Brexit and the new populism

This blog post was written by Martin Leng.

Still hungover from the recent “Brexit” vote, the world attends with a mix of anticipation and anxiety the nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate in the US – two economic and political powerhouses taking a turn inwards, looking for easy answers to some of our globalised world’s most difficult questions. Where does dialogue fit in all of this? Wearing both his hats as a dialogue practitioner and a British citizen, mediatEUr’s Martin Leng explores the implications of Brexit and reflects on what the rise of populist politics says about our capacity to listen to each other.

No two letters raise the British national blood pressure quite like “EU.” I know, because I’m British too. We’ve never had an easy relationship with the European Union. Among many of my countrymen, the EU is an interfering and faceless bureaucracy at best – at worst, it’s an evil empire in the making; a German conspiracy to dominate Europe slowly by way of endless petty regulation. Since the very moment we joined forty-one years ago, a drip-feed of sensational headlines and populist speeches have stoked this feeling of national resentment – how mighty Britain could be once again, if only it could free itself from Brussels, its ridiculous rules and its unelected demagogues!

Rather than being dictated to by meddling foreigners, the UK occupies a uniquely powerful position in the EU, exerting massive sway over its political direction whilst exempting itself from the “extremes” of European integration such as the Schengen zone and the single currency. Many never quite believed that “Brexit” would ever occur, and that the British would content themselves with perennial grumbling whilst keeping a foot in the door of the European club. However, like all simplistic political panacea, scapegoating the EU had a popular appeal that reason and facts just couldn’t match. And so it came to pass that, on June 23rd, the United Kingdom voted to withdraw from the European Union in a referendum intended to settle the “European question” once and for all.

As a British citizen – but more importantly, a humanitarian who believes in working together for peace and prosperity – I am saddened by the decision my country has made. It appeals to the worst kind of facile nostalgia for the United Kingdom of yore – powerful yet pastoral, imperial yet white-skinned – which doesn’t exist, no longer could exist, and probably never did. It has vindicated simmering racist resentment, triggering a 57% rise in reported xenophobic incidents in the space of seven days. It has already proved disastrous for the British economy, and will subject our poorest communities to further decline as the Pound sheds value at a historic rate. It has both underscored and aggravated the political gulf between “middle England” and the rest of the country, and looks set to drive Scotland – and possibly even Northern Ireland – to secede from the United Kingdom.

As the United Kingdom convulses – and is possibly lost forever – in a storm of its own making, I find myself angry too. Angry that we allowed ourselves to be carried along by the tide of populism until we found ourselves adrift, deaf to history’s warnings about charismatic men peddling blame and simple solutions. Angry that Brexit became a matter of national pride instead of economics or national security; angry that “expert” became a dirty word; that reason was dismissed as “scaremongering.”

* * *

In the cold light of day, it’s time to be reasonable once again. I believe that Britain’s current predicament holds lessons for governments around the world – lessons which may prove vital in safeguarding democratic engagement, stability and peace itself in the years and decades to come.

  • Above all, this was a referendum about globalisation and its consequences. National economic policies are increasingly determined by the need to be competitive in a global marketplace, and Britain is no exception. In many parts of the UK, existing industrial decline has been compounded by mass outsourcing at the same time as economic migrants fill ever more blue-collar jobs. Poverty, frustration and a sense of powerlessness led these areas to vote overwhelmingly for Brexit as a protest against the forces of globalisation – despite the fact that the EU’s customs union actually represents an insulation against the worst ravages of free trade.
  •  Across Europe and America, these structural socio-economic challenges are the drivers of an ongoing resurgence in populism. By demonising minorities and portraying the poor as feckless, charismatic anti-establishment personalities like Farage or Trump play on the “symptoms” which concern the public to win electoral support, despite their plans being non-existent or unable to address the root causes. An individual country cannot “opt out” of globalisation, any more than it can opt out of the weather – but that doesn’t curtail the enthusiasm for populist tropes which are as old, and dangerous, as politics itself.
  • As we are already seeing in the post-Brexit fallout, the nostalgic and bombastic promises of these “non-politicians” usually fail to materialise – instead, they merely beget instability, division and resentment. Britain has in no way become “freer” since the referendum last month – but it has seen its two major political parties fall into crisis and xenophobia return to the streets. And in the USA, Trump’s policies will overwhelmingly hurt those who support him the most – white, working class voters who have latched onto the facile rhetoric whilst failing to see the neo-liberal, deregulated economics which lie beneath.

It might be easier to think of it as a kind of “vicious circle” of populist frustration, like this:

blog illustrationIn any case, the sharp end of globalisation risks driving a wedge through our societies if we don’t recognise the extent to which it can decimate communities. It’s no surprise that the most deprived areas of the UK voted overwhelmingly for Brexit, but the fact that these middle-sized post-industrial English towns have made their frustrations felt on the world stage should give us pause for thought. Indeed, as long as our politics continues to be dominated by an elite, and our economics determined by the whims of corporations, populists will always find a sympathetic ear among those who feel left behind by the onward march of history. But Brexit shows that these sentiments can have global repercussions; those same forces may yet provoke an even more seismic shift if Trump echoes the success of his British counterparts at the end of this year.


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The British referendum result shows what happens when too many people feel unheard for too long. Politicians must act to stem the tide of apathy sweeping across established democracies, although we can all play a role in engaging communities beyond the ballot box. Dialogue between neighbours of different backgrounds can alleviate fears of a cultural divide; dialogue between citizens can foster a sense of common purpose in a system which leaves them feeling powerless. Building bridges within communities might not fix imperfect political systems, but creating spaces for dialogue and discussion can offer a voice – and a vent – to concerns, fears and frustrations.

The benefits of this grassroots dialogue to high-level challenges have been proven by mediatEUr in Ukraine and elsewhere, and – in these difficult times for Europe – we believe that dialogue will continue to have a key role to play in the years to come.

 Photo: a small sample of migration-related headlines from British tabloid newspapers.

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