How’s your last week been? Hopefully better than mine and probably better than most of the 48% of the UK voters who voted ‘remain’ in the referendum. Of course what with buyer’s remorse and what psychologists call ‘cognitive dissonance’, that figure is likely to be way higher by now. Churchill famously said that ‘the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter’. The fallout from the Brexit result certainly seems to support his tongue-in-cheek comment. However, in this case it shouldn’t be limited to the ‘average voter’, as even sophisticated and highly intelligent people were unable to really understand the complexity of the decision ahead of the UK electorate. Misinformation, speculation and scaremongering abounded in the ten weeks of the campaign, and no-one has come out of the process covered in glory.
David Cameron ultimately bears the responsibility for calling the referendum in the first place in order to keep UKIP at bay several years ago. For an intelligent man he failed to learn from his optimistic stance over the Scottish referendum, which he thought would never go against him and then had to rally all and sundry and essentially beg the Scottish people to stay. But this is not about one man and his career – as if it is going to really hurt Cameron that much. He has his wealth, his conference speeches, his books to write and so on, all while he waits for his ennoblement or knighthood in the future (more or less every British prime minister up until Blair has been ennobled or knighted). No, the people it is going to hurt most are the very people who by and large voted for it: the disenfranchised of the North, the depressed of South Wales and the angry farmers of the South West. This was never how it was supposed to be. I have heard a few times now Brexiters* saying they voted the way they did as a protest but that they always assumed we’d vote ‘remain’ as a country. These are sentiments that should have been kept for a UK general election and not the basis for a vote to remove the UK from the EU. It is a decision that is proving seismic.
I feared the worst as soon as Rupert Murdoch came out in favour of Brexit, the week before the vote, and The Sun newspaper got behind that decision. Whilst daily papers have been under pressure for many years now with the digital revolution, the Sun and the Mirror remain as key to the working man as his packed lunch. As a student I worked as a labourer re-bricking furnaces in the industrial two week shutdown. Up in Widnes in the industrial North I went into the newsagents at 7am with another labourer and a bricklayer. I picked up The (London) Times and was unceremoniously, and in the plainest language imaginable, asked to reconsider my decision. So, I bought the Daily Star. They bought the Daily Mirror and The Sun. At the 3 break times, no-one spoke, we just read the papers, swapping each break. So I know the power of the red tops to sway public opinion, especially the working class readership. Murdoch rarely calls it wrong. He got behind Blair when New Labour emerged – a bold decision when the Sun is traditionally more right wing than left. He got behind Cameron when it wasn’t clear he would win (albeit with a coalition). Either he has some very good pollsters who have the pulse of public, or it is cause and effect. Either way – I am betting with Murdoch next time.
Like the majority of business people whom I know, I was a firm ‘Bremainer’. I have long considered myself a European. So the shock I received at 5am on that Friday morning when I woke up, was akin to a bereavement. Something had died – and what’s worse, it had been self-inflicted. Britain’s role in the world I fear has shifted from respect and veered towards derision. Following the classic stages of any major trauma or grief, I think many of the electorate have gone through denial, anger, bargaining and depression. We haven’t reached the acceptance stage just yet. but it will have to come. One addition to this grief cycle which is not usually experienced is the feeling of embarrassment, which I know some people have felt these past ten days. This is not the UK I recognise or live in.
The UK is a tolerant, inclusive and welcoming country. Without immigration, Britain could scarcely claim the appellation of ‘Great’ these days. The infrastructure of the country owes its relative smooth running to immigration. The health service, the railways, the building trade – just a few sectors which would fail without positive immigration. The danger is that the outside may now look at Britain as a country that is insular, non-inclusive and anti-immigration. That saddens me. We have let the British people wrestle with a complex decision on the basis of too little information and too few facts and it should never have been reduced to a binary IN or OUT. Democracy has to be a central tenet of a civilised and fair country but asking the people to vote on a matter where the outcomes are neither clear nor well explained is undemocratic as well.
Britain needs to find its way now in its relationship with the EU for sure and that is the huge task facing Cameron’s successor. But almost as importantly, politicians need to find a way to connect with the electorate. It is hard not to see most politicians as self-serving and self-aggrandising. For some of the electorate it was an anti-establishment vote – politicians on all sides must take note.
And to all my non-Brit friends and colleagues around the world – please don’t forget that nearly half the country wanted to remain in the EU and we haven’t all suddenly become little Englanders. Many of those who voted leave are not either. Britain remains open for business and continues to be a tolerant and inclusive country. In every crisis there are ways to profit – the currency fluctuations can offer some excellent opportunities both professionally and personally. With sterling at its lowest level for years, come visit and take advantage of a country which Napoleon Bonaparte famously called ‘a nation of shopkeepers’ (although I doubt he meant it as a compliment). We could do with the tourist boost….
*Note: The term ‘Brexit”, whilst pithy, is of course inaccurate as Britain is the sum of England, Wales and Scotland. The UK is those three countries plus Northern Ireland. “Ukexit” is the accurate if more unwieldy term. One might have been tempted to put an ‘f’ in front of it – maybe that’s why it didn’t take off.