The past few months have certainly been highly tumultuous for the United Kingdom. After the Brexit vote, which resulted in the UK choosing to secede from the European Union, a lot of stakeholders and commenters around the world were quick to proclaim the foolishness of the British population and the imminent doom they would face.
My view is that the UK has taken a big risk, but failure is not inevitable. Nor is the vote purely based on hatred and xenophobia.
For starters, the EU has not exactly been a darling success story. There are many reasons why the EU has been challenged over the past few decades. There have been financial crises one after another (Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain, Cyprus) as a diverse set of cultures attempts to find unity. One issue, which is not baseless, is that the bureaucrats of Brussels have been out of touch with the constituent populations of the member nations.
Now it is definitely true that creating a single union out of communities that have been deeply divided on political, religious and cultural grounds for centuries is no small task. It is not like the United States where the native population was decimated in order to create "fresh ground".
However, there has been and continues to be a strain of deep hierarchy in many parts of European society and so politics. Especially when compared to the United States. Many countries still have landed gentry and families that have dominated for many centuries. We can see inflections of this in the neo-fascist cronyism of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy or Nicolas Sarkozy's persistent influence in French politics. This stands in opposition to many of the democratic ideals that have flowered from Europe and took deep root in the United States of America.
The British in particular have been strong proponents of citizens rights. It is true that colonial heritage has led to the oppression of many peoples consider "not citizens" for political and historical reasons. However many modern ideals of human rights were crystallized in British thought such as the Magna Carta in 1215, Habeas Corpus in 1679, and the English Bill of Rights in 1689.
In part due to geographical reasons, Britain has remained culturally distinct from "Continental Europe". This split is exemplified by the British audacity to create their own Anglican Church in the 16th century. Although it was a wider part of the Protestant Reformation, it is still meaningful that the new denomination was called "Anglican" relating to the political body rather than something more universal.
Even after the formation of the European Union, Britain always maitained a strong flavor of its own independence, choosing to get involved gingerly over an extended period of time rather than jumping right in as one of the constitutive powers. A big part of this is also Britain's historic "special relationship" to the United States, which allowed them to have another large cultural and economic body to relate to rather than relying solely on the European continent.
Britain has exemplified a strong role as an international cultural and business capital that extends far beyond its relationship to Europe. Many businesses see Britain as a suitable location from which to operate precisely because of its mix of European connection, as well as strong ties to Africa, Asia, and the United States.
London is in some regards the capital of international finance. London's art market also plays a powerful role in shaping trends internationally. This is not to say that New York does not hold prominence, but that a lot of its role is tied to the fortunes of the vast United States economy. London is in an enviable position of having cultivated this status without being tied directly to a large national body.
We can also see some major cultural movements emerging out of the UK over the past few decades. Take dubstep around the turn of the century which emerged from South London pulling together a variety of musical traditions including garage (UK), dub (Jamaica), and techno (US) into a potent new source DNA that continues to push innovation in contemporary music. Another is the British Invasion which saw acts like the Beatles take over the globe.
This is not to say that there have not been important cultural movements from other countries, but just to highlight the fact that the United Kingdom has a history of punching far above its weight class as an international capital.
The UK economy has stagnated in many ways over the past decades that reflects a similar trend in other developed economies. Although a highly educated and well connected class benefits from increasing efficiencies of technology and globalization, those who lack certain skills or who are not committed to "raising hell" in pursuit of monetary gain are left with mediocre jobs that are disappearing and limited prospects. Youth truancy and public despondency in the UK is not at trivial levels.
People who voted to leave the EU are not purely living from hatred or ignorance. I find this to be a painful charge that comes generally from people enjoying a lot of privilege and opportunity in the globalized marketplace. There is a very real fear of being left behind and dehumanized as pawns holding up a massive EU project which is very much in need of better structure and discipline. Such structure can occur, but it will take time, and there is nothing virtuous about being a martyr in pursuit of this vision.
As the world brings more political elegance to "unifying borders" and building international bridges, it is important to respect the individual communities with unique histories. Rural towns. Local diners. The corner flower shop. Local businesses. Carpenters, artisans. These are the "salt of the earth" who form the core strength and backbone of the global economy.
Just as in politics we hope to see greater democracy and diversity of opinion, so too do I hope to see the same in the economic sector. It is true that scale and trade bring a certain kind of efficiency, but in many cases the benefits of this efficiency accrue to the investor class who own the organizations, and white-collar workers who are educated enough to get the job. Business is good, profit is good. But increasingly hierarchical structures whether in politics, economics, ecology, or any other domain are fundamentally unsustainable.
The efficiency of such periods of consolidation only have meaning when considered as the ground for the next phase of diversity.
When I heard of UK's split from the EU, I was reminded of another occasion when an island nation left its continental brethren. In 1965 Singapore left the Malaysian Federation and most people prophesied inevitable doom for this small, feeble political body. People believed it would get swallowed up soon enough. Today we see the powerful transformation Singapore has gone through to become a top global society in many respects.
The UK is not completely screwed just by default. Or because the majority of people who voted to leave happen to live in the countryside, or earn less money, or have less education. The future is wide open. There is a natural wisdom that must be respected. The UK has proven its ability to be an international destination--not just a European capital.
The EU is heavily anchored by Berlin and Paris. By splitting off, the UK has taken a daring risk. I hope that the British people are able to rise to this challenge.