Alexander Betts

Why Brexit happened -- and what to do next

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0:12

I am British.

0:14

(Laughter)

0:16

(Applause)

0:19

Never before has the phrase "I am British" elicited so much pity.

0:23

(Laughter)

0:25

I come from an island where many of us like to believe there's been a lot of continuity over the last thousand years. We tend to have historically imposed change on others but done much less of it ourselves.

0:38

So it came as an immense shock to me when I woke up on the morning of June 24 to discover that my country had voted to leave the European Union, my Prime Minister had resigned, and Scotland was considering a referendum that could bring to an end the very existence of the United Kingdom. So that was an immense shock for me, and it was an immense shock for many people, but it was also something that, over the following several days, created a complete political meltdown in my country. There were calls for a second referendum, almost as if, following a sports match, we could ask the opposition for a replay. Everybody was blaming everybody else. People blamed the Prime Minister for calling the referendum in the first place. They blamed the leader of the opposition for not fighting it hard enough. The young accused the old. The educated blamed the less well-educated. That complete meltdown was made even worse by the most tragic element of it: levels of xenophobia and racist abuse in the streets of Britain at a level that I have never seen before in my lifetime. People are now talking about whether my country is becoming a Little England, or, as one of my colleagues put it, whether we're about to become a 1950s nostalgia theme park floating in the Atlantic Ocean.

2:01

(Laughter)

2:04

But my question is really, should we have the degree of shock that we've experienced since? Was it something that took place overnight? Or are there deeper structural factors that have led us to where we are today? So I want to take a step back and ask two very basic questions. First, what does Brexit represent, not just for my country, but for all of us around the world? And second, what can we do about it? How should we all respond?

2:36

So first, what does Brexit represent? Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Brexit teaches us many things about our society and about societies around the world. It highlights in ways that we seem embarrassingly unaware of how divided our societies are. The vote split along lines of age, education, class and geography. Young people didn't turn out to vote in great numbers, but those that did wanted to remain. Older people really wanted to leave the European Union. Geographically, it was London and Scotland that most strongly committed to being part of the European Union, while in other parts of the country there was very strong ambivalence. Those divisions are things we really need to recognize and take seriously. But more profoundly, the vote teaches us something about the nature of politics today. Contemporary politics is no longer just about right and left. It's no longer just about tax and spend. It's about globalization. The fault line of contemporary politics is between those that embrace globalization and those that fear globalization.

3:49

(Applause)

3:54

If we look at why those who wanted to leave — we call them "Leavers," as opposed to "Remainers" — we see two factors in the opinion polls that really mattered. The first was immigration, and the second sovereignty, and these represent a desire for people to take back control of their own lives and the feeling that they are unrepresented by politicians. But those ideas are ones that signify fear and alienation. They represent a retreat back towards nationalism and borders in ways that many of us would reject. What I want to suggest is the picture is more complicated than that, that liberal internationalists, like myself, and I firmly include myself in that picture, need to write ourselves back into the picture in order to understand how we've got to where we are today. When we look at the voting patterns across the United Kingdom, we can visibly see the divisions. The blue areas show Remain and the red areas Leave. When I looked at this, what personally struck me was the very little time in my life I've actually spent in many of the red areas. I suddenly realized that, looking at the top 50 areas in the UK that have the strongest Leave vote, I've spent a combined total of four days of my life in those areas. In some of those places, I didn't even know the names of the voting districts. It was a real shock to me, and it suggested that people like me who think of ourselves as inclusive, open and tolerant, perhaps don't know our own countries and societies nearly as well as we like to believe.

5:37

(Applause)

5:47

And the challenge that comes from that is we need to find a new way to narrate globalization to those people, to recognize that for those people who have not necessarily been to university, who haven't necessarily grown up with the Internet, that don't get opportunities to travel, they may be unpersuaded by the narrative that we find persuasive in our often liberal bubbles.

6:09

(Applause)

6:14

It means that we need to reach out more broadly and understand. In the Leave vote, a minority have peddled the politics of fear and hatred, creating lies and mistrust around, for instance, the idea that the vote on Europe could reduce the number of refugees and asylum-seekers coming to Europe, when the vote on leaving had nothing to do with immigration from outside the European Union. But for a significant majority of the Leave voters the concern was disillusionment with the political establishment. This was a protest vote for many, a sense that nobody represented them, that they couldn't find a political party that spoke for them, and so they rejected that political establishment.

7:00

This replicates around Europe and much of the liberal democratic world. We see it with the rise in popularity of Donald Trump in the United States, with the growing nationalism of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, with the increase in popularity of Marine Le Pen in France. The specter of Brexit is in all of our societies.

7:24

So the question I think we need to ask is my second question, which is how should we collectively respond? For all of us who care about creating liberal, open, tolerant societies, we urgently need a new vision, a vision of a more tolerant, inclusive globalization, one that brings people with us rather than leaving them behind.

7:47

That vision of globalization is one that has to start by a recognition of the positive benefits of globalization. The consensus amongst economists is that free trade, the movement of capital, the movement of people across borders benefit everyone on aggregate. The consensus amongst international relations scholars is that globalization brings interdependence, which brings cooperation and peace. But globalization also has redistributive effects. It creates winners and losers. To take the example of migration, we know that immigration is a net positive for the economy as a whole under almost all circumstances. But we also have to be very aware that there are redistributive consequences, that importantly, low-skilled immigration can lead to a reduction in wages for the most impoverished in our societies and also put pressure on house prices. That doesn't detract from the fact that it's positive, but it means more people have to share in those benefits and recognize them.

8:54

In 2002, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, gave a speech at Yale University, and that speech was on the topic of inclusive globalization. That was the speech in which he coined that term. And he said, and I paraphrase, "The glass house of globalization has to be open to all if it is to remain secure. Bigotry and ignorance are the ugly face of exclusionary and antagonistic globalization."

9:30

That idea of inclusive globalization was briefly revived in 2008 in a conference on progressive governance involving many of the leaders of European countries. But amid austerity and the financial crisis of 2008, the concept disappeared almost without a trace. Globalization has been taken to support a neoliberal agenda. It's perceived to be part of an elite agenda rather than something that benefits all. And it needs to be reclaimed on a far more inclusive basis than it is today.

10:04

So the question is, how can we achieve that goal? How can we balance on the one hand addressing fear and alienation while on the other hand refusing vehemently to give in to xenophobia and nationalism? That is the question for all of us. And I think, as a social scientist, that social science offers some places to start. Our transformation has to be about both ideas and about material change, and I want to give you four ideas as a starting point.

10:36

The first relates to the idea of civic education. What stands out from Brexit is the gap between public perception and empirical reality. It's been suggested that we've moved to a postfactual society, where evidence and truth no longer matter, and lies have equal status to the clarity of evidence. So how can we —

10:59

(Applause)

11:01

How can we rebuild respect for truth and evidence into our liberal democracies? It has to begin with education, but it has to start with the recognition that there are huge gaps.

11:13

In 2014, the pollster Ipsos MORI published a survey on attitudes to immigration, and it showed that as numbers of immigrants increase, so public concern with immigration also increases, although it obviously didn't unpack causality, because this could equally be to do not so much with numbers but the political and media narrative around it. But the same survey also revealed huge public misinformation and misunderstanding about the nature of immigration. For example, in these attitudes in the United Kingdom, the public believed that levels of asylum were a greater proportion of immigration than they were, but they also believed the levels of educational migration were far lower as a proportion of overall migration than they actually are. So we have to address this misinformation, the gap between perception and reality on key aspects of globalization. And that can't just be something that's left to our schools, although that's important to begin at an early age. It has to be about lifelong civic participation and public engagement that we all encourage as societies.

12:25

The second thing that I think is an opportunity is the idea to encourage more interaction across diverse communities.

12:32

(Applause)

12:36

One of the things that stands out for me very strikingly, looking at immigration attitudes in the United Kingdom, is that ironically, the regions of my country that are the most tolerant of immigrants have the highest numbers of immigrants. So for instance, London and the Southeast have the highest numbers of immigrants, and they are also by far the most tolerant areas. It's those areas of the country that have the lowest levels of immigration that actually are the most exclusionary and intolerant towards migrants.

13:06

So we need to encourage exchange programs. We need to ensure that older generations who maybe can't travel get access to the Internet. We need to encourage, even on a local and national level, more movement, more participation, more interaction with people who we don't know and whose views we might not necessarily agree with.

13:25

The third thing that I think is crucial, though, and this is really fundamental, is we have to ensure that everybody shares in the benefits of globalization. This illustration from the Financial Times post-Brexit is really striking. It shows tragically that those people who voted to leave the European Union were those who actually benefited the most materially from trade with the European Union. But the problem is that those people in those areas didn't perceive themselves to be beneficiaries. They didn't believe that they were actually getting access to material benefits of increased trade and increased mobility around the world.

14:04

I work on questions predominantly to do with refugees, and one of the ideas I spent a lot of my time preaching, mainly to developing countries around the world, is that in order to encourage the integration of refugees, we can't just benefit the refugee populations, we also have to address the concerns of the host communities in local areas. But in looking at that, one of the policy prescriptions is that we have to provide disproportionately better education facilities, health facilities, access to social services in those regions of high immigration to address the concerns of those local populations. But while we encourage that around the developing world, we don't take those lessons home and incorporate them in our own societies.

14:49

Furthermore, if we're going to really take seriously the need to ensure people share in the economic benefits, our businesses and corporations need a model of globalization that recognizes that they, too, have to take people with them.

15:04

The fourth and final idea I want to put forward is an idea that we need more responsible politics. There's very little social science evidence that compares attitudes on globalization. But from the surveys that do exist, what we can see is there's huge variation across different countries and time periods in those countries for attitudes and tolerance of questions like migration and mobility on the one hand and free trade on the other. But one hypothesis that I think emerges from a cursory look at that data is the idea that polarized societies are far less tolerant of globalization. It's the societies like Sweden in the past, like Canada today, where there is a centrist politics, where right and left work together, that we encourage supportive attitudes towards globalization. And what we see around the world today is a tragic polarization, a failure to have dialogue between the extremes in politics, and a gap in terms of that liberal center ground that can encourage communication and a shared understanding. We might not achieve that today, but at the very least we have to call upon our politicians and our media to drop a language of fear and be far more tolerant of one another.

16:20

(Applause)

16:28

These ideas are very tentative, and that's in part because this needs to be an inclusive and shared project.

16:37

I am still British. I am still European. I am still a global citizen. For those of us who believe that our identities are not mutually exclusive, we have to all work together to ensure that globalization takes everyone with us and doesn't leave people behind. Only then will we truly reconcile democracy and globalization.

17:06

Thank you.

17:08

(Applause)

We are embarrassingly unaware of how divided our societies are, and Brexit grew out of a deep, unexamined divide between those that fear globalization and those that embrace it, says social scientist Alexander Betts. How do we now address that fear as well as growing disillusionment with the political establishment, while refusing to give in to xenophobia and nationalism? Join Betts as he discusses four post-Brexit steps toward a more inclusive world.

About the speaker
Alexander Betts · Social scientist

Alexander Betts explores ways societies might empower refugees rather than pushing them to the margins.

Alexander Betts explores ways societies might empower refugees rather than pushing them to the margins.