Britain is in crisis. The fleeting euphoria that accompanies sweeping government changes and the consolations of colorful rituals cannot hide the dangers. In her first speech as prime minister, Theresa May showed that she is aware of them and that her priority is to secure the country’s social cohesion and territorial unity as her government negotiates the divorce from the European Union.
Speaking directly to citizens, May promised: “The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few but by yours. We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives.” But what does “more control” mean for the 52 percent who voted in favor of Brexit and for the 48 percent who wanted to remain in the EU?
Many Brexit supporters appear to be among those who believe that they are victims, that things are changing in ways they don’t like and that they don’t have a say. The immigration issue dominated the debate before the June 23 referendum. Furthermore, the Brexit majority was large in regions that have withered in the age of globalization. With the economic uncertainty now plaguing Britain, it seems highly unlikely that the government will be able to secure more funds for communities that feel hard done by. So what is the greater control that they will be given? The majority has already determined the country’s fate, driving it out of the EU. Will referendums be held continuously, on every issue that arises? Will immigrants disappear? Will local communities be given the right to determine who will be allowed entry? Will the government serve the interests of one group against another or will it work for the collective good?
The new prime minister directed her response to those “born poor,” to blacks, to “white working-class” boys, to state school pupils, to women, to people with mental health problems, to the young. “When we take the big calls we will think not of the powerful, but you. When we pass new laws we will listen not to the mighty but to you,” May said. These promises, especially by the successor to a clique of privileged rich men, are right and worthy – the irony is that they are no different from what the EU tries to achieve in each of its member-states. Did Britain really have to leap into the unknown so that a new prime minister could promise better governance?
The surge in favor of Brexit gained strength over many years and united various different currents. What is common to Britain and other countries, though, is that successive governments failed to address a sense of neglect that is growing among poorer groups but also among those who might not be as deprived as they might think but are swayed by demagogues. Also, many governments encouraged ethnocentrism at the expense of Europe, choosing to stay silent on the benefits of EU membership, without explaining that today only collective processes can help gain national and personal prosperity.
Britain wanted “more control” and with Brexit it got it. Now we will all see where this leads.