Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Brexit – A Wake Up Call Against Elitism
KASAHARA Toshihiko / Former London Bureau Chief, Mainichi Shimbun

November 24, 2016
The world was astounded by the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union (Brexit) that became apparent in a national referendum held in June. In the eyes of the international community, this was a departure from political and economic rationality, tantamount to “jumping off a cliff.” Reflected in this view was the underlying assessment that to “remain” was correct and to “leave” a mistake. However, in a world where political decisions are dictated by the markets and value judgments are increasingly made from the perspective of short-term economic gain, I couldn’t help thinking there was perhaps a more profound dimension to the political choice made by the British people.

In the national referendum, the “leave” votes exceeded the “remain” votes by nearly 4 points. The biggest factor behind this outcome was the immigrant issue. The EU espouses the principle of free movement, and as it expanded its scope to Eastern Europe in the early 2000s, the number of migrant workers entering the UK tripled from 1 million to 3 million in the eleven years up to 2015. Yet, the real reason behind the crisis lay not in the scope of the issue, but in the attitude adopted by the British government, which, while opening its doors to immigrants had never allowed them to feel welcome, and had neglected to lend its ear to the voice of its disgruntled citizens.

The British government had turned the other way as immigrants were exploited to provide low-paid labor, while failing to address the discontent of working class Britons who felt their jobs were being robbed, or the growing frustration voiced by its citizens over declining public services such as medical care and education. Neither did the government provide sufficient explanation about the economic and cultural merits of accepting immigrants, or the benefits of membership in the EU. The country’s politicians were grossly incompetent when it came to educating the public, which was an important role entrusted to them.

Thus the social foundations were laid for the rise of populist politics that exacerbated the phobia against immigrants and criticism towards the EU, which became merged with a groundswell of nationalism backed by a sense of pride in the history of the British Empire. Eventually, the national referendum became an opportunity for Britons to vent their discontent with the status quo.

The United Kingdom has historically been tolerant towards immigrants. Its identity has always been open to the world outside, so much so that when asked what constituted a British national, the answer was: “anyone who serves under the king.” That this same country has now embraced the “self-injurious” course of leaving the EU and is determined even to weather the economic consequences, sends a serious warning to the world. So, what lessons should we draw from Brexit?

What I would like to stress most is the fact that within the larger context of globalization, the elites and the masses have come to see the state of society and the world through different prisms. For this reason, repeated reminders from the “establishment” - including US President Barack Obama, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank - that Brexit would result in economic loss and a decline in international status for the UK, came to no avail.

If one were to view the outcome of the vote simply as a confrontation between the “rational elite” and the “emotional masses,” the confusion will be repeated around the world. One of the warning shots fired by the UK has alerted us to the need to squarely recognize the perception gap between the elites - who stand to benefit from the globalization of the economy, and ordinary citizens - who risk losing their jobs or earning less money due to international competition, and to address these issues.

One could also say that the UK’s decision to leave the EU signified a defeat for elitism. The EU is a transnational body in which elite bureaucrats in Brussels hold enormous authority and set policies and rules without having to go through elections. The project for building a united Europe had taken a major step in the direction of political union following the end of the Cold War amid an optimistic outlook for the future. In reality the process led only to the creation of a sprawling governing institution without nurturing a common identity for “EU citizens,” and could not have been more removed from public opinion.

With a solid tradition of parliamentary democracy, Britons feel strongly averse to the EU’s ballooning “democratic deficit.” This may be yet another factor that led the UK to leave the EU and take the first step towards restoring sovereignty.

If one were to draw a deliberate connection between the lessons of Brexit and Japan, the risk of elitism seems inherent in the “politics of numbers” pursued by the administration of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. Banking on the strength of a parliamentary majority to steamroll the national security bill and promote nuclear power is a political style that kindles social division by eliminating dissent, and may cause damage to long-term stability.

Those on the side of the political and economic establishment should heed the lesson of Brexit as a wakeup call against elitism.

Toshihiko Kasahara is a former London Bureau Chief of the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

笠原敏彦 / 元毎日新聞ロンドン特派員

2016年 11月 24日









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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Brexit – A Wake Up Call Against Elitism