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3 lessons we learned from the UK Referendum on whether to remain in the European Union - Dr Keith Suter (World Affairs Speaker) - 29 June 2016

3 lessons we learned from the UK Referendum on whether to remain in the European Union - Dr Keith Suter (World Affairs Speaker)

Keith Suter is a global futurist, thought leader, author and media personality, recognised and highly respected in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is one of the world's great thinkers and exemplary communicators. Keith has extensive experience in speaking, lecturing and teaching. He is a regular on Seven’s Sunrise program and is often asked for comment on the ABC, Sky News and Macquarie Live News. Keith is one of 100 members of the Exclusive Club of Rome, which includes the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Here the World Affairs Speaker shares his thoughts and experience on the recent decision by the people of the UK to leave the European Union. 

History was made

The June 23 2016 referendum was one of the most important developments in British history since the end of World War II in 1945. Prime Minister David Cameron promised the referendum as a way of dealing with continuing criticism in his Conservative Party about the European Union (EU).

Here are three “lessons” from the vote:

First, Mr Cameron misunderstood the depth of feeling against the EU. In June 1975 Britain had voted on “Do you think that the United Kingdom should remain part of the European Community (the Common Market?)”

Four decades ago it was the Labour Party that was divided over the matter (the Conservatives had taken the UK into the then European Community in 1973 and then lost the next election). Harold Wilson’s Labour Government held a referendum to deal with Labour unrest. The British voted to remain.

Mr Cameron expected his use of the same tactic (referendums are not standard British political tactics) would have the same result. The British are inherently conservative and so he hoped to exploit that fear of the unknown.

Mr Cameron, most political commentators and the opinion polls all got that wrong.

Another error was that of having a simple majority (50.1per cent) on such a major issue. Perhaps the bar should be set much higher: 66 per cent or even 75 per cent. Such a figure would leave less room for controversy.

Culture is changing the game

Second, Mr Cameron was blindsided by the same factor that has blind-sided political commentators on the rise of Donald Trump: “angry white males” – now called the anger of the “left behind”.

The argument is that there is a new form of political categories. The old left / right “class-based” split which underpinned the traditional political parties is now being eroded.

The new categories are based on “identity”: feminists, the gay community, investment property owners etc. But some people do not fit neatly into such categories – particularly those missing out in the rush to make the most of new technology, new employment opportunities, and new educational opportunities. They feel “left behind”.

The voting showed that older people in depressed economic areas were particularly keen on a “protest vote”. They felt their plight had been ignored. (Donald Trump has been successful in attracting such support for his bid for the White House – and has so far defied all the political predictions of his chances of success).

Interestingly, the Exit camp seemed to have been motivated by “culture” rather than “money”. The Remain camp argued in terms of the economic benefits. The Exit camp just did not like all the migrants and what they saw as the changes to British life. (This also helps to explain the success of Donald Trump and his criticisms of the Mexicans). Money may not always be the deciding factor in politics.

Finally, the chaos in the past few days has again showed the reluctance of politicians and others to “think about the unthinkable”. Politicians tend to think of only one “future’ and so do not have plans for alternative “futures”. But predictions are often inaccurate and so we have to have others plans ready. Scenario planning is a good management technique to help people think about “what if…?” This reduces the risk of being blindsided by change.

Harold Wilson once commented that a “week is a long time in politics”. The referendum has proved his point.

Discover more about Keith Suter here.




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