Breaking Down the Brexit Decision



James A. Paul, a writer and non-profit executive working in the field of international relations and global policy, was asked by Sputnik News to comment on the UK’s decision to leave the European Union in the June 23 referendum. Below is his commentary.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, we must consider why it happened and what the future may hold in store.  The first results are already known – markets have plunged, British Prime Minister David Cameron is on the way out of office, and the right has shown its rising strength in  the UK. The European Union is under threat of possible dissolution if other countries follow the same course.  And the UK itself seems sure to suffer a large economic and political setback, especially if the Scots press again for an exit of their own.

To answer why this has happened we have to look primarily at two issues  – the effects of “national” identity with all the powerful symbols of tribalism and xenophobia created over time, and the social erosion resulting from a globalized, neoliberal economic system that harms so many (right-wing politicians easily blame declining material well-being on shadowy foreign forces and threatening migrants).  Both factors have led to the rise of right-wing political movements in England, but also broadly elsewhere as well – in the United States (Trump and the Tea Party), France (Front National), Germany (Pegida, Alternative für Deutschland), and virtually throughout the political landscape of the wealthy democracies, most notably in the Netherlands, Poland, Austria and Switzerland.  Turkey is a well-known case of a less-affluent country, while rightward swings and unstable politics are visible also in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and many others.

The political center has lost its commanding appeal and the public is drawn to vague slogans like “freedom” and “independence.” Right-wing projects are implausible as solutions to the problems faced by ordinary citizens  but the electorate acts in desperation. The process has been under way for many years.  Reagan and Thatcher were early signs. The parties of the center-left fell ever-more-completely under the sway of financial interests and rich donors, providing very little choice. Programs shaped by the 1930s make little sense today, so political innovation is urgently needed but little-practiced. Citizens have consequently grasped for straws, as movements for regional independence and the breakup of states have arisen (consider the Flemish movement in Belgium, the Catalans and Basques in Spain, the Scots and Welsh in the UK, the Corsicans and Bretons in France, not to mention the actual division of Czechoslovakia, the division of Yugoslavia, etc.).

A great threat hangs over the world’s people – the threat of climate change – and the established political forces are doing very little to address it. In fact, their market-based solutions are worsening the crisis daily. The changing climate is already touching off waves of migration, as the climate analysts have long predicted, a force that virtually cannot be stopped, as drought, flood, rising temperatures and rising sea levels deepen the crisis and set desperate people in motion.  Political systems in the wealthy countries are not able to respond.  Captive of the wealthy and unable to think beyond the next election cycle, they stumble forward with little inspiration or leadership to offer.  Falling back on worn-out slogans and fading loyalties, they hope to boost the tribal spirit by appeals to past grandeur and current continuous military operations against foreign enemies and dictators du jour.

The UK is the first major power to succumb to this political crisis in a significant way.  The English still have a strong mentality of Empire, with all the contempt for foreigners that downward international mobility can engender.  Few English know a foreign language, and many think they are vastly superior, not just to the brown people knocking at the door but really to all the “others” across the Channel.   As if the Battle of Trafalgar and the Battle of Britain prove forever that everything beyond Calais is corrupt and contemptible.

We should not forget, however, that the rise of the right has been counterbalanced to some extent by the rise of the left.  In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn is the new left-leaning leader the Labor Party, in Germany there is Die Linke, in Spain Podemos, and so on. Even in the US, Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign provided a significant respite from politics as usual.  Thus, a major re-configuration of global politics appears under way, of which Brexit is only one manifestation.  Above all, however, there is the ticking clock of climate.  Brexit points to a dangerous future of weakened and teetering political systems, run by right-wingers looking backward to days of national glory.  There is reason to fear the post-Brexit British leaders (and their counterparts in other countries) will be unable to address an existential climate threat that requires real initiative, as well as daring and unprecedented global cooperation.  As the seas lick dangerously at our coastal cities, let us hope that in London and so many other places, the people will wake up.