The ref­er­en­dum ex­posed deep rifts within Bri­tain and left its two big­gest par­ties strug­gling to adapt

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - −Robert Hut­ton

Brexit pit­ted glob­al­iz­ing lead­ers against many of their own con­stituents

For a while, it looked as if Bri­tain’s 750-year-old democ­racy might have nei­ther a govern­ment nor an op­po­si­tion. Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron, who called a ref­er­en­dum on Euro­pean Union mem­ber­ship and lost it, had taken the only course and fallen on his sword. Law­mak­ers from the op­po­si­tion Labour Party, fu­ri­ous with their leader, Jeremy

Cor­byn, for what they saw as his sab­o­tage of the cam­paign to keep Bri­tain in­side the EU, at­tempted to throw him over­board.

In the days fol­low­ing the June 23 vote, the coun­try drifted rud­der­less. For weeks, Brexit’s most prominent sup­port­ers had been boast­ing that they had a plan for get­ting Bri­tain out of the EU. Now that the mo­ment had come, its lead­ers de­nied their ear­lier prom­ises of more money for health care and a lower tax on fuel bran­dished on Brexit cam­paign posters. They also de­manded to know why Cameron hadn’t pre­pared for the pos­si­bil­ity of de­feat. Min­is­ters in the Re­main camp said it was for Cameron’s suc­ces­sor to un­veil a plan.

The ref­er­en­dum ex­posed deep rifts within Bri­tain. The first was ge­o­graphic: Lon­don, Scot­land, and North­ern Ire­land voted Re­main; al­most ev­ery­where else voted Leave. Scot­land may get an­other ref­er­en­dum on in­de­pen­dence which could spell the end of the U.K.

The gap be­tween Lon­don and the rest of Eng­land wasn’t ge­o­graphic. It was eco­nomic. Lon­don is an ex­pen­sive me­trop­o­lis whose in­fras­truc­ture reg­u­larly col­lapses in the face of weather or strikes. But it’s also one of the world’s great cities, as di­verse as any place on the planet, with sky­scrapers to match

“The de­ci­sion to hold the ref­er­en­dum will go down as one of his­tory’s great blun­ders.” −Richard Haass, pres­i­dent of the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, in a June 24 op-ed in the Fi­nan­cial Times

“This is prin­ci­pally an an­ti­im­mi­gra­tion vote. It’s not about sovereignty. These are vot­ers who want less im­mi­gra­tion” “The United King­dom has staged a re­volt so force­ful that it will shake—and po­ten­tially even de­stroy—the Euro­pean project.” ——Harold James, a Bri­tish his­to­rian at Prince­ton, in a June 24 col­umn for the opinion web­site Project Syndicate

New York, restau­rants to match Paris, mu­se­ums to match Florence.

If the cap­i­tal has ben­e­fited from the great game of glob­al­iza­tion, the rest of the coun­try clearly feels it has lost. The first main­land re­sult of the ref­er­en­dum came from Sun­der­land, 400 miles north of Lon­don. It had al­ways been ex­pected to back Brexit; what was shock­ing was the size of the vote: 61 per­cent voted to leave. Nis­san owns a car plant there and had urged a vote to stay in the EU. The Labour Party, which has al­ways counted on for­mer in­dus­trial re­gions like this to back it, had said the same. Both were ig­nored.

For vot­ers in Sun­der­land, the 21st cen­tury has brought in­se­cu­rity, low-paid work, and im­mi­grants. There are 130,000 eco­nom­i­cally ac­tive adults in Sun­der­land and only 7,000 jobs at Nis­san. The lo­cal ship­build­ing in­dus­try has long since with­ered away.

The fail­ure of free mar­kets to de­liver pros­per­ity evenly poses a prob­lem for the tra­di­tional par­ties. His­tor­i­cally, Labour held the north­ern cities, and the Con­ser­va­tives held the coun­try­side and the wealthy shires of the south­east. But Labour, a pro-EU, proim­mi­gra­tion party, has learned that many of its vot­ers feel dif­fer­ently. While Labour’s po­si­tion plays well in Lon­don, it’s anath­ema in the heart­lands.

Mean­while, who­ever suc­ceeds Cameron as Con­ser­va­tive leader is likely to be a Eu­roskep­tic. That will work well in the coun­try­side but badly among the busi­ness­peo­ple the party re­lies on for funds and votes. Amer­i­cans strug­gling to grasp the con­tra­dic­tion should try to imag­ine a pres­i­den­tial con­test be­tween a glob­al­iz­ing Demo­crat who woos Wall Street and an iso­la­tion­ist Repub­li­can who at­tacks Big Busi­ness.

The prob­lem can be summed up in Boris John­son, who may suc­ceed Cameron. The for­mer Lon­don mayor was the face of the 2012 Olympics, a cheer­leader for global Bri­tain. He was also the face of the Brexit cam­paign. While most of the lead­ers of that cam­paign are com­mit­ted glob­al­iz­ers, they re­al­ized that the route to vic­tory ran through places like Sun­der­land and cam­paigned on a prom­ise to re­duce im­mi­gra­tion. John­son is now try­ing to dis­tance him­self from the anti-im­mi­grant rhetoric, ar­gu­ing that vot­ers were more mo­ti­vated by the de­sire to de­fend par­lia­men­tary sovereignty. Many dis­agree. “This is prin­ci­pally an anti-im­mi­gra­tion vote. It’s not about sovereignty. These are vot­ers who want less im­mi­gra­tion. You can’t nav­i­gate this with­out ad­dress­ing that,” says Matthew Goodwin, pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics at the Univer­sity of Kent.

Even if the par­ties can fig­ure out what they ought to look like, they haven’t much time to get into po­si­tion: Cameron’s suc­ces­sor will be un­der pres­sure to call a gen­eral elec­tion—the sec­ond in two years—to se­cure a man­date.

If Labour and the Con­ser­va­tives try to wa­ter down the ref­er­en­dum re­sult to keep free move­ment of peo­ple—an es­sen­tial part of EU pol­icy—they cre­ate an op­por­tu­nity for in­sur­gent move­ments such as the UK In­de­pen­dence Party. UKIP leader Nigel Farage is al­ready ac­cus­ing fel­low Brex­iters of be­tray­ing the pledge to curb im­mi­gra­tion.

If Labour and the Con­ser­va­tives back Brexit, they cre­ate an op­por­tu­nity for some­one promis­ing to re­verse the ref­er­en­dum. The Lib­eral Democrats, who con­trol only eight seats in Par­lia­ment, are po­si­tion­ing them­selves in pre­cisely that spot. Bri­tain, in the mid­dle of its great­est diplo­matic and eco­nomic cri­sis in half a cen­tury, needs a govern­ment that can unite Lon­don and Sun­der­land. Fail­ing that, it just needs a govern­ment.

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