has announced that he will resign, and the leader of Labour, England’s other major party, is also under fire.
Ironically though, the first casualty of Brexit may actually be the United Kingdom’s unity itself, as Scotland — which largely voted to stay in the EU — is now plotting a second secession referendum of its own after its first in 2014. No word yet on whether a lake of fire has been discovered, but it is early days.
As shocking as these turns of events are, they are not wholly surprising. Having lived in London, it was always clear to me that UK attitude toward the EU was rather ambivalent. Moreover, this development just seems to fit with the times in which we live, standing as another example of the rising worldwide tide of angry, populist movements upending an established political order.
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As with a number of these developments, Brexit carries profound anti-immigration undertones. Polls investigating the most important issues to Leave voters found that more than 50 per cent identified immigration. Obviously, not all of these voters were motivated simply by xenophobia, but as with the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, it is hard not to see that intolerance is on the march as an increasingly potent political force.
This was particularly evident in the Brexit campaign, given the tenor of the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party's advertising. Indeed, despite victory, moderates in the Leave camp have clearly evidenced discomfort with this truth since the vote. This isn’t surprising. As a rule of thumb, when you find yourself in the same boat as the Independence Party's leader Nigel Farage and Marine LePen, leader of France’s anti-immigrant National Front party, it is probably time to swim for shore.
But while resentment over immigration was a key driver of the Brexit result, so too was an undeniable (and, frankly, reasonable) sense of economic grievance on the part of many struggling voters. Equally understandable was their fury against elites whom they saw as defending a system that fails them, along with a wholesale rejection of the “experts” who (accurately) warned of the consequences of Brexit. These, too, are elements shared by other similar populist movements, wherever we find them in the world.
Such movements — which are found on both the political right and left — have one thing in common: a yearning for a better past and a rejection of the world as it now is, since the contemporary world does not serve them well. More often than not, supporters of these movements feel that their societies are in decline, and fear that their children are doomed to be worse off. Though they may hail from very different countries, all these groups idealize a golden era of economic stability when people “like them” could be financially secure.
The painful truth is that this idealized past, if it ever truly existed, is gone and it is not coming back. It was sacrificed a quarter century ago, when the world embraced globalization. The idealized time reflects a world predating the end of the Cold War, when manufacturers didn’t face international competition from nations where workers are paid a fraction of their own society’s wage. It accorded with a world where international trade had not yet become the norm, and indeed the basis of the global economy.
Nostalgia is not a strategy for securing the future. The clock cannot be turned back. The way forward is not for societies to try to recreate a bygone era, economically or demographically, but rather to learn to compete in the modern world — because that world will exist around them no matter what they do.
It is an irony that the UK has voted to withdraw from the EU’s trade pact because, in truth, it is one of the societies that benefits most from such trade. The real problem is that these benefits are not shared equitably throughout the society.
It is actually those best adapted to take advantage of the “new” world, the younger generation who have known nothing else, who will be most severely affected by Brexit. Polls show that 75 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds voted Remain, while 61 per cent of those over 65 voted Leave. In other words, those who will have to live with the consequences the longest wanted this the least.
Some of the commentary by young adults since the vote reflects this, voicing concerns about not just the loss of economic prospects, but also lamenting now foreclosed opportunities to strike out, live abroad and forge lives and relationships in the other 27 EU countries. These views reflect a wholly different understanding of globalization: one where it is seen as an opportunity, not a threat.
For the rest of the world this is a cautionary tale. A burgeoning populist insurgent movement has succeeded, and it will be illuminating to see what happens when its yearning for nostalgia is put to the test.
It is clear Brexit will not deliver the public service benefits promised by the Leave camp — indeed, Farage and Boris Johnson (the mainstream political leader of the Leave movement) have already begun to backtrack on those promises.
Economically, it is also virtually certain that a group of financially disadvantaged people have voted for a policy which will ultimately further disadvantage them. The weaker economy that will result from Brexit will eventually translate to fewer services and more austerity, because the closed economic world they wish to recreate must still compete in a globalized economy, and will be ill equipped to do so.
Even with respect to immigration, those hoping for a more homogenous Britain may be in for a shock: mainstream political leaders on the Leave side vow that it is not xenophobia which underpins the Brexit movement and will be hesitant to move in directions which would validate this charge. Further, the fact is that the majority of immigration into the U.K. comes from non-EU countries, meaning that, ironically, post-Brexit an ever-greater percentage of those who immigrate may well look less “European,” not more.
In addition, hopes that the U.K. will be able to strike an advantageous economic agreement with the EU, and mitigate the worst of the Brexit damage, are likely to prove wishful thinking: the EU has an incentive to dissuade other member countries from following suit, and will accordingly need the cost of leaving to be clear.
So it is highly unlikely that Leave voters will get what they hoped from Brexit, and it will be interesting to see what happens when this sort of populist movement succeeds, but then fails to deliver on its promises. Where will the anger and resentment that fuelled it then be channelled?
This may be a case of being careful what one wishes for. By the looks of it, the Brexit referendum pitted the old against the young, the rich against the poor, and the rural against the urban. The problem is, everyone lost — because while the promises of angry populist movements may be fantasy, as the UK is now finding out, the consequences of embracing them are all too real.
Darren Thorne is an international lawyer and adjunct law professor at Toronto’s Osgoode Hall Law School and the Universities of Pretoria and The Western Cape, in South Africa.