The post-referendum situation is still fluid, and no-one really knows what Brexit means yet – except Theresa May, it seems, who informs us that “Brexit means Brexit.” Thank you, prime minister. Does it mean opportunity? In one way I think it does.
Let me first reiterate that I think Brexit constitutes an unwarranted, deliberate attack on decades of hard work carried out by individuals and governments across Europe in the interest of boosting cross-border trade, making the advantages of personal mobility available to people beyond the elites, enabling individuals to share ideas across borders, and winning an unprecedented seven decades (and counting!) of peace in Europe. I have written at length about the Leave campaign and its key claims, about my own reasons for being on the Remain side as well as about my experiences on the campaign trail. I am concerned about the new UK Prime Minister’s decision to appoint a confrontation cabinet that sends a clear signal to EU neighbours as well as Scotland, Northern Ireland, and people outside the Conservative party that Tory unity is more important than both national unity and European diplomacy.
So where’s the opportunity in all this?
For the majority of voters, the referendum was a rejection of the way in which they are usually asked to make choices – even beyond the world of politics. My assertion is that the Brexit vote was also a rejection of life and lifestyle choices as we have come to know them in recent years.
We have made ourselves comfortable in a world of options: we can choose between a great variety of beers; we can buy a ton of different toys; we take part in regular elections.
But there have been at least two problems with “choices” in recent years:
- Many of our choices don’t make a difference – all those beers are made by InBev; all those toys are made in China; all those parties are centrist.
- And many of them are between options that seem to allow us to renounce our choice in the very process of making it – we order a beer, but it’s non-alcoholic; we choose to fly Easyjet, but opt for their premium (“Plus”) services.
Choosing has become a way of avoiding – or being denied – a decision. And consumer citizens are increasingly unhappy about the lack of consequences of their actions. They don’t just want to pick from a menu of options that someone else has designed.
Leave or Remain was Turned into a Lifestyle Choice
The trouble is that what both the Leave and the Remain campaigns offered was a lifestyle choice. Leave voters driven to a veritable obsession with more hospitals and fewer Poles; Remainers indulged in their fondness for trips to Paris and their sense of belonging to a larger European family.
In spite of all the talk about fear mongering, the implications of a vote for one side or the other never became clear to most voters. Leavers were happy to ignore the reasons for the NHS’s troubles and the facts and Polish contributions to the UK’s GDP; Remainers gave pressure on low-income earners short shrift.
It was, as in many elections on the other side of the pond, a choice between “values” and “issues,” and most voters, even on the Remain side, made their decision based on values.
This opacity around the potential consequences of one’s own actions is wide-ranging. Consumers act in a world where they feel that the consequences of their actions are hard to assess. Many of them don’t even try. And if they do, they often find that their best efforts go unrewarded.
The segment of the population that takes an active interest in the sustainable side of trade and consumption and goes out to buy fair-trade coffee, local beef, and fair phones is growing, but it is still small.
Whether many of these “green” or “fair” labels deserve the faith we have in them is anyone’s guess. What is clear is that the market share of large corporations – ranging from clothes retailers to chocolate bar producers – which are under sustained criticism for their un-ethical business practices is undiminished.
Underneath all the rhetoric of “taking back control” there are people who want their decisions to make a difference in the world.
The irony is that they have destroyed some of the mechanisms through which effective decisions (on trade, human rights, and the environment) were made. They find themselves in a country with an unelected head of state and upper house of parliament, the western world’s smallest number of elected representatives (all levels of government taken together), and a government keen on liberalising the once-vilified banking sector.
And yet: Remain campaigners were reluctant to acknowledge that a vote for Brexit may indeed be a sign that someone wants to play ball, even if their specific aims and interests are frustratingly vague. This is why a second referendum or any form of fudged Brexit would be wrong.
Rather, what we need to do, especially as entrepreneurs, is create a world in which “choice” does not cloud people’s ability to make meaningful decisions.
Brexit is a reminder that in a democratic, capitalist society, this is a goal to strive for.