Lessons from Brexit

“Brexit is the will of the British people.” This oft repeated mantra is simplistic and grossly misleading. Is it designed by repetition to bamboozle the British people or convince the Prime Minister and her colleagues that they are doing the right thing?


Democracy is in crisis. This episode in our history illustrates that there is something seriously wrong with the way Britain does politics. A new approach is needed; proportional representation and a new written constitution are required. Many people hate adversarial politics and want politicians to work together. Nearly half the population are opposed to Brexit. Many feel deeply depressed and powerless. And that applies to so many government policies. It is not a healthy state for a nation to be in. Austerity, imposed by a government backed by less than 24 percent of those eligible to vote, that is 76 percent did not vote Tory, continues to damage our society and undermines the wellbeing of thousands of people. This contrasts with the post-war situation from 1945 to 1951 when there was a national consensus on the introduction of the Welfare State that became a model for the world.

We now see a similar situation in USA. Americans are split 50; 50. Many Americans are filled with horror at what Trump stands for, what he is already doing and what he may do next.

Brexit should be stopped in its tracks.


The nation is deeply divided about Brexit. The facts are that of the record number who voted, 51.9% voted for Brexit and 48.1% voted for Remain a difference of only 3.8%. Is this an adequate mandate for fundamental changes that may have devastating consequences? Would a supermajority requirement, such as a two-thirds majority be more appropriate?  Furthermore, only 37% of the 46 million electorate voted for Brexit. Young people will be most affected by the outcomes of Brexit. Yet 16 to 17 year olds, large numbers of whom were in favour of Remain, were not eligible to vote – something that needs to be changed as soon as possible. Scotland and other parts of the UK are strongly in favour of Remain; others do not know. However many Remain voters have considerable concerns about the EU. For more details see the New Economics Foundation’s We polled Remain voters – this is what they told us

The London School of Economics  report Brexit is not the will of the British people. It never has been casts further light on the reality: “The difference between leave and remain was 3.8 percent or 1.3 million in favour of Leave. However, in a close analysis, virtually all the polls show that the UK electorate wants to remain in the EU, and has wanted to remain since referendum day. Moreover, according to predicted demographics, the UK will want to remain in the EU for the foreseeable future”.

The referendum process was flawed. It was only advisory and the government had no obligation to act on the outcome, especially when it was so close. Many argue that a binary yes no referendum was inappropriate for such a complex issue. Much more time was needed. Was it more about party politics than the interests of the nation? Some senior politicians and newspapers were irresponsible and made false claims. The Electoral Reform Society exposes its flaws and puts forward proposals for future referendums.


Now that people are far better informed about the economic consequences of our withdrawing from the EU, many of those who voted for Brexit would now not do so. Economist Iain Begg, from the London School of Economics said the results exposed the shortcomings of using referenda in complex policy choices. “The finding that a sizeable proportion of Leave voters now regret their decision, coming barely one hundred days after June 23, highlights the shortcomings of using referenda to make policy choices on issues as complex as membership of the EU,” he told the Independent:If EU referendum was held again Remain would win due to ‘Bregret’, official figures reveal

Another post by Adrian Low reveals that “only two YouGov polls support a majority in favour of Leave was right, the other eleven polls have all indicated that the will of the UK is that it should remain in the EU. Such unpalatable poll results have been left unreported or occasionally inaccurately reported.” 


Strategic leadership is needed. The whole story from the time David Cameron tried to negotiate a deal with EU leaders is an example of the need for strategic leadership and whole system thinking. Britain has been half in; half out. It was totally unrealistic to imagine he could achieve his goals in such a short time. Clearly the EU requires fundamental reform and British citizens’ discontents are just one example of those in 27 countries who want change. David Cameron missed an opportunity to adopt a constructive approach by working with European colleagues in bringing about reform. It seems that Theresa May is adopting the same adversarial approach. And the British people will suffer the consequences with their European counterparts. We need to come to terms with the fact that it is no longer Great Britain, no longer a global power, but a small nation that needs to work as part of Europe with which we have so much in common. Otherwise we delude ourselves. Brexit makes this harder.


The first step in bringing about fundamental change is relationship building. Instead of returning without a deal, the British prime minister should have worked long term in bringing about reform. Britain needed to work with its European colleagues in developing common ground, creating consensus on what needs to be changed and a common vision of a better Europe.

Brexit was a multiple protest. It is now clear that underneath Brexit were deep seated problems like joblessness and living in destressed communities some going back for generations. To tackle these issues a whole system approach is needed: tinkering with symptoms when a system is flawed invariably fails. Reforming the EU may be part of the solution but the danger is that Brexit will be a huge diversion of time and energy. We have far more work to do in putting our own house in order.

Fundamental issues confront Britain and Europe: Power is shifting away from the West. China will be the dominant power. Russia becomes a threat to peace. The threat of cyberattacks from hostile nations, terrorists and criminals grows. The global economy is transforming.  The scientific and technological revolution, including advances in medicine, robots and artificial intelligence (AI), has the potential to bring great benefits to humanity but equally could have disastrous effects on the lives of ordinary people and further concentrate wealth and power in the hands of the few. Of course the biggest threats to humanity are the environmental crisis and nuclear war.


Globalisation has lifted many people out of poverty but it has also brought hardship to many in the West. There is a rebellion against the neoliberal policies of the past thirty years. Austerity and debt creation form an extractive system that transfers wealth from those who create it to the already rich elite. In Europe, wealth is systematically extracted from the South and transferred to the North. As a result populist leaders are emerging all over Europe. Finally there is the issue of mass migration which is likely to grow massively over coming years as people flee from violence in failed states and countries like Africa become uninhabitable as the planet warms.  Of course the biggest threats to humanity are the environmental crisis and nuclear war both of which could wipe us out.

For all these reasons Britain needs to stand together with Europe and the United Nations.

Ways forward Theresa May must involve the British People. Brexit is not a foregone conclusion. “Brexit is the will of the British people” needs to be challenged by the British people. Parliament must have the final say, insist that Brexit options are on the table before invoking article 50 and a second referendum may be needed.  MPs need to consult their constituents. Citizens Assemblies  should be used to help members become better informed, listen to eachother and then make up their minds. In his blog, Taking back control: Why voters need a say on Brexit plans deputy chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society Darren Hughes, argues that Theresa May really could ‘bring the country together’ through Citizens Assemblies . “But it will require everyone having a stake in the process – and feeling like a ‘people’s Brexit’ really does come from the people”.

The public need a say on where power will lie after Brexit In this post Katie Ghose, Chief Executive Electoral Reform Society argues “So Theresa May has fleshed has fleshed out her plans for Britain leaving the EU and becoming an independent self-governing nation. With more detail emerging about the economic plan, it’s time to look at the democratic implications….Serious thinking about democracy can all too often get left behind and the public shut out of these debates, as we’ve seen with English devolution. How our democracy actually takes shape after Brexit goes beyond the two year window of negotiations, and has to mean the public having a strong say. After all, it would be ironic given the strong focus on ‘where power lies’ during the campaign (summed up in the powerful slogan ‘take back control’) if this wasn’t a strong focus”.

Conclusion The biggest lesson is that adversarial politics does not work. Human beings must learn to respect and value difference and use it to build solutions that work. We see the consequences of failing to do this most tragically in failed states that have descended into violence and inhumanity. Consensus Design is the way forward.

So the final outcome of the current trauma could be a profoundly more democratic Britain and Europe.

Please note: this article is a much enlarged and updated version of a previous article

“Brexit is the will of the British people.” Oh, really?

Bruce Nixon is an author, writer and speaker. He gives participative talks in communities, universities schools and at conferences. His most recent book is The 21st Century Revolution – A Call to Greatness   


6 thoughts on “Lessons from Brexit

  1. Thanks for your blog. It puts it very nicely and I agree.
    More broadly, almost anything that refers to some collective by “the”, the people, the customer, is being inaccurate. People, customers and so on are individuals, and always differ from each other. To think of them as a single entity “the” leads to all sorts of bad thinking, but particularly when they are people.


  2. Another article in today’s paper asks, “Where is the leader of the 48%?” Our problem is that we have no opposition and we are being led by fanatics to the cliff edge. (And probably over it!)


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