- UCL Diplomacy Society
A globalist’s reflection on Brexit: Lessons learned and lessons yet to be learned
Article submitted by Hector Mckechnie
How do we begin to explain the last five years of politics? Crazy? Uninspiring? Not for me?
One word that certainly rings true is... dramatic, which barely begins to paint the Jackson Pollock-Esque political picture. Initially, we thought we were living in the temporary era of the circus – a passing, curious blip, a political anomaly of silly politicians gaining fleeting moments of fame. Needless to say, our smiles have long since faded. The circus has become an all-too-real reality show. Democracy has suffered a brutal attack on all fronts over these past five years. In Britain, people are more divided than ever, and this division has been accentuated and widened by a global pandemic. Locked up in our houses, we are left to question “how did it come this?”.
For me, the source of recent British decline is Brexit. To be clear, I do not think that voting to leave the EU is the reason why we are so distraught. It was entirely justified to vote on this matter. Instead, I refer to how the result was produced and the consequences of democratic backsliding.
In essence, the Vote Leave campaign itself was used as the political knife which the likes of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and other senior politicians wielded to twist and sever the prior relative decency of British politics.
It was utterly democratic to hold the referendum. It was true that there were many Eurosceptics among us, and it was encouraging to witness people questioning and analysing the political agreements and institutions in which our country was involved. In the end, there is nothing more democratic than an election, and this is because it makes us all more politically aware and informed.
Unfortunately, whilst this is true in theory, it proved problematic in practice. The referendum began to lose its democratic integrity and started tailing towards the opposite end of the honesty spectrum. Suddenly, waves of false information began filling our screens. We began to distrust one another. Faragesque and Francoisesque politics were given disproportionate media prominence and airtime. This capitalised effectively on voter confusion, who were persuaded that their problems stemmed primarily from immigration as the cause of many issues, rather than post-crash economic decline.
The Vote Leave campaign began to realise that it thrived on chaos and that a democratic election could be won in an undemocratic way. Universal ideals such as tolerance, respect, and listening to an opposing argument were fading in the rear-view mirror of the 2010s. And on 23rd June 2016, as the results became clear, Britain took on a dishevelled, anxious air. Rather than owing its exhaustion to the prospect of leaving the EU, the British depression was a reflection of the collapse of national political integrity.
Before, it was ‘us united’. Now it was ‘us versus them’.
This type of political fissure has worked its way around the globe. Brazil has fallen to Bolsonaro, Hungary to Orban, and the USA to Trump. In 5 years, democracy has been beaten, perhaps to its knees, by technology, populism and xenophobia.
In the midst of this current combination of pandemic and political disarray, how can we return once more to decency in public office? How do we recover?
As a Brit, I look to our own failures to find the answers. It all starts with the leader.
Theresa May was a disaster experiment which unequivocally failed. British politics became a faceless power-vacuum, suddenly there was a rat-run for power in the Conservative party. Once again, the country witnessed an election which was fought for in the most undemocratic way. Boris Johnson emerged as the victor covered in the blood, sweat and tears of his rivals. His beaten opponents either crawled meekly and weakly back into the Cabinet, our out of it, to await once more the turn of the political wheel, resentful of the government which they now must serve. Hardly inspirational for us to now follow this new leadership style.
For democracy to thrive, it needs a true democrat at the helm. None of the UK Cabinet’s current power-frenzied and acquiescent politicians is the answer. Generally lacking in high-level experience, intellect and ability, they are too focused on back-stabbing or out-manoeuvring each other to focus on the key job: driving this country toward prosperity. Much like his foreign contemporaries in Trump and Bolsonaro, Boris Johnson does not represent the values his nation traditionally holds dear.
Instead, the promotion of these values has become subsumed within the broader global circus of fakery and illusion, an act of misrepresentation and trickery. Facts and clear-cut manifestos are now subject to interpretation, and there no longer appears to be a desire from our politicians even to attempt to stick to one political agenda. Instead, deviation from the truth is seen as the means to survive. David Cameron once said that he would rather be a good prime minister for one term than a lousy prime minister for two. Political integrity has since been lost in misinformation, where we now see senior politicians and advisers blatantly breaking the laws which they set.
We require leaders and ministers with integrity, strong public examples of the democracy they preach. Once a leader truly believes in and represents liberal democratic ideals, then it will become the societal norm to conduct a debate with integrity and academic rigour. Verifiable truth and fact will gain respect once more; elections may even be won or lost based on proven capability and not deceit.
Such nations need to re-embrace their post-war liberal international institutions. The consequences of globalisation are vital to understanding democratic backlash. Many are angry that China, an autocracy, has benefitted most from this Liberal International Order. It is true that in the age of technology, globalisation means that national economies will diversify, sometimes dramatically. However, global issues such as climate change, migration and xenophobia can only be tackled well through worldwide cooperation and understanding.
None of this will be easy, and more importantly, it will take time. The process of reacquainting ourselves with real democracy will require commitment and faith. This will demand a personal commitment to keep ourselves informed, a passion for political participation, a willingness to challenge and to be challenged, and most of all the humility to change our political views when faced with sound evidence that disproves our opinions.
Ultimately, the lesson to be learned is this: embrace change. Since the dawn of the post-war order in Potsdam and Bretton Woods, the world has reacted to seismic political shift. We have seen the rise and fall, and rise again of Russia, the emergence of China, the turbulence and relative stability of Europe, lived in the uncertainty of the nuclear age and witnessed the democratisation of large swathes of our planet. In short, global society is resilient. It knows that until a better system of governance dawns, liberal democracy creates and secures a more peaceful world.
Change never comes easily; it evolves.
We need to embrace change if we are to progress.
Indeed, there is nothing more human than change itself.