Living in interesting times


There are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen. (Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, aka Lenin)

I will say at the outset that I had no say in BrExit. I am neither a UK citizen nor resident, but I am a proud member of the British diaspora, and have benefited from being a part of the British Commonwealth all of my life.

I have been watching BrExit with both horror and fascination, and I, like many others, awoke in my London flat on Friday morning to the unreality of 52/48 in favour of Leave. I had thought it would be close, but with the reverse outcome, and I have been thinking deeply about it ever since.

On Wednesday afternoon I attended Jo Cox’s birthday memorial in Trafalgar Square and if I had been a UK citizen I would have most likely voted to Stay – to accept Jo’s advice that Europe is “stronger together”.  As I wandered around the city on Thursday I talked to lots of people (especially the young) urging them to vote – whichever way they felt was right – but to vote nonetheless, particularly in a ballot where every vote did count and it wasn’t like being in a “safe seat” where the outcome was a foregone conclusion.  (As an Australian I have to put my stake in the ground to say this BrExit has reaffirmed my faith in both Proportional Representation and compulsory voting).

The weather on Wednesday night was prophetic, in true style of a pathetic fallacy. The heavens opened and Thursday morning revealed public transport in chaos, train stations flooded and people having to go to polling booths in their gumboots. On Friday morning the sun shone and the blue skies looked down upon a country reeling.

Numerous friends, whose opinions I trust, have told me why they voted as they did.

One tore up his ballot paper because he simply couldn’t make a decision.  Another walked out his front door three times before eventually getting to the ballot box, and another has said to me

I was born a European and have always carried a European passport.  27% of the population turned out last Thursday and decided to take that away from me, instead deciding that I should live in a political framework that I know nothing about, and has never existed in my lifetime.

No wonder half of Britain is in shock, and a lot is contained in these words, which I would like to use to guide my thoughts in this post.  Amidst the deluge of commentary my words carry no authority nor will have any impact, but I am writing this post for me and for those who have asked my opinion because I care a great deal about Great Britain and it’s role in the twenty first century.  Had I voted I too would have found it a very difficult decision, but my feelings on Thursday evening were swayed by the words of Gordon Brown to Lead not Leave and to play a part in a bigger game than just one nation.

There are many different ways to lead, and there is no doubt that many people are having buyer’s remorse.  An online petition demanding a second referendum has already gathered nearly 3 million signatures, but this is simplistic in that these don’t provide any context as to whether these are people who voted Leave and have changed their minds, or, indeed whether they voted at all.  In addition, given the low voter turnout of young people, it totally is unfair to say that the older generation have betrayed the young – the young have demonstrated both their apathy and their ignorance by relinquishing their vote, and as such, have little right to whinge about the outcome.  The same could be said for all of the 28% who decided to let others determine their future and as such abrogated the decision to the winning side, in this case to Leave.

Some people are now trying to take a positive spin on what is to come next and there is slowly emerging some sensible and constructive commentary which is trying to encourage a positive approach to how the next phase is managed, regardless of which way they voted.

The EU is pushing for the UK’s rapid exit, but hopefully sensible heads will prevail and allow the grieving process to work itself through on all sides.  It is Europe which also needs to work out what it does next, and what it’s true vision actually is.

In his documentary which aired last week Jeremy Paxton gives some clues as to what this actually might be, and he articulates how the EU which currently exists is a different beast from that which many of the original members, including the UK, joined up to.  One of the logical conclusions of the European Vision is to abolish national parliaments altogether, along with the Constitutional systems which surround them, potentially including their Monarchies.

Whether or not you believe or agree with this it seems to me that the EU project has largely evolved without real debate or examination at a grass roots level within many of the member states.  My instincts are telling me that much of the Stay campaign has been driven by those who have benefited in an economic sense by being a part of the EU over the last 40 years, but that there has been little deep thought about the logical political longer term consequences, and whether this is what they want for their own country.

The Leave campaign appealed on an emotional level, and has largely been led by people who are steeled for a challenge, who are prepared to fight and fight hard for something they believe in, and are willing to contribute to that change. Whilst the young may criticise the older people for that decision, and whilst many may have been ill-informed, it is these older people who have created the Britain that exists today, both good and bad, and the EU within which it currently exists.  It is these same older people who have voted to get out whilst they can, for whatever reasons.  Many have lived through turbulent periods of twentieth century history and many understand the nature of uncertainty and fear, and there is always some wisdom contained in their voices.  It is also my observation that the younger generation are more conservative than many of their elders, precisely because they have not had to fight for what they have been given, they just expect it.

The Leave also made an intellectual case for change whereas the Stay side has been accused of being over intellectual, over analytical and taking the high ground, which is often not a way to win people over.

As a part of the British diaspora, where three out of four of my grandparents and my father (who was a Prisoner of War at the ripe old age of 23, and had nightmares about his experiences for the rest of his life) fought to save Britain in one major war or the other, I was born a part of the British Empire, raised to respect Queen and country, and educated within the British tradition.  I awoke the morning that the UK entered the European Common Market in 1973, and later with Maastricht in 1992, to find that I was no longer a part of this and that henceforth I would be considered an alien in Britain to enter via the “other” queue with all the other random citizens from around the world.

All of the Dominion nations had to cope with this redefinition and it has been a good thing for us.  Australia has been forced to grow up and recognise its place within Asia, and we have negotiated a far less dependent relationship with our Motherland becoming an open and truly global democracy.  We, and our Commonwealth counterparts, still have much of our DNA emanating from Britain through our systems of government, our language, and our values, and it may well be that there is a renewed value placed on these by Britain  as it raises it’s sights from being totally focused on Europe and outwards to the rest of the World.

Which brings me to key elements of reflecting on why Great Britain is “great”.  Yes, there have been times of stress and part of the reason that the Eastern Europeans have done so well is that they are prepared to get in and work hard whereas over the years their unionised British counterparts have made it very difficult for employers.  But Britain’s greatness over the centuries has come from a deeply ingrained resilience (demonstrated time and time again), curiosity, creativity, ingenuity and the fundamental values of democratic and egalitarian tolerance which is why so people have sought refuge in Britain during times of turmoil, as well as the opportunity for a better life.  All have helped to make Britain great, not just those from Europe.

Being out of Europe will not change this.

Great Britain is great because it has developed and exported so many philosophies and institutions which have made the world a better place and this will continue.  In many ways it has embraced what Jim Collins described as the genius of the “and”  by being inclusive, not exclusive.

As an outsider of Europe I have always felt that the EU was a Club, founded in the ashes of the Post War era for one simple reason – to avoid further European conflict. In many ways it has succeeded in this over the last 40 years and, ironically, Germany now dominates economically but is a leader in seeking to provide stability.  It could well be that Britain’s decision to exit is a major catalyst for the EU to finally take the demands of its nation states seriously and become both more tolerant and accommodating in working with nationalism, not against it.

There is no doubt that war and conflict is still very much a part of our world, and wars will still be fought with boots on the ground, but increasingly conflict is moving to the digital realm and cyber terrorism and cyber war is changing the military landscape. This won’t change with Britain being out of the EU and it could be said that the lack of attacks within the five eyes demonstrates that this network is far more effective than the European one.

In addition markets are now not just geographically based – they are global and we need to open them up, not close them down. You may think that this supports the case for the UK to Remain but on the contrary, it also supports the case for Britain to open itself up even more to the global community and play a leadership role far beyond Europe.  The European Club is an open market only to itself but not necessarily more broadly.  Markets are also now far less based on the physicality of goods but are increasingly becoming information driven with the digital value chain enabling horizontally distributed and global market ecosystems, not ones solely based on geography.

Britain has led in the world of ideas for centuries.  As our economic and political systems become even more interdependent and complex due to more sophisticated technologies we are beginning to recognise that many of the challenges facing us now are far less technical and far more ethical in nature.  Britain has long been recognised as a society which has prized the highest levels of education, explored new systems of governments and facilitated intellectual debate.  Now, more than ever, these are qualities that the world needs in times of increasing complexity.

Two leading Conservative MP’s have written about their decisions to vote Leave.

Michael Gove, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, described the EU as an analogue union in a digital age stating that

I believe that the decisions which govern all our lives, the laws we must all obey and the taxes we must all pay should be decided by people we choose and who we can throw out if we want change. If power is to be used wisely, if we are to avoid corruption and complacency in high office, then the public must have the right to change laws and Governments at election time.

Theresa Villiers, Conservative MP for Chipping Barnet and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, states that

At its simplest, the argument for Remain was the assertion that the UK is somehow too small and too weak to govern ourselves and decide our own destiny. In contrast, Leave emphasised that we are a great country, we can stand on our own two feet and we can thrive. This positive message was one of the reasons we won. …  The Leave side have a forward-looking vision of the UK engaging with the wider world as well as with Europe. The key point is that we do not need to be part of the EU – with its unelected commission, its majority votes, its predatory court, its eurozone debts, its anthem and its flag – to do this.

As with all great decisions in history the dye is cast.

Regardless of whether the Parliament is moved to act by the Second Referendum Petition or Nichola Sturgen blocks the enactment of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty both Britain and the European Union have now been irrecoverably changed and the people of Britain have woken up.

It is a brave move which the British have taken and I would think very few see it as I do at the minute, but I believe it as an enormous opportunity to recraft the modern world and lead but on a much bigger stage, and the British have both the history and the courage to play a big part in this.

My one hope is that those who now have the will to change reignited will take this as their mantra and not to focus too inwardly on self-flagellation and destruction.