Unlikely a place as England might be for a political earthquake, it is perhaps the setting for a great unravelling
In July 1961, in London’s West End, a new musical play debuted to critical and commercial success. Entitled Stop the World – I Want to Get Off , it was set in a circus.
Last Thursday, British voters sent a similar, though far more serious, message to their country and the world, when 17million of them voted to leave the EU.
Global stock markets lost more than $2-trillion in value after the referendum and the pound traded at three-decade lows.
London and Edinburgh voted by huge margins to remain, but the result was determined in places most of us have perhaps never heard of:
Boston and South Holland in the East Midlands, Castlepoint in Essex and Thurrock on the Thames estuary. These and other towns far outside London were the places where the “Leave” campaign raked in huge majorities. “Little Englanders” there drew up the drawbridge and plunged their country, continent and to an extent, the world, on an uncertain journey.
The results were a shock to everyone: the experts, the financial markets, the bookies and the global political leadership.
Off-the-cuff, low-risk strategies which seem to meet some immediate political contingency can have seismic consequences. Here, as well, there is no end of local comparisons.
Think back to the 40-minute speech which FW de Klerk made in parliament on February 2 1990. He did not intend to unleash a whirlwind of forces which just four years later would sweep him from power. Or destroy his National Party, the ruling force in South Africa for nearly five decades, within less than a decade of its delivery. Thinking he could control the process of change he inaugurated, he became its unintended victim.
More recently, in December 2007, De Klerk’s successor in power, the ANC, toppled its powerful president, Thabo Mbeki. This was a result of collective, though widely differing, personal and ideological grievances against his top-heavy leadership style.
Less than a decade later, the once-iron unity of this movement is unravelling before our eyes. But the seeds go back to Polokwane. Those who once clamoured for a new leadership have now turned their backs on the man and the party they supported – Julius Malema and Zwelinzima Vavi are just two examples.
For British Prime Minister David Cameron, there was also a painful comeuppance after he imagined he could turn an exercise of party management into an act of political statesmanship.
He was not obliged, or even under huge pressure, to call the referendum. But, as every observer tells it, the “Tories are neuralgic about Europe.” So for the sake of unifying the party, he thought he could buy off the critics by promising a referendum, renegotiating better terms with his EU partners and delivering a clear result, just as he did on Scotland two years ago.
But his luck and his voters deserted him and he had to fall on his sword. Like his ill-starred predecessor of 240 years before, Lord North, who lost the colonies in America, Cameron will only be remembered for a gamble that failed.
His even more hapless opposite number in the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, had little time to enjoy Cameron’s demise. This improbable far-left leader of the opposition found that the tide which swept out Cameron did not stop at No10 but coursed into his shadow cabinet, which unravelled over the weekend. They see in Corbyn an unreconstructed – and unelectable – isolationist whose reluctant support for the “Remain” campaign ensured Labour voters also opted out.
The fortunes and futures of the political establishment in the UK are less important than what this means for the global economy, including our own.
Like the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the ending of apartheid a few months later, or even 9/11, it is easy to join up the dots after seismic events happen. But few make the right calls, or even the right bets at the time. It’s called a Black Swan event, improbable but hugely significant when it occurs.
The global shock to which the Brexit result is most closely linked happened back in 2008, when the global financial crisis shattered the world economy.
If you drill down into the most comprehensive exit polls commissioned by Lord Ashcroft in Britain, one common thread can be drawn. A big majority of those working full-time or part-time voted to remain in the EU, as did those with university degrees. But those who were not working, or were retired, or whose formal education ended at secondary school or earlier, voted out.
It is easy to now see how the anti-elitist, anti-immigration messages, despite the improbability of the Eton and Oxford-educated Boris Johnson delivering them, resonated with the left-behinds and the left-outs in Britain.
Europe and the world are now much smaller politically, and the global economy is far more imperilled than smug assumptions of just a few weeks ago imagined.
Globalisation was thought to be a one-size-fits-all toolbox for ever closer union between different ideologies and places. Unlikely a place as England might be for a political earthquake, it is perhaps the setting for a great unravelling of the new world order. Just imagine in far less settled places, such as our own dear country, how this could play itself out. Only, don’t ask the experts: they’re usually wrong these days. –