Britain riding the tectonic plates

David Cameron announces his resignation. Daniel Leal-Olivas / Press Association. All rights reserved.The referendum was lost some time ago. At its most
superficial it was lost because the EU failed to give Cameron enough to take
back from the negotiating table in the form of plausible and sustainable gains
for the UK in the EU. It was lost because Labour leadership catastrophically
failed to join a unified platform until the last few days of the campaign and
failed to communicate to its electorate a coherent and plausible narrative of
the EU and its future. It was lost because of the years of austerity policies
championed by Cameron and Osborne which have left people’s living standards
suppressed and many marginalised.  

It was lost because it became a referendum about immigration
and people’s fears, the latter worked on and stirred by right wing politicians
from the Conservatives and UKIP, projecting these fears into false utopias of
an independent Britain, independently wealthy. And it was lost because these
fears of the unknown and the other played into the voting preferences of older
generations.

Underneath all of this there are deeper trends which make
the referendum appear mere epiphenomena of more structural shifts. The EU has
suffered a calamitous disjuncture between its political capacities and its
economic and social challenges. While the Euro radically enhanced economic
interdependence across Europe, this process outstripped the governing abilities
of the European Union in its current form. Caught between the proclamation of
Europe and the sectional interests of its leading countries, the EU has staggered
from crisis to crisis revealing its deeper structural and democratic fault
lines. The EU has been an elite project, with key decisions taken behind closed
doors between its leading powers, and all too often at a vast distance from
European peoples, who have felt aggrieved, alienated, and disconnected.

Yet, further beneath the surface there are other powerful
processes. Global cities like London have become centre points of the world
economy and its multiple financial and commercial interests. These cities have
risen in the last 30-40 years to become hugely successful metropolises able to
accommodate diversity, rapid change, and an international vision of their place
in the world. Such global cities are hubs connected to other global cities which
have directly benefited from globalisation in the last few decades. In these
hubs all boats could rise together. But the other side of this success is that
these great cities have tended to accelerate away from the land masses in which
they are embedded. They have more in common with each other than many of the
rural and urban areas in their hinterlands.

And this too reflects deeper shifts. The postwar era was
built on an understanding of the horrors and catastrophes that could be
unleashed when states go it alone in an international order without
constraints. The international institutions developed in the postwar years,
along with their counterpart in the European Union, in order to prevent another
great war, keep European conflict at bay, and create the conditions for
prosperity in a relatively open and liberal order. This postwar institutional
settlement was enormously successful for many decades.

But now the very conditions that created that success are no
longer sustainable as power shifts from the North to South and West to East.
Global interdependence has outstripped the capacity of the postwar institutions
to manage it and this is leaving a legacy of disruption, crises, and runaway
global challenges, including ever wider income and wealth inequalities.  

The referendum is at the centre of these shifting plates. It
is the crack which can become a chasm in the postwar order. Accordingly, we
enter a new era which has radical uncertainty at its centre and resembles in
some respects a return to a disorderly world of states relentlessly pursuing
their own interests.  We know what often
comes next.  

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