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Reflections on Brexit

29-June-2016
29-June-2016 13:52
in Leadership
by Jon Cowell

Like many of you I’m sure, I have spent the last few days reflecting on the decision of English and Welsh people that the United Kingdom should leave the European Union. In doing so, two things have struck me.  The first is that, with the benefit of hindsight, I think this moment has been coming for some time.  The second is that the feelings aroused by the referendum seem much more visceral and potent than those surrounding a general election. 

The shock at the result is palpable among both Leave and Remain supporters; it is as if the nation had been gripped by something which rendered reason and debate powerless, and left people vulnerable to slogans from both sides that most of us knew to be conjecture at best and downright dishonest at their worst.  I think that something is our longing for a sense of identity.

I note that the Scots did not, on balance, vote to leave.  I think that this has to do with their sense of national identity, stoked to full force by the Scottish Referendum, and moulded by a leader in the shape of Nicola Sturgeon.   By contrast, particularly in England, the question of national identity has remained formless and unresolved for years.  Accordingly, the leaders of the two main political parties were unable to exercise influence over those whom they are supposed to lead: their parties are split down the middle and many in both camps are in open defiance of their leaders.  Their problem: they do not stand for anything which unites those they lead.  I would contend that the country has not felt a strong sense of national identity since the Cool Britannia honeymoon period of Tony Blair’s fated premiership.

Another example of this phenomenon emerged on Monday night, when England’s football team was ejected from the Euro 2016 competition by Iceland’s tight-knit band of players.  The Icelandic fans, massively outnumbered by their English counterparts, were by far the most audible in the stadium whilst the team on the pitch showed a unity, organisation and determination to give their all that the English players could not match.  Roy Hodgson, the England manager, resigned immediately after the game, stuttering as he tried to say that he would look back with pride on his time in charge.

The ability to craft a sense of shared identity lies at the heart of leadership: without it a leader cannot forge the emotional connection with her or his followers that is necessary to conjure the collective will and determination to overcome the odds. 

We find ourselves at a significant crossroads in the UK. In order to rise to the challenges that we now face, we will need enormous collective will and determination and the ability to overcome our internal divisions.  For this to materialize our country’s leaders need to craft a potent sense of shared identity and articulate this in a way which unites the people.  My fear is that in our anxiety we will fall for some demagogue who promises to alleviate our ills for us. My hope is that we will find among our number someone who is one of us, who is willing to lead for us, and who has the humility to represent all of us.