Brexit: when the hubris of one man can set the UK, the EU and the entire world on fire

Brexit UK referendum 23 June 2016

©AP Images/ European Union-EP

This article was exclusively written for the Sting by Mr Panos Katsampanis, PhD candidate in European Studies at King’s College London University who focuses his political psychology research on voting behaviour at EU referendums. 

What started as a long shot promise back in 2013, when David Cameron committed to an EU Referendum sometime before 2017, if elected at May 2015 UK General Elections, it ended up as a huge blast yesterday. A huge blast for the United Kingdom, a huge blast for the European Union and certainly a huge blast for the rest of the world.

The gigantic unexpected victory of Leave by 51,9% or 17,410,742 votes against Remain of 48,1% or 16,141,241 votes shows how dearly hubris is paid in world class politics. David Cameron dared to play with the fire on the shoulders of 64 million people, citizens of one of the top most important EU and world economies, and he suffered a terrible loss. His resignation put first thing on the morrow’s morning was the only decent action left to be made. This UK Premier with 6 years of service will be remembered always as the European politician who thought that betting the fate of his country to win the 2015 elections and steer the potent centrifugal powers in the Tories was a legit thing to do.

What were the real odds?

Apparently Brexit came totally unexpected, with all the campaigns since February when the hot referendum’s date was announced, showing a rather clear win of the Remain camp. Most importantly, just a couple of weeks before the referendum this result was corroborated by a number of “trustworthy” polls by well respected companies like Ipsos Mori and YouGov with ultra powerful and representative samples of the general UK population. Consequently, everybody in the Remain camp was smiling, David Cameron himself too, while the markets rallied and grew throughout the past week, together with the pound. Everybody was just too ready to open the bottle of champagne. Until last night, when they had to put it back in the fridge.

Apparently, the UK polling companies, despite recruiting numerous top researchers and PhDs, using cutting edge statistical methods and the most awesome representative samples and expensive techniques (e.g. Omnibus, Capibus), once more jumped under the bar. The curse of the 2015 general elections, where all the pollsters in the UK failed to predict David Cameron’s clear victory still haunts them horribly. Even the infamous 10 pm o clock exit poll by YouGov that was much anticipated failed to foresee the inevitable, the win of Brexit. A number of top executives at Ipsos Mori and YouGov should feel the decency to follow the example of their former Prime Minister and resign, after they terribly failed to extrapolate the sample data received from the periphery of England and Wales. Those horrible researchers were seeing a 52 % – 48 % victory of Remain, while the exact opposite happened. If those people were still sitting on their comfortable chairs yesterday morning, then words have just lost their meaning.

Failure to see the expected

Given the large pro-European sentiment of this newspaper and influenced by the “trustworthy” polls in the Albion, it also made the mistake to write that the morrow of the referendum would bring a close and meaningful win of Remain. The numbers, the markets and the pound left no margin for doubt and hence this was the safest editorial line to follow. Nonetheless, there was a deep gut feeling that David Cameron could not just convince the farmers in Sutherland, that the Labour party under Corbyn is a terrible mess and that the eternal British exceptionalism, nurtured by the shrinking of the greatest empire the world had ever seen into a rainy island, could make a big difference last Thursday. It is in rare times that gut feeling speaks more than facts or numbers and it certainly is in rare times that we live today.

In political science there are two schools in EU referendum scholarship: the “second-order” and the “substantive issues” one. According to the first, political scientists explain behaviour in EU referendums not as a result of the thorough assessment of the question presented but rather as a reaction or punishment of the voter against the government. On another note, the substantive issues approach discusses voting behaviour models in EU referendums related to voter’s examination of the specific political issue and matter at stake. There is no doubt that the best fit model for the British voter in the EU referendum is situated somewhere in the middle.

On one hand, the UK citizen voted to punish David Cameron for his hubris thinking he can make a diverse United Kingdom dance at his narcissistic rhythm. She also punished the Tories for the 6 years of austerity and cuts on welfare and the harsh structural reforms made. Most of all she punished the government for depriving her from any decency and opportunity to dream of a better future; for her and her children. The fact that all rural England and Wales predominantly voted for Leave, in contrast to the well fed London, shows exactly that. Poverty, unemployment and deprivation of any ability to dream of a cleaner sky is not any longer tolerated by informed people in the 21st century. The proud British people seized the first opportunity for punishment that a narcissist Prime Minister gave to them.

Consequently, the English of the North and South as well as the Welsh people, who feel that London is as close to them as New York in terms of lifestyle and daily worries, surrendered without terms to the sirens of the Leave campaign who were rich in propaganda and blunt lies. One should not forget that Nigel Farage himself last Thursday midnight came on BBC to admit a loss for his camp reassuring the Leave followers that the war would go on despite their loss. The Leave propagandists, Boris Johnson included, never ever imagined that they would win. Their expression on their faces yesterday and their respective statements said it all. Those people were pure opportunists that thought that by differentiating against the Tories and the poor ravaged Labour party they would have better odds in the new elections, whenever those would take place. And that is all about it. No Boris Johnson and no Nigel Farage ever wanted to win and rein in British politics, not to mention that they were never ready for that.

What went wrong then

It seems that the basic source of the evil that lead to this unprecedented mess was the terrible failure of the “eternal rebel” Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour party, who together with his comrades failed completely to foster the Remain campaign and convince their electorate about it. Those numerous voters, seeing the initial hesitation of the Labour party to pick sides (Leave or Remain), the deep pain Corbyn was somehow feeling every time he was preaching in favour of Remain and other things like that, were left defenseless in this battle and with no shepherd whatsoever. It was inevitable then for them to move towards the next wanna be Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who preached for the impossible: a Britain outside of the EU but still equally powerful and all mighty.

The aftermath of the hurricane

Post the resignation of the proved to be worst politician in the modern history of Europe, David Cameron, the UK will need to form a new government to negotiate the terms of its exodus as per the notorious Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. This chapter of the EU holy bible has never been opened before and thus both the UK and the EU are now sailing in deep blue uncharted waters. Seemingly, the UK has now up to two years to complete the process and wave the terminal goodbye to Brussels.

At the same time, hurricane Brexit, which hit the Albion last Thursday, beyond any expectation, not only signifies a permanent loss of one star in the EU flag but also threatens to dismantle the country and possibly the EU as a whole. Already the Scottish and the Northern Irish, given their clear Remain vote, ask for immediate independence from the UK in order to commence negotiations with the EU to enter as separate units. Sources also have it that sad Londoners, who although voted largely to Remain are now scared that their posh metropolitan life will be disrupted, sign petitions to make London an independent state, possibly with London Eye as flag? What is more, far right parties around Europe seem to party after this outcome, with Marine Le Pen in France also wanting one of those referendums that have the power to demolish the European Union, while the Dutch and others are following the same far-right dangerous tune.

Nobody can say anything at the moment about what the future holds for the EU after Brexit, other than the fact that the world markets are plunging deep, the pound dives with no mercy and the Pandora’s box is wide open now. Neither the EU nor the world, struggling to exit a long lasting global economic crisis for nearly a decade, are able to sustain a brand new huge crisis. It is vital that the EU will once more come together to the rescue and demonstrate its strong power to unify peoples and reassure their prosperity. It is also vital that when the storm calms down a better European Union will come to the surface, a Union that engages more successfully its peoples with the European idea and does not allow poverty and despair to be manipulated by ambitious demagogues across the continent.

All Europe didn’t just need now is to revive the saddest chapters of its long history.

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