Brexit: Lessons for the South African voter

2016-06-28 14:15

Now that the global implications of the outcome of last week’s Brexit referendum have begun to be felt, much media reportage will be devoted to analysis and speculation on the reasons why Britons voted the way they did and, as a corollary thereto, why so many experts got their predictions so wrong. While columnists and commentators have come up with no shortage of explanations, and will no doubt continue to do so over the coming months, a few things have already become clear.

The first is that the ‘facts’ peddled by sundry economic and finance experts alone are insufficient to sway voters. Whilst technical arguments may have featured in voters’ decision-making calculus, these facts need to be weaved into a story which can be used to articulate a vision which can be sold to the public. Though detractors of the use of referendums and other forms of direct democracy will likely seize upon this assertion as a drawback of referendums, the inability to tell a persuasive story represents a failure on the part of politicians and the political class, particularly those who campaigned for voters to vote for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union. Their failure to do so afforded the more opportunistic amongst their ilk ample opportunity to exploit the fears and evoke the emotions which appealed to voters’ more nationalistic sentiments and ultimately carried the referendum.

Second, the cacophony of recriminations levelled against those who supported the ‘leave’ campaign is bound to become more incessant following the economic turmoil wrought by this decision and as the UK’s worst economic fears are realised. Under such circumstances, it might be fairly tempting to label those who voted to leave the bloc bigots or to accuse them of harbouring anti-immigrant sentiments and portray them as hankering for a nostalgic ideal of an imagined isolationist past as some commentators and media pundits have already done. Little sympathy will be found in this narrative for ordinary Britons who are now being made to enjoy their just economic desserts. In adopting this attitude, it is easy to overlook the acute sense of frustration felt by many folk that has been born of the perception that they were not being listened to by politicians and their representatives. Seen from this perspective, the outcome of the referendum could be considered to be as much a rejection of the political status quo as it was a vote to leave the EU. Voting to leave the EU was merely a vehicle through which to vent these feelings against politicians and ruling elites who by and large were in favour of the UK remaining within the EU, albeit on different terms. This may also explain why, somewhat perversely, the ‘remain’ camp may have been harmed rather than assisted by the overwhelming support which it seems to have enjoyed among Big Money interests.

As the British people and their leaders embark upon what is likely to be their most arduous task, healing their nation in the aftermath of a bitter and divisive campaign that has left it deeply polarised, it would behove South Africans to heed the salutary lessons which can be drawn from their experience. Of these, a key lesson is that ordinary South Africans would be wise to interrogate the form and nature of the vision which politicians are peddling when they present seemingly sterile technical arguments to support this or that position on singular issues of critical national importance where their decisions hold the power to change the very character of our society. Unless we do so, we too may be left as regretful as the vast sections of the British populace which is only now beginning to appreciate the full magnitude of what has been done as all citizens struggle with the consequences flowing therefrom.

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