We are living through turbulent times, full of uncertainty and worry. There are certain dates in history which with hindsight prove to be crucial turning points in the direction of a nation. For the UK, one of these is the 23rd of June 2016, the day of the EU Membership Referendum, the day that the entire Brexit mess began.
Brexit means Brexit, but the problem is that nobody knows what Brexit actually means and nobody knew what it meant when they were voting on that fateful day. Everyone had different ideas and cast their votes based on various impressions, many influenced by lies such as those written on the red bus (“We send the EU 350 million pounds. Let’s fund the NHS instead.”)
One of the men behind these lies was Boris Johnson, who started off his career as a journalist. In his first stint at that job, he was fired for making stuff up, but then got rehired in order to serve as an EU correspondent in Brussels. While covering the European Union in the center of the action, he became famous for spreading lies, and never having facts get in the way of a good story. His articles were instrumental in slowly poisoning the British public opinion against the EU and in the spreading of various Euromyths.
Brexit is led by unscrupulous politicians who only want to satisfy their own egos
In August 2019, this man became the UK Prime Minister. Throughout his entire career in politics, Boris Johnson was never looking out for what is best for his nation or its inhabitants, and was never led by any lofty ideals. Instead, his principal drive was just getting to the top. His principles were naked ambition and vain glory-seeking.
Behind his goofy appearance, lies the calculating mind of a man who set out on becoming Prime Minister, no matter the cost. Looking like a character from “The Flintstones”, and not a real politician, his bulldozer-like ways wrecked the British political scene, just like Bam Bam from the show.
Together with the other cartoon character and self-proclaimed man of the people whose kids hold a German passport, Nigel Farage, he poisoned political discourse, with no lie being too great if it served his purpose.
“So much more intense is the thirst for fame than for virtue. Who’d embrace virtue simply for itself, if you took away all the reward? Yet nations have been destroyed by the ambition of a few, by their desire for fame and a title, a name that might cling to the stones that guard their ashes, those stones the barren fig tree’s malicious strength is capable of shattering, since even their very sepulchers are granted a limited span by fate.”
from “Satires” by Juvenal
Brexit is leading to greater polarization
This poisoned political discourse is leading to greater and greater polarization among people. The discussion is not even about the EU, but the demagogues are using it as a scapegoat to turn attention away from other problems, and many people have been fooled by this.
The disparities between the rich and poor have been growing. The UK is a very divided society based on class and other factors. Education is also a big factor, since the UK has some of the best educated people in the world, but also some of the worst. Much of the working class population does not even know where Brussels is, much less how the European Union actually functions, and is ill prepared for a world which is getting more globalized by the minute.
This part of the population is also feeling the brunt of the pain, with work getting scarcer and harder to find. Part of it is their own fault, but part of it is also the fault of how the British system is set up. These people are also getting angrier, which often leads them to try to find scapegoats for their problems, which demagogic politicians are only too willing to do. With anger and indignation, radicalization starts, which then leads to polarization between different segments of society.
When anger and polarization takes over society, political violence is usually not far behind. Populist politicians just add fuel to the fire, further dividing and polarizing the society. Brexit is making certain people angrier and angrier, which has resulted in political assassinations, the killings of immigrants, and could re-ignite violence in Northern Ireland.
Boris Johnson studied the Classics at university. While his grades were mediocre, he probably does remember some lessons about the fall of the Roman Republic. The conditions under which the Republic fell, were in many ways quite similar to what the UK is experiencing right now. A growing gap between the rich and poor, a significant fall in the well-being of certain groups, led to anger and a polarization in society.
Brexit is undermining political norms
Since the UK now has a Prime Minister who prides himself on being a Classic scholar, it is pertinent to pepper the discussion about the current political situation with lessons from the ancient era of the fall of the Roman Republic. The ancient commentators dated the beginning of the fall of the Republic to a series of events that started off by an undermining of the traditional political norms.
One of these is when populist tribunes started going around the Senate, which traditionally had the right of approving proposed legislation first, and instead going directly to the people through the use of popular plebiscites. While the old Roman Senate was not a democratic institution, you can see certain parallels between what happened there and what happened in the UK. The UK is a representative democracy, meaning that the people don’t decide on things directly, but instead elect representatives who are then tasked on deciding the issues for them. The EU Referendum broke this norm and undermined the way things were traditionally done.
In Rome, the traditional norms of how politics were done eroded. We are seeing the same thing happening in the UK. This is a dangerous trend, since just like in ancient Rome, UK’s democracy stands upon its morals and the fact that these morals are respected by the people who are in politics.
“Ennius told us: “Rome’s Republic in its morals and people stands.”
This verse, both for its precision and its verity, appears to me as if it had issued from an oracle. He justly couples men and manners together, for neither the men, unless the state had adopted certain manners, nor the manners, unless illustrated by the men, could ever have established or maintained, for so many ages, so vast a dominion.”
from “On the Republic” by Cicero
At the end of August 2019, Boris Johnson, the brand new Prime Minister, announced that he will be suspending Parliament. This means that the Parliament will no longer be in session and won’t be able to stop his plans for a hard no-deal Brexit. Apparently, this is how you make the Parliament sovereign and master of the laws, which was one of the alleged aims of the Brexiteers before the referendum.
While a prorogation itself is nothing new, it usually doesn’t happen at such charged times in the political process or for so long. This shutting down of Parliament would be a negative precedent and a black mark on democracy in the UK. Down the line it could be the start of more abuse of power. In a country like the UK with no written constitution and which relies on the goodwill of its politicians in order for its political institutions to function, this is very dangerous.
“It is such cases as these that sometimes perplex us in our consideration, when the point in which justice is violated does not seem so very significant, but the consequences of such slight transgression seem exceedingly important.”
from “On Moral Duties” by Cicero
The consequences of Johnson’s action could start off a chain of events, which could endanger democracy in the UK itself. This is what we saw in ancient Rome, and this is what Cicero, one of Rome’s greatest statesmen, warned against.
It is not just democracy that is at stake in the UK, but the country itself. The UK is “united”, because it is made up of several lands, like England, Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland. While there was a majority for Brexit in England and Wales, the other two voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union. Now their minority rights are being trampled on by a group of politicians who are trying to “carry out the will of the people” without acknowledging how close the vote really was. Minority rights are a key pillar of the democratic process, and them not being respected makes people really angry.
When you have such high polarization, when the rules of the democratic process are not respected, when the rights of the minority are being trampled on, then you are setting yourself up for chaos down the line. What is even more worrying is that not only are minority rights not respected, people who hold views that don’t support Brexit are being called “traitors” or worse. When such vocabulary is used, it is often just a matter of time before more radical measures against these traitors are implemented.
Brexit shows how easy it is to fool the people
The Brexit camp won the referendum by promising the people everything, sometimes even contradictory or impossible things. Yes, things will be as before, you will enjoy all the rights and privileges as before, but now we will be able to do whatever we want and we will have all this money to spend on other things. The problem is that the real world doesn’t work that way. As an ancient proverb says, you cannot eat your cake and have it too.
“You cannot eat your cake and have it too, unless you think your money is immortal. The fool too late, his substance eaten up, reckons the cost.”
from “The Three Coins” by Plautus
The old economic models were working under the assumption that humans are rational actors who always try to maximize their own self-interest. The Economic Meltdown of 2008 proved how wrong these models really are. Humans are not rational actors, and often can be even found working against their own rational self-interests.
Behavioral psychology shows that humans fall for cognitive biases, and are usually swayed by emotion, much more than reason. The Brexit camp used this fact to maximum effect. What is worse is that the current technological progress magnifies these processes and makes it much easier for nefarious actors to manipulate public opinion and sway the votes of people who are often locked in their own filter bubbles. This is something that was abused by Cambridge Analytica and the makers of fake news.
“Few men are controlled by reason, and few are pleased by a right purpose. The mob, rather, is led to what was plainly invented for oblivion of its cares. For it supposes that whatever serves its pleasure must also be linked to the happiness of the age.”
from “Various Epistles” by Cassiodorus
Brexit is undermining British institutions, and once these are broken, it will be hard to build them back up
The worst part of Brexit is that it is undermining the trust of people in the institutions of power. Politics has become a joke, the government is seen as incompetent, and the institutions are being bent at will by a few cartoonish characters. The danger is that the legacy of Brexit will not be just a bad economic situation and a poisoned political scene, but also broken institutions and an undermined democracy.