Brexit lessons

Simon Cowan

07 February 2020 | Ideas@TheCentre

After voting 52% to 48% to leave, the United Kingdom has finally, officially, departed from the European Union — following three and a half years of uncertainty, confusion and delay.

There are a number of lessons for Australia from the whole shemozzle.

The first is that the appalling process around the referendum, Brexit, and the functioning of parliament turned a political challenge into an ongoing circus.

Once the vote was in motion, it unleashed political forces that tore down the orthodoxy in relatively short order. This political miscalculation cost Cameron his job.

However, Cameron’s resignation solved nothing. Neither major party had anticipated the referendum result, and neither any plan to achieve Brexit once the voters supported it.

Supporters of the Indigenous Voice, or an Australian Republic, who wish to rush to a referendum would do well to invest more time in implementation planning rather than assuring the public that such concerns are in fact minor issues.

Yet the politics of Brexit are far from the most important lesson from the past three and a half years.

The bigger point we need to understand is that local and national identity means more to the ordinary person than just cheering for your national football team, or your country’s entry in the Eurovision song contest.

The lesson from successful federations is precisely not to attempt to centralise power. It is the principle of subsidiarity — the idea that political decisions should be taken at the local level wherever it is possible — that makes federalism work. The EU is the opposite to this: it’s a vehicle for elite experts, not empowering communities.

The removal of power over one’s circumstances, together with the creation of ongoing financial dependence, is poisonous for a body politic. It saps motivation and breeds resentment.

Australia will do well to remember this lesson too. Co-operative federalism, especially where more and more power is vested in Canberra at the expense of state and local government, might seem like a good idea to the radicals. But it can create mendicancy and dependency in some communities, and resentment at having to always pick up the tab in others.

Australia is in many ways fortunate to have avoided the political and social upheaval caused by a Brexit-style event; but this does not mean we can ignore Britain’s Brexit lessons.

Political upheavals are often unexpected, sudden, and devastating.


This is an edited extract from an opinion piece published by the Canberra Times as There are lessons for Australia in Brexit – but not the ones we think


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