Tag Archives: Brexit

The Appeal of Being Inside A Fence

Brexit seems like a self-inflicted wound. It turned legitimate grievances about questionable regulation into a grotesque  overreaction.

The recent departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union is a good time to ponder the now common impulse around the world to offer voters the candy of cultural segregation. Brexit was about many things: everything from the price of butter in the shops to tighter controls on who can visit and stay within the United Kingdom. Donald Trump’s southern wall is a cruder manifestation of the same impulse, as were the recent chants of “USA! USA!” from thugs in the halls of the Capitol.

Around the world nationalism is having its moment against internationalism. This resurgence has hobbled the work and play of many who rightly sense that their futures depend on engaging others across political borders that are out of date by hundreds of years.

Until this year, residents of the U.K. had an open ticket to explore an incredibly diverse part of the world.

 

The idea of forming a kind of United States of Europe was one of the real international achievements of the Twentieth Century, tossed aside by expensively-educated Tories looking for an easy way to mollify restless voters. It was a modern marvel to witness France, Britain and Germany working together to open borders and minds. And so many benefited, especially younger Brits and their continental counterparts who understood that it was now their birthright to explore a range of traditions and languages only a train ride away. It wasn’t just businesspersons who woke up in Britain and met clients for lunch in Paris. Swedes and Scots, Northern Irelanders and Greeks, English and Austrians traveled a vast and open region encompassing 28 countries. Up to the end of 2020, U.K. residents had greater opportunities to go to college, work, and to explore an incredibly diverse part of the world. Musicians could do the same, accepting a gig in an Italian club or French theater with a minimum of paperwork. Visas and work permits were relics of the last world war and a more suspicious age.

Britons will need to relearn the rules of foreign travel in ways that many still inside the EU will not. Most European youth and some cross-border workers on the continent have escaped the effects of Brexit. But a British student or musician is now more confined to their shrinking home country, which has triggered new pleas for independence in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Scotland especially benefited as an equal trading partner with other nations in the EU.

It is surely no coincidence that Britain’s most beloved orchestra conductor, Liverpool native Simon Rattle, just announced that he is seeking German citizenship and will abandon his post with the London Symphony Orchestra. Rattle has made his point: as a musician he wants no part of a English provincialism.

It is reassuring that Joe Biden generally takes a dim view of Britain’s attempt to go big on patriotism and think small as an island. Biden’s internationalist instincts represent at least a momentary pushback against the separatism that fueled Brexit. But he will have his hands full with a withered GOP that still panders to a base of aging white Americans wishing for a monoculture that never was.

In the end, I seriously doubt that Britons are going to feel any better about their politics, save for those who viewed the rest of the world as much “too foreign” to visit.  There are some signs that buyer’s remorse may already be setting in. But if they are still able to warm to the new status quo, they will come to resemble the travel agent I once met near Birmingham in the center of England. Even in middle age she had yet to find her way to Scotland just a few hundred miles away.

Chaos Voters

When did burning down the house become the preferred solution for sorting out a society’s various problems?  In 2016 I labeled this preference for disruption our “iconoclastic moment,” a conclusion since borne out by a recent study by several political scientists.

An interesting research paper by Michael Petersen, Mathias Osmundsen, and Kevin Arceneaux argues that “chaos Incitement” has become its own political objective for some voters. (“A ‘Need for Chaos’ and the Sharing of Hostile Political Rumors in Advanced Democracies.”)1  This often means abandoning the value of consensus-building, and at the same time demonizing enemies and violating long standing political norms.  While the conclusion of the paper isn’t surprising, it is sobering to see that many citizens, especially in the United States, are more interested in the destruction of institutional values than the refinement of them.  The authors found significant agreement among supporters of President Trump with the following kinds of agree/disagree items:

I fantasize about a natural disaster wiping out most of humanity such that a small group of people can start all over.
I think society should be burned to the ground.
When I think about our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking “just let them all burn.”
We cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.
Sometimes I just feel like destroying beautiful things.

Not everyone gave an affirmative response to all these assertions.  But nearly half did.  And this is clearly not the way a civil society is supposed to work.   Many would be more inclined to “troll” another than offer a constructive response. Alas, in tight elections they can make a difference.

The question remains as to whether democratic stalwarts in the west will right themselves after having been steered by some these folks onto dangerous shoals.

And it’s not just the United States. Part of Britain’s civil life has been trashed by the never-ending serial drama of Brexit.  Boris Johnson’s purge of 20 MPs in his own party last year, including former Chancellors of the Exchequer Nicholas Soames and Ken Clark, was unprecedented in recent British history. This act of putting a gun to his own feet, along with his backsliding on a Brexit agreement, has left the British leader with no easy finale in December.  This enactment of British nativism now has weakened Europe and seems destined to make our closest ally the Dis-United Kingdom.

Of course, this has played out in much the same way in the United States, with increased tariffs, punitive immigration policies, and sabre-rattling that unsettles our friends. Equally bad, there are signs that American businesses are hard-pressed to find enough service and farm workers: a former entry point for many emigres who aspired to live the American dream.

In different ways the yellow jackets of France were another manifestation of popular disruption disturbing the placid surface of French culture.  Immigration, jobs lost to mechanization, and a generally dystopian view of politics has humbled many western nations who could count on a degree of optimism to quell periodic rumbles of unrest.

France’s Emmanuel Macron clings to a vision of a thriving and diverse France. But Boris Johnson in Britain and Donald Trump in the United States seem to have become untethered from the usual obligation of a great leader to nurture a nation’s best values, among them: the pluralism that comes with being open societies. Neither are temperamentally close to being institutionalists like former leaders George H. W. Bush, Barack Obama, Tony Blair, or John Major.  They accept the chaos they have sowed, and have frequently doubled down, using denial instead of policy to steer through daunting challenges, including the ongoing pandemic.

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1PsyArXiv Preprints, 2018.