A devastating defeat for political elites

Shouting into the void: Just four of the people whom most voters chose to ignore on Thursday.

All over the developed world the uprising against the ‘establishment’ is gathering pace. Should we be glad? How should we interpret it? And what message should we try to learn from it?

The governor of the Bank of England. The head of the International Monetary Fund. Almost nine in ten economists. At Westminster the leaders of the four biggest political parties and 75% of MPs. Leaders of Europe and liberal democracies around the world, including the US president.

They all warned Britain that leaving the EU was risky. But on Thursday, 51.9% of voters preferred Michael Gove’s words: ‘people have had enough of experts’.

The most dramatic democratic decision ever taken in Britain went against the overwhelming weight of professional opinion. And it has delivered a shockwave to those who cautioned against it. The prime minister has resigned; the Labour Party, taken over by anti-establishment fervour when Jeremy Corbyn was elected last year, could face another leadership contest.

In the small borough of the City of London, 75% voted Remain; in London as a whole it was 60%. The pro-business Financial Times said the UK had ‘voted against the London economy’ as sterling’s value fell dramatically and billions were wiped off global markets on Friday morning.

But voters in poorer parts of England and Wales were unconcerned. Almost 200,000 millionaires live in London; in Blackpool, where 67% of people voted Out, pay is £8,000 below the national average.

Some anger stems from the 2008 global financial crisis: it was largely caused by a few traders but left millions worse off. Public trust in politicians has declined by more than half since 1986, amid scandals and the apparent rise of detached, professional politicians. In some areas, large-scale migration is contentious.

Similar forces are at work internationally. Donald Trump has become a US presidential nominee on a protectionist, anti-migration platform. Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, won 11.9m votes in the Democratic primary. The rise of far-right and far-left parties across Europe shows a widespread desire for change.

Is this turn against the ‘establishment’ justified?

Cry of anger

Yes, say some. The political and financial elite make a cosy club where members only help each other. Politicians see the public as a vehicle to win elections and ignore those who vote the wrong way. Statistics about the growth of national GDP may excite traders, but they often mean little to people in deprived areas which have lost their industries.

That is unhealthy and resentful, respond others. Politicians do a tough job and try to help people: it is easy to protest against the status quo but harder to improve it. Dismissing expert advice is dangerously anti-intellectual and panders to people’s basest instincts. And an improving economy based on the free movement of labour and capital enriches us all.

You Decide

  1. Do you trust the opinions of experts?
  2. Is the popular turn against the ‘elite’ justifiable?


  1. Who has power in your life? Make a list of people and explain the impact each has. Then discuss: is rebellion against power a good thing?
  2. Write a two-page letter to someone of your age who lives 100 years from now, explaining why Britain decided to leave the EU in 2016.

Some People Say...

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Lord Acton

What do you think?

Q & A

I was too young to vote in this referendum. Should the result concern me?
The decision to leave the EU is likely to have a big impact on you, especially if you live in Britain. It will change the relationship the UK has with Europe, which could affect your wealth, security and prospects for jobs and travel. And the reasoning behind it is important — a lot of people who you share a world with are unhappy with the structures that govern their lives.
I do not feel one of the disenfranchised or part of an ‘elite’. Can I just ignore both of them?
The anger at the people in charge will affect you. This could be for the better, if it compels society to create something better; but on the other hand it could mean damage or destruction of functioning institutions which maintain order and stability.

Word Watch

In May The Observer found 88% of 600 UK working economists supported Remain.
Yesterday several of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet resigned in protest at his lacklustre performance in the referendum campaign. Some party members, who support Corbyn’s anti-establishment message, launched a petition to keep him; last night it had nearly 200,000 signatures.
For example, in the North-East, 11 out of 12 areas declared for Leave.
In August 2015 the Barclays UK prosperity map showed 191,000 millionaires in London.
Average pay in Blackpool is £19,500. Many coastal towns voted heavily for Leave.
In 2014 17% of the British public said they trusted governments most of the time, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey. In 1986, the figure was 38%.
Most notably, many MPs were shown to be claiming money from the taxpayer in dubious circumstances in the 2009 expenses scandal.
Some fear that mass migration benefits employers but undermines community cohesion and depresses the wages of low-skilled workers. Others dispute this.

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