Post-Brexit Stress Disorder: Reacting to what we should have seen in the first place
In January 2010 The Onion, an American satirical news website, published a piece entitled, “Massive Earthquake Reveals Entire Island Civilization Called 'Haiti'”. In it, a fictitious academic is quoted saying, "Had it not been for this earthquake, I doubt we would have ever noticed Haiti at all."
The twist is that Haiti had been there all along but overlooked by the global community, its chronic needs unmet by the global community who nonetheless flew in as soon as those needs turned acute and therefore newsworthy.
It is hard not to draw parallels with the 52% of Leave voters in the UK’s recent referendum on European Union membership. In most of England and Wales, local authority areas voted Leave (270 of 382 across the UK as a whole). And we know that Leave ended up more than 1.2m votes ahead of Remain. A nation within a nation has spoken, and many in the country have noticed them for the first time.
The conversation has moved on in recent days to what those voting were voting about. Some have suggested that the people who voted Leave were not voting about the EU per se, or not necessarily thinking about what the impact of Brexit might be, and in fact were voting against their own interests. In a narrow economic sense that might be true, but in a broader socio-cultural sense I can’t see the – frankly condescending – logic.
The gains of globalisation have not been evenly shared. Indeed, those ‘gains’ have, at an individual level, been experienced by many as loss – of jobs in heavy industry, or security on a zero-hours contract in the service industry, or of a culture in different parts of the country, to name a few examples.
It is fair to say that away from the media, big business, academia, and the global powerhouse of London, people took the opportunity to kick against a system that didn’t work for them. Some fascinating data published by the FT illustrates this.
Making the case for an engaged internationalism should not have been the Remain campaign’s burden, and only in the final few weeks of the campaign. It was for many institutions which had an interest in the agenda to make patiently over decades. I take some of that responsibility myself. Let me explain.
Over many years, I’ve followed the polling about attitudes to international development, and it’s stark. A few very engaged people respond to messages about global poverty, but 33% of the UK public are totally disengaged when it comes to international development, and nearly 40% only engage on the margins. Not only is there a low level of committed engagement, but I have spent my career in organisations with heavily restricted budgets.
It’s clear we need to focus, but focus where?
We might look at the polling and conclude we ought to focus on those who are receptive. But within that logic lies some responsibility for the vote we have seen. By focusing on those we know will respond, organisations like mine run the risk of reinscribing marginality, deliberately or not. We have yet to find ways to share our values of progressive internationalism to a wider audience.
And while it is no doubt true that there will be Leavers who support international development and Remainers who don’t, the broader point remains: institutions like mine deliberately focus our attention on certain sets of people and many people are therefore overlooked and disengaged. We can’t be surprised by this.
The task ahead of us, if we want to see our values more broadly shared, is to work harder to reach across attitudinal divides and communicate better within our community. That’s as much within the Catholic community for an agency like ours as it is within the UK community more generally for the international development sector.
How to do that is the big question. Local level engagement like that of Citizens UK or Church Action of Poverty gives some hints. But understanding the scale of the task is the main issue – why are 33% of the UK ‘totally disengaged’ with international development, and what can we do to reach out?
This is a question that cannot wait to be answered. And answering it might be the most hopeful, most ambitious, and most realistic response to Brexit a disappointed Remainer can pursue.
Daniel Hale is Head of Campaigns at CAFOD, and is a trustee of the Centre for Catholic Social Thought and Practice | @danielhale