It is early in the morning on March 23, and I am sitting at a round plastic table in the echoing, cavernous chambers of Wilmington’s City Council. As I sip my coffee, I think, Perhaps tea would have been a more suitable beverage. The topic for the day will be England; more specifically, what caused the people of the island nation to vote to leave the European Union last June, in the Brexit decision.
Sitting before a small crowd are three panelists, whose Anglo-expertise far out-range anyone in the room—or at least my own, Andrew Terrell is a consul for government, prosperity and business affairs for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth office in Raleigh. Dr. Paul Townend is a UNCW professor whose area of expertise lies at the juncture of pop culture and politics. Jim McLaughland, CEO of Axiall Ltd., is Skyping in from the comfort of his home across the pond. The Brexit discussion is the main event of the annual meeting of the Wilmington Sister Cities Association, a nonprofit organization whose stated goal, according to their website, is to “promote peace through respect, understanding and cooperation … one individual, one community at a time.”
We see McLaughlin, projected on a screen, as a still-life tableau in his private English space—a bookshelf, a clock, a lamp, two giant metal spoons hanging on the wall. He launches into a PowerPoint presentation, “Who Chose Brexit, Why, and What Comes Next?” The decision to leave, he says, was a sovereignty vote, with 49 percent of voters saying “decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK.” Between the countryside and cities, folks from the countryside voted to leave—more so than city dwellers. McLaughlin carefully emphasizes the divide was more demographic than geographic: Brexit supporters tended to be older, less educated and poorer than younger, higher-educated and wealthier citizens who voted to remain in the EU.
Next, Mr. McLaughlin details implications of the vote, by dividing them into: 1. economic (the pound has fallen 15 percent in value since the decision); 2. trade (the EU is responsible for over half of the UK’s trade activity); 3. political (there has been a conservative takeover in Parliament, with extremism on the rise on both sides of the spectrum across the UK and in Europe. Also, the Scottish government has announced intention to ask for independence from the UK); and 4. social implications (What will happen to 1 million UK citizens who live in the EU, or the 2 million EU citizens who live in the UK?).
Andrew Terrell, a soft-spoken, full-bearded young man, claims the main reason for the vote was “a sense of feeling that decision-making had shifted in a way that made people uncomfortable.” Furthermore, he states the “legitimacy of democratic institutions” had eroded in what he terms a “democratic deficit.” Thus rural people wished to see decisions about their lives made in Westminster, not Brussels.
“The EU was seen as an organization which primarily benefited elites,” he says.
The citizens of the UK felt underrepresented by their EU delegates in the same manner Americans might feel differently about their relationships with the ambassador to the UN versus their congressman. Still, he explains there was a high voter turnout, and the government has to respect the decision of the people. “We have to make sure the voters feel listened to,” he notes.
Dr. Paul Townend agrees uncertainty was the big story of Brexit. “This uncertainty about the UK relationship with Europe is the baseline, the historical norm,” he states. “There has always been an ambivalence toward the continent. And there isn’t just one UK relationship with Europe—the Welsh relationship with Europe is different than the Scottish one, for example.”
There are even different relationships to be found with Europe between the variety of areas in England. And the UK’s relationship with the rest of the world has been very important.
“The UK is pulled in different directions,” Townend continues. Out of this, he predicts the UK and US relationship is “back on the table in all kinds of very interesting ways,” as we are both important players in the Anglosphere—or English-speaking world.
“[As a] student of inconvenient populisms on both sides of the Atlantic,” he says globally we are are facing “a rise in neo-nationalism, in populism, in Trumpism.”
“These changes are real and transformative,” Townend says. “The rise of populism in the UK and the US are two halves of the same coin. Historians aren’t too good at the future, but we shouldn’t underestimate this movement.”
There are pretty striking similarities between the Brexit movement and the campaign which put Donald Trump in the highest office in the land. In my preliminary research, already some spooky connections existed: Both Trump’s campaign and the Leave.EU campaign shared heavy backstage involvement by a big data company called Cambridge Analytica. The company uses psychometric analysis of data taken from Facebook and other sources to conduct “microtargeting” ad campaigns to sway voter opinion in unprecedentedly effective ways. The campagins can attract 63 percent more clicks and 1,400 more real-life opinion conversions, using microtargeted Facebook ads than through other, older advertising mediums, according to a Jan. 28 article on Vice’s Motherboard site. Not to mention the demographic similarities between those who voted for Brexit and those who voted for Trump are very similar.
When the moderator opens the floor to questions, I stand up and ask for the panel to discuss similarities between Trump and Brexit.
“There are certainly close rhetorical parallels between the two votes,” Dr. Townend says. “Both votes were close—they could have easily gone the other way. The losing side in both Brexit and the US election claimed the other side played fast and loose with the facts—that they had been sold a bill of goods that the outcome of the election was somehow illegitimate. Now politicians have to figure out a way to rebuild consensus.”
Mr. Terrell chimes in. “These results highlight a need for each side to listen to the other. It’s so easy to retreat into our separate corners, but we have to have dialogue. We can’t have democracy without compromise, and ‘compromise’ shouldn’t be a dirty word.”
“There hasn’t been a person who ran for president in the modern era that hasn’t said the system is broken,” Dr. Townend says. “But now it seems they really mean it—and people are voting that way.”
Now that decisions have been made, what does it mean to our Port City—connected yet separated from fellows in Doncaster by the vast Atlantic? Andrew Terrell thinks the fact Wilmington is a Port City will play an important local role in the future of the two countries.
“Even though the UK has decided to leave,” he says, “the UK is still a robust market with a lot of chips on the table.”
“Prime Minister Theresa May and Donald Trump have much in common,” he continues, “and the UK and US should be able to strike a trade deal quickly.”
“Our two countries share a tradition of deep civic engagement, Terrell adds.
At a time when the future of both seems uncertain, now more than ever intergenerational discussion must happen in regards to what our social contract is, and how we can make our institutions seen by all legitimate. “A courthouse does not a democracy make.”
Dr. Townend thinks that’s part of the reason civic organizations like the Sister Cities Association is important—what Mr. Terrell calls “interorganizational dialogue.” “Being a citizen,” Dr. Townend explains, “means you’re in a certain kind of relationship with the people you’re opposed with.”
McLaughlin finds optimism in the degree to which he has seen young people involved with these debates. “Young people should be involved in the decisions which shape their lives,” his voice booms from the hall’s speakers.
Voter participation was at record levels in the Brexit vote, which he thinks means people want to be involved—they want change. He ended the meeting rather succinctly with a fitting quote from Winston Churchill:
“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
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