Do They Really Call Him Mr. BREXIT? by Stephen Barber

Do They Really Call Him Mr. BREXIT? by Stephen Barber

There is a reason that Donald Trump likes to refer to himself as “Mr. Brexit.” It has very little to do with the complexities of European Union membership and everything to do with the tides of populism that swept him to power in the United States and delivered victory for Leave campaigners in Britain.

This illustrates the duel problem which today faces government in the United Kingdom. On the one hand it needs to (enthusiastically) extricate the country from the EU in accordance with the 2016 referendum result while on the other deliver the sort of improvement in economic and social well being that many Leave voters genuinely expect as a consequence of their vote. This could be an impossible task.

Indeed, neither will be easy not least because Britain has derived huge economic benefits from membership since it joined what was the European Economic Community in 1973. Back then it was known as the ‘sick man of Europe’ for its stagnation, strikes and industrial decline. Today the British economy, on the face of it at least, is one of the most vibrant and strongest on the continent.   

Today it also enjoys membership of the Single Market, a tariff free trading area of common rules worth $19 trillion and encompassing 500 million people. The single market is built upon four fundamental freedoms of movement: goods, capital, services and people. Unsurprisingly, it is the free movement of people which proved the most incendiary during the referendum campaign because this provision means unrestricted economic migration within the European Union.

The results of the referendum last June revealed divisions in British society which had heretofore remained below the radar, in national politics at least. Primarily these divisions were in age, socioeconomic class and qualifications.  Simply, if you were under 25 you were 73 percent likely to vote Remain; over 65, 60 percent for Leave. 

If you were in the AB social groups of managerial/higher managerial professions, you voted Remain; all other classes down to the unskilled and unemployed were for Leave. 68 percent of graduates favored Remain compared to just 30 percent of those who left school at 16.

The implications of this are that higher skilled people who have benefited from and embraced globalization recognized the economic benefits of the EU. The unskilled, who find themselves in much more precarious positions since the credit crunch and have been ‘left behind’ to adopt a popular phrase, see only harm to their economic well being and identity. And the blame was (unfairly) heaped on economic migrants seen as competing for ‘their’ jobs. 

These are the voters who live in the once proud post-industrial towns and cities of England which have declined just as services, technology and culture in London and the south have prospered. The instinct there is a rejection of the freedoms and possibilities of globalization; to throw up barriers and protect.

Here there is an imperfect comparison with the populism which swept Donald Trump into the White House. It is imperfect for many reasons (not least because the Trump campaign was 3 million votes short of a majority) but there are similarities with the sort of people living in the US rust belt and attracted to Trump’s protectionist, anti-immigrant, message; a message which for once spoke to them. That the policy prescriptions on either side of the Atlantic are unlikely to help those struggling at the base of our respective economies did not seem to matter to people casting their votes.

And the reason why is easy to appreciate. These voters are not just ‘left behind’, they have also been ignored by politicians of all mainstream parties in recent years. The referendum in Britain and the candidature of Trump in the USA offered these voters a near unique opportunity to express their discontent, explaining why revelations of groping and lewdness which would have sunk other candidates did little to dent Trump’s appeal for many committed voters.

It is also why politicians in the UK are now promising an economy that ‘works for everyone’: A vote for Brexit, just as a vote for Trump, was a leap in the dark to put it mildly. But it also represented a kind of revolt against the establishment. 

Both the Leave camp and Trump could be seen as change makers in that respect – undeniably something will now have to happen as a result of their victories; the voices of the left behinds will have to be listened to. Whether it is good for us all economically is of course a very different story.

 

 

Stephen Barber (@StephenBarberUK) is Associate Professor of Public Policy at London South Bank University and a Senior Fellow of the Global Policy Institute.

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