Friday, June 24, 2016

Brexit Strategies and the Post-Factual Democracy

Like a spouse on the morning after a night of heavy drinking, or perhaps a nasty domestic tiff, many Britons are today awakening to the realisation that things are irrevocably different now.

British voters have decided by a thin margin of 52% - 48% to Leave the European Union, an association that has persisted in one form or another since the end of the Second World War, a conflict the likes of which the EU was created specifically to prevent.

A war between Britain and one of the 27 remaining signatories of the Maastricht Treaty doesn't seem any less unlikely today than it did yesterday, but the repercussions and reverberations of the decision to Leave are both pronounced and far-reaching:
  • The British pound has dropped below the level it plummeted to during the global meltdown in 2008 to a thirty-year low.
  • The world's stock markets are in the turmoil of a sell-off as bankers and investors are caught flat footed by an exit vote after commissioning polls that suggested the Remain vote was in ascendancy.
  • London's reputation as a global financial capital is now being called into question as many banks, investment houses and other financial institutions openly contemplate moving to the continent, taking an estimated 40,000 jobs with them.
  • British Prime Minister David Cameron, a Remain supporter of questionable effectiveness, has announced he will resign by October, adding a transition of power at best or a power struggle at worst to the current upheaval.
  • Residents of Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, but will be dragged out due to voters in England (outside of London at least). Now Scottish independence activists are anticipating yet another referendum on leaving the UK, and Sinn Fein is using Brexit as a possible catalyst for a border vote and the re-unification of Ireland; the Leave victory could potentially lead to the dissolution of the UK.
  • Far-right parties in both Netherlands and France are now calling for their own referendums and an opportunity to leave, placing the viability of the EU itself at risk.

Why did it happen? Speculation is easy at this point, but there are many who see the Brexit vote as being entirely preventable, the result of a campaign promise by now-resigning British PM David Cameron. This opening, largely designed to silence the far-right UK Independence Party (UKIP) as well as Eurosceptics within his own party, was effectively exploited by Leave advocate and former London mayor Boris Johnson, presumably as a back door into 10 Downing Street.

The how is a bit trickier, but there are few who will deny that the Leave campaign leveraged not only the appeal of economic independence, but also growing fears against immigration, and some degree of straight-up xenophobia. This is not to say that everyone who voted to Leave is a racist, but when you are being cheered on by groups like UKIP in England and the National Front in France, it's time to re-evaluate your associations. In England at least, there certainly seems to be a direct correlation between casting a vote to Leave, and either being above the age of 50 or living outside of an urban area.

Then there are those who discovered, to their shock and horror, that the 'protest votes' they cast in favour of leaving (but assuming all the while that the 'Remain' side would ultimately triumph) has resulted in a tipping of the scales that will end up with their country actually, you know, leaving.

While the rest of the world has woken up to find things greatly unsettled, Britons have awoken to find nearly everything they own being worth less, and having far fewer opportunities to work and travel without restriction than they did previously. This commenter on the Financial Post website summed it up eloquently:
“A quick note on the first three tragedies. Firstly, it was the working classes who voted for us to leave because they were economically disregarded, and it is they who will suffer the most in the short term. They have merely swapped one distant and unreachable elite for another. Secondly, the younger generation has lost the right to live and work in 27 other countries. We will never know the full extent of the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages and experiences we will be denied. Freedom of movement was taken away by our parents, uncles, and grandparents in a parting blow to a generation that was already drowning in the debts of our predecessors. Thirdly and perhaps most significantly, we now live in a post-factual democracy. When the facts met the myths they were as useless as bullets bouncing off the bodies of aliens in a HG Wells novel. When Michael Gove said, ‘The British people are sick of experts,’ he was right. But can anybody tell me the last time a prevailing culture of anti-intellectualism has led to anything other than bigotry?”  Nicholas

As a Canadian, the Brexit vote concerns me primarily in terms of just how unsettled it leaves Europe, both politically and economically, and the economic repercussions for the entire globe (including revisiting a multitude of trade agreements with the EU that assumed British membership).

An even greater concern for me personally is that possibility that if we are living in a 'post-factual democracy', then a similar scenario could end up playing out in the American presidential election this November.

Both the Leave and the Trump campaigns use hatred and divisiveness to motivate voters to act in their supposed self-interest; to return to a supposed 'glory days' that, except for a privileged few, never actually existed. Trump supporters, borne up by his tough talk and his assurances that he will 'Make America Great Again', are willing to ignore facts like his having no policy knowledge, or that his business successes are grossly overstated.

This pool of boosters has grown over time, taking Trump from being a sideshow, to being a credible spoiler, to being a serious contender and now the presumptive nominee. Throughout this process, a distressing number of people opposed to The Donald have refused to take him seriously; why should they? They have the facts on their sides. He'll drop out of the race any day now.

Annnny day now.


But as November draws closer, their laughter has become less derisive and more nervous, as the spectre of an actual Trump presidency becomes more and more discernible every day. His acolytes shrug off proven criticisms, saying he will hire the expertise he needs, run America like a business and negotiate his way to success with America's trading partners as well as its enemies. As he pivots his campaign to undermine trust in Hillary Clinton as a crooked career politician, his legitimacy shows no signs of relenting.

And meanwhile, Trump is heralding the Brexit vote as a 'great thing' and describing the people he's seen as 'going wild' about 'taking their country back'. This, despite currently being in Scotland, which had, in fact, voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU.

I'm hoping and praying that on November 9th, our southern neighbours don't find themselves waking up with electoral hangover symptoms or voter's remorse, pondering the consequences of a Trump White House.

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