Polarisation, populism, and pessimism – the causes of Brexit and how to address them

18 May

Next week, Britain goes to the polls to elect its representatives in the European Parliament. It’s an election that shouldn’t really be happening: if all had gone to the Brexiteers’ plan, we’d be out of Europe by now. But Parliament’s understandable failure to unscramble the eggs from the omelette before March 31 means it’s off to the booths we go.

And one of the greatest ironies of the Brexit fiasco is that we’ll be doing it with far more enthusiasm than we ever showed for European elections when we were still fully-subscribed members of the club.

If predictions are correct the Brexit Party, buoyed by the anger of frustrated Brexit supporters from across the party political spectrum, will romp home, taking their seats at a Parliament in which they have no real desire to sit.

Matthew Taylor Image © Fernando Bagué

And they won’t be alone: across Europe rightwing nationalist parties are on the march. Even Germany and Spain, countries we thought immune to such movements, having lived under facist dictatorships, are embracing nationalist, anti-immigration, anti-EU politicians.

For centre-left, pro,EU liberals like myself, this is deeply worrying. Who will analyse this situation for me, and more importantly tell me what can be done about it?

At Swindon Spring Festival last night (Friday) we heard from former Downing Street advisor and current chief executive of the RSA, Matthew Taylor. His talk centred on ‘overcoming the three Ps: polarisation, populism, and pessimism’.

Pessimism, he suggested, was widely evident in public perception. For the first time in decades, a majority of the electorate have stopped agreeing with the sentiment ‘my children will have a better life than I had’.

Meanwhile, our politics is gripped by polarisation. Elections have ceased to be fought – and more importantly won – in the centre ground. The Labour Party has lurched to the left, the Conservatives have swung to the right. Change UK, established to fill the void in the middle, seems likely to disappear without a trace, while the Brexit Party – led by “the UK’s favourite populist” is looking forward to an historic victory.

We are, said Matthew, living in “dangerous times” and have created the political conditions where thing can go very, very wrong.

How did we get here? At the end of the Second World War, a ravaged Europe began to rebuild itself by addressing issues like inequality, both of wealth and opportunity. In the UK, a mass building programme gave everyone a warm, safe home. The welfare state provided a safety net for those unable to work, while the establishment of the NHS provided free universal healthcare. State pensions ensured the elderly did not starve or freeze to death. Capitalism had to work for everyone. Living standards improved, and economies grew.

But the oil shock of the 1970s gave rise to a new economic structure – neoliberalism. Financial capitalism persuaded governments to release the ‘shackles’ which held it back. “Deregulate us, let us do what we want to do,” said Matthew, adopting the voice the capitalists. “Economies will grow, and through taxation you’ll have the money to deal with any problems.”

Matthew identified three elements which need to be met in order to feel part of a functioning society: mastery (which includes faith in our leaders and experts to work for our benefit), autonomy (the sense that we have some level of control over our lives and the decisions that effect them), and solidarity (a general societal direction with government policies with which we all generally agree, like tax credits and improving hospitals).

The problem with financial capitalism, said Matthew, is that it doesn’t care about community; nations; society. The capitalist take-over of public services has largely failed the non share-holding general public. Trust in politicians – and in politics – has diminished.

What’s going on in politics today, he argued, is “a manifestation of solidarity deficit.”

So what’s to be done?

For three years we’ve watched our politicians grapple with the seemingly impossible task of delivering a Brexit demanded by an ill-advised referendum offering a binary choice. Our two largest parties have promised to “deliver Brexit” without having a clear idea of what Brexit should look like, and with an understanding that a 52-48 result is far from a universal call for us to leave the EU – especially in the hardest, most damaging terms.

The Conservative Party is about to elect a new leader. Whoever inherits this poisoned chalice is likely to have no more luck getting a resolution through Parliament than Theresa May has. A second referendum is a favoured solution by many, but even if – as suggested – Remain sentiment now outweighs Leave, a large section of the population would still feel betrayed by a reversal of the 2016 referendum result.

Representative democracy, suggested Matthew, is over. “It can’t carry the weight it did in the past.” The solution, he said, may lie in ‘deliberative democracy’.

Around the world governments are establishing citizens assemblies to deliberate, and deliver solutions to, the big issues facing them. In Ireland a citizens assembly was used to find a political solution the controversial issue of abortion rights. In Canada and the Netherlands they were used to determine electoral reform.

Perhaps a citizens assembly, suggested Matthew, is a way to resolve the Brexit issue. It could, he said, restore public faith in politics, give everyone a feeling of being more involved in the process, and give us a common goal. In other words, the root causes of pessimism, polarisation, and populism would be addressed.

It’s an interesting idea that’s gathering pace. And, I might suggest, once the thorny issue of Brexit is resolved, it might be the way to determine our response to the biggest issue facing us today – the threat of climate change.

This event was presented in association with the Swindon Philosophical Society Words by Peter Davison. Image © Fernando Bagué

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