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Perspectives | Issue 6

Navigator’s folio of ideas, insights and new ways of thinking

London Calling

January 1, 2017

The divide between a global financial capital and the rest of the country has come with the steep cost of uncertainty for Britain

The British vote to leave the European Union is ultimately less about foreign relations and trade than it is about purely domestic angst.

There’s no question that Britain chafed under the EU’s regulations and burdensome bureaucracy. Stories proliferated about absurd rules, such as the EU’s strict curvature rule for bananas or its ban on excessively powerful vacuum cleaners. Even the most ardent supporters of the “Remain” campaign conceded that change in the organization was long overdue.

But the real issue was internal rather than external.

There is a great disconnect among British citizens. The economic prosperity that exists in London has not extended to the more rural areas of the country.

The media, the political class (except for a portion of the Conservative Party) and the business establishment aligned themselves in support of remaining in the European Union, arguing that Britain’s continued economic success depended on it. But the assumption that everyone had the same perspective only fanned the flames of the “Leave” campaign.

The dramatic predictions of economic Armageddon failed to stir a population that had endured years of austerity policies that failed to help the ailing rural economy. That cynicism was compounded by images of immigrants flooding into the UK, frightening voters who felt there were already too few jobs available to them and their families.

Voters blamed elites that seemed utterly out of touch with the anxieties of the broader electorate. There was a clear sense that the elites had little idea about life outside London, and about the enormous economic gap between London and the rest of England—that they understood life in Bordeaux better than they understood life in Bolton.

This polarization has played out in a number of other countries, including the United States. Those who feel left behind despite politicians’ promises of hope and prosperity tend to put their energy into more extreme political expressions of their alienation. Just as the appeal to “Make America Great Again” has united millions of disaffected American voters, the urge by the Leave campaign to “take back control” resonated.

Feeling cut out of the conversation by entrenched elites, British voters took the opportunity presented by the referendum to express their frustration, assert themselves and indulge in the grim satisfaction of casting Britain into a period of extreme economic uncertainty.

It now falls to Prime Minister Theresa May, a quiet supporter of the Remain camp, to speak to those disaffected Britons. If her government is to succeed in gently guiding the UK out of the EU with minimal consequence, she must engage those who feel they have been too long ignored.

Prime Minister May is acutely aware of the challenge she faces. From the outset, she has stated that “Brexit means Brexit,” choosing to pay little heed to those who would refer she ignore the results of the referendum. Furthermore, she promptly announced in the weeks following her ascent to 10 Downing Street that her guiding motto would be to create “a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few.”

But given the scars on both sides of the divisive vote, Ms May will have to rely more on tough actions than fancy words to convince millions of seething voters.

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