Brexit demystified

PRWeek editor-in-chief Steve Barrett tries to explain a crazy last month in British politics to the rest of the world.

Boris Johnson - the new British Foreign Secretary.
Boris Johnson - the new British Foreign Secretary.

Since I hail from across the pond, over the past six months I have had lots of people asked me about the U.K. vote on Brexit, what I thought would happen, and what my country was going to do.

I tried to appear wise and informed but I quickly realized, having been away for six years and with no particular plans to return anytime soon, that I really didn’t have much sense of the mood of the country and what the people were going to decide about whether to stay inside the European Union or leave it. Distance breeds a strange dislocation.

As it happened, the referendum result came through while I was in Europe, in Cannes for the International Festival of Creativity, and the early indications from British bookmakers and betting websites was that the Remain vote had prevailed by a safe margin.

You could have made a lot of money laying this outcome, as when I awoke Friday morning Twitter and Facebook were abuzz with the actual result – a slim but decisive majority of 52% in favor of leaving the European Union, and another failure of pollsters to predict the correct outcome of a high-profile political vote.

The decision stunned many in the country and appeared to represent a deliberate flipping of the bird to the establishment from disenfranchised working class people living in areas where traditional industries have long been decimated and nothing substantial has been put in its place, especially in the North of England and Wales, and where media scare stories about immigration had really taken hold among many people.

The trend is not dissimilar to the dissatisfaction Donald Trump is tapping into in the U.S., and there is little doubt that if governments in places like France, Spain, and Italy were also foolhardy enough to put the Euro decision to a public vote, their similarly disenfranchised citizens would likely opt to leave too.

France has recently been the location of many protests and strikes in big cities about employment reforms. (At this point I’d like to convey my sympathy to the people of Nice and throughout France affected by yesterday’s horrific attack on their innocent citizens. The communications and marketing industries gather nearby on the Cote d’Azur each year and we are all made very welcome by the lovely people of Cannes and Nice, such a beautiful part of the world that we are united in supporting at this awful moment.)

Spain has been through terrible economic times and youth unemployment peaked at almost 56% in 2013 - it is now at 44%, still a figure that could represent a social tinderbox waiting to explode.

There have been hundreds of thousands of words written about the post-Brexit situation, its impact on the U.K., Europe, the U.S., and the rest of the world, but here are a few observations of my own on how this tragicomic situation in the U.K. came about and what it means moving forward.

  1. The situation came to a head at the last British general election, in 2015, when incumbent Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron included a promise in his manifesto to take the decision on whether to Remain or Leave the European Union to the people for a referendum. The move was designed to assuage the Eurosceptic arm of his party and help him get reelected, a very risky move to say the least, from someone who was supposed to be in the Remain lobby himself.
  2. The Leave campaign had been spearheaded by two maverick British politicians – Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. Johnson was a peer of Cameron’s at Oxford University. They were famously both members of the notorious aristocratic drinking and roister-doistering Bullingdon Club. Johnson’s term as Mayor of London was coming to an end and many suspected he had ambitions to replace Cameron as Tory leader. He had historically been opposed to leaving Europe, but had a Damascene conversion when he spied an opportunity to make things uncomfortable for his erstwhile drinking partner, who would struggle to stay on as Prime Minister if he had to oversee the removal of Britain from the European Union when he has in favor of remaining. As for Farage, he had founded a party called UKIP (U.K. Independence Party) with the sole aim of getting Britain out of Europe. Ironically, while Farage is not a member of the British Parliament he was, and still is, a member of the European Parliament, an institution he has campaigned for the dissolution of and that he detests.
  3. The British opposition Labour Party is led by Jeremy Corbyn, a populist Bernie Sanders-style figure who had traditionally been in favor of Brexit but was forced to pretend he wanted to stay because that is the official party line. As Cameron said in one of his last Prime Minister’s Questions session, Corbyn didn’t exactly "put his back" into the campaign. Corbyn is disliked by his parliamentary party colleagues, who attempted to oust him post-Brexit vote, but beloved by grass-roots members.
  4. Most of Britain’s biggest businesses were in favor of staying in Europe, believing Brexit would destabilize the U.K. economy, lead to widespread uncertainty, and make the country less attractive for foreign investors.
  5. The people voted to Brexit by a 52%-48% margin. Cameron announced he would resign as PM and party leader. Johnson and Farage immediately reined back claims made during the Leave campaign on issues such as the so-called £350 million a week that would be saved by leaving Europe being reinvested in the U.K.’s beleaguered health service - a campaigning point that persuaded many to vote Leave. Numerous voters who opted to "Leave" woke up two days later saying they "didn’t realize" the U.K. would actually leave if the vote went in that direction. The value of sterling plunged after the vote decision.
  6. The citizens of Wales, a country that receives a net financial contribution from the European Union, voted to Leave by a margin of 52.5%-47.5%. Wales has been told by the U.K. Government it cannot expect to receive the same level of funding it did from Europe post-Brexit.
  7. The Scots, who narrowly voted to stay within the United Kingdom in a referendum in 2014, voted to Remain in Europe by a significant 62%-38% margin. Of Scotland's 59 MPs in Westminster, only one is from the ruling Conservative Party - 56 are Scottish National Party members. Scotland is now mulling over another independence vote and will be welcomed back into the European Union fold if it went in that direction.
  8. The people of Northern Ireland voted to Remain in Europe by a 56%-44% margin. We had the bizarre situation of high-profile Unionist Ian Paisley Jr, a staunch supporter of Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom, advising people to apply for Irish passports to protect themselves from the impending effects of Brexit. The Republic of Ireland is a member of the European Union and will remain so. There is no formal border with the North and noone in authority seems to have thought through the implications of this post-Brexit and possible reawakening of sectarian tension. The Conservative Party doesn't even exist in Northern Ireland, though it has strong links with the Unionists.
  9. Voters in the cosmopolitan and diverse English capital London wanted to stay by a margin of 60%-40%.
  10. Drowning in heaps of opprobrium following the hasty backtracking on promises made during the Leave campaign, Johnson announced he won’t be standing in the Tory leadership election to replace David Cameron as Prime Minister.
  11. At a time when extremely sensitive negotiations are about to start between the U.K. and E.U., Farage showboats to the European Parliament, rubbing their noses in the decision of Britain to leave Europe and accuses the assembled group of never having done an honest day’s work in their lives. He is speaking directly in front of an incredibly impressive man called Vytenis Andriukaitis, a highly skilled heart surgeon who lived in a gulag in Siberia after Stalin deported his family there, and is now E.U. Commissioner for Health and Food Safety. Farage subsequently resigns as leader of UKIP in echoes of former BP CEO Tony Hayward because he "wants his life back," though he will continue to take the European shilling as an MEP.
  12. Theresa May, like Cameron a supporter of Remain, is elected new leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister. Despite being against it, she will oversee the tricky Brexit process. She relegates another Bullingdon Club alum, George Osborne, from Chancellor to the back benches. She appoints Johnson Foreign Secretary, prompting much general hilarity and bemusement.
  13. At some point, Britain must trigger Article 50 to commence the process of leaving the European Union. The process is likely to take at least two years; its implications may not fully play out for a decade. Europe is in no mood for compromise and the remaining EU political leaders want Britain out as soon as possible.
  14. Noone in the Government or the Leave campaign had seemingly made any plans for what would happen should the British people vote for Brexit, a shockingly incompetent way to behave. Tory leaders assure the people that the "best brains" in the civil service would be brought together to come up with a plan. Labour is in disarray.

I’m not sure I can conclude this piece with any significant insights or conclusions. Suffice to say the whole thing is a complete mess and the U.K. and Europe are set for a concerted period of economic and political uncertainty – and that’s without the continuing additional high threats of further terrorist attacks across the region.

At least my American friends are happy they no longer have to put up with gloating Brits chastising them about Donald Trump and "how they could let it happen in their country" – they are really not in a position to adopt the high ground anymore.

It’s enough to make you happy to be 3,000 miles away and even enjoy the 92 degree heat and 90% humidity we are enduring in New York City at the moment.

Have a great weekend!

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