On June 23rd, a small majority of Brits voted to leave the European Union, marking a deflating end to four decades of the UK in the European project.
To me, a student of history, and of European history in particular, and of someone who lived in the United Kingdom for three years as recently as 2015, this represents a triumph of all things that incrementally added up over the years to produce an environment of division and fear, much of it created in people’s heads by opportunists and the media that is incapable of monitoring itself.
I moved to London in 2012, on the eve of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics. Britain truly felt like it was the center of the world then. It was coming out of the recession quicker and stronger than most predicted. It enjoyed the status of a global financial powerhouse. Its athletes were competing, and winning, at home (Wimbledon, Olympics) and abroad (Tour de France). Its monarchy was rejuvenated by the dynamic princes William and Harry, and the captivating Kate. The sense of British identity was strong, you felt like you were constantly at a tea party hosted by Stephen Fry on the lawn of Buckingham Palace.
How is it, then, that in just four short years, the UK could go from being the center of Europe to voting itself out of the very union that propelled them to the world stage after decades of post-war stagnation? How is it that people who, seemingly, were better off than 99% of the rest of the world, in terms of standards of living, decided that they were better alone? How could a society of children and grand children of Churchill’s generation so soon forget that the very divisions that can be created by unions splintering and countries retreating behind their borders caused history’s deepest crises that tore not only the European continent, but the rest of the world apart?
My mind travels back to December 2010, when a fruit vendor in Tunisia set himself on fire as a protest to the country’s authoritarian regime. The Jasmine revolution, as it was called at the time, sparked a domino effect that took over the entire region and led to the collapse of Egyptian and Libyan governments, and shaking Syria to its core. The West’s decision to largely stand by and watch events unfold allowed the new forces to take hold and instill the belief among Arabs that changes were afoot. As we know now, these changes were largely negative as these revolutions created a fertile ground for the rise of Isis and gave Bashar al Assad’s government a reason to bomb his own people to protect his rule. Consequently, this weakness on the part of the West led to the refugee epidemic that swept over Southern Europe last year, which was already battered by the recession of 2008 and unable to cope effectively.
Observing from afar, it is easy to latch on to the words of armchair quarterbacks like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who called the EU weak and incompetent, unable to effectively deal with threats at its borders, because it had to answer to governments of 28 member states.
The gut feeling that Europe’s financial woes were also largely self-inflicted through incompetence, and that richer countries (UK, Germany) had to constantly pay to bail out poor countries also felt right.
Open borders between member states and movement of its people, the hallmark of the European project, all of the sudden seemed like a dangerous proposition. Forget the Poles and the Hungarians who, supposedly, flooded the country. Barbarians were at the proverbial gates! Scenes of refugees in Calais, outside the Channel Tunnel, spooked the public. Terrorist attacks in French and Belgian capitals made it even easier to blame the refugees who were piling onto the continent in record numbers (never mind that these attacks were carried out by homegrown terrorists, much like the attacks in London in 2005).
The accelerating pace of news coverage, and the ability to self select who one could listen to, created an ever-sharper divide in a country that was, in effect a federation of quasi-independent nations. The Scottish referendum showed just how much division there already was and how real their departure from the Kingdom could be.
Of course, the real divide was between the haves and the have nots. This divide, just like in America, affected those who relied on Britain’s traditional economic strengths that went out of vogue roughly at the same time as the European Union was spinning up. Auto manufacturing, steel works and other examples of heavy industry were shuttering and shifting overseas.
In business, we often talk about correlation vs. causation and being careful to distinguish between the two. Correlation is an observation of two trends, which sometimes neatly fit into a hypothesis you have (i.e. I started wearing a suit to work and my career took off, therefore I am proof that dressing for the job you want, rather than the job you have is a real thing). It’s often very easy to point to these trends and use them to explain outcomes. And many people will agree, because it fits into the same stereotypes they have.
Causation, however, is a much trickier animal and requires proof that an action produced a reaction. While correlation is the occupation of the chattering classes and opportunist politicians, causation is the domain of scientists, statisticians and economists who bristle at the idea of oversimplified solutions. The problem is that in the first group, you have the poisonous mix of those who benefit from shouting and those who are ready and willing to accept the shouting. The causation group ends up arguing with itself and its voices are rarely heard. Compare this interview with Leave’s leader Boris Johnson to this nuanced argument by an EU scholar. One is laden with repetitive hyperbole, the other is rich in facts and logic. And yet…
And yet, nearly 52% of the UK voting public decided that immigration, economy and security were issues that were, somehow, made worse by the country’s participation in the European Union. That leaving the world’s biggest single market was going to make the UK a stronger economy. That regaining control of its borders (which were already protected more than others’, due to geography) was going to protect it from terrorism that, as we know, has been largely a domestic issue. That European immigration into the UK was, somehow, the root of why the jobs that used to exist in Britain of the 1970s were no longer available to them. Nevermind that almost the same number of Brits worked elsewhere in the EU, the perception was that Britain was being robbed of its economic opportunity by Europeans arriving from the fringes of the ever-expanding union, taking jobs that were previously reserved for the English and the Welsh, and changing the make up of society and culture.
Nevermind that after World War 2, thousands of people from the further reaches of the Empire were invited to a war-torn Britain to help rebuild. Nevermind that these people settled in English, Welsh and Scottish towns and never moved back. Nevermind that people continued to arrive from Pakistan, India, Russia, the Arab countries – places that have nothing to do with the EU. They created communities that have contributed to the evolution of what it means to be British. Just a few months ago, Londoners elected the son of a Pakistani immigrant as their mayor. That, after having the Etonian Boris Johnson as a two-term leader of the world’s most global city. The same Boris Johnson who, for most of his political life, advocated staying in the EU, now became the mouthpiece for the Leave campaign.
I see the result of this referendum as the perfect storm of soundbite-driven media, opportunistic politicians, an electorate that is poorly informed (or informed by means of media they self select), and the overall air of fear that permeates our relatively mundane lives. During the cold war, we feared a nuclear war. But people didn’t fear it every day, in the same way people fear terrorism in music halls, movie theaters or shopping centers. This fear is much more personal and much scarier. It’s a one-on-one fear that has no name or face, but has a stereotype attached to it. And, unfortunately, when people turn on the TV and see who was responsible for the most recent attack, and then they look at those who are arriving into their country, they correlate and stoke even more fear in their own minds.
I think the British public fell victim to overstated fears that were enhanced by the likes of Johnson, Nigel Farage and others who sensed a once in a lifetime opportunity to accomplish their individual objectives. I am sure that BoJo’s objectives were very different from Farages and this alliance smells of a devil’s pact. Either way, they were effective in delivering a message that was helped by circumstances of the preceding months.
We don’t have to look far to see parallels of this. Trump’s rhetoric in the US tugs on the same strings of fear, just in a cruder, more open way. The same is happening across the Western world.
My final thought goes back to the beginning of this essay – seemingly unrelated events, through time, become interconnected. Not through consequences of actions, but through laziness of the human psyche. Correlation is a strong force and must be considered. It is no longer wise to assume that people will take the time to understand the truth when it is so much more convenient to hear things that fit into their pre-existing narrative.
And so, with a bit of a whimper, Britain is moving to the fringes of Western Europe and into an era of uncertainty. I am sure it will do OK in the long term, but looking back at history, many countries who are now OK, took quite an unpleasant route that could have been avoided. I fear that for Britain, and for the rest of Europe, the following years will be a scenic route they wished they never took.