“The self-preservation society”. Today’s European Union (#Brexit) referendum has exposed deep issues of mistrust
One of my favourite films growing up was “The Italian Job”. Not the horrible Hollywood makeover but the 1969 British original. A bunch of plucky mainly cockney criminals robbing an Italian bank in Turin and then attempting to escape over the Alps into Switzerland. Criminals yes, but with a touch of Robin Hood. There is something in every British soul that identifies with the under dog even if the film ends with Michael Caine and the other crooks trapped in a bus on the edge of a precipice. They end with the dilemma: should we edge forward to try and collect the gold or retreat safely but let the gold fall. It sounds a bit like today’s referendum.
Whichever way the UK’s EU referendum goes today (and I very much hope we remain in the European Union), the “leave campaign” has been remarkably successful. Led by some of the most privileged people in British public life, they have been able to portray themselves as the under dogs. Today’s vote is very much a vote against the perceived establishment (or establishments). Just about every British organisation (political parties, businesses, trade unions, NGOs, international organisations, global experts) are for “Remain” and yet around 50% of the population will vote against their advice. The more the Remain side marshall a serious organisation to speak, the more it seems to strengthen the “Leave” campaign.
The real revelation of the campaign then has been the depth of this distrust of officialdom within large sections of the population. This seems to have built slowly over many years- in part the result of the 2008 financial crisis but also the wider effects of globalisation felt everywhere in the world: widening the gaps in society between those that benefit and those who do not. Think only of how the Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump campaigns in the USA have exploited this. In the UK, the Leave campaign has been able to tap into this distrust against the elites even though it is a campaign run by an elite of its own. If “Remain” wins today’s referendum – this distrust will not go away, if “Leave” wins the distrust is likely to grow when the disaffected see that the promises made on trade, expenditure and immigration cannot be met.
The irony is that the leaders of both sides of the debate, David Cameron and Boris Johnson, both went to the same elite private school and university – and have been debating room rivals for many years. It seems that their private views on the EU are almost identical – they have (for reasons of political power) picked opposing sides of the debate – as any private school debating society does. The problem is the consequences of this petty rivalry will be profound, not just for the UK but also for the rest of Europe. Perhaps this is just the British way – to follow ‘our betters’ – the fictional Robin Hood himself was no man of the people in most versions of the story, rather he was an Earl looking to reclaim his status. Those that really try to push ideas that will change the lives of working people, such as Thomas Paine, tended to get exiled for sedition and forgotten by many British people – he is more remembered for his role in the French revolution or the US War of Independence.
But the referendum has revealed a deep mistrust in all types of organisation that needs to be rebuilt. This requires some serious thinking. As I debated on the BBC’s Moral Maze a couple of weeks ago – we need to understand the new forms of social contract that are developing in our societies and each organisation needs to be clear about how it relates to specific communities and where its accountability lies. Legal licence to operate is no longer sufficient for business and political licence is no longer sufficient for governments – both need also to develop their social licence. Yes, OK, I have written a book on this (yawn), but now is the time for some though questions about legitimacy, trust and consent whichever way the referendum result goes tonight. Sitting in a bus on the edge of a precipice is not a sustainable option.