Brexit a symptom of discontent against growing inequality

Dev Nadkarni

Like a massive earthquake, Brexit, in one fell swoop, has laid bare the many deep fissures and fault lines that so dangerously divide not just Britain but the world at large in so many different ways today.

Statistical and psephology analyses quickly revealed that the vote was split between blue collar and white collar, urban and rural, the less educated and university graduates, haves and have-nots and along distinct geographical areas (Think Scotland, which has created a whole new post-Brexit problem for Britain – but that’s an entirely different story).

The ‘leave’ voters clearly had a deep sense of disenfranchisement that has been bubbling away for years. The establishment, not just in Britain but also in many western countries around the world, seems increasingly out of touch with the hoi polloi – the people at the grassroots. In recent decades the nexus of mutual convenience between the political and business elite is so blatantly self-serving, that those who don’t see themselves belonging there have been hardened to embrace ideologies of the far right: nationalism, insularity – and xenophobia.

This is happening around the world. The success of Donald Trump’s campaign for his presidential nomination is another example of this. A certain sizable demographic at the grassroots level is fed up with the politically correct, please all brand of centrism. People increasingly want leaders to take a stand. Go left or right. The centre isn’t cool anymore – at least among those who feel they’ve been left out by that self-serving nexus between politics and big business.

India, the world’s biggest democracy, too, has in recent years displayed a marked shift to the right, with the centrist UPA and the once ubiquitous Congress party nowhere in the political reckoning in recent years.

The malaise of inequality

Forces that drove Brexit are a symptom of this widespread malaise of growing inequality: it was more an angry vote against the establishment. When the disappointed and the disenfranchised go out to vote, they vote with more emotion than rationality and it is no surprise that many weren’t even aware of the full consequences that would unfold after Britain left the European Union. Reports said that ‘EU’ was among the most searched words on Google after the Brexit vote. The ‘remain’ voters accused the government of not adequately explaining the repercussions of leaving to those backing that move.

Discontent on several fronts has been brewing in the UK for years. But it is the highly emotive issue of immigration that seems to have played a major part in hardening the stance of the ‘leave’ voters. Being part of the EU has brought in a flood of workers from other poorer European countries like Poland into Britain, with the immigrants eager to work for far less wages than the typical British blue collar worker is used to. The sudden spike in anti-Polish rhetoric and signs that have sprung up particularly in Britain’s rust belt (which overwhelmingly voted to leave) are a rather discomforting testimony to this.

The consequences for not just Britain but also for the EU are flying thick and fast. Scotland feels shortchanged that despite an overwhelming vote to remain it is being forced to toe the majority line to leave. So it’s seriously considering a second referendum to ask its people whether it should leave the United Kingdom. Over in the EU, member nations are beginning to worry if Brexit is the beginning of the end of the EU. Would other countries see less and less value in remaining in the union in the coming months and years? There is discontent in some countries already while in some others the voices to leave are becoming shriller post Brexit.

Lessons for New Zealand

At the heart of the issue is inequality – the widening and deepening chasm between the rich and the poor across the world. Incredibly, we see this phenomenon as the world frenetically pursues globalisation, ostensibly to create a more equitable and egalitarian world. But the exact opposite seems to be happening. Instead of being distributed equitably, wealth is being even further concentrated. Statistics in every country underscores the fact that the gulf is ever widening.

Inequality in New Zealand is growing fast. Last week Statistics New Zealand figures said the country’s richest 10 per cent owns 60 per cent of its wealth while the poorest 40 per cent owns a paltry 10 per cent. These are the sorts of figures that are bandied about by pro-poor NGOs ahead of high profile annual jamborees of the rich and famous like the Davos meet in Switzerland every January. Much is discussed and lip service paid. But little ever is done to bridge the chasm at the policy level and ensure a more equitable distribution of global wealth.

Brexit is a red light for the entire world. More than just a desire to leave the EU, it needs to be seen as a vote of no confidence in the status quo of the establishment. Discontent, when it bubbles over, could manifest itself in many ways – whether it is leaving an elite club of nations, bringing in an extreme right wing president, a rising tide of xenophobia against immigrants or having to live in cars because of housing unaffordability. Inequality is fertile ground for such disasters to unfold.

First appeared in the Indian Weekender July 1, 2016