LONDON – Britain has just experienced a kind of political earthquake, with many aftershocks. In May 2015, a triumphant Conservative Party was returned to power under the leadership of Prime Minister David Cameron, who looked all set for a full five years in office. Now, barely 15 months later, he and most of his close colleagues have all been swept away, caught in the slipstream of the Brexit “rebellion.”
Both leaders and commentators now talk about “a clean break,” the challenges of a divided society, the protest of the poor against the rich, the North of Britain versus the South, the working class against the privileged “toffs,” unacceptable inequality as between struggling wage-earners and overpaid financiers, about the comfortable urban elite wanting to remain in the European Union, and happy with plentiful migrant inflows, against the rest of Britain who feel left out in the cold and oppressed by excessive immigration permitted by EU rules.
It is a colorful picture, easily described with plenty of embellishments. Unfortunately it is all based on generalizations and much of it half true at best. There are plenty of poorer areas in London and the south of Britain, and there are many prosperous areas in the north. Many lower income areas voted to remain in the EU, and many better-off folk voted to leave. Scotland and Northern Ireland, both of which have their share of deprived areas, voted solidly to remain.
Meanwhile, despite all the outcry about inequality and the absurdly inflated salaries some unwise or greedy business chiefs pay themselves, the data actually show that inequalities of both income and wealth have been level or even falling over the past two decades. Moreover the picture of divided Britain portrayed by the Brexit vote (roughly 17 million saying leave and roughly 16 million saying stay) hides the fact that probably the vast majority of Britons wanted neither of these outcomes.
Their preference would have been for continuing in a somewhat looser Europe — where geography and history have anyway always placed the British — but seeing the EU modernized, less centralized and generally prepared for the 21st century and the digital age, as well as for the vast tides and movements of peoples into Europe, which are bound to continue, probably in increasing numbers. These trends, together with revolutionized trade patterns, are already blowing the so-called fundamental principles on which the old EU was founded, clean out of the water.
But, of course, people were not given that choice by the recent referendum. It was just a question of leave or remain. To understand the real divisive forces in Britain today — and not just in Britain but in societies across the world — one needs to go much deeper than these superficial analyses suggest, or than the Brexit vote suggests.
The real and most complex division in the world today arises from two immensely powerful but opposing forces that are tugging at almost every part of humanity. On the one hand digital empowerment has triggered the intense longing for more local control of lives, for taking back personal sovereignty, for rejecting central authority, for greater autonomy and for even outright separation. On the other hand there is an equal and opposite impulse to be connected across borders, across oceans and across networks — a longing made possible by today’s total and continuous global connectivity, on a scale and with an intensity never known in human history.
The results are visible on all sides — the British breaking away from European central authority, Scotland straining to break away from London authority, Catalonia from Spanish authority, tribal groups sweeping away old national jurisdictions and borders throughout the Middle East, separatist militias in their hundreds, civil and hybrid wars on most continents. Big corporations and big government are all forced onto the defensive. In one form or another there is a search for an escape to simplicity, for freedom from the higher world of regulation and complex expertise. Hence the rise of a new kind of populism, which Donald Trump exploits so skillfully.
Yet at the same time, people, businesses, interest groups, students and professions are all linked up together in ways that would have seemed incredible one or two decades ago. Both physical communications and information flows increasingly unite efforts to address global issues. The miracles of instant connectivity are tying Asia together, tying Europe together, tying cultures together and tying continents together as never before.
In consequence, a kind of schizophrenia is entering the political debate in many countries, weakening governments, bombarding authorities with contradictory demands for more control and less control at the same time, and filling minds with unease as to which way to turn.
So this is the real division — between a fractured world and togetherness, between fragmenting disruption and unifying stability, between wanting to break away and wanting to belong, between the pull of global reality and the instinct to turn inward to smaller communities.
Perhaps Britain’s last government did not quite grasp the depth and force of these opposing trends and dilemmas. Perhaps today’s European leaders have not grasped them either. Perhaps all governments need to find the words, visions and styles of leadership to calm and assuage such conflicting aspirations in the public psyche.
Until they do we can expect to see more breakaway impulses everywhere, more frustration and outrage in minds unable to handle such powerful contradictions, and more political upsets like the one that has hit Britain.
David Howell is a British Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant.
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