Public Policy

Lessons from Brexit Friday

By Maureen Wolsborn

A month ago, the average American knowledge of the United Kingdom and European Union spanned littler further than the royal family, soccer, and Eurovision. But last Thursday, the US and the world watched as UK citizens voted in their third ever referendum to leave the EU. And on Friday, or Brexit Friday as it may now be known, we continued to watch in somewhat disbelief as the news came in that Brexit or British Exit, was actually happening.Cameron and brexit

While the U.S. will undoubtedly be impacted by this vote, we aren’t British, or European, and understanding how the EU membership impacts a country, not only economically, but politically and socially, is complex. Yet the UK asked its electorate to make this big choice, one which could (and now seemingly will) impact their lives dramatically. And on Friday, as it became increasingly clear that a majority of UK voters had decided that life outside the EU was worth the gamble, many felt confused. Wondering ‘how did this happen?’ and some, even regretting their vote for Brexit, as the reality of their new future set in.

So how did this happen? How can the majority of a nation pass a referendum, yet leave so many people upset, confused and regretful about their vote?

First, there was a stark generational divide between Remain and Leave supporters. With roughly 75% of individuals between ages 18-24 wanting to stay in the EU and close to two thirds of people over 65 wanting to leave. Conversation between generations seemed stilted and unable to find common ground on what they want as a nation, and a member of the EU.  The U.S. is no stranger to this generational divide. There seems to be very little ideological middle ground between millennials and baby boomers, even if their desires and goals for their own lives are parallel. Joining these two groups in conversation is difficult, it seems that in the UK there was little dialogue across Brexit lines. Leaving undecided voters confused of where to cast their vote.

Brexit age graph Leading us to Friday, where the news coverage overwhelmingly focused on voter regret.  Most notably, a man who had cast a vote for leave stating “I didn’t think this was going to happen. I didn’t think my vote would matter too much…” This, unfortunately, isn’t an uncommon sentiment among voters. In the U.S. presidential election, voters are frustrated about candidates after a long nomination process, feeling that their participation in a primary vote or caucus really had no consequence. While in reality, and in a fair election system, a vote does count, I think many Brexit voters wondered if their vote truly mattered if they didn’t understand or really like either of the options. Brexit guy And as the Brexit Friday haze lifted, many voters asked themselves ‘what does this all really mean’. Common search terms on Friday in the UK were: ‘what happens if we leave the EU?” and ‘What is Brexit?’ While the Leave campaign made claims of saving 350 million pounds a week, and using that money to fund the NHS (pictured, notoriously, on a Leave campaign bus), Stay was equally vague in not only explaining the benefit of staying in the EU, but also negating the arguments of their opponents. Which leads us to the question of whether the campaigns (at least one) failed to explain the real impacts of Brexit, or if voters didn’t take the necessary time to truly learn about the consequences of the vote.  Educating voters is difficult, especially when voting on issues, EU membership being an extremely complicated one. Brexit bus Some are questioning if Brexit was a failure of direct-democracy. Perhaps everyday day citizens are ill equipped to cast a vote on such a complicated issue. And as an outside observer and non-UK resident, it’s unclear if voters had access to enough outside, unbiased information before going to the polls. What is clear is that Brits are coming to terms with their uncertain future. And for now, Brexit can be seen as a lesson for us all. Not in its outcomes but in how we treat elections and voters. Without conversation and dialogue, accessible and reliable information, and empowered voters, who know their vote has meaning and consequence, there may be many more Brexit Friday’s to come.

28 Jun 2016