Brexit- Global versus Local – Making sense of the tension
As we close out the month of June 2016, there could be no other story to mention than that of #Brexit.. That is the decision of the people of the UK to vote to leave the EU in their recent referendum.
As an Irish citizen who studied, lived and worked in England for 16 years, the result made me sad. Sad in the sense that it felt/feels like losing someone/something that I had known all of my life.. that is the UK/Great Britain and its leading place in the world, in particular its reputation for tolerance, which I had many years of direct experience of, amidst the many many good people of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland that I know and admire.
Yet beyond that sadness, what can we all learn from this #Brexit vote by the British people?
Let’s start by taking the long view of human history for a moment.
A quick rush through human history shows that humans evolved from hunter gatherers to tribes to chiefdoms, then principalities and city states and most recently nation states. Though the nation that we know as the UK is over than most, nation states are relatively new.. it is worth acknowledging that the vast majority of the current 195 nation states in the world have been established during in the 1800s and 1900s.
Beyond nation states, we are also familiar with empires. As the second world war saw the mantle of empire pass from the British to the United States, it also saw the establishment of the United Nations, World Bank, then some decades later the European Union, so a new age of superpowers beckoned.
One could have been forgiven for interpreting this as simply the march of human progress, towards a small number of superpowers to rule the world and towards “globalisation”…
Hence why this unexpected move by the UK to exit the EU stage left appears to be an abrupt reverse gear, to challenge that march of the superpowers such as the EU? Clearly the EU is a flawed organisation that needs major changes including a more democratic link to the European people, many of whom see it as an ivory tower. Yet why would the British not want to stay within and lead those reforms?
Several commentators have interpreted the Brexit result as symptomatic of a broad and wide malaise, a reaction to the march of globalisation. In particular a reaction to the growing inequality in a country like the UK, the rise of the 1%, at the expense of the 99%., the insiders versus the outsiders..
If so then we are likely to see more of the same reaction, as personified by the uncomfortable rise of characters like Trump in US politics as well as extremists in other parts of the world. The globe has just been through the major financial crisis of 2008 with a lot of collateral damage. When people are doing well, are busy and optimistic for the future the world progresses. When folk are threatened and concerned for their future, they often look for who to blame… hence the tension in the air.
So what is the future of the relationship between individuals and local communities across the globe and what is the role of the nation state a broker between local and global?
Lets first admit that we have one globe, one planet earth, with a growing population and limited resources. The keyword there is limited, i.e. finite. Now I’m the first to admit that I’m one of the lucky ones, one of the privileged, with a good home, in a safe country, with a good education and never been hungry or needing shelter. Others are not so lucky.
Indeed more than anything else we know that the world is an unequal place. Interpretations of the Brexit result highlight that it is a cry from those who have lost most/gained least in the last 10 years of globalisation.. Furthermore all of the tension that has built up between local, national and supranational/global forces in recent decades was offered a route out via this recent referendum.
Although the world has always been unequal (and always will be, such is the nature of life itself) we can indeed all do something about reducing in-equal-ity. Regardless of your politics, the evidence (as per an excellent book named The Spirit Level by a couple of British authors) highlights that more equal societies (on key measures like health, education, violence, imprisonment etc) do better for everyone. This issue of in-equal-ity isn’t confined to any nation state, it is of course a global issue, as highlighted by the United Nations with their powerful campaign towards global goals we can all share.
So though no one says life is fair, we can at least make it fairer for one another. Let’s start that with a more honest aspect to our political discourse. Of the role of the individual in their own lives, on the role of the nation state, on those threats and opportunities that span the globe. To suggest that a retreat to isolation within a nation state as the answer to problems locally appears naive in the highly connected 21st Century. Yet the subtext to Brexit is that super powers such as the EU are not delivering for folk locally, so such many political institutions need to wake up and change and better explain their worth.
Of course we can all act in splendid isolation, yet the march of human endeavour is both forcing and encouraging us to work together. Indeed no matter where you establish boundaries (around England, the UK, the EU) you can’t really have all the “advantages” of a connected world (e.g. free movement of people and their ideas) without the mirrored “disadvantages” (e.g. free movement of people and their ills).
While some may wish to put barriers up during this period of change, am sure many of us are keen to build bridges beyond any such barriers..
Let us look for a moment at 3 unrelated movements, from local to global.
ChangeX – “allows you to discover proven ideas and provides all the information and support you need to join or start these ideas in your local community.”
Smart Cities – “The goal of building a smart city is to improve quality of life by using technology to improve the efficiency of services and meet residents’ needs.”
Global Goals – “Goals are unique in that they call for action by all countries, poor, rich and middle-income to promote prosperity while protecting the planet. They recognize that ending poverty must go hand-in-hand with strategies that build economic growth and addresses a range of social needs including education, health, social protection, and job opportunities, while tackling climate change and environmental protection.”
Do initiatives such as these really need the backing of a particular nation state to make progress? Can human progress be held back by tensions within the ranks of the political bodies that surround us? What is stopping us tackling these ambitions locally and build networks of change globally?
Of course one might argue that the role of the nation state is to broker the local versus global forces that are often at play… supporting and addressing local needs while cognisant and mindful of the bigger picture issues… yet their is often a natural tension there… its not possible to offer everything to everyone, so an honest conversation is needed in that brokering role… how can the nation state support its people in what they need versus what they want?
During this soul searching time, let’s all relook at what we can do as individuals.
Start by finding the change you want to see in the world around you and start local action.
If you think/consider there may be a global dimension to your need, then look broad and wide and consider the power of collaborative innovation that the 21st Century enables.. Efforts towards an open source platform in healthcare is a case in point in my own work.
Consider how a blend of thinking global and acting local can make this world a better fairer place for us all.
This brief essay is not aimed towards a utopian vision. It’s simply about highlighting that despite all the noise and the angst, the change we need in the world is something we can tackle ourselves, we need not wait for our politicians to do for us. The big changes required are not confined by borders and the global solutions needed will not be halted by a move like Brexit.
There is much work to be done, in smart cities like Dublin, Belfast, Leeds and London and far beyond. Lets get to it…