Brexit and Belonging
Of all the historic high-stakes policy decisions in recent memory, Brexit might have been the most unabashedly emotional. While some backers of the “leave” campaign have pointed to economic opportunities like new trade agreements with the United States or practical considerations like a reduction of bureaucratic red tape, the underlying force of the movement was unmistakable:
Brexit was a cry for belonging.
People in the UK and around the world are longing for renewed experience of rich connection, power, and purpose in the age of global media, markets, and culture. As Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel has put it “people feel less and less in control of the forces that govern their lives.” Leaving the EU was a vision of how to take back the reins.
Now that Brexit has finally happened, we will have an opportunity to evaluate whether the strategy will actually work — whether leaving will really yield more feelings of connection, community, and empowerment.
I have a prediction: It won’t.
While political sovereignty can be important, the sources of contemporary isolation — the longing for belonging that drove Brexit — run much deeper than questions of overreaching Brussels bureaucracy or even integrated currencies. Belonging is about our rich connection to people, place, power, and purpose. This means, in other words, our relationships with others, our connection to our neighborhoods and the land, our agency in political and economic decisions, and our experience of shared truth and common mission. It’s almost impossible to see how Brexit will help in any of these respects.
Britain is indeed facing a serious crisis of isolation. New studies show that 75 percent of young people and 56 percent of urban residents in the UK report frequent feelings of loneliness. As UK government officials have underscored, the problem of loneliness is a serious public health and public policy concern: “it can strike at any point, at any age, at any time, and its impact is in line with smoking or obesity.” Yet, it’s hard to see how Brexit — simply leaving the political and economic community of the European continent — builds community and connection for Britons.
Similarly, consider another crisis of connection: to land and nature. Like countries throughout the world, the UK is facing the pressing challenges of climate change and environmental degradation. We feel increasingly alienated from a sense of place. Yet, withdrawing from the EU simply limits our capacity to solve shared environmental problems that cannot be delineated by borders. It’s not as if Brexit will turn back the clock to an age of vibrant, richly connected neighborhoods, and pristine lands.
Brexit does nothing to address the challenges of inequality, disempowerment, and apathy. According to official government reports, social mobility has “stagnated” in the UK since 2015 at “virtually all stages from birth to work.” People who come from wealthier backgrounds are 80 percent more likely to be in professional employment than working-class people, according to the State of the Nation 2018–19 report. Most people in the UK will actually have less voice, and arguably less opportunity. The nation will lose 73 elected representatives in the European Parliament, and most estimates show that Brexit will cut economic growth for the UK.
The Brexit debate has actually diminished Britons’ sense of shared belonging by hastening the demise of a common fact base and civil discourse. The assassination of Jo Cox, a visionary and compassionate Member of Parliament, at the hands of a nationalist extremist, revealed the division that the fight has sewed in the country. It’s hard to feel belonging in a country where people disagree on the most fundamental truths and hate each other over ideological difference.
Here’s the good news: the UK is taking positive steps to build belonging.
For example, this past year, Mims Davies, the UK’s Minister for Loneliness at the time, launched a promising new set of initiatives to address Britons’ lack of social connection. The agenda includes new advertisements and programming in communities, and schools to counter the shame and stigma of being alone. The agenda also includes a grant program to help optimize public spaces for meaningful connection and another investment to crowdsource tech innovation to promote more face-to-face human contact. Complementing this work, a UK All-Parliamentary group just released a series of policy recommendations on social isolation, including a small tax on self-service kiosks in stores that could fund community-building projects.
In Preston and elsewhere, UK communities are building belonging by experimenting with new models of “economic democracy” — working to create new worker-owned businesses that reinvest wealth in communities and offer transformative employment opportunities to struggling people. It’s a vision of how to create belonging by giving people ownership in shared outcomes. This is an innovative and real way to address the issues and emotions that behind the “leave” campaign.
I respect the reasons and feelings that drove the Brexit. People want to feel at home. People want to have a real say in shaping the forces that govern our societies and our lives. Yet, to truly address these legitimate yearnings, we must look deeper than slogans like “leave” or “Make America Great Again.” It’s crucial to investigate what truly underlies the experience of belonging. Rather than building walls and dismantling alliances, we need a serious multifaceted policy vision for fostering rich connection.