Chairman's Desk

Crucial lessons from Brexit vote and rise of Trump

The article appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, July 3, 2016.

Britons have been deeply skeptical of the European project for decades. Wary of the undemocratic components of the European Union, skittish about the lack of control over immigration, and overwhelmed by strict regulations handed down from Brussels, many felt the negatives of the EU far outweighed the positives.

It’s not difficult to see how the disconnect between the Remain and Leave forces developed: the unemployed 50-year-old woman in Birmingham had certainly not seen her fortunes increase the way the lawyer in London had. The prosperity the elites toasted seemed a far cry from the struggle of the working class in Cardiff.

Last week, the people of the United Kingdom were given the opportunity to say yes or no to the EU. The vote followed two months of dire warnings from Britain’s institutions: the pound would collapse, the economy would sink into recession and the government would be forced to enact strict cuts.

All three major political parties, the Bank of England, countless businesses, foreign leaders and celebrities cajoled, scolded and threatened voters — only for their words to go unheeded, with 52 per cent of Britons voting to leave the EU.

But this is not an isolated incident.

The lack of confidence Britons just exhibited in their institutions should resonate across the Western world.

This spring, we saw the unthinkable: Donald Trump, a brash man prone to racist and misogynistic outbursts, took the Republican Party by surprise. At first dismissed as a blip, the Trump train quickly gained traction to the horror of the Republican establishment.

The more the media, leading Republican politicians and business leaders insulted and attacked Trump, the more traction he gained. His lack of support among the institutional base was the primary reason for his victory, rather than the weakness many assumed it would be.

These are not coincidences.

Globalization and liberalized trade have benefited many in the Western world. Those with post-secondary qualifications and who live in urban centres are enjoying an unprecedented quality of life.

The untold story is that entire swaths of our populations in Western countries have been left behind. Those without the privilege of higher education or access to a fluid employment market are struggling. It remains exceptionally challenging to find steady employment and, for many, the future remains unclear.

The institutions that have benefited so many have disappointed so many others.

For this reason many turn away from institutions they believe have guided them down this path. It is why when a chairperson of a major bank insists they vote one way, they instinctively vote another.

They see no reason to trust that these institutions have their best interests at heart. More problematic still is that it is hard to blame them.

The Brexit referendum was proof. The richer an area, the more likely it was to vote to remain. Fewer than average post-secondary degrees? Almost certainly in favour of leave. High unemployment? Out of the EU, please.

The foundation of Trump’s success is no different.

We must be aware in Canada that we also struggle. We have seen economic devastation in many rural areas that goes unacknowledged in our urban centres and in the media.

A 2013 Statistics Canada study found that only 40 per cent of Canadians expressed confidence in the media, with only 38 per cent trusting our Parliament and a paltry 30 per cent trusting major corporations.

Similar to the case in the U.K. and the U.S., the survey found that poorer and whiter families had the lowest confidence in our economic and governmental institutions of all.

We, and other Western nations, are experiencing a true-to-life Tale of Two Cities. The urban, wealthy class lives a lifestyle that stands in contrast to the economic devastation only a short distance away.

The media, political elites and business leaders have criticized the recent U.S. and U.K. electoral results as racist and ill-informed. By doing so, they are playing into a narrative that they themselves created.

By attacking people who are deeply concerned about their own futures and who mistrust institutions, they will exacerbate tensions.

As nations, we must do better. We must remember those who have been left behind in our incredible success and growth. And we must take steps to rectify the disconnect.