Tracy Watkins: Lessons from Brexit for New Zealand

See EU later: How British newspapers reacted to the Leave vote.

See EU later: How British newspapers reacted to the Leave vote.

OPINION: Britain has voted and the nation seems as divided and fractured as before.

It was a vote for change – but change of a sort that was opposed by a sizeable number of Brits. Are there lessons for New Zealand in the rage that lay beneath the Brexit vote? Globalisation is taking a battering from a rising mood of nationalism and protectionism. That's bad news for us down here at the bottom of the world, where our people and our goods rely on open borders.

There are echoes of it in the United States, where the same rage seems to have crossed the political divide, giving wings both to the Republican and Democratic candidates alike, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders being two sides of the same coin.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage says June 23 will go down in Britain's history as the country's "Independence Day".

It's a rage that seems to be born out of frustration, a rising sense of grievance and marginalisation, and a deep mistrust of politicians. It's a mood that plugs into a rising sense of identity and nationalism. Ironically, it's the politicians who have been the most effective at harnessing and exploiting that – far Right leader Nigel Farage, Conservative poster boy Boris Johnson and, on the other side of the Atlantic, Trump and Sanders.

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To their loyal followers they might be the anti-politicians, the voice speaking truth to power. But in reality they are no different to any of their rivals. They're in it for the power, which is all any politician is in it for.

The Brexit vote is over and politicians will be reading the entrails for what comes next.

The Brexit vote is over and politicians will be reading the entrails for what comes next.

In Britain, the vote on whether to exit Europe was much more of a referendum on immigration than it was about the finer points of European Union membership – though there was some of that as well, an anti-PC like backlash to hair splitting EU rules, much of it more myth than fact. But mostly it was a backlash against Britain's changing face.

There are echoes in the US, where Trump has pledged to "build a wall" to keep out Mexicans, wants to ban Muslims, and tweeted triumphantly after the Orlando massacre about being "right on radical Islamic terrorism". It sparked an outcry but Trump was probably banking on that; his followers would have applauded him.

Just as Trump has brought out the ugliest side of US politics, Brexit has been divisive, polarising and, ultimately, bloody, with the murder of British Labour MP Jo Cox.

A Brexit ad during the campaign.

A Brexit ad during the campaign.

And it has set the tone for future political discourse in Britain, just as the presidential primaries set the tone in the US. Truth has proven itself to be expedient.

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Big claims are found out as big lies but it's the lie that seems to stick. Either the truth gets lost in the noise, or people would prefer to stick with the lie that reinforces their personal world view.

We've had our share of divisive elections – think back to the Springbok tour, or more recently Don Brash, the race debate, and the mud slinging at Waitangi. Even the last election, with its "Moment of Truth" extravaganza and Dotcom circus.


The campaigns for Britain's Brexit referendum may be over, but the memory lives on.

But by comparison our votes are still relatively civilised affairs. The flag vote got a bit heated but the rise of Laser Kiwi showed we still have a sense of humour. But politicians here will be reading between the lines of Brexit all the same. Here are five lessons they might take out of it:

• Anger works. Business as usual politics is about blaming the incumbent for all the ills of the modern world – poverty, crowded schools, declining social services, diminishing health care, rising crime and violence. But blaming those ills on a scapegoat resonates more widely, whether its immigration, race or religion.

• The tide can turn on one issue and that one issue can even trump conventional thinking about politics. Elections are always assumed to be decided on the economy. Admittedly Brexit wasn't a vote to change the government so it may be wrong to read too much in to it. But there were powerful and persuasive economic arguments against Britain leaving the EU – yet around half of all Briton's voted to leave regardless.

• Progressive parties around the world are in trouble. The divide between British Labour and many of its traditional supporters on Brexit has underscored the gap between the party's progressive wing, who were pro-EU, and the economically disaffected, who could see nothing in the status quo for them. The US democratic primary exposed the same fractures between Clinton and Sanders supporters.

• The power of the personal anecdote. The elderly victim of a pack of thugs, the dole bludger holidaying in Spain on the taxpayer – the personal trumps cold hard facts any day and is much harder to disprove.

• Politicians should be big enough to pick up the pieces. Within hours of the polls closing on Brexit, Farage claimed the vote had been rigged, a claim likely to turn the political discourse even more poisonous and toxic, if that's possible.

We like to think our politicians are bigger than that – and most of the time they are.

 - Stuff


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