My Say: A month on, some reflections on Brexit

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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 1 - 7, 2016.


The world has not really recovered from the shocking result of the Brexit vote on June 23. It was a devastating verdict that forced the ouster of British prime minister David Cameron, sent shock waves across financial markets, cast doubts over the future of the European Union (EU) and challenged the very idea of globalisation.

Within days after the UK referendum, a massive sell-off was seen in global markets, which had  been expecting a “remain” outcome, wiping out more than US$2 trillion in value — the largest drop on record.

Apart from that, to paraphrase Cameron, we witnessed the resignation of the leader of the governing party cum prime minister, the nomination of candidates for the party leadership, a leadership competition, the coronation of a new party leader, and the installation the new woman prime minister — all within weeks of the Brexit vote!

The unexpected result left many wondering how, in an age of unprecedented information and data, the majority of pollsters and indeed major institutions around the world could get it so wrong. For months, poll after poll had predicted that the “remain” vote would win the day and that there would be no Brexit. Almost all of them got it wrong.

The polling industry is in crisis. This error may have been less troubling if it had been a one-off event. However, opinion polls have proved to be significantly inaccurate in other important elections, from the  Tories’ surprise victory over Labour in the UK in 2015 to Trump’s unexpected dominance in the Republican presidential primary race in the US.

As an indispensable component of modern democratic systems, the failure of the polling industry is of great concern to many. Theories as to why opinion polls got it so wrong quickly followed. Some blame an unreliable methodology while others point to “lazy vocal voters”, who  eagerly tell the pollsters they will vote for a certain cause but can’t be bothered to show up.

But one interesting theory stands out — the “shy Tory”. This has its genesis in the 1992 UK general election. That year, when opinion polls massively underestimated the Conservative share of the vote, it was speculated that these voters, reacting to the left-wing leanings in much of the hostile British media, were less likely to disclose their voting intentions to pollsters. This theory suggests opinion polls may have underestimated the support for Brexit.

After all, Conservative voters are substantially more likely to vote “leave” than Labour voters. If Tories are disproportionately shy, then “leave” voters are likely to be disproportionately shy as well, particularly given the level of vitriol directed at them by much of the British press and by the establishment over the EU referendum.

In this case, to begin with, the polls leading to the vote consistently showed “remain” to be  ahead in the polls. The “remain” camp — which included nearly the entire British (as well as Brussels) political class and most major financial and other institutions —launched an  anti-Brexit campaign, now known as Project Fear.

The people were bombarded with warnings of how they would be worse off if they voted to leave the EU.  For example, Cameron warned that a vote for Brexit could lead to World War III. His Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, insisted that a vote to leave could precipitate a worldwide recession. Donald Tusk, head of the European Council, upped the ante by declaring that if the British voted to leave, it would cause the end of Western civilisation!

If that wasn't enough, US President Barack Obama suggested the UK would go to the “back of the queue” in securing a trade deal with his country.

Perhaps one should have expected that the British people would not like being talked down to in such a fashion. Public trust in institutions and authorities is as low in Britain as it is in any Western country at present, and the public clearly does not like being told that it does not know what is good for it.

This anti-establishment sentiment was quickly seized upon by the “leave” campaign, led by Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London. While the “remain” campaign stirred up fear of the future, the “leave” camp responded with a positive argument — Project Hope.

The “leave” campaign argued that independence from Brussels would not be a “leap into the dark”, as the other side had spent weeks insisting. Rather, it would mean “taking back control of our future” as a country.

The great contrast between the arguments of Project Fear and Project Hope is best demonstrated in the concluding remarks by Johnson during the “Great Debate” on BBC'.

He proclaimed: “There is a very clear choice between those on the remain side who speak of nothing but fear — and those of us who offer hope. They say we can't do it; we say we can. They say we have no choice but to bow down to Brussels. We say they are woefully underestimating this country.

“If we vote leave, we can take back control of our borders, of huge sums of money, of our trade policy and of our whole law-making system." And he summed up: "We offer hope, we believe in Britain ... If we vote ‘leave’ and take back control, this Thursday can be our country's Independence Day."

The audience at Wembley Arena got on their feet and chanted Johnson’s name following his rousing speech.

That slender majority in the EU referendum was probably the biggest slap in the face for the British establishment in the history of universal suffrage.

One month later, many now see Brexit as a revolution. Some see it not only as a British revolution, but as the start of a worldwide revolt, from the UK to the rise of Trump in the US, against the present consensus on globalisation that is cemented by the political class and sustained by political correctness.

Yet, will it be like some predict: Brexit is a revolution, and like all revolutions, it will eat its own. It is still early days.

Khaw Veon Szu, a former executive director of a local think tank, is a practising lawyer. Opinions expressed in this article are his personal views.