Brexit’s Lessons for Asia

In the early hours of June 24, when Britain’s Brexit referendum results began to indicate a vote to leave the Europan Union, it quickly became clear from regional reports that the vote was more a protest against the political establishment than against Europe itself.

The first significant “Leave” results came from the northeast of England where jobs are scarce, Tata’s steelworks have been facing closure, and dissatisfaction with London-based political leaders is rife. The trend then continued across the country with voters blaming Europe for all their economic and social problems. Only Scotland and London provided solid support for Britain staying a member.


BBC map of the result – yellow areas voted to Remain, blue to Leave

Europe is in shock this morning because a negative vote had not been expected by the financial markets nor, it seems by bureaucrats in Brussels at the EC’s headquarters.

It took six hours after the first votes showed that an exit result was possible around midnight (UK time) for the final result to come through – with 17,410,742 (51.9 percent) voting to leave and 16,141,241 (48.1 percent) to remain.

Fears about immigration and the economy within the EU were major issues, but if it is correct that this was overall an anti-establishment vote – especially by older people – and it certainly seems to have been so – there are lessons for other countries’ leaders because such dissatisfaction is not limited to the UK.

I argued on this blog last September that the emergence of Narendra Modi as prime minister of India, Jeremy Corbyn as the British Labour Party’s leader, and Donald Trump in the US, to name but a few, reflected voters’ disenchantment with the way that their predecessors had run broadly consensus politics supported by finance, business and other establishments controlled by vested interests.

Today’s result means Hilary Clinton needs to worry because support for Trump stems from a desire for a new type of president – though of course Trump might well continue with outrageous behavior to make himself un-electable.

In India there is a lesson for Modi about the need to deliver. He won a landslide election victory two years ago for his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party on the platform of economic growth, jobs, and efficient government. That was a revolt against rule by the Gandhi dynasty’s Congress Party, and it brought in someone who had not been part of the Delhi political elite. But Modi is perceived so far as having failed to be different enough.

A new political force, the Aam Aadmi Party that is headed by anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal, now runs the Delhi state government and has shown a new approach. It has ambitions to expand into other states, presenting a fresh challenge to existing parties.

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David Cameron announcing his decision to resign this morning. Photo from The Independent

Two UK political leaders bear most responsibility for the turmoil created in the past hours and for the uncertainty that now faces the UK and, indeed, the whole of the EU where other countries might now started debating what they should do.

One is David Cameron, the prime minister. He gambled with the referendum solely to sort out his Conservative Party’s internal problems with long-standing EU dissidents. He campaigned for EU membership to continue, stressing reasons for not leaving rather than the advantages of remaining, and has lost in a vote that need never have taken place.

He also called a Scottish referendum last year believing that would settle, once and for all, demands in Scotland for independence, which it has not done

There are now likely to be calls for a fresh referendum in Scotland, which voted heavily yesterday in favor of EU membership, and that could take the country out of the United Kingdom.

Cameron has announced today that he will resign by the time of the Conservative Party annual conference in October so that a new prime minister can lead to years of negotiations on Britain’s withdrawal. He will be leaving the United Kingdom in its worst crisis since World War II.

The other political leader primarily responsible for the result is Jeremy Corbyn, whose Labour Party is in favor of remaining in the EC. But he failed to lead and generate a coherent campaign to mobilize the vote of the party’s members, proving himself incapable of effective political leadership.

In 1973 I became what is now known as a Eurosceptic when I went for The Financial Times to Brussels for a European Economic Community briefing on plans for a directive on works councils. We were told what Britain would have to implement (no mention of discussion or debate) by two senior German and French bureaucrats with all the arrogance that has helped to make the EU so unpopular.

I came away anti-EEC, and that has colored my views on the dysfunctional institution ever since (even though the works councils directive never happened). But, as an FT columnist wrote two days ago, “the case for Britain to leave the EU just does not stack up.” I would therefore have been voting Remain yesterday if I had a vote.

Sadly not enough people did vote Remain because Europe became a proxy for everything that they felt was wrong with the way that Britain has been run for years. This indicates that they dream of a new beginning with Brexit somehow leading to them having a new measure of control over how they are governed.

That if course is a fallacy because the new leadership of the Conservative Party that emerges this summer will be from the same elite establishment that they were voting against yesterday.

It is difficult to see what has been gained, or could be gained, by Britain leaving the EU, except for two years of dire political and economic uncertainty that could have been avoided.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. He has spent the past several weeks in the UK, watching disaster unfold. His blog,, can be found at the right side of Asia Sentinel’s homepage.