There is something quintessentially British about Brexit. As I wrote in another article before the results were known, whether the British exit or not remains to be seen, but the fact is they never truly entered. Splendid isolationism is still part of the DNA, at least among 52 per cent of the population (those who voted Leave).
It is also very British in the sense of the “two nations” brilliantly articulated by statesman Benjamin Disraeli in his novel Sybil, published in 1845 (three years before Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto). He wrote that Britain consisted of “Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets. The rich and the poor.” The divide is economic, but also class and education. University graduates voted overwhelmingly Remain, the low educated voted overwhelmingly Leave.
There is also an EU specificity. This is illustrated, among other things, by the fact that according to polls, even among the six founding member states (Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Germany and Luxembourg), were there to be a referendum, between 30 per cent (Belgium and Germany) and 45 per cent (Italy) would vote for exit. To say that the EU is not popular would be an understatement. There are many reasons why this is the case, but, in a nutshell, all one has to do is to look at the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker.
Of course, many national heads of government are drab mediocrities – as a notable example, my own president, François Hollande, who currently “enjoys” an 11 % popular approval rate – but they can be chucked out at the next election. There is a deep feeling of frustration among EU citizens that they cannot control those who govern them in Brussels; they are not trusted, they are aloof, they live in a bubble and are not doing a good job.
The European dream has evaporated. In its stead there stands, behind a seemingly impenetrable fog, a complex distant, inward-looking bureaucratic structure. Had I been British, I would have voted Remain, but without enthusiasm.
Brexit, however, also illustrates some deep global trends.
Cassie Werber recently wrote an insightful article in Quartz, titled “To young people in the UK, Brexit is a door closing – and a sign that hate is winning”. As societies in many parts of the world are ageing, the aged greedily amass selfish privileges with no concern for the coming generations. (Full disclosure: I am 70, but have seven grandchildren.) The results by age group are quite spine-chilling: whereas only 20 per cent of the 18-24 age group voted Leave, it was a whopping 60 per cent for the over-65s. Conclusion: Brexit is a triumphant victory for the gerontocrats. After them, the deluge.
This gerontocratic power is not limited to Europe. It prevails in much of East Asia, notably Japan, but also Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and increasingly China where the effects of the one-child policy are coming home to roost and placing huge burdens of material and emotional obligations on the young. Somini Sengupta and Alec Ash have written excellent books on the generation gap between millennials and the older generations in, respectively, India and China.
The Brexit results also reflect the rising tide of deglobalization. When globalization erupted in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there were two assumptions: first, that globalization would spur global economic growth; and second, that growth would be the rising tide that lifts all boats. The first assumption prevailed until the financial crisis of 2008, since when economists and policymakers intone that the “new normal” is low/stagnant global economic growth. The second never managed to convince. Some boats rose, indeed to dizzying heights, some stayed forlornly on the shore, many sank.
The word that best defines the failure of globalization is “inclusion”, namely lack thereof. Rightly or wrongly, there is a strong perception that the rise of inequality and the absence of inclusion arise from the fact that globalization benefits the rich and discriminates against the poor. This perception motivated the Leave camp in Britain, as it feeds into populist movements elsewhere in Europe, such as the French National Front, and pretty much throughout the world, notably in the Donald Trump phenomenon in the US. Disraeli’s 19th-century “Two Nations” syndrome prevails not just in Britain but also throughout the world well into the 21st century.
This, in turn, is reflected in attitudes towards immigrants and refugees. The two are distinct, but broadly associated in the minds of those who see all incoming foreigners as threats whether in terms of lost jobs, low wages or crime. The Leave campaign led by Tory former mayor of London Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, head of the populist anti-immigration UK Independence Party, played strongly on the popular apprehensions of plumbers from Poland, asylum-seeking refugees from Syria, and the alleged imminent threat of Turks becoming members of the EU. Raise the drawbridge before it’s too late!
Similarly, other populist parties and politicians in Europe play up the immigrant/refugee perceived cataclysm. It is also the main driving rhetorical force of the Trump campaign. Indeed the issues of immigrants and refugees are not only universal, but arguably, among the most difficult to tackle in view of all the complex economic, social, cultural, ideological, emotional, political and geopolitical issues that come into play.
The figures and related ills of discrimination, injustice and persecution are daunting throughout much of Asia. In his recent article “War of Words: What’s in the Name ‘Rohingya’?”, Azeem Ibrahim writes that the UN and Amnesty International have called the Rohingya (from Myanmar), “the most persecuted refugees in the world”. The competition is stiff.
Hong Kong has a long history of being on the destination end of refugees, especially in the wake of Liberation in 1949 and the outflows during the Cultural Revolution. There are a large number of immigrant workers, especially women from the Philippines, Indonesia and elsewhere, and still an estimated 10,000 refugees, mainly from South Asia. At a recent Bright Hong Kong event, a representative from Justice Centre Hong Kong, which works “to protect the rights of Hong Kong’s most vulnerable forced migrants: refugees, other people seeking protection, and survivors of torture, human-trafficking and forced labour”, described the bureaucratic obstacles and social discriminatory attitudes that hamper their mission. This is, alas, a universal pattern, albeit far worse in some places than others. Images of the subhuman conditions in which refugees camp in Calais are illustrations of the plight shared by an estimated 21 million refugees worldwide.
Thus, as in the title of the article by Werber cited above, hate seems to be winning not only in Britain or in Europe, but also in the world.
When Europe was the “EC”, though considerable progress was made in developing a common European market, it never succeeded in truly becoming a European community. Now that it is the EU, a clear lesson from Brexit, though not a surprise, is that it has failed to become a union. The trend towards a European disunion was intensified following the introduction of the single currency. This gave rise, among other things, to the spectrum of Grexit, though the scenario was not so much one where Athens would leave, but where it would be ejected.
Brexit is a British/EU phenomenon, but with clear broader global implications, illustrations and lessons. As with the EC/EU failing to create a community, so globalisation has succeeded in developing a far more globalised market – albeit one currently in some degree of retrenchment – but not a global community. The “h” word, hate, plagues the planet. For the sake of the coming generations, it must be replaced by another “h” word – humanity. How to make humanism the prevailing “ism” is the urgent global challenge of the 21st century.
Jean-Pierre Lehmann is emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD, founder of The Evian Group, and visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong.
This article was originally published in the South China Morning Post.