Learn­ing from Bri­tain’s un­nec­es­sary cri­sis

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION - E J Dionne Jr

ELITES are in trou­ble. High lev els of im­mi­gra­tion are desta­bil­is­ing our democ­ra­cies. Politi­cians who put their short-term po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests over their coun­tries’ needs reap the whirl­wind — for them­selves but, more im­por­tantly, for their na­tions. Cit­i­zens who live in the eco­nom­i­cally ail­ing pe­riph­eries of wealthy na­tions are in re­volt against well-off and cos­mopoli­tan metropoli­tan ar­eas. Older vot­ers lock in de­ci­sions that young vot­ers re­ject. Tra­di­tional po­lit­i­cal par­ties on the left and right are be­ing torn asun­der.

One of the few good things about Bri­tain’s vote to leave the Euro­pean Union is the rich cur­ricu­lum of lessons it of­fers lead­ers and elec­torates in other democ­ra­cies. His­tory is un­likely to be kind to Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron. Last week’s ref­er­en­dum was not the prod­uct of broad pop­u­lar de­mand. Cameron called it to solve a short-term po­lit­i­cal prob­lem and get through an elec­tion. His Con­ser­va­tive Party was split on Europe and feared haem­or­rhag­ing votes to the right-wing, anti-Europe, anti-im­mi­grant UK In­de­pen­dence Party (UKIP).

Cameron fig­ured that kick­ing his trou­bles down the road by promis­ing a fu­ture plebiscite on Europe could make them go away. In­stead, he turned a nor­mal elec­toral chal­lenge into a pro­found cri­sis that could lead to breakup of his coun­try while threat­en­ing Europe’s fu­ture. The dev­as­tat­ing com­plaint of Martin Schulz, pres­i­dent of Euro­pean Par­lia­ment: “A whole con­ti­nent is taken hostage be­cause of an in­ter­nal fight in Tory party.”

For all the Union Jacks hoisted at Leave ral­lies, the na­tion­al­ism be­hind this was English, not Bri­tish. Eng­land voted to get out of the EU, Scot­land over­whelm­ingly to stay. North­ern Ireland also favoured Re­main, while Wales split nar­rowly for Leave, its more English parts vot­ing like Eng­land. Sud­denly, for Scots who want their coun­try to be in­de­pen­dent, their na­tion­al­ism be­comes a form of pro-Euro­pean in­ter­na­tion­al­ism. To stay in Europe, they have to es­cape Bri­tain. Af­ter a dif­fi­cult but suc­cess­ful strug­gle for peace, North­ern Ireland’s sta­tus is now also in doubt. Don’t trash democ­racy or the vot­ers. Where com­pli­cated choices are in­volved — and Brexit de­fines com­plex­ity — lead­ers in rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cies need the guts to make hard calls and sub­mit them­selves to vot­ers after­ward. They should not use ref­er­en­dums purely to evade re­spon­si­bil­ity. In fact, now that this road has been opened, real democrats should de­mand a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum on the terms of an exit deal. On Thurs­day, vot­ers bet that the un­known would be bet­ter than the known. They should get to vote again on the full im­pli­ca­tions of what they set in mo­tion.

Emma Lewell-Buck, the Labour par­lia­men­tar­ian who rep­re­sents South Shields and sup­ported Re­main, was right to say that UKIP leader Nigel Farage “whipped ev­ery­one up into a frenzy with his hate­ful lan­guage.” Ethno-na­tion­al­ism is on the rise across Europe, and this vote will only in­ten­sify the trend. But in so many na­tions, in­clud­ing our own, tech­no­log­i­cal change, glob­al­i­sa­tion and fi­nan­cial­i­sa­tion force the left-out to stare at pros­per­ity from a great dis- tance. In their jus­ti­fied frus­tra­tion, they of­ten see im­mi­gra­tion as of a piece with the other changes in the world that they de­plore.

Re­spon­si­ble of­fi­cials should al­ways be ready to de­nounce racism. But their job de­scrip­tion also re­quires them to pro­vide re­al­is­tic pol­icy an­swers to quell the rage. If cen­tre-right and cen­tre-left politi­cians fail to do this, their par­ties will re­main sus­pect. Yet if Bri­tain’s vote is un­der­stand­able, it’s also a cause for sad­ness. It’s a vote against a more open world and a re­jec­tion of the idea that democ­ra­cies can ac­tu­ally gain power by pool­ing sovereignty and seek­ing goals in com­mon.

Younger Bri­tons, who voted strongly to stay in Europe, will be shack­led for many years to a re­sult that their el­ders im­posed on them. Friends of open so­ci­eties have been slapped in the face by cit­i­zens who are them­selves re­tal­i­at­ing for hav­ing been knocked around and ig­nored for too long. Across Europe and in the United States, politi­cians can ei­ther re­spond to these cries of protest or face some­thing worse than Brexit. — Cour­tesy: The Wash­ing­ton Post

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