Teresa Marie Kelly, MAT
Composition Professor, Purdue University Global
Brexit – short for British Exit – the historic and controversial 2016 vote by the United Kingdom (UK) to leave the European Union (EU)– prompted global market crashes, foreign business pullouts, at least one government collapse, and credit downgrades with many experts suggesting that the worst is yet to come (Urquhart, 2016). Once the initial shock passed, the reality of broken promises, apparent voter apathy or even ignorance, and abdication of leadership left the world wondering if Brexit “Broke It” with” it” being the global economy, the union of the United Kingdom, the political process, or all of the above. Regardless of political philosophy, as teachable moments go, close study of Brexit possesses amazing potential to illustrate the gap in society created by uneven application of the right to an education, to show what happens in the absence of strong leadership, and why consistent application of critical thinking is vital in a complex world.
Nearly seventy years ago, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights defined learning as fundamental to equality and stated that everyone has the right to an education. As Fareed Zakaria of CNN (2016) argues, contrary to this historical role as a great equalizer, education is the new political divide, which analysis of the Brexit vote supports. Exit polling shows a clear demographic split between well -educated and poorly educated voters that demonstrates the power of an educated electorate. According to McGill (2016), more than 60% of “remainers” were better educated while over 70% of “leavers” were less educated, a division that is not confined to the UK. For example, Kerr (2016) notes that the best predictors of who or what someone will vote for includes a college degree. Educators must recognize this disparity and bridge it through active teaching and learning as well as through encouraging those with a strong education to inspire and model informed debate and voting for those with less education so that learning levels the playing field as intended, rather than creating a new schism.
In terms of leadership, Brexit is a classic case study of what not to do and why every movement for change needs sound leadership. While the monetary aspects of Brexit were mostly as predicted, the leadership vacuum that also resulted was not (Urquhart, 2016). Anti-exit British PM John Cameron announced his resignation the day after the vote. His primary adversary in his own Conservative Party, flamboyant former London Mayor Boris Johnson, made it clear that he didn’t want the job while opposition leader (Balz, Faiola, & Birnbaum, 2016). Nigel Farage, business maverick turned leader of the ultra-national UK’s Independence Party wasted no time extolling his victory and giving the European Parliament in Brussels – which had mocked his Brexit plan for years – a scathing dressing down right out of the Donald Trump playbook. He then resigned because, as the BBC quoted (2016), his “political ambition has been achieved,” suggesting he had no interest steering the country through the legal and economic quagmire he had created.
Horrifically, critical thinking appears to have left the planet – or at least the UK – under the bedlam of Brexit. Many of those who claimed that they understood Brexit issue and the possible ramifications did not take the vote seriously or voted as a “mistake.” Disbelief and a type of political whiplash set in as social media filled with thousands of “what did we do?” posts and videos (Dearden, 2016). Scores of people admitted that they did not vote based on what they wanted. Rather, Brexit had become a pop culture event so they voted just to say that they had or for amusement in the way pulling a fire alarm in a crowded building is amusing (Turner & Wilikinson, 2016). By the Sunday after the vote, over three million citizens from across the political spectrum had signed a petition- ironically created by a leaver before the vote to hedge his bets – asking for the political equivalent of a mulligan (Turner & Wilikinson, 2016).
Several weeks post-Brexit Theresa May replaced John Cameron as Prime Minister of the UK – becoming only the second woman in history to hold the office. Her history-making selection barely registered as the fallout from Brexit continued amid her promise to adhere to the referendum. Clearly, the 2016 British electorate was no more prepared or interested in making an informed decision about Brexit and its wide-ranging consequences than Neville Chamberlain was prepared to go toe to toe with Hitler in Munich in 1938 or deal with the ramifications. The World knows how that turned out – no one more so than the Brits, but cynicism and complacency has set it. While not part of the problem, education has not yet offered a cohesive solution either and that must change.
Coming Soon: Brexit Voters Broke It and Now Regret It-Part II: How to Teach to Develop an Educated, Global Electorate
Balz,D., Failoa, A., & Birnbaum, M. (2016, June 26). Britain’s two main political parties in turmoil over E.U. fallout. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/political-turmoil-in-britain-after-vote-to-leave-european-union/2016/06/26/50ed8994-3a40-11e6-af02-1df55f0c77ff_story.html
BBC News Service. (2016, 4 July). UKIP leader Nigel Farage stands down. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-36702468
Dearden, L. (2016). Anger over ‘Bregret’ as leave voters say they thought UK would stay in EU. The Independent. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-anger-bregret-leave-voters-protest-vote-thought-uk-stay-in-eu-remain-win-a7102516.html
Kerr, J. (2016, 3 April.) Trump overwhelmingly leads rivals in support from less educated Americans. PBS Newshour. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/trump-overwhelmingly-leads-rivals-in-support-from-less-educated-americans/
McGill, A. (2016). Who voted for the Brexit? The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/06/brexit-vote-statistics-united-kingdom-european-union/488780/
Turner, C. & Wilkinson, M. (2016). As three million people sign a petition for a second EU referendum we ask – could it actually happen? The Telegraph. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/search?q=Fareed+Zakaria+CNN+Brexit+&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8
Urquhart, C. (2016, 1 July). The worst of the Brexit fallout is still to hit the UK. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/4390967/brexit-uk-economic-shock/
Zakaria, F. (2016). The new divide in the Western World. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/27/opinions/western-world-after-brexit-vote-zakaria/