Surprise!

For everyone, except for British voters. Or how Brexit showed everything had changed, even if the political elite did not quite notice it had done so at the time.

A Brexit demonstration in London.
The shock of the Brexit!

For many people, the Age of Division begins with Brexit, Though the truth is, it had been long coming since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (and the legacy of the lost promises that particular historical event offered).


Until 2016 that is, when it suddenly became clear that division had taken root throughout the United Kingdom, as well as in the United States, France, Germany, Italy - in fact in every developed economy where the New World Order had swept through and changed the planet following the collapse of Soviet Communism at the close of the 1980s.


But think of the morning of 24 June 2016 and the shock that shot through the nation when it became clear that every assumption that had seemed set in stone was suddenly gone forever and replaced - with what, exactly? That 24 June was a moment of profound shock and a sudden realisation that the New World Order was apparently no longer what it once was and that history had not ended after all?


Possibly. At that time, however, for many people on either side of the Brexit divide, Brexit was a phenomenon in itself, and either an unexpected opportunity for change or a fundamental threat to the world as we knew it. Or at least thought we knew it.


In this context, Brexit was (is) either something to be delivered or a horror to be walked back somehow - an event of unpredictable self-destructive potential in itself, divorced from the long-established social universe around it - rather than a symptom of something deeper and far more interesting and stronger than the desire of the British people, when asked to express an opinion on whether it collectively wanted to remain in or leave the European Union.


What this analysis fails to accommodate, however, are the inter-related changes that swept the world after 1989 and which, in of themselves, changed the relationship of people to governments, along with the economic forces that had come to shape their lives since the end of World War II.


The apparently eternal promise of 1989 (and anon, right up to the Financial Crisis of 2008) was of a secure and liberated world with capitalism unrestrained, as the opportunities of a globalised world, united by a new information technology that could deliver apparently everything unto the people (not only in the West - that traditional first recipient of advances in technology, trade or politics), but also all around the world, and which would go on forever.


The New World Order would give for all of humanity, with a speed and reach never experienced before in human history, raising living standards and breathing new life into regional democracies to create a genuine global village. As part of this heady agenda of change also came an undercurrent, if little understood for a long time, of a set of potentially profound changes first glimpsed in the early 1990s, which looked towards a world of huge trading blocks overseen by technocratic political managers as opposed to sovereign states and national democracies with all their costly, frustrating and fusty Old World connotations.


This New World Order would bring people together (whether they wanted to be brought together or not) and deliver new global opportunities for immeasurable wealth creation together with unimaginable technological innovation. It would also create Citizens of the World schooled to live exciting and unrestricted fully liberated lives in this new wonderland.


Ayn Rand (below) may not have shrugged at the impending realisation of this vision.



Or possibly, she may have smiled knowingly on the world that had begun to finally and fully embrace her individualistic ethos and love of unrestrained technological progress, delivered by a Silicon Valley and allied online elite, the parents of which were themselves inspired by her writings in the 1950s.


In the midst of the initial Brexit farrago, much attention was paid (particularly during the early controversy that the Brexit result generated) to the impact of social media, fake news (which quickly became a Trumpian phrase, ironically) and the corrupting influence of both of these elements on the good work of Remain-supporting politicians, Big Media players and their advocates in attempting to get the Remain message out.


Which, in the context of the debate at the heart of the EU referendum campaign, soon descended into what appeared to be a slightly flip struggle between the so-called elites (professional politicians, professional economists, professional academics, professional media commentators, etc.) and the electorate. Michael Gove, a key Leave campaigner, then brought this debate to the forefront of the campaign with his claim to Sky News journalist Faisal Islam on 3 June 2016 that 'people in this country have had enough of experts, with organisations, from acronyms'.


Which at the time caused a modest controversy and was seen by some, particularly in the media, as being divisive and inflammatory (pointedly by Islam himself who, in the very same interview, suggested to Gove that "This is proper Trump politics this, isn't it?"), which Gove in turn denied.


But in the years between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the result of the Brexit referendum, what exactly was delivered to the British (and Western) electorate in return for their acquiescence to the promise of the New World Order to grow prosperity, opportunity, security and knowledge?


In the same period, incomes for voters up to and including middle-class taxpayers remained unchanged or fell (the effects of which were masked by more women entering the workplace and an explosion in personal borrowing - the latter offered in increasingly deregulated forms, culminating in the early noughties debt crisis).


During the same period, confidence in political and associated institutions drifted and then fell, resulting in the breaking of the 2008 financial and political storm that had been building since 1989. The game was up.


It just took another eight years for enough people in the political and business elites to notice and for the anger experienced by an electorate, which felt short-changed and betrayed, to find a suitable outlet. But what a surprise it was for everyone to find, on the morning of 24 June 2016, that the United Kingdom was participatory democracy (one of the central pillars underpinning the post-World War II New World Order) which had suddenly threatened to pull the very same New World Order down.


The irony would probably not have been lost on Ayn Rand.


There were, however, warnings before that 2016 referendum and clues as to how the world was changing (as opposed to how many believed it was changing) and there were also events that followed the referendum which carried the associated cultural shock forward (Trump, obviously, though not exclusively). But, as a moment in history and as a political disruptor, it was Brexit that caught the attention of the world and drew an existential line between the before and after that everyone was obliged to cross, whether they wanted to or not.


Surprise!

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