As the dust settles on the historic Brexit vote and its effects, it is easy to focus on the near term, visible side effects. Even in the unlikely event that Britain manages to negotiate an association deal that is as good as being in the European Union, it will now no longer have a voice in that Union. There are also murmurings of a second independence referendum that could see Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly to “Remain,” finally leave the United Kingdom and rejoin the European Union, thereby ripping Britain apart. Add to that the ramifications for Northern Ireland, or the renewed Spanish questioning of the sovereignty of Gibraltar. The immediate crash of the Pound and the FTSE forebode financial turmoil to come as trade between the UK and its neighbors is threatened with a significantly less liberal trading regime, which even in a best case scenario will see transfer costs increase. Further, there will be much uncertainty regarding the future ability of millions of British citizens to live and work easily across 27 other countries – or that of millions of Europeans who attend British universities or staff its hospitality, trade, and financial sectors.
Underneath all the smoke and fury, though, there are deeper trends highlighted by the Fragile States Index data, that give pause and perhaps help to put recent events in context.
In many ways, as painful as Brexit will undoubtedly be politically and economically, it is perhaps the tip of a much larger iceberg, socially. The rancorous campaign leading up to the referendum laid bare previously under-appreciated levels of opposition to immigration, much of it racially charged, that was exacerbated by opportunistic campaigning. As much as the campaign to leave the EU may have started with a focus on issues of trade and sovereignty, it eventually gave way to a debate on control over immigration and the specter of the EU being on the verge of expanding to include Turkey, which carried more concern than the EU’s previous eastward expansion to the Eastern Bloc countries in the 1990s, and was in any case an unfounded claim. This turn towards xenophobia was amplified when the U.K. Independence Party, a far right-wing populist movement led by Nigel Farage, became an unofficial standard-bearer for the “Leave” campaign.
The chart above demonstrates the long-term trend, year-to-year, for the United Kingdom. Upward movements represent worsening trends, while downward movements represent improving trends.
How could we have not have seen this coming? This is where a deeper look at the FSI scores over time can be useful. Despite all the doom-and-gloom on both sides of the Brexit campaign, the United Kingdom has actually been doing pretty well overall. In the 2016 Fragile States Index, the U.K. improved by one whole point, which is no small accomplishment in itself, but more remarkable that it improved despite a referendum taking place that threatened to divide the country. Over the decade, the U.K. has also improved across most indicators. However, there were three indicators where Britain has gotten significantly worse, and which have played a key role in the current drama: Group Grievance, Economy, and Factionalized Elites.
The chart above demonstrates the long-term trends, year-to-year, for the Social and Economic Indicators for the United Kingdom. Upward movements represent worsening trends, while downward movements represent improving trends.
First, and most importantly, is the Group Grievance Indicator. This indicator is affected by tension, discrimination and, in extremis, violence, that exists between societal groups. It captures imbalanced group power dynamics, divisions along ethnic, communal, sectarian, or religious lines, and a feeling of powerlessness among groups that feel discriminated against either by institutional design or plain old bigotry. For Britain, this indicator has been climbing steadily since 2010, from 4.1 to 5.6 in 2016. For a Western, liberal democracy, this is a significant increase. It is in the context of rising communal and ethnic divisions within British society that the Brexit vote took place. What makes the worsening of the Group Grievance Indicator more worrying still is that it is one of a couple indicators (the other being State Legitimacy) that we consider as “canaries in the coal mine” of political fragility. In the past 5 years, the Group Grievance Indicator has worsened by a larger margin than the UK in only 7 other countries – including Libya, Tunisia, Mali, and Angola. (Worrying also for Americans is that the U.S. score for Group Grievance has worsened on a near identical trajectory to the U.K.)
The chart above demonstrates the long-term trends, year-to-year, for the Political and Military Indicators for the United Kingdom. Upward movements represent worsening trends, while downward movements represent improving trends.
The second indicator that has worsened over the past decade is the Economy Indicator, which is focused on economic decline, unemployment, and purchasing power, among other things. The contention that a large portion of the “Leave” vote was fueled by working class voters who feel economically disadvantaged is supported by this data. Whether leaving the EU will improve matters over the long run is a matter of heated debate.
The third indicator is the Factionalized Elites Indicator, which is a measurement of power struggles and political competition, particularly where local and national leaders engage in divisive tactics such as deadlock and brinkmanship for political gain that undermines the social contract. What is concerning is that it is worsening in step with Group Grievance, suggesting a vicious cycle whereby group-based fissures are mirrored and exacerbated in the political sphere.
The Brexit vote presents enormous challenges for the British and for Europe – and in turn, for the world. But as unsettling as the political and economic ramifications are for Britain and Europe, what is perhaps more so are the underlying socio-economic and political conditions of worsening division within Britain, being fueled by divisive politics. The British will have their hands full over the coming months and years with managing their exit from the European Union as smoothly as possible. What will take longer to manage is decontaminating toxic political discourse and unifying a divided society.