Valley Voices

Fresno State students learn lessons from Brexit

Bradley W. Hart
Bradley W. Hart

On May 23, I departed San Francisco International Airport for London Heathrow with 14 eager Fresno State students.

The trip was part of the College of Arts and Humanities London Intersession program, which generally takes a group of students to London over winter break and, occasionally, during the summer as well.

As this summer’s program director, I knew the students would have the opportunity to experience all sorts of new things on the trip, from historical sites like the Tower of London and the Churchill War Rooms, where the prime minister rode out the worst of the Blitz with his key advisers, to world-class art galleries and West End theater.

Alongside such perennial highlights, however, there was a particular contemporary event that caught the imagination.

I am referring, of course, to the June 23 referendum on whether Britain should leave its membership of the European Union (or “Brexit”, for short). While most commentators expected voters to cast their ballots for the “remain” side, a slight majority – 52 percent or so – ended up casting their ballots for “leave.” The pundits, and the financial markets, were shocked.

The pound has been on an almost nonstop slide since, reaching lows against the U.S. dollar that haven’t been seen in decades.

The political ramifications of the decision have been further reaching than anyone on either side predicted.

The Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, had campaigned for the “remain” side and immediately announced his resignation, effective in October. He won’t have to deal with the messy aftermath of a decision he opposed.

The main Conservative Party architect of the “leave” campaign, New York-born Boris Johnson, was offed in brutal “House of Cards” style by his internal rivals within days.

Even Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party who has campaigned for Brexit for decades, announced his resignation about a week after the result. In his estimation, there is nothing more for him to accomplish in politics.

Over the course of our trip, the students and I had the chance to interact with experts on British politics, including hearing Dr. Richard Carr at Anglia Ruskin University describe the knock-on effects the vote may have for the ailing opposition Labour Party. In short: turmoil.

After my students returned to California, I remained behind to continue research on my latest book project and have been able to observe the aftermath of the vote.

First, it seems to have become painfully clear to many Britons over the past weeks that in the 21st century we must think globally rather than locally.

The “leave” campaign ran partially on a slogan of “Take Back Control” from the European Union. This is pithy, but what does it actually mean?

Immigration was clearly high in the minds of many, and with Britain now exiting the EU, the status of the 3 million EU citizens who currently live completely legally in the U.K. is an open issue. Will they be deported? Offered British citizenship?

What about the millions of British citizens who live in other EU countries? Will they be sent back to a country they may have left decades ago at this point? These are all now open questions.

In addition, the vote has been a stark reminder that no country is an economic island. The sinking pound will have a particular impact on those of us in the Valley.

To give one example, nearly every raisin I have seen on the shelves in British supermarkets comes from our part of California. A weakened pound over a sustained period will affect the ability of British consumers to buy those raisins, with negative effects on our own local economy.

Finally, there has been much talk in Britain about the divide between the “elites” and the rest of the country.

Highly educated and wealthy areas such as London, Cambridge and Oxford all voted overwhelmingly for the “remain” side. Less affluent areas and those with lower overall levels of education were more likely to vote in favor of “leave.”

As an educator, this is an area of particular concern. One common refrain is that the “remain” campaign did too little to educate the British people about the benefits of EU membership, including the right to live and work in any EU country and the impacts of EU funded investment to many of those same areas that voted “leave.”

Regardless of one’s views of Brexit, or any election for that matter, it is imperative that voters be allowed to make their decisions based on facts and information rather than rhetoric. The fault here is not with the voters but with those who have the burden to explain their positions in terms that the average person can understand. The “remain” campaign failed to do so.

Polls conducted since the vote suggest that many Britons who cast their ballots for “leave” were either making a protest vote they didn’t actually believe in or would have voted differently if they had known that Brexit would actually happen.

Had even a small proportion done so, the referendum would likely have gone in the opposite direction.

This, above all, should serve as a reminder to us that no matter how we feel about the choices available to us in a given election or race we must all think long and hard about the candidates and causes we vote for.

No election is ever an ideal choice between candidates with whom we agree with entirely or completely detest.

Yet we must as citizens carefully consider the candidates and causes we endorse through the ballot box. Protest votes, while they have a place, can occasionally change the course of an election on their own.

If Brexit shows us anything, it is that we have a responsibility to carefully weigh and consider the consequences that our individual votes might carry not only for ourselves but also for the wider global community.

Every vote truly does matter, and elections do indeed have consequences.

Bradley W. Hart teaches at Fresno State.